The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter XVIII. A Minor Chord and a Change of Movement
Marshal Kampf, wrapt in his military cloak, with the peak of his cap drawn over his eyes, sat on one of the rustic benches in the archbishop's gardens and reflected. The archbishop had announced an informal levee, the first since the king's illness. He had impressed the Marshal with the fact that his presence was both urgent and necessary. Disturbed as he was by the unusual command, the Marshal had arrived an hour too early. Since the prelate would not rise until nine, the Marshal told the valet that he would wait in the gardens.
An informal levee, he mused. What was the meaning of it? Had that master of craft and silence found a breach in the enemy's fortifications? He rubbed the chill from his nose, crossed and re-crossed his legs and teetered till the spurs on his boots set up a tuneful jingle.
So far as he himself was concerned, he was not worried. The prelate knew his views and knew that he would stand or fall with them. He had never looked for benefits, as did those around him. He had offered what he had without hope of reward, because he had considered it his duty. And, after all, what had the Osian done that he should be driven to this ignominious end? His motives never could be questioned; each act had been in some way for the country's good. Every king is a usurper to those who oppose him.
Would the kingdom be bettered in having a queen against whom the confederation itself was opposed? Would it not be adding a twofold burden to the one? The kingdom was at peace with those countries from which it had most to fear. Was it wise to antagonize them? Small independent states were independent only by courtesy. Again, why had Austria contrived to place an alien on the throne, in face of popular sentiment? Would Austria's interests have been less safe in the advent of rightful succession? Up to now, what had Austria gained by ignoring the true house? Outwardly nothing, but below the surface? Who could answer?
For eleven years he had tried to discover the secret purpose of Austria, but, like others, he had failed; and the Austrian minister was less decipherable than the "Chinese puzzle." He was positive that none of the arch-conspirators knew; they were blinded by self-interest. And the archbishop? The Marshal rubbed his nose again, not, however, because it was cold. Did any one know what was going on behind the smiling mask which the reticent prelate showed to the world? The Marshal poked his chin above his collar, and the wrinkles fell away from his gray eyes.
The sky was clear and brilliant, and a tonic from the forests sweetened the rushing air. The lake was ruffled out of its usual calm, and rolled and galloped along the distant shores and flashed on the golden sands. Above the patches of red and brown and yellow the hills and mountains stood out in bold, decided lines.
Water fowl swept along the marshes. The doves in twos and threes fluttered down to the path, strutted about in their peculiarly awkward fashion, and doubtfully eyed the silent gray figure on the bench, as if to question his right to be there this time of the morning, their trysting hour. Presently the whole flock came down, and began cooing and waltzing at the Marshal's feet. He soon discovered the cause.
Her Royal Highness was coming through the opening in the hedgerow which separated the two confines. She carried a basket on her arm, and the bulldog followed at her heels, holding his injured leg in the air, and limping on the remaining three. At the sight of her the doves rose and circled above her head. She smiled and threw into the air handful after handful of cake and bread crumbs. In their eagerness the doves alighted on her shoulders, on the rim of the basket, and even on the broad back of the dog, who was too sober to give attention to this seeming indignity. He kept his eye on his mistress's skirts, moved when she moved, and stopped when she stopped. A gray-white cloud enveloped them.
The Marshal, with a curious sensation in his heart, observed this exquisite, living picture. He was childless; and though he was by nature undemonstrative, he was very fond of this youth. Her cheeks were scarlet, her rosy lips were parted in excitement, and her eyes glistened with pleasure. With all her twenty years, she was but ten in fancy; a woman, yet a child, unlettered in worldly wit, wise in her love of nature. Not until she had thrown away the last of the crumbs did she notice the Marshal. He rose and bowed.
"Good morning, your Highness. I am very much interested in your court. And do you hold it every morning?"
"Even when it rains," she said, smiling. "I am so glad to see you; I wanted to talk to you last night, but I could not find the opportunity. Let me share the bench with you."
And youth and age sat down together. The bulldog planted himself in the middle of the path and blinked at his sworn enemy. The Marshal had no love for him, and he was well aware of it; at present, an armistice.
The princess gazed at the rollicking waters, at her doves, thence into the inquiring gray eyes of the old soldier.
"Do you remember," she said, "how I used to climb on your knees, ever so long ago, and listen to your fairy stories?"
"Eh! And is it possible that your Highness remembers?" wrinkles of delight gathering in his cheeks. "But why `ever so long ago'? It was but yesterday. And your Highness remembers!"
"I am like my father; I never forget!" She looked toward the waters again. "I can recall only one story. It was about a princess who lost all her friends through the offices of a wicked fairy. I remember it because it was the only story you told me that had a sad ending. It was one of Andersen's. Her father and mother died, and the moment she was left alone her enemies set to work and toppled over her throne. She was cast out into the world, having no friend but a dog; but the dog always found something to eat, and protected her from giants and robbers and wolves.
"Many a time I thought of her, and cried because she was so unhappy. Well, she traveled from place to place, footsore and weary, but in her own country no one dared aid her, for fear of displeasing the wicked fairy, who at this time was all powerful. So she entered a strange land, where some peasants took her in, clothed and fed her, and gave her a staff and a flock of geese to tend. And day after day she guarded the flock, telling her sorrows to the dog, how she missed the dear ones and the home of her childhood.
"One day the reigning prince of this strange land passed by while hunting, and he saw the princess tending her geese. He made inquiries, and when he found that the beautiful goose-girl was a princess, he offered to marry her. She consented to become his wife, because she was too delicate to drudge. So she and her dog went to live at the palace. Once she was married the dog behaved strangely, whining softly, and refusing to be consoled. The prince was very kind to them both.
"Alas! It seems that when she left her own country the good fairy had lost all track of her, to find her when it was too late. The dog was a prince under a wicked spell, and when the spell fell away the princess knew that she loved him, and not her husband. She pined away and died. How many times I have thought of her, poor, lonely, fairy-tale princess!"
The old soldier blinked at the doves, and there was a furrow between his eyes. Yes; how well he remembered telling her that story. But, as she repeated it, it was clothed with a strange significance. Somehow, he found himself voiceless; he knew not how to reply.
"Monsieur," she said suddenly, "tell me, what has my poor father done that these people should hate him and desire his ruin?"
"He has been kind to them, my child," his gaze still riveted on the doves; "that is all. He has given them beautiful parks, he has made them a beautiful city. A king who thinks of his people's welfare is never understood. And ignorant and ungrateful people always hate those to whom they are under obligations. It is the way of the world."
"And--and you, Marshal?" timidly.
"Yes. They whisper that--that--O, Marshal, is it you who will forsake us in our need? I have heard many things of late which were not intended for my ears. My father and I, we are so alone. I have never known the comradeship of young people; I have never had that which youth longs for--a confidant of my own age. The young people I know serve me simply for their own ends, and not because they love me.
"I have never spoken thus before to-day, save to this dog. He has been my confidant; but he can not speak except with his kind old eyes, and he can not understand as I would have him. And they hate even him because they know that I love him. Poor dog!
"What my father has done has always been wrong in his own eyes, but he sinned for my sake, and God will forgive him. He gave up the home he loved for my sake. O, that I had known and understood! I was only six. We are so alone; we have no place to go, no friends save two, and they are helpless. And now I am to make a sacrifice for him to repay him for all he has done for me. I have promised my hand to one I do not love; even he forsakes me. But love is not the portion of princesses. Love to them is a fairy story. To secure my father's throne I have sacrificed my girlhood dreams. Ah! and they were so sweet and dear."
She put a hand to her throat as if something had tightened there. "Marshal, I beg of you to tell me the truth, the truth! Is my father dying? Is he? He--they will not tell me the truth. And I . . . never to hear his voice again! The truth, for pity's sake!" She caught at his hands and strove to read his eyes. "For pity's sake!"
He drew his breath deeply. He dared not look into her eyes for fear she might see the tears in his; so he bent hastily and pressed her hands to his lips. But in his heart he knew that his promise to the dead was gone with the winds, and that he would shed the last drop of blood in his withered veins for the sake of this sad, lonely child.
"Your father, my child, will never stand up straight again," he said. "As for the rest, that is in the hands of God. But I swear to you that this dried-up old heart beats only for you. I will stand or fall with you, in good times or bad." And he rubbed his nose more fiercely than ever. "Had I a daughter-- But there! I have none."
"My heart is breaking," she said, with a little sob. She sank back, her head drooped to the arm of the bench, and she made no effort to stem the flood of tears. "I have no mother, and now my father is to leave me. And I love him so, I love him so! He has sacrificed all his happiness to secure mine--in vain. I laugh and smile because he asks me to, and all the while my heart is breaking, breaking."
At this juncture the doves rose hurriedly. The Marshal discovered the archbishop's valet making toward him.
"Monsieur the Marshal, Monseigneur breakfasts and requests you to join him."
"Immediately;" and the Marshal rose. He placed his hand on the dark head. "Keep up your heart, my child," he said, "and we shall see if I have grown too old for service." He squared his shoulders and followed the valet, who viewed the scene with a valet's usual nonchalance. When the Marshal reached the steps to the side entrance, he looked back. The dog had taken his place, and the girl had buried her face in his neck. A moment later the old soldier was ushered into the archbishop's presence, but neither with fear nor uneasiness in his heart.
"Ah ! Good morning, Marshal," said the prelate. "Be seated. Did you not find it chilly in the gardens?"
"Not the least. It is a fine day. I have just left her Royal Highness."
The prelate arched his eyebrows, and an interrogation shot out from under them.
"Yes," answered the observant soldier. "My heart has ever been hers; this time it is my hand and brain."
The prelate's egg spoon remained poised in mid-air; then it dropped with a clatter into the cup! But a moment gone he had held a sword in his hand; he was disarmed.
"I have promised to stand and fall with her."
"Stand and fall? Why not 'or'?" with a long, steadfast gaze.
"Did I say 'and'? Well, then," stolidly, "perhaps that is the word I meant to use. If I do the one I shall certainly do the other."
The archbishop absently stirred his eggs.
"God is witness," said the Marshal, "I have always been honest."
"Yes; honest and neutral."
"But a man, a lonely man like myself, can not always master the impulses of the heart; and I have surrendered to mine."
The listener turned to some documents which lay beside the cup, and idly fingered them. "I am glad; I am very glad. I have always secretly admired you; and to tell the truth, I have feared you most of all--because you are honest."
The Marshal shifted his saber around and drew his knees together. "I return the compliment," frankly. "I have never feared you; I have distrusted you."
"And why distrusted?"
"Because Leopold of Osia would never have forsaken his birthright, nor looked toward a throne, had you not pointed the way and coveted the archbishopric."
"I wished only to make him great;" but the prelate lowered his eyes.
"And share his greatness," was the shrewd rejoinder. "I am an old man, and frankness in old age is pardonable. There are numbers of disinterested men in the world, but unfortunately they happen to be dead. O, I do not blame you; there is human nature in most of us. But the days of Richelieus and Mazarins are past. The Church is simply the church, and is no longer the power behind the throne. I have served the house of Auersperg for fifty years, that is to say, since I was sixteen; I had hoped to die in the service. Perhaps my own reason for distrusting you has not been disinterested."
"And as I now stand I shall die neither in the service of the house of Auersperg nor of Osia. It is not the princess; it is the lonely girl."
"I need not tell you," said the prelate quietly, "that I am in Bleiberg only for that purpose. And since we are together, I will tell you this: Madame the duchess will never sit upon this throne. To-day I am practically regent, with full powers from his Majesty. I have summoned von Wallenstein and Mollendorf for a purpose which I shall make known to you." He held up two documents, and gently waving them: "These contain the dismissal of both gentlemen, together with my reasons. There were three; one I shall now destroy because it has suddenly become void." He tore it up, turned, and flung the pieces into the grate.
The Marshal glanced instinctively at his shoulder straps, and saw that they had come very near to oblivion.
"There is nothing more, Marshal," went on the prelate. "What I had to say to you has slipped my mind. Under the change of circumstances, it might embarrass you to meet von Wallenstein and Mollendorf. You have spoken frankly, and in justice to you I will return in kind. Yes, in the old days I was ambitious; but God has punished me through those I love. I shall leave to you the selection of a new Colonel of the cuirassiers."
"What! and Beauvais, too?" exclaimed the Marshal.
"Yes. My plans require it. I have formed a new cabinet, which will meet to-night at eight. I shall expect you to be present."
The two old men rose. Suddenly, a kindly smile broke through the austereness of the prelate's countenance, and he thrust out his hand; the old soldier met it.
"Providence always watches over the innocent," said the prelate, "else we would have been still at war. Good morning."
The Marshal returned home, thoughtful and taciturn. What would be the end?
Ten minutes after the Marshal's departure, von Wallenstein and Mollendorf entered the prelate's breakfast room.
"Good morning, Messieurs," said the churchman, the expression on his face losing its softness, and the glint of triumph stealing into his keen eyes. "I am acting on behalf of his Majesty this morning," presenting a document to each. "Observe them carefully." He turned and left the room. The archbishop had not only eaten a breakfast, he had devoured a cabinet.
Count von Wallenstein watched the retreating figure of the prelate till the door closed behind it; then he smiled at Mollendorf, who had not the courage to return it, and who stared at the parchment in his hand as if it were possessed of basilisk eyes.
"Monseigneur," said the count, as he glanced through the contents of the document, "has forestalled me. Well, well; I do not begrudge him his last card. He has played it; let us go."
"Perhaps," faltered Mollendorf, "he has played his first card. What are you going to do?"
"Remain at home and wait. And I shall not have long to wait. The end is near."
"Count, I tell you that the archbishop is not a man to play thus unless something strong were behind him. You do wrong not to fear him."
Von Wallenstein recalled the warning of the Colonel of the cuirassiers. "Nevertheless, we are too strong to fear him."
"Monseigneur is in correspondence with Austria," said the minister of police, quietly.
"You said nothing of this before," was the surprised reply.
"It was only this morning that I learned it."
The count's gaze roamed about the room, and finally rested on the charred slips of paper in the grate. He shrugged.
"If he corresponds with Austria it is too late," he said. "Come, let us go." He snapped his fingers in the air, and Mollendorf followed him from the room.
* * * * * *
The princess still remained on the rustic bench; her head was bowed, but her tears were dried.
"O, Bull," she whispered, "and you and I shall soon be all alone!"
A few doves fluttered about her; the hills flamed beneath the chill September sky, the waters sang and laughed, but she saw not nor heard.