The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter XIII. Being of Complications Not Reckoned On
Maurice leaped to his feet, a menace in his eyes. The Colonel crossed his legs, rested his hands on the hilt of his saber, and smiled.
"I could not resist the desire to have a friendly chat with you."
"You have come cursed inopportune," snarled Maurice. "What do you want?"
"I want to give you the countersigns, so that when you start for Bleiberg to-morrow morning you'll have no trouble."
"Bleiberg !" exclaimed Maurice.
"Bleiberg. Madame desires me to say to you that you are to start for that city in the morning, to fetch those slips of parchment which have caused us all these years of worry. Ah, my friend," to Fitzgerald, "Madame would be cheap at twenty millions! You sly dog! And I never suspected it."
Fitzgerald sent him a scowl. "You are damned impertinent, sir."
"Impertinent?" The Colonel uncrossed his legs and brought his knees together. "Madame has been under my care since she was a child, Monsieur; I have a fatherly interest in her. At any rate, I am glad that the affair is at an end. It was very noble in you. If I had had my way, though, it would have been war, pure and simple. I left the duchess in Brunnstadt this morning; she will be delighted to attend the wedding."
"She will attend it," said Maurice, grimly; "but I would not lay odds on her delight. Colonel, the devil take me if I go to Bleiberg on any such errand." He went to the window seat.
The Colonel rose and followed him. "Pardon me," he said to Fitzgerald, who did not feel at all complimented by Madame's haste; "a few words in Monsieur Carewe's ear. He will go to Bleiberg; he will be glad to go." He bent towards Maurice. "Go to Bleiberg, my son. A word to him about Madame, and off you go to Brunnstadt. Will you be of any use there? I think not. The little countess would cry out her pretty eyes if she heard that you were languishing in the city prison at Brunnstadt, where only the lowest criminals are confined. Submit gracefully, that is to say, like a soldier against whom the fortunes of war have gone. Go to Bleiberg."
"I'll go. I give up." It was not the threat which brought him to this decision. It was a vision of a madonna-like face. "I'll go, John. Where are the certificates?"
"Between the mattresses and the slats of my bed you will find a gun in a case. The certificates are in the barrels." His countenance did not express any particular happiness; the lines about his mouth were sharper than usual.
"The devil!" cried the Colonel; "if only I had known that!" He laughed. "Well, I'll leave you. Six o'clock--what's this?" as he stooped and picked up Maurice's cast-off hussar jacket.
"I was about to use it as a door mat," said Maurice, who was in a nasty humor. That Fitzgerald had surrendered did not irritate him half so much as the thought that he was the real puppet. His hands were tied, he could not act, and he was one that loved his share in games.
The Colonel reddened under his tan. "No; I'll not lose my temper, though this is cause enough. Curse me, but you lack courtesy. This is my uniform, and whatever it may be to you it is sacred to me. You were not forced into it; you were not compelled to wear it. What would you do if a man wore your uniform and flung it around in this manner?"
"I'd knock him down," Maurice admitted. "I apologize, Colonel; it was not manly. But you must make allowances; my good nature has suffered a severe strain. I'll get into my own clothes to- morrow if you will have a servant sew on some buttons and mend the collar. By the way, who is eating three meals a day in the east corridor on the third floor?"
Their glances fenced. The Colonel rubbed his mustache.
"I like you," he said; "hang me if I don't. But as well as I like you, I would not give a denier for your life if you were found in that self-same corridor. The sentinel has orders to shoot; but don't let that disturb you; you will know sooner or later. It is better to wait than be shot. A horse will be saddled at six. You will find it in the court. The countersigns are Weixel and Arnoldt. Good luck to you."
"The same to you," rejoined Maurice, "only worse."
The Colonel's departure was followed by a period of temporary speechlessness. Maurice smoked several "Khedives," while Fitzgerald emptied two or three pipe-bowls.
"You seem to be in bad odor, Maurice," the latter ventured.
"In more ways than one. Where, in heaven's name, did you resurrect that pipe?"
"In the stables. It isn't the pipe, it's the tobacco. I had to break up some cigars."
Then came another period in the conversation. It occurred to both that something yawned between them--a kind of abyss. Out of this abyss one saw his guilt arise. . . . A woman stood at his side. He had an accomplice. He had thrown the die, and he would stand stubbornly to it. His pride built yet another wall around him, impregnable either to protests or to sneers. He loved-- that was recompense enough. A man will forgive himself of grave sins when these are debtors to his love.
As for the other, he beheld a trust betrayed, and he was powerless to prevent it. Besides, his self-love smarted, chagrin made eyes at him; and, more than all else, he recognized his own share in the Englishman's fall from grace. It had been innocent mischief on his part, true, but nevertheless he stood culpable. He had no business to talk to a woman he did not know. The more he studied the aspects of the situation the more whimsical it grew. He was the prime cause of a king losing his throne, of a man losing his honor, of a princess becoming an outcast.
"Your bride-elect," he said, "seems somewhat over-hasty. Well, I'm off to bed."
"Maurice, can you blame me?"
"No, John; whom the gods destroy they first make mad. You will come to your senses when it is too late."
"For God's sake, Maurice, who is she?"
"What will you do if she breaks her promise?" adroitly evading the question.
"What shall I do?" He emptied the ashes from his pipe, and rose; all that was aggressive came into his face. "I will bind her hands and feet and carry her to the altar, and shoot the priest that refuses to marry us. O Maurice, rest easy; no woman lives who will make a fool of me, and laugh."
"That's comfort;" and Maurice turned in.
This night it was the Englishman who sat up till the morning hours. Sylvia Amerbach. . . . A fear possessed him. If it should be, he thought; if it should be, what then?
Midnight in Madame's boudoir; no light save that which streamed rosily from the coals in the grate. The countess sat with her slippered feet upon the fender. She held in her hand a screen, and if any thoughts marked her face, they remained in blurred obscurity.
"Heu!" said Madame from the opposite side; "it is all over. It was detestable. I, to suffer this humiliation! Do you know what I have done? I have promised to be his wife! His wife, I! Is it not droll?" There was a surprising absence of mirth in the low laugh which followed.
"I trust Madame will find it droll."
"And I, Madame?"
"Yes; did you not bring the clown to your feet?"
"How? You did not have the joy denied me --of laughing in his face?"
"No, Madame." With each answer the voice grew lower.
"Since when have I been Madame to you?"
Madame reached out a band and pressed down the screen. "Elsa, what is it?"
"What is what, Madame?"
"This strange mood of yours."
"You were gay enough this morning. Tell me."
"There is nothing to tell, Madame, save that my sacrifices are at an end. I have nothing left."
"What! You forsake me when the end is won?" in astonishment.
"I did not say that I should desert you; I said that I had no more sacrifices to make." The Countess rose. "For your sake, Madame, because you have always been kind to me, and because it is impossible not to love you, I have degraded myself. I have pretended to love a man who saw through the artifice and told me so, to save me further shame. O Madame, it is all execrable!
"And you will use this love which you have gained--this first love of a man who has known no other and will know no other while he lives!-- to bring about his ruin? This other, at whose head you threw me--beware of him. He is light-hearted and gay, perhaps. You call him a clown; he is cunning and brave; and unless you judge him at his true value, your fabric of schemes will fall ere it reaches its culmination. Could even you trick him with words? No. You were compelled to use force. Is he not handsome, Madame?" with a feverish gaiety. "Is there a gentleman at your court who is a more perfect cavalier? Why, he blushes like a woman! Is there in your court--" But her sentence broke, and she could not go on.
"Elsa, are you mad?"
"Yes, Madame, yes; they call it a species of madness." Then, with a sudden gust of wrath: "Why did you not leave me in peace? You have destroyed me! O, the shame of it!" and she fled into her own room.
Madame sat motionless. This, among other things, she had not reckoned on.
Only the troopers and the servants slept in peace that night.
Maurice was up betimes next morning. The hills and valleys lay under a mantle of sparkling rime, and the very air, keen of edge and whistling, glistened in the sunlight. The iron shoes of the horses beat sharply on the stone flooring of the court yard. Maurice examined his riding furniture; pulled at the saddle, tugged at the rein buckles, lifted the leather flaps and tried the stirrup straps. It was not that he doubted the ability of the groom; it was because this particular care was second nature to him.
Fitzgerald watched him, and meditated. Some of his thoughts were not pleasant. His eyes were heavy. At times he would lift his shoulders and permit half a smile to flicker over his lips; a certain thought caused this. The Colonel sat astride a broad- chested cavalry horse, spotless white. He was going to accompany Maurice to the frontier. He had imbibed the exhilarating tonic of the morning, and his spirits ran high. At length Maurice leaped into the saddle, caught the stirrups well, and signaled to the Colonel that he was ready.
"You understand, Maurice?" Fitzgerald asked.
"Yes, John; all the world loves a lover. Besides, it is a glorious morning for a ride. Up, portcullis, down drawbridge!" waving his hand to the Colonel.
And away they went through the gateway, into the frosted road. Maurice felt the spirit of some medieval ancestor creep into his veins and he longed for an hour of the feudal days, to rescue a princess from some dungeon-keep and to harry an over-lord. After all, she was a wonderful woman, and Fitzgerald was only a man. To give up all for the love of woman is the only sacrifice a man can make.
"En avant!" cried the Colonel. "A fine day, a fine day for the house of Auersperg!"
"And a devilish bad one for the houses of Fitzgerald and Carewe. Woman's ambition, coupled with her deceit, is the root of all evil; money is simply an invention of man to protect himself from her encroachments. Eve was ambitious and deceitful; all women are her daughters. When the pages of history grow dull--"
"Time puts a maggot in my lady's brain," supplemented the Colonel. "It is like a row of dominoes. The power behind the throne, the woman behind the power; an impulse moves the woman, and lo! how they clatter down. But without woman, history would be poor reading. The greatest battles in the world, could we but see behind, were fought for women. Men are but footnotes, and unfortunately history is made up of footnotes. But it is a fine thing to be a footnote; that is my ambition.
"Ah, if you but knew what a pleasure it is for an old man like me to have a finger in the game time plays! To meddle with affairs, directly or indirectly! Kingdoms are but judy shows, kings and queens but puppets; but we who pull the strings--Ah, that is it! To play a game of chess with crowns!"
"There are exceptions; Madame seems to hold the strings in this instance."
"Madame follows my advice in all she does."
Maurice opened his eyes at this statement.
"Would you believe an old man like me could lay such a train? All this was my idea. It was difficult to get Madame to agree with my views. War? I am not afraid of it; I am suspicious of it. One day your friend returned a personal letter of Madame's having written across it, `I laugh at you.' It was very foolish. No man laughs at Madame more than once. She will, one day, return this letter to him. A crown, a fine revenge, in one fell swoop."
"She will ruin him utterly?"
"Have you any idea what sort of man my friend is?"
"He lacks the polish of a man of affairs, and he surrenders too easily."
"He will never surrender--Madame."
"You remember his father; he will prove his father's son, every inch of him. O, my Colonel, the curtain has only risen. One fine morning your duchy will wake up without a duchess."
"What do you imply--an abduction?" The Colonel laughed.
"That is my secret."
"And the pretty countess?" banteringly.
"It was rather bad taste in Madame. It was putting love and patriotism to questionable purposes. I am a gentleman."
"It was out of consideration for you; Madame was not quite sure about you. But you are right; all of it has rather a dark shade. You may rob a man of his valuables and give them back; a broken word is not to be mended. Why did you keep the hiding place so secret? I could have got those consols, and all this would have been avoided."
"How should I know where they were? It was none of my affair."
"We are trusting you; I might have gone myself. You will return with the treasure. Why have I not asked your word? Curiosity will bring you back; curiosity. Besides this, you have an idea that with your presence about, a flaw in the glass may be found. Yes, you will be back. History is to be made; when you are old you will glance at the page and say: `Look there; rather a pretty bit, eh? Well, I helped to make it; indeed, had it not been for me and my curiosity it would not have been made at all.' Above all things, do not stop to talk to veiled women."
There was a chuckling sound. "I say, your Englishman is clever now and then. In the gun barrels! Who would have looked for them there? But why did he come himself? Why did he not trust to his bankers? Why did he not turn over the affair to his representative, the British minister? There were a hundred ways of averting the catastrophe. Why did he not use a little fore- thought when he knew how anxious we were for his distinguished person?"
"Why does the moon rise at night and the sun at dawn? I am no Cumaean Sybil. Perhaps it is the impulse which moves the woman behind the power behind the throne; they call it fate. Had I been in his place I dare say I should have followed his footsteps."
Not long after they arrived at the frontier where they were to separate, to meet again under conditions disagreeable to both. The Colonel gave him additional instructions.
"Go; return as quickly as possible."
"Never fear; I should not like to miss the finale to this opera bouffe."
"Rail on, my son; call it by any name you please, only do not interrupt the prompter;" and with this the Colonel waved him an adieu.
Maurice began the journey through the mountain pass, thinking and planning and scheming. However he looked at the situation, the end was the same: the Osians were doomed. If he himself played false and retained the certificates until too late to be of benefit to the duchess, war would follow; and the kingdom would be soundly beaten. . . . Would Prince Frederick still hold to his agreement and marry her Royal Highness, however ill the fortunes of war fared? There was a swift current of blood to his heart. The Voiture-verse of a countess faded away. . . . Supposing Prince Frederick withdrew his claims? Some day her Highness would be free; free, without title or money or shelter. It was a wild dream. Was there not, when all was said, a faint hope for his own affairs in the fall of Fitzgerald?
She was lonely, friendless, personally known to few. Still, she would be an Osian princess for all her misfortunes. But an Osian princess was not so great that love might not possess her. Without royalty she would be only a woman. What would Austria do; what would Austria say? If Austria had placed Leopold on the throne, certainly it was to shut out the house of Auersperg.
And who was this man Beauvais, who served one house openly and another under the rose? Where had he met him before, and why did the thought of him cause unrest? To rescue her somehow, to win her love, to see the glory of the world light the heavens in her eyes! If the dream was mad, it was no less pleasant.
He was a commoner; he had nothing in the world but his brain and his arm. Fitzgerald, now, possessed a famous title and an ancient name. These kings and princes hereabout could boast of but little more than he; and there were millions to back him. He could dream of princesses and still be sane. Maurice did not envy the Englishman's riches, but he coveted his right of way.
How often had he indulged in vain but pleasant dreams! Even in the old days he was always succoring some proud beauty in distress. Sometimes it was at sea, sometimes in railroad wrecks, sometimes in the heart of flames; but he was ever there, like a guardian angel. It was never the same heroine, but that did not matter; she was always beautiful and rich, high placed and lovable, and he never failed to brush aside all obstacles that beset the path to the church door. He had dreamed of paladins, and here at last was his long-sought opportunity--but he could do nothing! He laughed. How many such romances lay beneath the banter and jest of those bald bachelor diplomat friends of his? Had fate reserved him for one of these?
It was noon when he entered the city of Bleiberg. He went directly to his hotel, where a bath and a change of clothes took the stiffness from his limbs. He was in no great hurry to go to the Grand Hotel; there was plenty of time. Happily there was no mail for him; he was not needed in Vienna.
At two o'clock he set out for the lower town. On the way he picked up odd ends of news. The king was rapidly sinking; he had suffered another stroke, and was now without voice. There was unusual activity in the barracks. The students of the university were committing mild depredations, such as building bonfires, holding flambeau processions, and breaking windows which contained the photographs of Prince Frederick of Carnavia, who, strangely enough, was still wrapt in obscurity. When Maurice entered the Grand Hotel he looked casually among the porters, but the round-faced one was missing. He approached the desk. The proprietor did not recognize him.
"No, my friend," said Maurice, affably, as a visitors' book was pushed forward, "I am not going to sign. Instead, I wish to ask a favor. A week ago a party of the king's troopers met upstairs."
The proprietor showed signs of returning memory, together with a strange agitation.
"There was a slight disturbance," went on Maurice, still using the affable tone. "Herr--ah-- Hamilton, I believe--"
The proprietor grew limp and yellow. "I--I do not know where he is."
"I do," replied Maurice. "Don't you recognize me? Have I changed so since I came here to doctor a sprained ankle?"
"You?--Before God, Herr, I was helpless; I had nothing to do with it!" terrified at the peculiar smile of the victim.
"The key to this gentleman's room," was the demand.
"The key, and be quick about it."
The key came forth. "You will say nothing, Herr; it would ruin my business. It was a police affair."
"Has any one been in this room since?"
"No, Herr; the key has been in my pocket."
"Where is the porter who brought me here?"
"He was not a porter; he was with the police."
Maurice passed up the stairs. He found the room in disorder, but a disorder rather familiar to his eyes. He had been the cause of most of it. Here was where he broke the baron's arm and thumped three others on the head. It had been a good fight. Here was a hole in the wall where one of the empty revolvers had gone-- missing the Colonel's head by an inch.
There was a smudge on the carpet made by the falling candles. He saw Fitzgerald's pipe and picked it up. No; the chamber maid had not yet been there. He went over to the bed, stared at it and shrugged. He raised the mattress. There was the gun case. He drew it forth and took out the gun, not, however, without a twist of his nerves.
Four millions of crowns, a woman's love, the fall of one dynasty and the rise of another, all wadded in those innocent looking gun barrels! He hesitated for a space, then unlocked the breech and held the tubes toward the window. There was nothing in the barrels, nothing but the golden sunlight, which glinted along the polished steel.