The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter XIX. A Chance Ride in the Night
Maurice, who had wisely slept the larger part of the day, and amused himself at solitary billiards until dinner, came out on the terrace to smoke his after-dinner cigar. He watched the sun as, like a ball of rusted brass, it slid down behind the hills, leaving the glowing embers of a smoldering day on the hilltops. The vermilion deepened into charred umber, and soon the west was a blackened grate; another day vanished in ashes. The filmy golden pallor of twilight now blurred the landscape; the wind increased with a gayer, madder, keener touch; the lake went billowing in shadows of gray and black, and one by one the lamps of the city sprang up, vivid as sparks from an anvil. Now and again the thin, clear music of the band drifted across from the park. The fountain glimmered in the Platz, the cafes began to glitter, carriages rolled hither and thither. The city had taken on its colorful night.
"Well, here's another day gone," he mused, rubbing his elbow, which was yet stiff. "I am anxious to know what that sinner is doing. Has he pulled up stakes or has he stayed to get a whack at me? I hope he's gone; he's a bad Indian, and if anything, he'll want my scalp in his belt before he goes. Hang it! It seems that I have poked my head into every bear trap in the kingdom. I may not get out of the next one. How clever I was, to be sure! It all comes from loving the dramatic. I am a diplomat, but nobody would guess it at first sight. To talk to a man as I talked to him, and to threaten! He said I was young; I was, but I grow older every day. And the wise word now is, don't imitate the bull of the trestle," as he recalled an American cartoon which at that day was having vogue in the American colony in Vienna.
"I like adventure, I know, but I'm going to give the Colonel a wide berth. If he sees me first, off the board I go. Where will he go--to the duchy? I trust not; we both can not settle in that territory; it's too small. And yet I am bound to go back; it is not my promise so much as it is my cursed curiosity. By George!" rubbing his elbow gently. "And to think, Maurice, that you might not have witnessed this sunset but for a bit of fencing trickery. What a turn that picture of Inez gave me! I knew him in a second--and like the ass I was, I told him so. And to meet him here, almost a left-handed king; no wonder I did not recognize him.
"I should like to come in on Fitzgerald to-night. His father must have had a crazy streak in him somewhere. Four millions to throw away; humph! And who the deuce has those certificates?" He lolled against the parapet. "If I had four millions, and if Prince Frederick had disappeared for good. . . . Why are things so jumbled up, at sixes and sevens? We are all human beings; why should some be placed higher than others? A prince is no better than I am, and may be not half so good.
"Sometimes I like to get up high somewhere and look down on every one else; every one else looks so small that it's comforting. The true philosopher has no desire; he sits down and views the world as if he were not a part of it. Perhaps it is best so. Yes, I would like four millions and a principality. . . . Heigho! how bracing the air is, and what a night for a ride! I've a mind to exercise Madame's horse. A long lone ride on the opposite side of the lake, on the road to Italy; come, let's try it. Better that than mope."
He mounted to the veranda, and for the first time he noticed the suppressed excitement which lit the faces of those around him. Groups were gathered here and there, talking, gesticulating, and flourishing the evening papers. He moved toward the nearest group.
"The archbishop has dismissed the cabinet . . . crisis imminent."
"The Austrian minister has recalled his invitations to the embassy ball."
"The archbishop will not be able to form another cabinet."
"Count von Wallenstein . . . "
"Mollendorf and Beauvais, too--"
"The king is dying . . . The archbishop has been given full powers."
"The army will revolt unless Beauvais is recalled."
"And the Marshal says here . . ."
Maurice waited to hear no more, but climbed through the window into the office.
"By George, something has happened since last night. I must have an evening paper." He found one, and read an elaborate account of what had taken place during the day. Von Wallenstein had been relieved of the finance. Mollendorf of the police, Erzberg of foreign affairs, and Beauvais of his epaulettes. There remained only the archbishop, the chancellor and the Marshal. The editorial was virulent in its attack on the archbishop, blustered and threatened, and predicted that the fall of the dynasty was but a matter of a few hours. For it asserted that the prelate could not form another cabinet, and without a cabinet there could be no government. It was not possible for the archbishop to shoulder the burden alone; he must reinstate the ministry or fall.
"And this is the beginning of the end," said Maurice, throwing aside the paper. "What will happen next? The old prelate is not a man to play to the gallery. Has he found out the double dealing of Beauvais? That takes a burden off my shoulders-- unless he goes at once to the duchy. But why wasn't the cabinet dismissed ages ago? It is now too late. And where is Prince Frederick to the rescue? There is something going on, and what it is only the archbishop knows.
That smile of his! How will it end? I'd like to see von Mitter, who seems to be a good gossip. And that poor, friendless, paralytic king! I say, but it makes the blood grow warm."
He left the chair and paced the office confines. Only one thing went echoing through his brain, and that was he could do nothing. The sooner he settled down in the attitude of a spectator the better for him. Besides, he was an official in the employ of a foreign country, and it would be the height of indiscretion to meddle, even in a private capacity. It would be to jeopardize his diplomatic career, and that would be ridiculous.
A porter touched him on the shoulder.
"A letter for your Excellency."
It was from the American minister in Vienna.
"My dear Carewe: I have a service to ask of you. The British minister is worried over the disappearance of a fellow- countryman, Lord Fitzgerald. He set out for Bleiberg, leaving instructions to look him up if nothing was heard of him within a week. Two weeks have gone. Knowing you to be in Bleiberg, I believed you might take the trouble to look into the affair. The British ambassador hints at strange things, as if he feared foul play. I shall have urgent need of you by the first of October; our charge d'affaires is to return home on account of ill-health, and your appointment to that office is a matter of a few days."
Maurice whistled. "That is good news; not Haine's illness, but that I have an excuse to meddle here. I'll telegraph at once. And I'll take the ride besides." He went to his room and buckled on his spurs, and thoughtfully slipped his revolver into a pocket. "I am not going to take any chances, even in the dark." Once again in the office, he stepped up to the desk and ordered his horse to be brought around to the cafe entrance.
"Certainly," said the clerk. Then in low tones "There has been a curious exchange in saddles, Monsieur."
"Yes. The saddle in your stall is, curiously enough, stamped with the arms of the house of Auersperg. How that military saddle came into the stables is more than the grooms can solve."
"O," said Maurice, with an assumption of carelessness; "that is all right. It's the saddle I arrived on. The horse and saddle belong to Madame the duchess. I have been visiting at the Red Chateau. I shall return in the morning."
"Ah," said the clerk, with a furtive smile which Maurice lost; "that accounts for the mystery."
"Here are two letters that must get in to-night's mails," Maurice said; "and also this telegram should be sent at once."
"As Monsieur desires. Ah, I came near forgetting. There is a note for Monsieur, which came this afternoon while Monsieur was asleep."
The envelope was unstamped, and the scrawl was unfamiliar to Maurice. On opening it he was surprised to find a hurriedly written note from Fitzgerald. In all probability it had been brought by the midnight courier on his return from the duchy.
Maurice perused it twice, and pulled at his lips. "Madame becomes impatient. Poor devil. Somebody is likely to become suddenly rich and somebody correspondingly poor. What will they say when I return empty-handed? Like as not Madame will accuse me--and Fitzgerald will believe her! . . . The archbishop! That accounts for this bold move. And how the deuce did he get hold of them? I give up." And his shoulders settled in resignation.
He passed down into the cafe, from there to his horse, which a groom was holding at the curb. He swung into the saddle and tossed a coin to the man, who touched his cap.
The early moon lifted its silvery bulk above the ragged east, and the patches of clouds which swarmed over the face of that white world of silence resembled so many rooks. Far away, at the farthermost shore of the lake, whenever the moon went free from the clouds, Maurice could see the slim gray line of the road which stretched toward Italy.
"It's a fine night," he mused, glancing heavenward. The horse answered the touch of the spurs, and cantered away, glad enough to exchange the close air of the stables for this fresh gift of the night. Maurice guided him around the palaces into the avenue, which derived its name from the founder of the opera, in which most of the diplomatic families lived. Past the residence of Beauvais he went, and, gazing up at the lightless windows, a cold of short duration seized his spine. It bad been a hair's breadth betwixt him and death. "Your room, Colonel, is better than you company; and hereafter I shall endeavor to avoid both. I shall feel that cursed blade of yours for weeks to come."
Carriages rolled past him. A gay throng in evening dress was crowding into the opera. The huge placard announced, "Norma-- Mlle. Lenormand--Royal Opera Troupe." How he would have liked to hear it, with Lenormand in the title role. He laughed as he recalled the episodes in Vienna which were associated with this queen of song. He waved his hand as the opera house sank in the distance. "Au revoir, Celeste, ma charmante; adieu." By and by he reached the deserted part of the city, and in less than a quarter of an hour branched off into the broad road bordering the lake. The horse quickened his gait as he felt the stone of the streets no longer beneath his feet, which now fell with muffled rhythm on the sound earth. Maurice shared with him the delight of the open country, and began to talk to the animal.
"A fine night, eh, old boy? I've ridden many backs, but none easier than yours. This air is what gives the blood its color. Too bad; you ought not to belong to Madame. She will never think as much of you as I should."
The city was falling away behind, and a yellow vapor rose over it. The lake tumbled in moonshine. Maurice took to dreaming again--hope and a thousand stars, love and a thousand dreams.
"God knows I love her; but what's the use? We can not all have what we want; let us make the best of what we have. Philosophy is a comfort only to old age. Why should youth bother to reason why? And I--I have not yet outgrown youth. I believed I had, but I have not. I did not dream she existed, and now she is more to me than anything else in the world. Why; I wonder why? I look into a pair of brown eyes, and am seized with madness. I hope. For what? O, Bucephalus! let us try to wake and leave the dream behind. The gratitude of a princess and a dog . . . and for this a rose. Well, it will prove the substance of many a pipe, many a kindly pipe. You miss a good deal, Bucephalus; smoking is an evil habit only to those who have not learned to smoke."
The animal replied with a low whinney, and Maurice, believing that the horse had given an ear to his monologue, laughed. But he flattered himself. The horse whinneyed because he inhaled the faint odor of his kind. He drew down on the rein and settled into a swinging trot, which to Maurice's surprise was faster and easier than the canter. They covered a mile this way, when Maurice's roving eye discovered moving shadows, perhaps half a mile in advance.
"Hello! we're not the only ones jogging along. Eh, what's that?" Something flashed brightly, like silver reflecting moonlight; then came a spark of flame, which died immediately, and later Maurice caught an echo which resembled the bursting of a leaf against the lips. "Come; that looks like a pistol shot."
Again the flash of silver, broader and clearer this time; and Maurice could now separate the shadow-shapes. A carriage of some sort rolled from side to side, and two smaller shadows followed its wild flight. One--two--three times Maurice saw the sparks and heard the faint reports. He became excited. Something extraordinary was taking place on the lonely road. Suddenly the top of the carriage replied with spiteful flashes of red. Then the moon came out from behind the clouds, and the picture was vividly outlined. Two continuous flashes of silver. . . . Cuirassiers! Maurice loosened the rein, and the horse went forward as smoothly as a sail. The distance grew visibly less. The carriage opened fire again, and Maurice heard the sinister m-m-m of a bullet winging past him.
"The wrong man may get hit, Bucephalus," he said, bending to the neck of the horse; "which is not unusual. You're pulling them down, old boy; keep it up. There's trouble ahead, and since the cuirassiers are for the king, we'll stand by the cuirassiers."
On they flew, nearer and nearer, until the pistol shots were no longer echoes. Two other horsemen came into view, in advance of the carriage. Five minutes more of this exciting chase, and the faces took on lines and grew into features. Up, up crept the gallant little horse, his hoofs rattling against the road like snares on a drum. When within a dozen rods, Maurice saw one of the cuirassiers turn and level a revolver at him. Fortunately the horse swerved, and the ball went wide.
"Don't shoot!" Maurice yelled; "don't shoot!"
The face he saw was von Mitter's. His heart clogged in his throat, not at the danger which threatened him, but at the thought of what that carriage might contain.
A short time passed, during which nothing was heard but the striking of galloping hoofs and the rumble of the carriage. Maurice soon drew abreast of von Mitter. There was a gash on the latter's cheek, and the blood from it dripped on his cuirass.
"Close for you, my friend," he gasped; when he recognized the new arrival. "Have you--God! my leg that time," with a groan.
For the fire of the carriage had spoken again, and true.
Maurice shut his teeth, drew his revolver, cocked it and applied the spurs. With a bound he shot past von Mitter, who was cursing deeply and trying to reload. Maurice did not propose to waste powder on the driver, but was determined to bring down one of the carriage horses, which were marvelous brutes for speed. Scharfenstein kept popping away at the driver, but without apparent result. Finally Maurice secured the desired range. He raised the revolver, rested the barrel between the left thumb and forefinger and pressed the trigger. The nearest carriage horse lurched to his knees, a bullet in his brain, dragging his mate with him. The race had come to an end.
At once the two horsemen in front separated; one continued toward the great forest, while the other took to the hills. Scharfenstein started in pursuit of the latter. As for the carriage, it came to an abrupt stand. The driver made a flying leap toward the lake, but stumbled and fell, and before he could regain his feet Maurice was off his horse and on his quarry. He caught the fellow by the throat and pressed him to the earth, kneeling on his chest.
"Hold him!" cried von Mitter, coming up with a limp, "hold him till I knock in his head, damn him!"
"No, no!" said Maurice, "you can't get information out of a dead man."
"It's all up with me," groaned the Lieutenant. "I'll ask for my discharge. I could hit nothing, my hand trembled. I was afraid of shooting into the carriage."
Maurice turned his attention to the man beneath him. "Now, you devil," he cried, "a clean breast of it, or off the board you go. O!" suddenly peering down. "By the Lord, so it is you--you--you!" savagely bumping the fellow's head against the earth. "Spy!"
"You are killing me!"
"Small matter. Who is this fellow?" asked Maurice.
"Johann Kopf, a spy, a police rat, and God knows what else," answered von Mitter, limping toward the carriage. "Curse the leg!" He forced the door and peered inside. "Fainted! I thought as much." He lifted the inanimate bundle which lay huddled in between the seats and carried it to the side of the road, where he tenderly laid it. He rubbed the girl's wrists, unmindful of the blood which fell from his face and left dark stains on her dress. "Thank God," heartily, "that her Royal Highness was suffering from a headache. She would have died from fright."
Maurice felt the straining cords in the prisoner's neck grow limp. The rascal had fainted.
"Not her Highness?" Maurice asked, the weight of dread lifting from his heart.
"No. Her Royal Highness sent Camille, her maid of honor, veiled and dressed like herself, to play an innocent jest on her old nurse. Some one shall account for this; for they mistook Camille for her Highness. I'm going to wade out into the water," von Mitter added, staggering to his feet.
"You'll never get off your boot," said Maurice.
"I'll cut it off," was the reply, "I shall faint if I do not cool off the leg. The ball is somewhere in the calf." And he waded out into the water until it reached above his knees. Thus he stood for a moment, then returned to the maid, who, on opening her eyes, screamed. "It is all over, Camille," said the Lieutenant, throwing an arm about her.
"Your face is bleeding!" she cried, and sank back with her head against his broad breast.
As Maurice gazed at the pair he sighed. There were no obstacles here.
Soon Scharfenstein came loping down the hill alone.
"I killed his horse," he said, in response to queries, "but he fled into the woods where I could not follow. A bad night for us, Carl, a bad night," swinging off his horse. "A boy would have done better work. Whom have we here?"
"Kopf," said Maurice, "and he has a ball somewhere inside," holding up a bloody hand.
"Kopf?" Scharfenstein cocked his revolver.
The maid of honor placed her hands over her ears and screamed again. Max gazed at her, and, with a short, Homeric laugh, lowered the revolver.
"Any time will do," he said. "Ah, he opens his eyes."
The prisoner's eyes rolled wildly about. That frowning face above him . . . was it a vision? Who was it? What was he doing here?
"Who put you up to this?" demanded Maurice.
"You are choking me!"
"Who, I say?"
Scharfenstein and von Mitter looked at each other comprehensively.
"Who is this Beauvais? Speak!"
"I am dying, Herr . . . Your knees--"
Maurice withdrew his knees. "Beauvais; who is he?"
"Prince . . . Walmoden, formerly of the emperor's staff."
Johann's eyes closed again, and his head fell to one side.
"He looks as if he were done for," said Maurice, standing up. "Let us clear up the rubbish and hitch a horse to the carriage. The mate's all right."
Von Mitter assisted the maid into the carriage and seated her.
"Go and stay with her," said Maurice, brusquely; "you're half fainting."
"You are very handy, Carewe," said von Mitter gratefully, and he climbed in beside the maid, who, her fright gone, gave way to womanly instincts. She took her kerchief and wiped the Lieutenant's cheek, pressing his hand in hers the while.
Maurice and Scharfenstein worked away at the traces, and dragged the dead horse to the side of the road. Scharfenstein brought around von Mitter's horse, took oft the furnishings, and backed him into the pole.
Meanwhile the man lying by the water's edge showed signs of returning life. He turned his head cautiously. His enemies were a dozen yards away from him. Slowly he rolled over on his stomach, thence to his knees. They were paying no attention to him. . . .
"Ho, there! the prisoner!" cried von Mitter, tumbling out of the carriage. He tried to stand up, but a numbness seized his legs, and he sank to a sitting posture.
Maurice and Scharfenstein turned too late. Johann had mounted on Scharfenstein's horse, and was flying away down the road. Maurice coolly leveled his revolver and sent two bullets after him. The second one caused Johann to straighten stiffly, then to sink; but he hung on to the horse.
"Hurry!" cried Maurice; "I've hit him and we'll find him along the road somewhere."
They lifted von Mitter into the carriage, wheeled it about, and Scharfenstein mounted the box. Maurice sprang into his saddle, and they clattered off toward the city.