The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter I. The Scepter Which Was a Stick
The king sat in his private garden in the shade of a potted orange tree, the leaves of which were splashed with brilliant yellow. It was high noon of one of those last warm sighs of passing summer which now and then lovingly steal in between the chill breaths of September. The velvet hush of the mid-day hour had fallen.
There was an endless horizon of turquoise blue, a zenith pellucid as glass. The trees stood motionless; not a shadow stirred, save that which was cast by the tremulous wings of a black and purple butterfly, which, near to his Majesty, fell, rose and sank again. From a drove of wild bees, swimming hither and thither in quest of the final sweets of the year, came a low murmurous hum, such as a man sometimes fancies he hears while standing alone in the vast auditorium of a cathedral.
The king, from where he sat, could see the ivy-clad towers of the archbishop's palace, where, in and about the narrow windows, gray and white doves fluttered and plumed themselves. The garden sloped gently downward till it merged into a beautiful lake called the Werter See, which, stretching out several miles to the west, in the heart of the thick-wooded hills, trembled like a thin sheet of silver.
Toward the south, far away, lay the dim, uneven blue line of the Thalian Alps, which separated the kingdom that was from the duchy that is, and the duke from his desires. More than once the king leveled his gaze in that direction, as if to fathom what lay behind those lordly rugged hills.
There was in the air the delicate odor of the deciduous leaves which, every little while, the king inhaled, his eyes half- closed and his nostrils distended. Save for these brief moments, however, there rested on his countenance an expression of disenchantment which came of the knowledge of a part ill-played, an expression which described a consciousness of his unfitness and inutility, of lethargy and weariness and distaste.
To be weary is the lot of kings, it is a part of their royal prerogative; but it is only a great king who can be weary gracefully. And Leopold was not a great king; indeed, he was many inches short of the ideal; but he was philosophical, and by the process of reason he escaped the pitfalls which lurk in the path of peevishness.
To know the smallness of the human atom, the limit of desire, the existence of other lives as precious as their own, is not the philosophy which makes great kings. Philosophy engenders pity; and one who possesses that can not ride roughshod over men, and that is the business of kings.
As for Leopold, he would rather have wandered the byways of Kant than studied royal etiquette. A crown had been thrust on his head and a scepter into his hand, and, willy-nilly, he must wear the one and wield the other. The confederation had determined the matter shortly before the Franco-Prussian war.
The kingdom that was, an admixture of old France and newer Austria, was a gateway which opened the road to the Orient, and a gateman must be placed there who would be obedient to the will of the great travelers, were they minded to pass that way. That is to say, the confederation wanted a puppet, and in Leopold they found a dreamer, which served as well. That glittering bait, a crown, had lured him from his peaceful Osian hills and valleys, and now he found that his crown was of straw and his scepter a stick.
He longed to turn back, for his heart lay in a tomb close to his castle keep, but the way back was closed. He had sold his birthright. So he permitted his ministers to rule his kingdom how they would, and gave himself up to dreams. He had been but a cousin of the late king, whereas the duke of the duchy that is had been a brother. But cousin Josef was possessed of red hair and a temper which was redder still, and, moreover, a superlative will, bending to none, and laughing at those who tried to bend him.
He would have been a king to the tip of his fiery hair; and it was for this very reason that his subsequent appeals for justice and his rights fell on unheeding ears. The confederation feared Josef; therefore they dispossessed him. Thus Leopold sat on the throne, while his Highness bit his nails and swore, impotent to all appearances.
Leopold leaned forward from his seat. In his hand he held a riding stick with which he drew shapeless pictures in the yellow gravel of the path. His brows were drawn over contemplative eyes, and the hint of a sour smile lifted the corners of his lips. Presently the brows relaxed, and his gaze traveled to the opposite side of the path, where the British minister sat in the full glare of the sun.
In the middle of the path, as rigid as a block of white marble, reposed a young bulldog, his moist black nose quivering under the repeated attacks of a persistent insect. It occurred to the king that there was a resemblance between the dog and his master, the Englishman. The same heavy jaws were there, the same fearless eyes, the same indomitable courage for the prosecution of a purpose.
A momentary regret passed through him that he had not been turned from a like mold. Next his gaze shifted to the end of the path, where a young Lieutenant stood idly kicking pebbles, his cuirass flaming in the dazzling sunshine. Soon the drawing in the gravel was resumed.
The British minister made little of the three-score years which were closing in on him, after the manner of an army besieging a citadel. He was full of animal exuberance, and his eyes, a trifle faded, it must be admitted, were still keenly alive and observant. He was big of bone, florid of skin, and his hair-- what remained of it--was wiry and bleached. His clothes, possibly cut from an old measure, hung loosely about the girth-- a sign that time had taken its tithe. For thirty-five years he had served his country by cunning speeches and bursts of fine oratory; he had wandered over the globe, lulling suspicions here and arousing them there, a prince of the art of diplomacy.
He had not been sent here to watch this kingdom. He was touching a deeper undercurrent, which began at St. Petersburg and moved toward Central Asia, Turkey and India, sullenly and irresistibly. And now his task was done, and another was to take his place, to be a puppet among puppets. He feared no man save his valet, who knew his one weakness, the love of a son on whom he had shut his door, which pride forbade him to open. This son had chosen the army, when a fine diplomatic career had been planned--a small thing, but it sufficed. Even now a word from an humbled pride would have reunited father and son, but both refused to speak this word.
The diplomat in turn watched the king as he engaged in the aimless drawing. His meditation grew retrospective, and his thoughts ran back to the days when he first befriended this lonely prince, who had come to England to learn the language and manners of the chill islanders. He had been handsome enough in those days, this Leopold of Osia, gay and eager, possessing an indefinable charm which endeared him to women and made him respected of men. To have known him then, the wildest stretch of fancy would never have placed him on this puppet throne, surrounded by enemies, menaced by his adopted people, rudderless and ignorant of statecraft.
"Fate is the cup," the diplomat mused, "and the human life the ball, and it's toss, toss, toss, till the ball slips and falls into eternity." Aloud he said, "Your Majesty seems to be well occupied."
"Yes," replied the king, smiling. "I am making crowns and scratching them out again-- usurping the gentle pastime of their most Christian Majesties, the confederation. A pretty bauble is a crown, indeed--at a distance. It is a fine thing to wear one-- in a dream. But to possess one in the real, and to wear it day by day with the eternal fear of laying it down and forgetting where you put it, or that others plot to steal it, or that you wear it dishonestly--Well, well, there are worse things than a beggar's crust."
"No one is honest in this world, save the brute," said the diplomat, touching the dog with his foot. "Honesty is instinctive with him, for he knows no written laws. The gold we use is stamped with dishonesty, notwithstanding the beautiful mottoes; and so long as we barter and sell for it, just so long we remain dishonest. Yes, you wear your crown dishonestly but lawfully, which is a nice distinction. But is any crown worn honestly? If it is not bought with gold, it is bought with lies and blood. Sire, your great fault, if I may speak, is that you haven't continued to be dishonest. You should have filled your private coffers, but you have not done so, which is a strange precedent to establish. You should have increased taxation, but you have diminished it; you should have forced your enemy's hand four years ago, when you ascended the throne, but you did not; and now, for all you know, his hand may be too strong. Poor, dishonest king! When you accepted this throne, which belongs to another, you fell as far as possible from moral ethics. And now you would be honest and be called dull, and dream, while your ministers profit and smile behind your back. I beg your Majesty's pardon, but you have always requested that I should speak plainly."
The king laughed; he enjoyed this frank friend. There was an essence of truth and sincerity in all he said that encouraged confidence.
"Indeed, I shall be sorry to have you go tomorrow," he said, "for I believe if you stayed here long enough you would truly make a king of me. Be frank, my friend, be always frank; for it is only on the base of frankness that true friendship can rear itself."
"You are only forty-eight," said the Englishman; "you are young."
"Ah, my friend," replied the king with a tinge of sadness, "it is not the years that age us; it is how we live them. In the last four years I have lived ten. To-day I feel so very old! I am weary of being a king. I am weary of being weary, and for such there is no remedy. Truly I was not cut from the pattern of kings; no, no. I am handier with a book than with a scepter; I'd liever be a man than a puppet, and a puppet I am--a figurehead on the prow of the ship, but I do not guide it. Who care for me save those who have their ends to gain? None, save the archbishop, who yet dreams of making a king of me. And these are not my people who surround me; when I die, small care. I shall have left in the passing scarce a finger mark in the dust of time."
"Ah, Sire, if only you would be cold, unfriendly, avaricious. Be stone and rule with a rod of iron. Make the people fear you, since they refuse to love you; be stone."
"You can mold lead, but you can not sculpture it; and I am lead."
"Yes; not only the metal, but the verb intransitive. Ah, could the fires of ambition light your soul!"
"My soul is a blackened grate of burnt-out fires, of which only a coal remains."
And the king turned in his seat and looked across the crisp green lawns to the beds of flowers, where, followed by a maid at a respectful distance, a slim young girl in white was cutting the hardy geraniums, dahlias and seed poppies.
"God knows what her legacy will be!"
"It is for you to make it, Sire."
Both men continued to remark the girl. At length she came toward them, her arms laden with flowers. She was at the age of ten, with a beautiful, serious face, which some might have called prophetic. Her hair was dark, shining like coal and purple, and gossamer in its fineness; her skin had the blue-whiteness of milk; while from under long black lashes two luminous brown eyes looked thoughtfully at the world. She smiled at the king, who eyed her fondly, and gave her unengaged hand to the Englishman, who kissed it.
"And how is your Royal Highness this fine day? he asked, patting the hand before letting it go.
"Will you have a dahlia, Monsieur?" With a grave air she selected a flower and slipped it through his button-hole.
"Does your Highness know the language of the flowers?" the Englishman asked.
"Dahlias signify dignity and elegance; you are dignified, Monsieur, and dignity is elegance."
"Well!" cried the Englishman, smiling with pleasure; "that is turned as adroitly as a woman of thirty."
"And am I not to have one?" asked the king, his eyes full of paternal love and pride.
"They are for your Majesty's table," she answered.
"Your Majesty!" cried the king in mimic despair. "Was ever a father treated thus? Your Majesty! Do you not know, my dear, that to me 'father' is the grandest title in the world?"
Suddenly she crossed over and kissed the king on the cheek, and he held her to him for a moment.
The bulldog had risen, and was wagging his tail the best he knew how. If there was any young woman who could claim his unreserved admiration, it was the Princess Alexia. She never talked nonsense to him in their rambles together, but treated him as he should be treated, as an animal of enlightenment.
"And here is Bull," said the princess, tickling the dog's nose with a scarlet geranium.
"Your Highness thinks a deal of Bull?" said the dog's master.
"Yes, Monsieur, he doesn't bark, and he seems to understand all I say to him."
The dog looked up at his master as if to say: "There now, what do you think of that?"
"To-morrow I am going away," said the diplomat, "and as I can not very well take Bull with me, I give him to you."
The girl's eyes sparkled. "Thank you, Monsieur, shall I take him now?"
"No, but when I leave your father. You see, he was sent to me by my son who is in India. I wish to keep him near me as long as possible. My son, your Highness, was a bad fellow. He ran away and joined the army against my wishes, and somehow we have never got together again. Still, I've a sneaking regard for him, and I believe he hasn't lost all his filial devotion. Bull is, in a way, a connecting link."
The king turned again to the gravel pictures. These Englishmen were beyond him in the matter of analysis. Her Royal Highness smiled vaguely, and wondered what this son was like. Once more she smiled, then moved away toward the palace. The dog, seeing that she did not beckon, lay down again. An interval of silence followed her departure. The thought of the Englishman had traveled to India, the thought of the king to Osia, where the girl's mother slept. The former was first to rouse.
"Well, Sire, let us come to the business at hand, the subject of my last informal audience. It is true, then, that the consols for the loan of five millions of crowns are issued to-day, or have been, since the morning is passed?"
"Yes, it is true. I am well pleased. Jacobi and Brother have agreed to place them at face value. I intend to lay out a park for the public at the foot of the lake. That will demolish two millions and a half. The remainder is to be used in city improvements and the reconstruction of the apartments in the palace, which are too small. If only you knew what a pleasure this affords me! I wish to make my good city of Bleiberg a thing of beauty --parks, fountains, broad and well paved streets."
"The Diet was unanimous in regard to this loan?"
"In fact they suggested it, and I was much in favor."
"You have many friends there, then?"
"Friends?" The king's face grew puzzled, and its animation faded away. "None that I know. This is positively the first time we ever agreed about anything."
"And did not that strike you as rather singular?"
"Of course, the people are enthusiastic, considering the old rate of taxation will be renewed?" The diplomat reached over and pulled the dog's ears.
"So far as I can see," answered the king, who could make nothing of this interrogatory.
"Which, if your Majesty will pardon me, is not very far beyond your books."
"I have ministers."
"Who can see farther than your Majesty has any idea."
"Come, come, my friend," cried the king good-naturedly; "but a moment gone you were chiding me because I did nothing. I may not fill my coffers as you suggested, but I shall please my eye, which is something. Come; you have something to tell me."
"Will your Majesty listen?"
"And to hear?"
"I promise not only to listen, but to hear," laughing; "not only to hear, but to think. Is that sufficient?"
"For three years," began the Englishman, "I have been England's representative here. As a representative I could not meddle with your affairs, though it was possible to observe them. To-day I am an unfettered agent of self, and with your permission I shall talk to you as I have never talked before and never shall again."
The diplomat rose from his seat and walked up and down the path, his hands clasped behind his back, his chin in his collar. The bulldog yawned, stretched himself, and followed his master, soberly and thoughtfully. After a while the Englishman returned to his chair and sat down. The dog gravely imitated him. He understood, perhaps better than the king, his master's mood. This pacing backward and forward was always the forerunner of something of great importance.
During the past year he had been the repository of many a secret. Well, he knew how to keep one. Did not he carry a secret which his master would have given much to know? Some one in far away India, after putting him into the ship steward's care, had whispered: "You tell the governor that I think just as much of him as ever." He had made a desperate effort to tell it the moment he was liberated from the box, but he had not yet mastered that particular language which characterized his master's race.
"To begin with," said the diplomat, "what would your Majesty say if I should ask permission to purchase the entire loan?"