Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter VIII. The Letter
The Countess Loschek was alone. Alone and storming. She had sent her maid away with a sharp word, and now she was pacing the floor.
Hedwig, of all people!
She hated her. She had always hated her. For her youth, first; later, when she saw how things were going, for the accident that had made her a granddaughter to the King.
Even this last June, when Karl had made his looked-for visit to the summer palace where the Court had been in, residence, he had already had the thing in mind. Even when his arms had been about her, Olga Loschek, he had been looking over her shoulder, as it were, at Hedwig. He had had it all in his wicked head, even then. For Karl was wicked. None would know it better than she, who was risking everything, life itself, for him. Wicked; ungrateful, and unscrupulous. She loathed him while she loved him.
The thing would happen. This was the way things were done in Courts. An intimation from one side that a certain thing would be agreeable and profitable. A discussion behind closed doors. A reply that the intimation had been well received. Then the formal proposal, and its acceptance.
Hedwig would marry Karl. She might be troublesome, would indeed almost certainly be troublesome. Strangely enough, the Countess hated her the more for that. To value so lightly the thing for which Olga Loschek would have given her soul, this in itself was hateful. But there was more. The Countess saw much with her curiously wide, almost childishly bland eyes; it was only now that it occurred to her to turn what she knew of Hedwig and Nikky to account.
She stopped pacing the floor, and sat down. Suppose Hedwig and Nikky Larisch went away together? Hedwig, she felt, would have the courage even for that. That would stop things. But Hedwig did not trust her. And there was about Nikky a dog-like quality of devotion, which warned her that, the deeper his love for Hedwig, the more unlikely he would be to bring her to disgrace. Nikky might be difficult.
"The fool!" said the Countess, between her clenched teeth. To both the Archduchess Annunciata and her henchwoman, people were chiefly divided into three classes, fools, knaves, and themselves.
She must try for Hedwig's confidence, then. But Karl! How to reach him? Not with reproaches, not with anger. She knew her man well. To hold him off was the first thing. To postpone the formal proposal, and gain time. If the Chancellor had been right, and things were as bad as they appeared, the King's death would precipitate a crisis. Might, indeed, overturn the throne.
And Karl had changed. The old days when he loved trouble were gone. His thoughts, like all thoughts these days, she reflected contemptuously, were turned to peace, not to war. He was for beating his swords into ploughshares, with a vengeance.
To hold him off, then. To gain time.
The King was very feeble. This affair of yesterday had told on him. The gossip of the Court was that the day had seen a change for the worse. His heart was centered on the Crown Prince.
Ah, here was another viewpoint. Suppose the Crown Prince had not come back? What would happen, with the King dead, and no king? Chaos, of course. A free hand to revolution. Hedwig fighting for her throne, and inevitably losing it. Then what about Karl and his dreams of peace?
But that was further than she cared to go just then. She would finish certain work that she had set out to do, and then she was through. No longer would dread and terror grip her in the night hours.
But she would finish. Karl should never say she had failed him. In her new rage against him she was for cleaning the slate at once. She had in her possession papers for which he waited or pretended to wait; data secured by means she did not care to remember; plans and figures carefully compiled - a thousand deaths in one, if, they were found on her. She would get them out of her hands at once.
It was still but little after five. She brought her papers together on her small mahogany desk, from such hiding places as women. know - the linings of perfumed sachets, the toes of small slippers, the secret pocket in a muff; and having locked her doors, put them in order. Her hands were trembling, but she worked skillfully. She was free until the dinner hour, but she had a great deal to do. The papers in order, she went to a panel in the wall of her dressing-room; and, sliding it aside, revealed the safe in which her jewels were kept. Not that her jewels were very valuable, but the safe was there, and she used it.
The palace, for that matter, was full of cunningly contrived hiding-places. Some, in times of stress, had held jewels. Others - rooms these, built in the stone walls and carefully mapped - had held even royal refugees themselves. The map was in the King's possession, and descended from father to son, a curious old paper, with two of the hidden rooms marked off in colored inks as closed. Closed, with strange secrets beyond, quite certainly.
The Countess took out a jewel-case, emptied it, lifted its chamois cushions, and took out a small book. It was an indifferent hiding-place, but long immunity had made her careless. Referring to the book, she wrote a letter in code. It was, to all appearances a friendly letter referring to a family in her native town, and asking that the recipient see that assistance be sent them before Thursday of the following week. The assistance was specified with much detail - at her expense to send so many blankets, so many loaves of bread, a long list. Having finished, she destroyed, by burning, a number of papers watching until the last ash had turned from dull red to smoking gray. The code-book she hesitated over, but at last, with a shrug of her shoulders, she returned it to its hiding-place in the jewel case.
Coupled with her bitterness was a sense of relief. Only when the papers were destroyed had she realized the weight they had been. She summoned Minna, her maid, and dressed for the street. Then, Minna accompanying her, she summoned her carriage and went shopping.
She reached the palace again in time to dress for dinner. Somewhere on that excursion she had left the letter, to be sent to its destination over the border by special messenger that night.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto, at the moment of her return, was preparing for bed. At a quarter to seven he had risen, bowed to Miss Braithwaite, said good-night, and disappeared toward his bedroom and his waiting valet. But a moment later he reappeared.
"I beg your pardon," he said, "but I think your watch is fast."
Miss Braithwaite consulted it. Then, rising she went to the window and compared at with the moonlike face of the cathedral clock.
"There is a difference of five minutes," she conceded. "But I have no confidence in the cathedral clock. It needs oiling, probably. Besides, there are always pigeons sitting on the hands."
"May I wait for five minutes?"
"What could you do in five minutes?"
"Well," he suggested, rather pleadingly, "we might have a little conversation, if you axe not too tired."
Miss Braithwaite sighed. It had been a long day and not a calm one, and conversation with His Highness meant questions, mostly.
"Very well," she said.
"I'm not at all sleepy," Prince Ferdinand William Otto observed, climbing on a chair. "I thought you might tell me about America. I'm awfully curious about America."
"I suppose you mean the United States."
"I'm not sure. It has New York, in it, anyhow. They don't have kings, do they?"
"No," said Miss Braithwaite, shortly. She hated republics.
"What I wondered was," said Ferdinand William Otto, swinging his legs, "how they managed without a king. Who tells them what to do? I'm interested, because I met a boy yesterday who came from there, and he talked quite a lot about it. He was a very interesting boy."
Miss Braithwaite waived the matter of yesterday. "In a republic," she said, "the people think they can govern themselves. But they do it very badly. The average intelligence among people in the mass is always rather low."
"He said," went on His Royal Highness, pursuing a line of thought, "that the greatest man in the world was a man named Lincoln. But that he is dead. And he said that kings were nuisances, and didn't earn their bread-and-butter. Of course," Otto hastened to explain, " he didn't know that my grandfather is a king. After that, I didn't exactly like to tell him. It would have made him very uncomfortable." Here he yawned, but covered it with a polite hand, and Oskar, his valet, came to the doorway and stood waiting. He was a dignified person in a plum-colored livery, because the King considered black gloomy for a child.
The Crown Prince slipped to the floor, and stood with his feet rather wide apart, looking steadfastly at Miss Braithwaite. "I would like very much to see that boy again," he observed. "He was a nice boy, and very kind-hearted. If we could go to the Scenic Railway when we are out in the carriage, I -I'd enjoy it." He saw refusal in her face, for he added hurriedly, "Not to ride. I just want to look at it."
Miss Braithwaite was touched, but firm. She explained that it would be better if the Crown Prince did not see the boy again; and to soften the refusal, she reminded him that the American child did not like royalties, and that even to wave from his carriage with the gold wheels would therefore be a tactical error.
Prince Ferdinand William Otto listened, and Oskar waited. And something that had been joyous and singing in a small boy's heart was suddenly still.
"I had forgotten about that," he said.
Then Miss Braithwaite rose, and the Prince put his heels together with a click, and bowed, as he had been taught to do.
"Good-night," he said.
"Good-night, Your Highness," replied Miss Braithwaite.
At the door Prince Ferdinand William Otto turned and bowed again. Then he went out, and the door closed behind him.
He washed himself, with Oskar standing by, holding a great soft towel. Even the towels were too large. And he brushed his teeth, and had two drinks of water, because a stiffish feeling in his throat persisted. And at last he crawled up into the high bed that was so much too big for him, and had to crawl out again, because he had forgotten his prayers.
When everything was done, and the hour of putting out the light could no longer be delayed, he said goodnight to Oskar, who bowed. There was a great deal of, bowing in Otto's world. Then, whisk! it was dark, with only the moon face of the cathedral clock for company. And as it was now twenty minutes past seven, the two hands drooped until it looked like a face with a cruel mouth and was really very poor company.
Oskar, having bowed himself into the corridor and past the two sentries, reported to a very great dignitary across the hall that His Royal Highness the Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto was in bed. And the dignitary had a chance to go away and get his dinner.
But alone in his great bed, the Crown Prince was shedding a few shamefaced tears. He was extremely ashamed of them. He felt that under no circumstances would his soldier father have behaved so. He reached out and secured one of the two clean folded handkerchiefs that were always placed on the bedside stand at night, and blew his nose very loudly. But he could not sleep.
He gave Miss Braithwaite time to go to her sitting-room, and for eight o'clock to pass, because once every hour, all night, a young gentleman of the Court, appointed for this purpose and dubbed a "wet-nurse" by jealous comrades, cautiously opened his door and made a stealthy circuit of the room, to see that all was well.
The Crown Prince got up. He neglected to put on his bedroom slippers, of course, and in his bare feet be padded across the room to the study door. It was not entirely dark. A night-light burned there. It stood on a table directly under the two crossed swords. Beneath the swords, in a burnt-wood frame, were the pictures of his father and mother. Hedwig had given him a wood-burning outfit at Christmas, and he had done the work himself. It consisted of the royal arms, somewhat out of drawing and not exactly in the center of the frame, and a floral border of daisies, extremely geometrical, because he had drawn them in first with a compass.
The boy, however, gave the pictures only a hasty glance and proceeded, in a business-like manner, to carry a straight chair to the cabinet. On the top shelf sat the old cloth dog. Its shoe-button eyes looked glazed with sleep, but its ears were quite alert. Very cautiously the Crown Prince unlocked the door, stepped precariously to the lower shelf of the cabinet, hung there by one royal hand, and lifted the dog down.
At nine o'clock the wet-nurse took off his sword in another room and leaned it against a chair. Then he examined his revolver, in accordance with a formula prescribed by the old King. Then he went in and examined the room with a flashlight, and listened to the Crown Prince's breathing. He had been a croupy baby. And, at last, he turned the flashlight on to the bed. A pair of shoe-button eyes stared at him from the pillow.
"Well, I'm damned," said the wet-nurse And went out, looking thoughtful.