The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter XI. The Denouement
At no time during the afternoon did Maurice find the opportunity to speak privately to Fitzgerald. Madame hovered about, chatting, smiling and humming snatches of song. She seemed to have formed a sudden attachment for Maurice; that is to say, she could not bear to lose sight of him, not for the briefest moment.
He swallowed his chagrin, for he could but confess that it was sugar-coated. Madame had at last considered his case, and had labeled him dangerous. Somehow a man always likes to be properly valued. It re-establishes his good opinion of himself.
Well, well; however affectionate Madame might be, she could scarcely carry it beyond the threshold of his chamber, and he was determined to retire at an early hour. But he had many things to learn.
Fitzgerald was abandoned to the countess, who had still much color to regain. From time to time the Englishman looked over his shoulder to see what was going on between Madame and his friend, and so missed half of what the countess said.
"Come," thought Maurice, "it is time I made a play."
The blackberries were ripe along the stone walls which surrounded the chateau. Maurice wandered here and there, plucking what fruit he could find. Now and then he would offer a branch to Madame. At length, as though by previous arrangement with Madame, the countess led Fitzgerald around to the other side of the chateau, so that Madame and Maurice were alone. Immediately the smile, which had rested on her lips, vanished. Her companion was gazing mountainward, and cogitating. How fared those in Bleiberg?
"What a beautiful world it is!" said a low, soft voice close to his ear.
Maurice resumed his berry picking.
"What exquisite tints in the skies!" went on the voice; "what matchless color in the forests!"
Maurice plucked a berry, ate it, and smacked his lips. It was a good berry.
"But what a terrible thing it would be if one should die suddenly, or be thrown into a windowless dungeon, shut out from all these splendid reaches?"
Maurice plucked another berry, but he did not eat it. Instinctively he turned--and met a pair of eyes as hard and cold and gray as new steel.
"That," said he, "sounds like a threat."
"And if it were, Monsieur, and if it were?"
"If it were, I should say that you had discovered that I know too much. I suspected from the first; the picture merely confirmed my suspicions. I see now that it was thoughtless in me not to have told my friend; but it is not too late."
"And why, I ask, have I not suppressed you before this?"
"Till to-day, Madame, you had not given me your particular consideration." Then, as if the conversation was not interesting him, he returned to the berries. "There's a fine one there. It's a little high; but then!" He tiptoed, drew the branch from the wall, and snatched the luscious fruit. "Ah!"
"Monsieur, attend to me; the berries can wait."
"Madame, the life of a good blackberry is short."
"To begin with, you say that I did not show you consideration. Few princes have been shown like consideration."
"I was wrong. It is not every man that has a countess--and a pretty one, too!--thrown at his head."
Madame was temporarily silenced by this retort; it upset her calculations. She scrutinized the clean, smooth face, and she saw lines which had hitherto escaped her notice. She was at last convinced that she had to contend with a man, a man who had dealt with both men and women. How deep was he? Could honors, such as she could give, and money plumb the depths? . . . He was an American. She smiled the smile of duplicity.
"Monsieur," she said, "do you lack wealth?"
"Yes, I lack it; but that is not to say that I desire it."
"Perhaps it is honors you desire?"
"Honors? To what greater honor may I aspire than that which is written in my passports?"
"What is written in your passports?"
"That I am a citizen of the United States of America. It would not be good taste in me to accept honors save those that my country may choose to confer."
Again Madame found her foil turned aside. She began to lose patience. Her boot patted the sod. "Monsieur, since the countess is not high enough, since gold and honors have no charm, listen."
"I am listening, Madame."
"I permit you to witness the comic opera, but I shall allow no prompting from outsiders."
"Madame, do you expect me to sit calmly by and see my friend made a fool?" He spoke warmly and his eyes remained steadfast.
"Certainly that is what you shall do," coldly.
"Madame, you are a beautiful woman; heaven has endowed you with something more than beauty. Is it possible that the gods forgot to mix conscience in the mold?"
"Conscience? Royalty knows none."
"Ah, Madame, wait till you are royal."
"Take care. You have not felt my anger."
"I would rather that than your love."
She marveled at her patience.
"If you have no conscience, Madame, I have. I shall warn him. You shall not dishonor him if I can prevent it. You wish to win his love, and you have gauged the possibilities of it so accurately that you know you will have but to ask, be it his honor or his life. A far finer thing it would be for you to win your crown at the point of the sword. There would be a little glory in it then. But even then, the world would laugh at you. For you would be waging war against a lonely woman, a paralytic king, a prelate who is a man of peace. What resistance could these three offer?
"But to gain your ends by treachery and deceit, to rob a man of his brains and heart, laughing the while in your sleeve; to break his life and make him curse all women, from Eve to you and the mother who bore him! Ah, Madame, let me plead with you. Give him his liberty. Let him go back and complete the task imposed on him. Do not break his life, for life is more than a crown; do not compel him to sully his honor, for honor is more than life.
"Your cause is just, I will admit, but do not tarnish it by such detestable means. 'Tis true that a crown to me signifies nothing, but life and honor are common to us both. With all his strength and courage, my friend is helpless. All his life he has been without the society of women. If he should love you--God help him! His love would be without calculation, without reason, blind and furious. Madame, do not destroy him."
Sometimes, in the passing, we are stopped by the sound of a voice. It is not the words it utters, nor the range nor tone. It is something indefinable, and, though we can not analyze it, we are willing to follow wherever it leads. Such a voice Maurice possessed, though he was totally ignorant of its power. But Madame, as she listened, felt its magic influence, and for a moment the spell rendered her mute.
"Monsieur, you have missed your vocation; you plead well, indeed. Unfortunately, I can not hear; my ears are of wax. No, no! I have nourished these projects too long; they are a part of me. Laughed at, you say? Have I not been laughed at from one end of the continent to the other?" passionately. "It is my turn now, and woe to those who have dared to laugh. I shall sweep all obstacles away; nothing shall stop me. Mine the crown is, and mine it shall be. I am a woman, and I wished to avoid bloodshed. But not even that shall stay me; not even love!" Her bosom heaved, her hands were clenched, and her gray eyes flashed like troubled waters in the sunlight.
"Madame, if you love him--"
"No, I am wrong. If you loved him you would prize above all else this honor of which you intend to rob him."
"I brought you here not to discuss whether I am right or wrong. Look about you."
Maurice was somewhat troubled to discover several troopers lounging about just out of earshot. They were so arranged as to prevent egress from the park. He looked thoughtfully at the wall. It was eight feet in height.
Madame saw the look, and said, "Corporal!"
There was a noise on the other side of the wall, and presently a head bobbed up.
"Madame?" inquired the head.
"Nothing. I wished to know if you were at your post." She turned to Maurice, who was puzzled to know what all this was preamble to. "Monsieur Carewe, I never forget details. I had an idea that when I submitted my proposals to you, you might be tempted to break your parole."
Maurice gnawed his lip. "Proceed, Madame."
"There are only two. If you do not promise here and now in no way to interfere with my plans, these troopers will convey you to Brunnstadt, where you will be kept in confinement until the succession to the throne is decided one way or the other. The other proposal is, if you promise --and I have faith in your word--the situation will continue the same as at present. Choose, Monsieur. Which is it to be?"
The devil gleamed in his eyes. He remained silent.
"Well! Well!" impatiently.
"I accept the alternative," with bad grace. "If I made a dash--"
"You would be shot; those were my orders."
"And if I went to prison--"
"You would miss what you call the comic opera, but which to me is all there is in life. You say that I have read your friend well. That is true. Do you think that it is easy for me to lessen myself in my own eyes? No woman lives who is prouder than I. Remember, you are not to hint at what I propose to do, nor who I am. See! It is all because you read something which was not intended for your eyes. Be my friend, or be my enemy, it is a matter of indifference to me. You have only yourself to blame. Had you gone about your business and not intruded where you were not wanted, neither you nor your friend would be here. No interference from you, Monsieur; that is the understanding." She raised her hand and made a sign, and the troopers took themselves off. "Now you may go--to the countess, if you wish; though I dare say that she will not find you in the best of tempers."
"I dare say she won't," said Maurice.
Fitzgerald sat by a window in the music room. He had resurrected from no one knew where a clay with a broken stem. There was a thoughtful cast to his countenance, and he puffed away, blissfully unconscious of, or indifferent to, the close proximity of the velvet curtains. A thrifty housewife, could she have seen the smoke rise and curl and lose itself in the folds above, would have experienced the ecstasy of anxiety and perturbation. But there was no thrifty housewife at the Red Chateau, nothing but dreams of conquest and revenge.
Twilight was gathering about, soft-footed and shadowful. Long reaches of violet and vermilion clouds pressed thickly on the western line of hills. The mists began to rise, changing from opal to sapphire. The fantastic melodies of wandering gypsy songs went throbbing through the room; rollicking gavots, Hungarian dances, low and slumbrous nocturnes. As the music grew sadder and dreamier, the smoker moved uneasily.
Somehow, it gripped his heart; and the long years of loneliness returned and overwhelmed him. They marshaled past, thirteen in all; and there were glimpses of deserts, snowcapped mountains, men moving in the blur of smoke, long watches in the night. Thirteen years in God-forsaken outposts, with never a sight of a woman's face, the sound of her voice, the swish of her gown, nor a touch of the spell which radiates from her presence.
He had never made friends. Others had come up to him and passed him, and had gone to the cities, leaving him to bear the brunt of the cold, the heat, the watchfulness. He had made his bed; he was too much his father's son to whine because it was hard. Often he used to think how a few words, from a pride humbled, would have removed the barrier. But the words never came, nor was the pride ever humbled.
Out of all the thirteen years he could remember only six months of pleasure. He had been transferred temporarily to Calcutta, where his Colonel, who had received secret information concerning him, had treated him like a gentleman, and had employed him as regimental interpreter, for he spoke French and German and a smattering of Indian tongues. During his lonely hours he had studied, for he knew that some day he would be called upon to administer a vast fortune. . . . He laid the pipe on the sill, rested his elbows beside it, and dropped his chin in his hands. What a fool he had been to waste the best years of his life! His father would have opened to him a boundless career; he would have seen the world under the guidance of a master hand. And here he was to-day, the possessor of millions, a beggar in friends, no niche to fill, a wanderer from place to place.
The old pile in England, he never wished to see it again; the memories which it would arouse would be too bitter. . . . The shade of Beethoven touched him as it passed; Mozart, Mendelssohn, Chopin. But he was thinking only of his loneliness, and the marvelous touch of the hands which evoked the great spirits was lost upon him.
Maurice was seated in one of the gloomy corners. He had still much good humor to recover. He pulled at his lips, and wondered from time to time what was going on in Fitzgerald's head. Poor devil! he thought; could he resist this woman whose accomplishments were so varied that at one moment she could overthrow a throne and at the next play Phyllis to some strolling Corydon? Since he himself, who knew her, could entertain for her nothing but admiration, what hope was there for the Englishman? What a woman! She savored of three hundred years off. To plan by herself, to arrange the minutest detail, and above all to wait patiently! Patience has never been the attribute of a woman of power; Madame possessed both patience and power.
The countess was seated in another dark corner. Suddenly she arose and said, in a voice blended with great trouble and impatience: "For pity's sake, Madame, cease those dirges! Play something lively; I am sad."
The music stopped, but presently began again. Maurice leaned forward. Madame was playing Chopin's polonaise. He laughed silently. He was in Madame's thoughts. It struck him, however, that the notes had a defiant ring.
"Lights!" called Madame, rising from the stool.
Immediately a servant entered with candles and retired. Maurice, when his eyes had grown accustomed to the lights, scanned the three faces. Madame's was radiant. Fitzgerald's was a mixture--a comical mixture--of content and enjoyment, but the countess's was as colorless as the wax in the candlesticks. He asked himself what other task she had to perform that she should take so long to recover her roses. Had the knowledge of her recent humiliation been too much for her?
She was speaking to him. "Monsieur, will you walk with me in the park? I am faint."
"Are you ill, countess?" asked Madame, coming up and placing her hand under the soft round chin of the other and striving to read her eyes.
"Not so ill, Madame, that a breath of fresh air will not revive me." When they had gained the park, the countess said to Maurice: "Monsieur, I have brought you here to tell you something. I fear that your friend is lost, for you can do nothing."
"Not even if I break my word?" he asked.
"It would do no good."
"It is too late," lowly. "I have been Madame's understudy too long not to read. Forgive me. I was to keep you apart; I have done so. The evil can not now be repaired. Your hope is that Madame has not fully considered his pride."
"Has she any regard for him?"
"Sentiment?--love?" She uttered a short, incredulous laugh. "Madame has brain, not heart. Could a woman with a heart plan as she plans?"
"Well, let us not talk of plots and plans; let us talk of--"
"Monsieur, do not be unkind. I have asked your forgiveness. Let us not talk; let us be silent and listen to the night;" and she leaned over the terrace balustrade.
Maurice floated. As he leaned beside her a strand of perfumed hair blew across his nostrils. . . . The princess was at best a dream. It was not likely that he ever would speak to her again. The princess was a poem, unlettered and unrhymed. But here, close to him, was a bit of beautiful material prose. The hair again blew out toward him and he moved his lips. She heard the vague sound and lifted her head.
Far away came the call of the sentry; a horse whinneyed in the stables. There was in the air the odor of an approaching storm.