The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter XIV. Qui M'Aime, Aime Mon Chien
On making this discovery Maurice was inclined to declaim in that vigorous vocabulary which is taboo. He had been tricked. He was no longer needed at the Red Chateau. Four millions in a gun barrel; hoax was written all over the face of it, and yet he had been as unsuspicious as a Highland gillie. Madame had tricked him; the countess had tricked him, the Colonel and Fitzgerald.
That Madame had tricked him created no surprise; what irritated him most was the conviction that Fitzgerald was laughing in his sleeve, and that he had misjudged the Englishman's capacity for dissimulation. Very well. He threw the gun on the bed; he took Fitzgerald's pipe from his pocket and cast it after the gun, and with a gesture which placed all the contents of the room under the ban of his anathema, he strode out into the corridor, thence to the office.
Here the message to Madame from Beauvais flashed back. The Colonel of the royal cuirassiers had lied; he had found the certificates. But still there was a cloud of mystery; to what use could Beauvais put them? He threw the key to the landlord.
"You lied to me when you said that no one had entered that room," he said.
"O, Herr, I told you that no one but the police had been in the room since your departure. They made a search the next morning. Herr Hamilton was suspected of being a spy of the duchy's. I could not interfere with the police."
Maurice saw that there was nothing to be got from the landlord, who was as much in the dark as he. He passed into the street and walked without any particular end in view. O, he would return to the Red Chateau, if only to deliver himself of the picturesque and opinionated address on Madame. Once he saw his reflection in a window glass, and he stopped and muttered at it.
"Eh, bien, as Madame herself says, we develop with crises, and certainly there is one not far distant. I never could write what I wish to say to Madame; I'll go back to-morrow morning."
Situated between the university and the Grand Hotel on the left hand side of the Konigstrasse, east, stood an historical relic of the days when Austria, together with the small independent states, strove to shake off the Napoleonic yoke. In those days students formed secret societies; societies full of strange ritual, which pushed devotion to fanaticism, which stopped at nothing, not even assassination. To exterminate the French, to regain their ancestral privileges, to rescue their country from its prostrate humiliation, many sacrificed their lives and their fortunes.
Napoleon found no means of reaching these patriots, for they could not be purchased. This convinced Napoleon of their earnestness, for he could buy kings and princes. The students were invisible, implacable, and many a brilliant officer of the imperial guard disappeared, never to return.
This historic relic of the Konigstrasse had been the headquarters of one of the branches of these numerous societies; and the students still held to those ancient traditions. But men and epochs pass swiftly; only the inanimate remain. This temple of patriotism is simply an inn to-day, owned by one Stuler, and is designated by those who patronize it as "Old Stuler's." It is the gathering place of the students. It consists of a hall and a garden, the one facing the street, the other walled in at the rear.
The hall is made of common stone, bald and unadorned save by four dingy windows and a tarnished sign, "Garten," which hangs obliquely over the entrance. At the curb stands a post with three lamps pendant; but these are never lit because Old Stuler can keep neither wicks nor glass beyond the reach of canes.
Old Stuler was well versed in the peculiarities of students. In America they paint statues; in Austria they create darkness. On warm, clear nights the students rioted in the garden; when it rained, chairs and tables were carried into the hall, which contained a small stage and a square gallery. Never a night passed without its animated scene.
Here it was that the evils of monarchical systems were discussed, the army service, the lack of proper amusement, the restrictions at the stage entrance to the opera; here it was that they concocted their exploits, fought their duels, and planned means of outwitting Old Stuler's slate.
Stuler was a good general; he could keep the students in order, watch his assistants draw beer, the Rhine wine, and the scum (dregs of the cask, muddy and strong), and eye the accumulating accounts on the slate. This slate was wiped out once the month; that is to say, when remittances came from home. The night following remittances was a glorious one both to Stuler and the students. There were new scars, new subjects for debate, and Stuler got rid of some of his prime tokayer. The politics of the students was socialism, which is to say they were always dissatisfied. Tourists seldom repeated their visits to Stuler's. There was too much spilling of beer in laps, dumping of pipe ash into uncovered steins, and knocking off of stiff hats.
It was in front of Old Stuler's that Maurice came to a pause. He had heard of the place and the praise of its Hofbrau and Munich beers. He entered. He found the interior dark and gloomy, though outside the sun shone brilliantly. He ordered a stein of Hofbrau, and carried it into the main hall, which was just off the bar- room. It was much lighter here, though the hall had the tawdry appearance of a theater in the day-time; and the motes swam thickly in the beams of sunshine which entered through the half- closed shutters. It was only at night that Stuler's was presentable.
Scarcely a dozen men sat at the tables. In one corner Maurice saw what appeared to be a man asleep on his arms, which were extended the width of the table. It was the cosiest corner in the hall, and Maurice decided to establish himself at the other side of the table, despite the present incumbent. Noiselessly he crossed the floor and sat down. The light was at his back, leaving his face in the shadow, but shone squarely on the sleeper's head.
"I do not envy his headache when he wakes up," thought Maurice. He had detected the vinous odor of the sleeper's breath. "These headaches, while they last, are bad things. I know; I've had 'em. I wonder," lifting the stein and draining it, "who the duffer was who said that getting drunk was fun? His name has slipped my memory; no matter." He set down the stein and banged the lid.
The sleeper stirred. "Rich," he murmured; "rich, rich! I'm rich! A hundred thousand crowns!"
"My friend, I'm not in the position to dispute with you on that subject," said Maurice, smiling. He rapped the stein again.
The sleeper raised his head and stared stupidly,
"Rich, aye, rich!" He was still in half a dream. "Rich, I say!"
"Hang it, I'm not arguing on that," Maurice laughed.
The other swung upright at this, his round, oily face sodden, his black eyes blinking. He threw off the stupor when he saw that it was a man and not the shadow of one.
"Who the devil are you?" he asked, thickly.
Maurice seldom forgot a face. He recognized this one. "Oho!" he said, "so it's you, eh? I did not expect to meet you. Happily I had you in mind. You are not employed at present as a porter at the Grand Hotel? So it is you, my messenger!"
"Who are you and what are you talking about? I don't know you."
"Wait a moment and I'll refresh your memory." Maurice theatrically thrust a cigar between his teeth and struck a match. As the flame illumined his features the questioner started. "So you do not recognize me, eh? You haven't the slightest remembrance of Herr Hamilton and his sprained ankle, eh? Sit down or I'll break your head with this stein, you police spy!" dropping the bantering tone.
The other sat down, but he whistled sharply; and Maurice saw the dozen or so rise from the other tables and come hurriedly in his direction. He pushed back his chair and rose, his teeth firmly embedded in the cigar, and waited.
"What's the trouble, Kopf?" demanded the newcomers.
"This fellow accuses me of being a spy and threatens to break my head."
"O! break your head, is it? Let us see. Come, brothers; out with this fellow."
Maurice saw that they were about to charge him, and his hand went to his hip pocket and rested on the butt of the revolver which the Colonel had given him. "Gentlemen," he said, quietly, "I have no discussion with you. I have a pistol in my pocket, and I'm rather handy with it. I desire to talk to this man, and talk to him I will. Return to your tables; the affair doesn't concern you."
The intended assault did not materialize. They scowled, but retired a few paces. They saw the movement toward the hip pocket, and they noted the foreign twist of the tongue. Moreover, they did not like the angle of the speaker's jaws. They shuffled, looked questioningly at one another, and, as if all of a single mind, went slowly back to their chairs. Kopf grew pale. Indeed, his pallor was out of all proportion with the affair, which Maurice took to be no more than a comedy.
"Brothers," he said, huskily, "he will not dare."
"Don't you doubt it for a moment," interrupted Maurice, taking out the revolver and fondling it. "Any interference will mean one or more cases for the hospital. Come, I'm not the police," to Kopf. "I am not going to hurt you. I wish only to ask you a few questions, which is my right after what has passed between us. We'll go to my hotel, where we shan't be disturbed."
Together they left the hall. As they passed through the bar-room Stuler looked questions, but refrained from asking them. Maurice put away the revolver. As they went out into the street he drew Kopf's arm within his own.
"What do you want?" asked Johann, savagely.
"First. What is your place in this affair?"
"I had nothing to do with it, Herr, on my honor. I was only a porter, and I supposed my errand was in good faith."
"How about the gentle push you gave me when the door opened? My friend, I'm no infant. Lies will do you no good. I know everything, and wish only to verify. You are a police spy, in the employ of the duchess." Maurice felt the arm draw, and bore down on it.
"If I was, do you suppose I'd fool my time on this side of the Thalians?" Johann shrugged.
"I'm not sure about that," said Maurice, puffing into Johann's face. "When cabinet ministers play spy, small fry like you will not cavil at the occupation. And you are not in their pay?" Johann glared. "I want to know," Maurice went on, "what you know; what you know of Colonel Beauvais, his plans, his messengers to the duchy, what is taking place underneath."
Johann's face cleared and a cunning light brightened his eyes. "If that is all you are after, I'll tell you. I'm a spy no longer; they have no more use for me, despite their promises. I'll play them off for quits."
"If that's all," repeated Maurice, "what did you think I wanted to ask you?"
Johann bit his lip. "I'm wanted badly by the chancellor, curse you, if you must know. I thought he might be behind you."
"Don't worry about that," said Maurice, to whom this declaration seemed plausible. "We'll talk as we go along."
And Johann loosened his tongue and poured into Maurice's ear a tale which, being half a truth, had all the semblance of straightforwardness. What he played for was time; to gain time and to lull his captor's suspicions. Maurice was not familiar with the lower town; Johann was. A few yards ahead there was an alley he knew, and once in it he could laugh at all pursuit. It might be added that if Maurice knew but little of the lower town, he knew still less about Johann.
Suddenly, in the midst of his narrative, Johann put his leg stiffly between his enemy's and gave a mighty jerk with his arm, with the result that Maurice, wholly unprepared, went sprawling to the pavement. He was on his feet in an instant, but Johann was free and flying up the alley. Maurice gave chase, but uselessly. Johann had disappeared. The alley was a cul de sac, but was lined with doors; and these Maurice hammered to ease his conscience. No one answered. Deeply disgusted with his lack of caution, Maurice regained the street, where he brushed the dust from his knees.
"I'll take it out of his hide the next time we meet. He wasn't worth the trouble, anyway."
A sybil might have whispered in his ear that a very large fish had escaped his net, but Maurice continued, conscious of nothing save chagrin and a bruised knee. He resumed the piecing together of events, or rather he attempted to; very few pieces could be brought together. If Beauvais had the certificates, what was his object in lying to Madame? What benefit would accrue to him? After all, it was a labyrinth of paths which always brought him up to the beginning. He drooped his shoulders dejectedly. There was nothing left for him to do but return to the Red Chateau and inform them of the fruitlessness of his errand. He would start on the morrow. Tonight he wanted once more to hear the band, to wander about the park, to row around the rear of the archbishop's garden.
"A fine thing to be born in purple--sometimes," he mused. "I never knew till now the inconveniences of the common mold."
He tramped on, building chateaux en Espagne. That they tumbled down did not matter; he could rebuild in the space of a second, and each castle an improvement on its predecessor.
His attention was suddenly drawn away from this idle but pleasant pursuit. In a side street he saw twenty or thirty students surging back and forth, laughing and shouting and jostling. In the center of this swaying mass canes rose and fell. It was a fight, and as he loved a fight, Maurice pressed his hat firmly on his head and veered into the side street. He looked around guiltily, and was thankful that no feminine eyes were near to offer him their reproaches. He jostled among the outer circle, but could see nothing. He stooped. Something white flashed this way and that, accompanied by the sound of low growls. A dog fight was his first impression, and he was on the point of leaving, for, while he secretly enjoyed the sight of two physically perfect men waging battle, he had not the heart to see two brutes pitted against each other, goaded on by brutes of a lower caste. But even as he turned the crowd opened and closed, and the brief picture was enough for him.
Her dog! And the students were beating it because they knew it to be defenseless. Her dog! toothless and old, who could not hold when his jaws closed on an arm or leg, but who, with that indomitable courage of his race, fought on and on, hopelessly and stubbornly.
He was covered with blood, one of his legs was hurt, but still the spirit burned. It was cowardly. Maurice's jaws assumed a particularly ferocious angle. Her dog! Rage choked him. With an oath he flung this student aside and that, fought his way to the center. A burly student, armed with a stout cane, was the principal aggressor.
Maurice doubled his fist and swung a blow which had one hundred and sixty pounds behind it, and it landed squarely on the cheek of the student, who dropped face downward and lay still. This onslaught was so sudden and unexpected that the students were confounded. But Maurice, whose plans crystallized in moments like these, picked up the cane and laid it about him.
The students swore and yelled and stumbled over one another in their wild efforts to dodge the vindictive cane. Maurice cleared a wide circle. The dog, half blinded by his blood and not fully comprehending this new phase in the tide of events, lunged at Maurice, who nimbly eluded him. Finally the opportunity came. He flung the cane into the yelling pack, with his left arm caught the dog about the middle, and leaped back into the nearest doorway. The muscles of his left arm were sorely tried; the dog considered his part in the fray by no means ended, and he tugged and yelped huskily. With his right hand Maurice sought his revolver, cocked and leveled it. There came a respite. The students had not fully recovered from their surprise, and the yells sank into murmurs.
"You curs!" said Maurice, panting. "Shame on you! and an old dog that can't defend himself! You knew he had no teeth."
"God save your Excellency!" laughed a student in the rear, who had not tasted the cane; "you may be sure we knew he had no teeth or we wouldn't have risked our precious calves. Don't let him scare you with the popgun, comrades. At him, my brave ones; he will be more sport than the dog! Down with the Osians, dogs, followers and all!"
"Come on, then," said Maurice, whose fighting blood was at heat. "Come on, if you think it isn't over. There are six bullets in this popgun, and I don't give a particular damn where they go. Come on!"
Whether or not this challenge would have been accepted remains unwritten. There now came on the air the welcome sound of galloping hoofs, and presently two cuirassiers wheeled into the street. What Maurice had left undone with the cane the cuirassiers completed with the flat of their sabers. They had had a brush with the students the night before, and they went at them as if determined to take both interest and principal. The students dispersed like leaves in the wind--all save one. He rose to his feet, his hands covering his jaw and a dazed expression in his eyes. He saw Maurice with the revolver, the cuirassiers with their sabers, and the remnant of his army flying to cover, and he decided to follow their example. The scene had changed somewhat since he last saw it. He slunk off at a zigzag trot.
One of the cuirassiers dismounted, his face red from his exertions.
"Eh?" closely scanning Maurice's white face. "Well, well! is it you, Monsieur Carewe?"
"Lieutenant von Mitter?" cried Maurice, dropping the dog, who by now had grasped the meaning of it all. "You came just in time!"
They shook hands.
"I'll lay odds that you put up a good fight," the Lieutenant said, pleasantly. "Curse these students! If I had my way I'd coop them all up in their pest-hole of a university and blow them into eternity."
"And how did the dog come in this part of the town?" asked Maurice, picking up his hat.
"He was with her Royal Highness. This is charity afternoon. She drives about giving alms to the poor, and when she enters a house the dog stands at the entrance to await her return. She came out of another door and forgot the dog. Max there remembered him only when we were several blocks away. A dozen or so of those rascally students stood opposite us when we stopped here. It flashed on me in a minute why the dog did not follow us. And we came back at a cut, leaving her Highness with no one but the groom. Max, take the dog to her Highness, and tell her that it is Monsieur Carewe who is to be thanked."
Maurice blushed. "Say nothing of my part in the fracas. It was nothing at all."
"Don't be modest, my friend," said the cuirassier, laughing, while his comrade dismounted, took the dog under his arm, and made off. "This is one chance in a lifetime. Her Royal Highness will insist on thanking you personally. O, I know Mademoiselle's caprices. And there's your hat, crushed all out of shape. Truly, you are unfortunate with your headgear."
"It's felt," said Maurice, slapping it against his leg. "No harm done to the hat. Well, good day to you, Lieutenant, and thanks. I must be off."
"Nay, nay!" cried the Lieutenant. "Wait a moment. `There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood --' How does that line go? I was educated in England and speak English as I do my mother tongue--"
"Won't you let me go?" asked Maurice. "Look at my clothes."
"You ought to be thankful that they are dry this time. Come; you'll have a good story to carry back to Vienna. Princesses do not eat people."
"No," said Maurice.
"Ye gods, listen to that! One would think by the tone of your voice that you wished they did!"
There was no resisting this good humor; and Maurice wanted only an excuse to wait. He sat down on the steps, sucked the knuckles of his hand, and contemplated the grin on the cuirassier's face.
"I like you," said the Lieutenant; "I like your sangfroid. The palace is a devil of a dull place, and a new face is a positive relief. I suppose you know that affairs here are bad; no honesty anywhere. Everybody has his hands tied. The students know this, and do as they please. Think of two hundred gendarmes in the city, and an affair like this takes place without one of them turning up!
"I tell you frankly that it is all I can do to withhold the edge of my saber when I meet those students. Last night they held a noisy flambeau procession around the Hohenstaufenplatz, knowing full well that the king had had another stroke and quiet was necessary. They would have waked the dead. I have an idea that I forgot to use the flat of my sword; at least, the hospital report confirms my suspicions. Ah, here comes Max."
"Her Royal Highness desires to thank Monsieur Carewe, and commands that he be brought to her carriage."
Lieutenant von Mitter smiled, and Maurice stood up and brushed himself. The troopers sprang into the saddle and started on a walk, with Maurice bringing up behind on foot. The thought of meeting the princess, together with his recent exertions, created havoc with his nerves. When he arrived at the royal carriage, his usual coolness forsook him. He fumbled with his hat, tongue-tied. He stood in the Presence.
"Monsieur," said the Voice, "I thank you with all my heart for your gallant service. Poor, poor dog!"
"It was nothing, your Highness; any man would have done the same thing." The red in the wheel-spokes bothered his eyes.
"No, no! you must not belittle it."
"If it had not been for Lieutenant von Mitter--"
"Whither were you going, Monsieur?" interrupted the Voice.
"Nowhere; that is, I was going toward my hotel."
"Yes, your Highness."
"Step into the carriage, Monsieur;" the Voice had the ring of command. "I will put you down there. It is the least that I can do to show my gratitude."
"I--I to ride with your Highness?" he stammered. "O, no! I--that is--it would scarcely be--"
"You are not afraid of me, Monsieur?" with a smile which, though it had a bit of the rogue in it, was rather sad. She moved to the other side of the seat and put the dog on the rug at her feet. "Perhaps you are proud? Well, Monsieur, I too am proud; so proud that I promise never to forgive you if you refuse to gratify my wish."
"I was not thinking of myself, your Highness, or rather I was. I am not presentable. Look at me; my hat is out of shape, my clothes dusty, and I dare say that my face needs washing."
The Presence replied to this remarkable defense with laughter, laughter in which Maurice detected an undercurrent of bitterness.
"Monsieur Carewe, you are not acquainted with affairs in Bleiberg, or you would know that I am a nobody. When I pass through the streets I attract little attention, I receive no homage. Enter: I command it."
"If your Highness commands--"
"I do command it," imperiously. "And you would have pleased me more fully if you had accepted the invitation and not obeyed the command."
"I withdraw all objections," he said hastily, "and accept the invitation."
"That is better," the Voice said.
Maurice, still uncovered, sat down on the front seat.
"Not there, Monsieur; beside me. Etiquette does not permit you to ride in front of me."
As he took the vacant place beside her he felt a fire in his cheeks. The Voice and Presence were disquieting. As the groom touched the horses, Maurice was sensible of her sleeve against his, and he drew away. The Presence appeared unmindful.
"And you recognize me?" she asked.
"Yes, your Highness." He tried to remember what he had said to her that day in the archbishop's garden. Two or three things came back and the color remounted his cheeks.
"Have you forgotten what you said to me?"
"I dare say I was impertinent," vaguely.
"Ah, you have forgotten, then!"
In all his life he never felt so ill at ease. To what did she refer? That he would be proud to be her friend? That if the princess was as beautiful as the maid he could pass judgment?
"Yes, you have forgotten. Do you not remember that you offered to be my friend?" She read him through and through, his embarrassment, the tell-tale color in his cheeks. She laughed, and there was nothing but youth in the laughter. "Certainly you are afraid of me."
"I confess I am," he said. "I can not remember all I said to you."
Suddenly she, too, remembered something, and it caused the red of the rose to ripple from her throat to her eyes. "Poor dog! Not that they hated him, but because I love him!" Tears started to her eyes. "See, Monsieur Carewe; princesses are human, they weep and they love. Poor dog! My playmate and my friend. But for you they might have killed him. Tell me how it happened." She knew, but she wanted to hear the story from his own lips.
His narrative was rather disjointed, and he slipped in von Mitter as many times as possible, thinking to do that individual a good turn. Perhaps she noticed it, for at intervals she smiled. During the telling he took out his handkerchief, wiped the dog's head with it, and wound it tightly about the injured leg. The dog knew; he wagged his tail.
How handsome and brave, she thought, as she observed the face in profile. Not a day had passed during the fortnight gone that she had not conjured up some feature of that intelligent countenance; sometimes it had been the eyes, sometimes the chin and mouth, sometimes the shapely head. It was wrong; but this little sin was so sweet. She had never expected to see him again. He had come and gone, and she had thought that the beginning and the end. Ah, if only she were not a princess! If only some hand would sweep aside those insurmountable barriers called birth and policy! To be free, to be the mistress of one's heart, one's dreams, one's desires!
"And you did it all alone," she said, softly; "all alone."
"O, I had the advantage; I was not expected. It was all over before they knew what had happened."
"And you had the courage to take a poor dog's part? Did you know whose dog it was?"
"Yes, your Highness, I recognized him."
A secret gladness stole into her heart, and to cover the flame which again rose to her cheeks, she bent and smoothed the dog's head. This gave Maurice an opportunity to look at her. What a beautiful being she was! He was actually sitting beside her, breathing the same air, listening to her voice. She exhaled a delicate perfume such as incorporates itself in persons of high degree and becomes a natural emanation, an incense vague and indescribable. He felt that he was gazing on the culmination of youth, beauty, and elegance. . . Yes, Fitzgerald was right. To beggar one's self for love; honor and life, and all to the winds if only love remained.
Presently she straightened, and he centered his gaze on the back of the groom.
"Monsieur, place your hat upon your head," smiling. "We have entered the Strasse, and I should not like to embarrass you with the attention of the citizens."
He put on his hat. The impulse came to tell her all that he knew in regard to the kingdom's affairs; but his voice refused its offices. Besides, it was too late; the carriage was rolling into the Platz, and in a moment more it drew up before the terrace of the Continental Hotel. Maurice stepped out and bared his head.
"This evening, Monsieur, at nine, I shall expect to see you at the archbishop's reception to the corps diplomatique." A hand was extended toward him. He did not know what to do about it. "I am offering you my hand to kiss, Monsieur Carewe; it is a privilege which I do not extend to all."
As he touched it to his lips, he was sure that a thousand pairs of eyes were centered on him. The truth is, there were less than one hundred. It was the first time in many months that the Crown Princess had stopped before the Continental Hotel. To the guests it was an event; and some even went as far as to whisper that the handsome young man was Prince Frederick, incognito.
"God save your Royal Highness," said Maurice, at loss for other words. He released her hand and stepped back.
"Until this evening, then, Monsieur;" and the royal barouche rolled away.
"Who loves me, loves my dog," said Maurice, as he sped to his room.