The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter XV. In Which Fortune Becomes Careless and Prodigal
On the night prior to the arrival of Maurice in Bleiberg, there happened various things of moment.
At midnight the chancellor left the palace, after having witnessed from a window the meeting of the cuirassiers and the students, and sought his bed; but his sleep was burdened with troubled dreams. The clouds, lowering over his administration, thickened and darkened. How many times had he contemplated resigning his office, only to put aside the thought and toil on?
Defeat in the end was to be expected, but still there was ever that star of hope, a possible turn in affairs which would carry him on to victory. Victory is all the sweeter when it seems impossible. Prince Frederick had disappeared, no one knew where, the peasant girl theory could no longer be harbored, and the wedding was but three days hence. The Englishman had not stepped above the horizon, and the telegrams to the four ends of the world returned unanswered. Thus, the chancellor stood alone; the two main props were gone from under. As he tossed on his pillows he pondered over the apparent reticence and indifference of the archbishop.
All was still in the vicinity of the palaces. Sentinels paced noiselessly within the enclosures. In the royal bedchamber the king was resting quietly, and near by, on a lounge, the state physician dozed. The Captain of the household troop of cuirassiers nodded in the ante-room.
Only the archbishop remained awake. He sat in his chamber and wrote. Now and then he would moisten his lips with watered wine. Sometimes he held the pen in midair, and peered into the shapeless shadows cast by the tapers, his broad forehead shining and deep furrows between his eyes. On, on he wrote. Perhaps the archbishop was composing additional pages to his memoirs, for occasionally his thin lips relaxed into an impenetrable smile.
There was little quiet in the lower town, especially in the locality of the university. Old Stuler's was filled with smoke, students and tumult. Ill feeling ran high. There were many damaged heads, for the cuirassiers had not been niggard with their sabers.
A student walked backward and forward on the stage, waving wildly with his hands to command attention. It was some time before he succeeded.
"Fellow-students, brothers of freedom and comrades," he began. "All this must come to an end, and that at once. Our personal liberty is endangered. Our rights are being trodden under foot. Our ancient privileges are being laughed at. It must end." This declaration was greeted by shouts, sundry clattering of pewter lids and noisy rappings of earthenware on the tables. "Have we no rights as students? Must we give way to a handful of beggarly mercenaries? Must we submit to the outlawing of our customs and observances? What! We must not parade because the king does not like to be disturbed? And who are the cuirassiers?" Nobody answered. Nobody was expected to answer. "They are Frenchmen of hated memory--Swiss, Prussians, with Austrian officers. Are we or are we not an independent state? If independent, shall we stand by and see our personal liberties restricted? No! I say no!
"Let us petition to oust these vampires, who not only rob us of our innocent amusements, but who are fed by our taxes. What right had Austria to dictate our politics? What right had she to disavow the blood and give us these Osians? O, my brothers, where are the days of Albrecht III of glorious memory? He acknowledged our rights. He was our lawful sovereign. He understood and loved us." This burst of sentiment was slightly exaggerative, if the history of that monarch is to be relied on; but the audience was mightily pleased with this recollection. It served to add to their distemper and wrath against the Osian puppet. "And where are our own soldiers, the soldiers of the kingdom? Moldering away in the barracks, unnoticed and forgotten. For the first time in the history of the country foreigners patrol the palaces. Our soldiers are nobodies. They hold no office at court save that of Marshal, and his voice is naught. Yet the brunt of the soldier's life falls on them. They watch at the frontiers, tireless and vigilant, while the mercenaries riot and play. Brothers, the time has come for us to act. The army is with us, and so are the citizens. Let ours be the glory of touching the match. We are brave and competent. We are drilled. We lack not courage. Let us secretly arm and watch for the opportunity to strike a blow for our rights. Confusion to the Osians, and may the duchess soon come into her own!"
He jumped from the stage, and another took his place; the haranguing went on. The orators were serious and earnest; they believed themselves to be patriots, pure and simple, when in truth they were experiencing the same spirit of revolt as the boy whose mother had whipped him for making an unnecessary noise, or stealing into the buttery.
While the excitement was at its height, a man, somewhat older than the majority of the students, entered the bar-room from the street, and lounged heavily against the railing. His clothes were soiled and wrinkled, blue circles shadowed his eyes, which were of dull jet, the corners of his mouth drooped dejectedly, and his oily face, covered with red stubble, gave evidences of a prolonged debauch.
"Wine, Stuler, wine!" he called, laying down a coin, which gleamed dimly yellow in the opalescent light. "And none of your devilish vinegars and scums."
Stuler pounced on the coin and rubbed it between his palms. "Gold, Johann, gold?"
"Aye, gold; and the last of a pocketful, curse it! What's this noise about?" with a gesture, toward the hall.
"The boys were in the Platz and had a brush with those damned cuirassiers. They'll play a harder game yet." Stuler always took sides with the students, on business principles; they constituted his purse. "Tokayer?"
"No; champagne. Aye, these damned cuirassiers shall play a hard game ere the week is done, or my name is not Johann Kopf. They kicked me out of the palace grounds yesterday; me, me, me!" hammering the oak with his fist.
"Von Mitter, the English-bred dog! I'll kill him one of these days. Is it play to-night, or are they serious?" nodding again toward the hall.
"Go in," said Stuler, "and look at some of those heads; a look will answer the purpose."
Johann followed this advice. The picture he saw was one which agreed with the idea that had come into his mind. He returned to the bar-room. and drank his wine thirstily, refilled the glass and emptied it. Stuler shook his head. Johann was in a bad way when he gulped wine instead of sipping it. Yet it was always so after a carouse.
"Where have you been keeping yourself the past week?" he asked. If the students were his purse, Johann was his budget of news.
"You ask that?" surlily. "You knew I had money; you knew that I was off somewhere spending it--God knows where, I don't. Another bottle of wine. There's enough left from the gold to pay for it."
Stuler complied. Johann's thirst seemed in no way assuaged; but soon the sullen expression, the aftermath of his spree, was replaced by one of reckless jollity. His eyes began to sparkle.
"A great game, Stuler; they're playing a great game, and you and I will be in at the reaping. The town is quiet, you say? The troops have ceased murmuring, eh? A lull that comes before the storm. And when it breaks--and break it will!--gay times for you and me. There will be sacking. I have the list of those who lean toward the Osians. There will be loot, old war dog!"
Stuler smiled indulgently; Johann was beginning to feel the wine. Perhaps he was to learn something. "Yes, 'twill be a glorious day."
"A week hence, and the king goes forth a bankrupt."
"If he lives," judiciously.
"Dead or alive, it matters not which; he goes."
"And the wedding? What is it I hear about Prince Frederick and the peasant girl?"
Johann laughed. "There will be no wedding."
"And the princess?"
"A pretty morsel, a tidbit for the king that is to be."
"The king that--eh, Johann, are you getting drunk so soon?" Stuler exclaimed. "I know of no king--"
Johann reached over and caught the innkeeper's wrist. The grasp was no gentle one. "Listen, that was a slip of the tongue. Repeat it, and that for your life! Do you understand, my friend?"
"Do you understand?" fiercely.
"Yes, yes!" Stuler wiped his face with his apron.
"Good, if you understand. It was naught but a slip of the tongue," nonchalantly. "In a little week, my friend, your till will have no vulgar silver in it; gold, yellow gold."
"And the duchess?" with hesitance. The budget of news to-night was not of the usual kind.
Johann did not answer, save by a shrug.
The perturbation of the old man was so manifestly beyond control that he could not trust his legs. He dropped on the stool, giving his grizzled head a negative shake. "I would that you had made no slip of the tongue, Johann," he murmured. "Gott, what is going on? The princess was not to wed, to be sure, but the duchess passed --a king besides--"
"Silence!" enjoined Johann. "Stuler, I am about to venture on a daring enterprise, which, if successful, will mean plenty of gold. Come with me into your private office, where we shall not be interrupted nor overheard." He vaulted the bar. Stuler looked undecided. "Come!" commanded Johann. With another shake of his head Stuler took down the tallow dip, unlocked the door, and bade Johann pass in. He caught up another bottle and glass and followed. Without a word he filled the glass and set it down before Johann, who raised it and drank, his beady eyes flashing over the rim of the glass and compelling the innkeeper to withdraw his gaze.
"Well?" said Stuler, uneasily.
"I need you." Johann finished his glass with moderate slowness. "Your storehouse on the lake is empty?"
"I shall want it, two nights from this, in case Madame the duchess does not conquer the Englishman. I shall want two fellows who will ask no questions, but who will follow my instructions to the letter. It is an abduction."
"A nasty business," was Stuler's comment. "You have women to thank for your present occupation, Johann."
"Stuler, you are a fool. It is not a woman; it is a crown."
"Eh?" Stuler's eyes bulged.
"A crown. The duchess may remain a duchess. Who is master in Bleiberg to-day? At whose word the army moves or stands? At whose word the Osians fall or reign? On whom does the duchess rely? Who is king in deed, if not in fact? Who will find means to liquidate the kingdom's indebtedness, whoever may be the creditor? Pah! the princess may marry, but the groom will not be Prince Frederick. The man she will marry will be the husband of a queen, and he will be a king behind a woman's skirts. It is what the French call a coup d'etat. She will be glad to marry; there is no alternative. She will submit, if only that her father may die in peace."
"And this king?" in a whisper.
"You are old, Stuler; you remember many things of the past. Do you recollect a prince of a noble Austrian house by the name of Walmoden, once an aide to the emperor, who was cashiered from the army and exiled for corresponding with France?"
Stuler's hand shook as he brushed his forehead. "Yes, I recollect. He fought against the Prussians in the Franco- Prussian war, then disappeared, to be heard of again as living in a South American republic. But what has he to do with all this? Ah, Johann, this is deep water."
"For those who have not learned to swim. You will aid me? A thousand crowns--two hundred pieces of gold like that which has just passed from my pocket into yours. It is politics."
"But the sacking of the town?"
"A jest. If Madame the duchess conquers the Englishman, the king that is to be will pay her. Then, if she wages war Austria can say nothing for defending ourselves."
"And Walmoden?" Stuler struck his forehead with his fist as if to pound it into a state of lucidity. "Where is he? It is a stone wall; I can see nothing."
"Beauvais!" Stuler half rose from his chair, but sank again.
"Exactly. This play, for some reason unexplained, is the price of his reestablishment into the graces of the noble Hapsburgs. Between us, I think the prince is playing a game for himself. But who shall blame him?"
"The devil! I thought Austria was very favorable to the Osian house."
"Favorable or not, it is nothing to us."
"Well, well, it's a thousand crowns," philosophically.
"That's the sentiment," laughed Johann. "It is not high treason, it is not lese majeste; it is not a crime; it is a thousand crowns. Votre sante, as the damned French say!" swallowing what was left of the wine. "And then, it is purely patriotic in us," with a deceitful smile.
"The storehouse is yours, and the men. Now tell me how 'tis to be played."
"Where does her Royal Highness go each Thursday evening, accompanied by her eternal cuirassiers, von Mitter and Scharfenstein?"
"Where but to see her old nurse Elizabeth? But two men will not be enough. Von Mitter and Scharfenstein--"
"Will as usual remain at the carriage. But what's to prevent the men from gaining entrance by the rear?--carrying off her Highness that way, passing through the alley and making off, to be a mile away before the cuirassiers even dream of the attempt?"
"After all, I'd rather the duchess."
"We can not all be kings and queens." Johann got up and slapped Stuler familiarly on the shoulder. "Forget not the gold, the yellow gold; little heaps of it to finger, to count, and to spend."
Stuler's eyes gleamed phosphorescently. There was the strain of the ancient marauder in his veins; gold easily gotten. He opened the door, and Johann passed out, swaying. The wine was taking hold of him. He turned into the hall, while Stuler busied himself with the spigots. Some one discovered the spy, and called him by name; it was caught up by others, and there were numerous calls for a speech.
As a socialist Johann was well known about the lower town. Besides, five years gone, he himself had been a student and a brother of freedom. He had fought a dozen successful duels, and finally had been expelled from the university for beating a professor who had objected to his conduct in the presence of ladies. Other ill reports added to his popularity. To be popular in this whimsical world of ours, one has either to be very good or very bad. Johann was not unwilling to speak. Stuler had given him the cue; the cuirassiers. His advice was secretly to arm and hold in readiness. As this was the substance of the other speeches, Johann received his meed of applause.
"And let us not forget the bulldog; let us kill him, too," cried one of the auditors; "the prodigal bulldog, who has lived on our fatted calves."
This was unanimously adopted. The bulldog was not understood; and he smacked of the English. Then, too, the bulldog roamed too freely in the royal enclosures; and, until late years, trespassers fared badly. The students considered that their privileges extended everywhere; the dog, not being conversant with these privileges, took that side which in law is called the benefit of a doubt.
After his speech Johann retired to the bar-room. What he desired most of all was a replenished purse. Popular he was; but the students knew his failings, among which stood prominently that of a forgetful borrower. They would buy him drinks, clothes and food, if need be, but they would not lend him a stiver. And he could not borrow from Stuler, whose law was only to trust. Johann gambled, and wine always brought back the mad fever for play. The night before he had lost rather heavily, and he wanted to recover his losses. Rouge-et-noir had pinched him; he would be revenged on the roulette. All day long combinations and numbers danced before his eyes. He had devised several plans by which to raise money, but these had fallen through. Suddenly he smiled, and beckoned to Stuler.
"Stuler, how much will you advance me," he asked, "on a shotgun worth one hundred crowns?"
"A shotgun worth one hundred crowns? Ten."
Johann made a negative gesture. "Fifty or none. You can sell it for seventy-five in the morning. So could I, only I want the money to-night."
"If you want wine--" began Stuler.
"I want money."
Stuler scratched his nose. "Bring the gun to me. If it is worth what you say, I'll see what I can do."
"In an hour;" and Johann went out. A cold thin rain was falling, and a dash of it in the face had a cooling effect. Somehow, the exhilaration of the wine was gone, and his mood took a sullen turn. Money! he was ever in need of money. He cursed his ill luck. He cursed the cause of it--drink. But for drink he would not have been plain Johann Kopf, brawler, outcast, spy, disowned by his family and all save those who could use him. He remained standing in the doorway, brooding.
At last he drew his collar about his throat and struck off, a black shadow in a bank of gray. When he reached that part of the street opposite the Grand Hotel, he stopped and sought shelter under an awning. The night patrol came clattering down the street. It passed quickly, and soon all was still again. Johann stepped out and peered up and down. The street was deserted. All the hotel windows were in gloom, save a feeble light which beamed from the office windows.
Would it be robbery? He had not yet stooped to that. But he could hear the ivory ball clatter as it fell into the lucky numbers. He had a premonition that he would win if he stuck to a single combination. He would redeem the gun, replace it, and no one would be any the wiser. If his numbers failed him. . . . . No matter. He determined to cross the Rubicon. He traversed the street and disappeared into the cavernous alley, shortly to loom up in the deserted courtyard of the hotel. He counted the windows on the first floor and stopped at the fourth. That was the window he must enter. Noiselessly he crept along the walls, stopping now and then to listen. There was no sound except the monotonous dripping of the rain, which was growing thinner and colder.
Presently he came across the ladder he was seeking. He raised it to the required height, and once more placed his hand to his ear. Silence. He mounted the rounds to the window, which he found unfastened. In another moment he was in the room. Not an object could he see, so deep was the darkness. If he moved without light he was likely to stumble, and heydey to his fifty crowns, not to say his liberty for many days to come. He carefully drew the blinds and struck a match. The first object which met his gaze was a fallen candle. This he lit and when the glare of the flame softened, all the corners of the room stood out. Nowhere was there any sign of a gun. He gave vent to a half-muttered curse. Some one had pilfered the gun, or the proprietor was keeping it until the Englishman returned from the duchy. But he remembered that there were two guns, one of which the Englishman did not use in the hunting expeditions.
So he began a thorough search. It meant fifty crowns, green baize and the whims of fortune. Cautiously he moved between the fallen chairs. He looked behind the bed, under the dresser, but without success. His hand closed savagely around the candle, and he swore inaudibly. He threw back the bed coverings, not that he expected to find anything, but because he could vent his rage on these silent, noiseless things. When he lifted the mattress it was then he took a deep breath and smiled. What he saw was a gun case. He drew it from under. It was heavy; his fifty crowns were inside. Next he picked up a candlestick and stuffed the candle into it, and laid a quilt against the threshold of the door so that no light would pierce the corridor.
"This is the gun the Englishman did not use in the hunting expeditions," he thought. "If it is out of repair, as he said it was, my fifty crowns are not so many pfennige. The devil! it must be a valuable piece of gunsmithing, to hide it under the bedclothes. Let me see if my crowns are for the picking."
He investigated forthwith. The hammers and the triggers worked smoothly. He unlocked the breech and held the nozzles toward the candle light --and again cursed. The barrels were clogged up. Notwithstanding, he plucked forth the cleaning-rod and forced it into one of the tubes. There was a slight resistance, and something fluttered to the floor and rolled about. The second tube was treated likewise, with the same result. Johann laughed silently. The fifty crowns were tangible; he could hear them jingling in his pocket, and a pretty music they made. He returned the leather case to its original place and devoted his attention to the cylinder-shaped papers on the floor.
For a quarter of an hour Johann remained seated on the floor, in the wavering candle light, forgetful of all save the delicate tracings of steel engraving, the red and green inks, the great golden seal, the signatures, the immensity of the ciphers which trailed halfway across each crackling parchment. He counted sixteen of them in all. Four millions of crowns. . . . He was rich, rich beyond all his wildest dreams.
He rose, and restored the gun to its case. Fifty crowns? No, no! A hundred thousand, not a crown less; a hundred thousand! all thoughts of the green baize and the rattle of the roulette ball passed away. There was no need to seek fortune; she had come to him of her own free will. Wine, Gertrude of the opera, Paris and a life of ease; all these were his. A hundred thousand crowns, a hundred thousand florins, two hundred thousand francs, two hundred thousand marks! He computed in all monetary denominations; in all countries it was wealth.
Something rose and swelled in his throat, and he choked hysterically. A voice whispered "No, not a hundred thousand; four millions!" But reason, though it tottered, regained its balance, and he saw the utter futility of attempting to dispose of the orders on the government independently. His hands trembled; he could scarcely hold this vast treasure. Twice, in his haste to pocket the certificates, they slipped from his grasp and scattered. How those six syllables frolicked in his mind! A hundred thousand crowns!
He extinguished the candle and laid it on the floor, put the quilt on the bed, then climbed through the window, which he closed without mishap. He descended the ladder. As he reached the bottom round his heart gave a great leap. From the alley came the sound of approaching steps. Nearer and nearer they came; a shadow entered the courtyard and made straight for the door, which was but a few feet from the reclining ladder. The kitchen door opened and the burst of light revealed a belated serving maid. A moment passed, and all became dark again. But Johann felt a strange weakness in his knees, and a peculiar thrill at the roots of his hair. He dared not move for three or four minutes. But he waited in vain for other steps. He cursed the serving maid for the fright, disposed of the ladder, and sought the street. He directed his steps toward Stuler's.
"The pig of an Englishman was deeper than I thought. In the gun barrels, the gun barrels! If I had not wanted to play they would have been there yet! A hundred thousand crowns!"
It had ceased to rain, and a frost was congealing the moisture under foot. On the way back to Stuler's Johann slipped and fell several times; but he was impervious to pain, bruises were nothing. He was rich! He laughed; and from time to time thrust his hand into his vest to convince himself that he was not dreaming. To whom should he sell? To the Osians? To the duchess? To the king that was to be? Who would pay quickest the hundred thousand crowns? He knew. Aye, two hundred thousand would not be too much. The Englishman would send for the certificates, but his agent would not find them. The abduction? He would carry it through as he had promised. It was five thousand crowns in addition to his hundred thousand. He was rich! He shook his hand toward the inky sky, toward the palace, toward all that signified the past . . . . . A hundred thousand crowns!