The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter XX. The Last Stand of a Bad Servant
The cuirassiers stationed in the guardroom of the royal palace walked gently on the tiling, when occasion required them to walk, and when they entered or left the room, they were particularly careful to avoid the chink of the spur or the clank of the saber. Although the royal bedchamber was many doors removed, the Captain had issued a warning against any unnecessary noise. A loud laugh, or the falling of a saber carelessly rested, drew upon the unlucky offender the scowling eyes of the commander, who reclined in front of the medieval fireplace, in which a solitary log burned, and brooded over past and present. The high revels in the guardroom were no more, the cuirassiers were no longer made up of the young nobles of the kingdom; they were now merely watch dogs.
Twenty years ago the commander had come from Dresden as an instructor in arms, and after the first year had watched over the royal household, in the service of the late king and the king who lay dying. He had come of good family, but others had come oof better, and had carried of court honors, though his post in early days had been envied by many. He was above all else a soldier, the embodiment of patience and integrity, and he scorned to murmur because fortune had passed over his head. As he sucked at his pipe, he recalled the days of Albrecht and his opera singers, the court scandals, and his own constant employment as messenger in the king's love intrigues.
Albrecht had died a widower and childless, and with him had died the flower of court life. The courtiers and sycophants had flocked to the standard of the duke, and had remained there, primarily because Leopold of Osia promised a sedate and exemplary life. Sometimes the Captain shook his head, as if communing with some unpleasant thought. On each side of him sat a soldier, also smoking and ruminating.
At the mess table a dozen or so whiled away the time at cards. The wavering lights of the candle and hearth cast warring shadows on the wall and floor, and the gun and saber racks twinkled. If the players spoke, it was in tones inaudible to the Captain's ears.
"Our bread and butter," said the Captain softly, "are likely to take unto themselves the proverbial wings and fly away."
No one replied. The Captain was a man who frequently spoke his thoughts aloud, and required no one to reply to his disjointed utterances.
"A soldier of fortune," he went on, "pins his faith and zeal to standards which to-day rise and to-morrow fall. Unfortunately, he takes it at flood tide, which immediately begins to ebb."
The men on either side of him nodded wisely.
"The king can no longer speak. That is why the archbishop has dismissed the cabinet. While he could speak, his Majesty refused to listen to the downfall of his enemies. Why? Look to heaven; heaven only can answer. How many men of the native troops are quartered in these buildings? Not one--which is bad. Formerly they were in the majority. Extraordinary. His Majesty would have made friends with them, but the archbishop, an estimable man in his robes, practically ostracized them. Bad, very bad. Had we been comrades, there might be a different end.
"Faugh! if one of us sticks his head into the city barracks a breath of ice is our reward. Kronau never attends the receptions. A little flattery, which costs nothing, and they would have been willing to die for his Majesty. Now--" He knocked his pipe on the firedog. "Now, they would not lift a finger. A soldier will forgive all things but premeditated neglect.
"As for me, when the time comes I shall return to Dresden and die of old age. Maybe, though, I shan't. When his Majesty dies there is like to be a clash. The duchess is a clever woman, but she would make a balky wife; a capillary affection which runs in the family. Red hair in a man is useful; in a woman it is unmanageable." He refilled his pipe and motioned toward the tongs. The soldier nearest caught up a brand and held it out. The Captain laid his pipe against it and drew. "It's a dreary watch I have from ten till daylight, in his Majesty's antechamber, but he will trust no other man at that post." And with this he fell into silence.
Some time passed. Twice the Captain pulled out his watch and looked at it. Shortly after nine o'clock the beat of hoofs came up the driveway, and the Captain turned his head toward the entrance and waited. A moment later the door opened and three men stood framed in the doorway. Two of them--one in civilian dress--were endeavoring to hold up a third between them. The central figure presented an alarming picture. His cuirass and white trousers were splashed with blood, and his head rolled from side to side, almost insensibly.
"A thousand devils!" exclaimed the Captain at the sight of this unexpected tableau. He sprang up, toppling over his chair. "What's this? Von Mitter? Blood? Have those damned students--"
"A brush on the lake road," interrupted Sharfenstein, breathlessly. "Help him over to a chair, Monsieur Carewe. That's it."
"Have you a knife, Captain?" asked Maurice.
The Captain whipped out his knife, locked it, and gave it to Maurice. "Riemer," he called to one of the cuirassiers, who were rising from the mess table, "bring out your box of instruments; and you, Scharfenstein, a basin of cold water. Quick!"
Maurice knelt and deftly cut away the Lieutenant's boot. A pool of blood collected on the floor.
"God save us!" cried the Captain, "his boot is full of blood." He turned to Scharfenstein, who was approaching with the basin. "What has happened, Max?"
Scharfenstein briefly explained.
"Got away, curse him!"
"And the others?" with a lowering brow.
"They all got away," adding an oath under his breath. Max set the basin on the floor.
"Bad, very bad. Why didn't you shoot?"
"He was afraid of hitting Mademoiselle Bachelier," Maurice interposed.
Max threw him a grateful look.
"Humph!" The Captain called his men around him. "Two of you--. But wait. Who's back of Kopf?"
"Our distinguished Colonel," snapped Max, "who was this day relieved of his straps. A case of revenge, probably."
"Beauvais! Ah, ah!" The Captain smiled grimly. He had always hated Beauvais, who had, for no obvious reason, passed him and grasped the coveted colonelcy, and because, curiously enough, the native troops had made an idol of him. "Beauvais? I am not surprised. An adventurer, with neither kith nor country."
"He is Prince Walmoden," said Maurice, "and for some reason not known, the emperor has promised to recall him."
This information caused the Captain to step back, and he muttered the name several times. "Austria. . . ." A gloom settled on his face. "No matter. Prince or no prince, or had he one thousand emperors behind him, no matter. Four of you seek him and arrest him. If he offers resistance, knock him on the head, but arrest him. A traitor is without name, country or respect. His purpose . . . Never mind.
"Four of you seek for Kopf. Look into Stuler's, in at the opera, and follow Kopf's woman home. I'll take it upon myself to telegraph the frontier to allow no one to cross on the pain of being shot. Pass the word to the officers in the stables. Hurry away before the archbishop hears of the matter. Away with you, and quietly. And one of you seek that blockhead of a coachman, who did not know enough to come back here and inform us. Beauvais, make him a prisoner, you are not to know why. As for Kopf, dead or alive--alive will be less convenient for all concerned. Off with you!"
The guardroom was at once emptied, and the cuirassiers turned off toward the stables, where the main body of the troops was stationed.
Riemer, who was both surgeon and soldier, probed the wound in von Miner's leg and extracted the bullet, which had lodged in the fleshy part of the calf. He applied cold water, lints and bandages. All the while von Mitter sat in the chair, his eyes shut and his lips closed tightly.
"There!" said the surgeon, standing up, "that's better. The loss of blood is the worst part of it." Next he took a few stitches in the cut on the cheek and threw his cloak over the wounded man's knee. "He'll be all right in a day or so, though he'll limp. Carl?"
"O, I'm sound enough," answered von Mitter, opening his eyes. "A little weak in the knees, that's all. I shouldn't have given in, only Kopf got away when we had him fair and fast. We found his horse wandering about the Frohngarten, but no sign of Johann. He's got it, though, square in the back."
"I'm sure of it," said Maurice, who leaned over the back of the speaker's chair.
The Captain eyed him inquiringly.
"Pardon me," said Scharfenstein. "Captain, Monsieur Carewe, an American tourist, formerly of the United States cavalry. And a pretty shot, too, by the book! It would have gone badly with us but for him."
"My thanks," said the Captain, with a jerky nod. "Max, come, give me the whole story."
And Scharfenstein dropped into a chair and recounted in picturesque diction the adventure; how they had remained by the royal carriage till the nurse, recovering from her faint, had rushed out and told them of the abduction; and the long race on the south shore. While he listened the Captain smoked thoughtfully; and when the story was done, he rose and wagged his head.
"Call it revenge," he said, "if it strikes you in that light. Monsieur Carewe, what is your opinion?"
"It occurs to me," answered Maurice, rubbing the scratch the late Colonel's sword had left on his chin, "it occurs to me that the man played his hand a few days too late."
"Which is to say?"
"Well, I do not call it revenge," Maurice admitted, unwilling to venture any theory.
"No more do I;" and the Captain began drumming on the mantel. "What say, Max; how would the illustrious Colonel look with the shadow of a crown on his head? He comes from Austria, who, to my thinking, is cognizant of all he does and has done."
The answer was not spoken. The door, leading to the main palace through the kitchens, opened, and the Marshal, the princess, and the maid of honor came down the steps. The Captain, Max and the surgeon stood at salute. Maurice, however, drew back into the shadows at the side of the grate. The old soldier gazed down at the pale face of the young Lieutenant, and smiled kindly.
"Even the best of soldiers make mistakes," he said; "even the best. No," as von Mitter made an attempt to speak. "I've heard all about it, and from a most reliable source," nodding toward the anxious maid of honor. "Colonel," he addressed the Captain, whose eyes started at this appellation, "Colonel, you will report to me in the morning to assume your new duties. You have been a faithful Captain and a good soldier. I know your value, your name and your antecedents, which till now was more than I knew of your late predecessor. Von Mitter will take upon himself your duties as Captain of the household troop; and you, Scharfenstein, will hereafter take charge of her Royal Highness's carriage, and you may choose whom you will as your comrade."
"I have always tried to do my duty," said von Mitter. He felt a small hand secretly press his.
"And you have always succeeded, Captain," said a voice which made Maurice's foolish heart leap. "See, I am the first to give you your new rank. How you must suffer!"
"God bless your Royal Highness!" murmured the fellow, at once racked with pain and happiness. "But I am not the one you must thank for this night's work."
The Marshal peered at the silent figure beyond the fireplace. Maurice was compelled to stand forth. "Ah!" said the Marshal.
"Yes," went on von Mitter, "but for him no one knows what the end might have been. And I, thinking him one of the abducting party coming up from the rear, shot at him."
The princess took a step forward, anxiety widening her dark eyes; and the swift glance added to the fever in the recipient's veins. . . . How beautiful she was, and how far away! He laid his hand on the top of von Mitter's chair.
"Monsieur Carewe," said the Marshal, "seems to have plenty of leisure time on his hands--fortunately for us. You were not hit?"
"O, no," said Maurice, blushing. He had discerned an undercurrent of raillery in the Marshal's tones. "The ball came close to my ear, that was all. It is strange how that fellow got away. I am positive that I hit him."
"We shall find him," said the Marshal, with a look at the newly- appointed Colonel which said: "Your straps hang in the balance." He rubbed his nose. "Well, is your Royal Highness satisfied that there is no danger?"
"Yes, Marshal; but think, if he should have been killed! Ah, what does it all mean? What had this man against me, who have always been kind to him?"
"We shall, with your Highness's permission," said the Marshal, "leave all questions to the future. Let us return to the archbishop, who is doubtless awaiting the news. Take good care of yourself, Captain. To-morrow, Colonel; good evening to you, Monsieur Carewe;" and the terse old soldier proceeded to the door and held it open for the women.
"Good night, Messieurs," said her Highness. "I shall not forget. Thanks to you, Captain." One more glance, and she was gone. But this glance blossomed in one heart into a flower of hope.
The Marshal, having closed the door behind the women, returned to the group before the fireplace. They watched him interestedly.
"Colonel," he said, "make no effort to seek Beauvais. As for Kopf, that is different. But Beauvais--"
"To let him go?" exclaimed the Colonel in dismay.
"Aye, to let him go. We do not seek bears with birdshot, and that is all we have. He will leave the country."
"And go to the duchy!"
"So much the better; when the time comes, our case against him will be so much the stronger. Mind you, this is not from sentiment. I have none," glaring around to see if any dared refute this assertion. "It is policy, and Monseigneur concurs with me."
"But I have sent men after him!" cried the Colonel, in keen disappointment.
"Send men after them to rescind the order."
"And if they should catch him?"
"Let him go; that is my order. The servant will be sufficient for our needs. Monsieur Carewe, I rely on your discretion;" and the Marshal passed into the kitchens.
The men looked at each other in silence. A moment later the Colonel dashed from the room, off to the stables.
"Well, I'm off," said Maurice. The desire to tell what he knew was beginning to master him. It was too late now, he saw that. Besides, they might take it into their heads to detain him. He put on his hat. "Good night; and good luck to your leg, Captain."
"Till to-morrow," said von Mitter, who had taken a fancy to the smooth-faced young American, who seemed at home in all places.
"I am going away to-morrow," said Maurice, pressing the Lieutenant's hand. "I shall return in a day or so."
He led his horse to the hotel stables, lit a fresh cigar and promenaded the terrace. "Some day," he mused, "perhaps I'll be able to do something for myself. To-morrow we'll take a look at Fitzgerald's affairs, like the good fairy we are. If the Colonel is there, so much the worse for one or the other of us." He laughed contentedly. "Beauvais took my warning and lit out, or his henchman would never have made a botch of the abduction. It is my opinion that Madame wanted a hostage, for it is impossible to conceive that the man made the attempt on his own responsibility. I shall return to the duchy in a semi-official character as an envoy extraordinary to look into the whereabouts of one Lord Fitzgerald. Devil take me, but I did make a mess of it when I slapped him on the shoulder that night." The princess had not addressed a word to him. Why?
When the princess and her maid of honor had passed through the kitchens into the princess's boudoir, the maid suddenly caught her mistress's hand and imprinted a hasty kiss on it, to the latter's surprise and agitation. There was something in that kiss which came nearer to sincere affection than Mademoiselle Bachelier had ever shown before.
"God bless your Highness!" whispered the girl, again pressing the cold hand to her lips. What had given rise to this new-born affection she herself could not say, but a sudden wave of pity rushed into her heart. Perhaps it was because she loved and was loved that caused this expansion of heart toward her mistress, who was likely never to love or beget love, who stood so lonely. Tears came into her eyes.
"You are hysterical!" said the princess.
"No; it is because--because--" She stopped and a blush suffused her face and temples.
The princess took the face between her hands and gazed long and earnestly into it. "Have you discovered a belated pity in your heart for me? Or is it because you thought him wounded unto death, and he was not?"
"It is both!" weeping.
The princess put her arms around the maid. "And you weep for happiness? Let us weep together, then; only--I can not weep for happiness."
To return to the flight of Kopf. As he dashed down the road he heard two reports. At the second he experienced a terrible burning blow under the right shoulder-blade, and immediately his arm became paralyzed. He coughed. With a supreme effort he managed to recover his balance. Already his collar-bone had been cracked by a bullet either from von Mitter or from Scharfenstein.
"God's curse on them all!" he sobbed, pushing his knees into his horse; "God's curse!" He bit his lips; and when he drew his breath the pain which followed almost robbed him of his senses. Behind him the sound of hoofs came no nearer; he had a chance. He could not look back to see if he gained, however, as his neck was stiffening.
"Curse him and his damned gold! He never warned me as he said he would." On he rode. The moon became obscured, and when it flashed again he could see it but indistinctly. . . . To reach the city, to reach Gertrude's, to give the horse a cut and send him adrift, this was his endeavor. But would he reach the city-- alive? Was he dying? He could not see . . . Yet again he shut his jaws and drew on his entire strength. He was keeping in the saddle by will power alone. If the horse faltered he was lost. To Gertrude; she could use them. And after all he loved her. If he died she would be provided for.
The first of the city lamps. He sobbed. Into this street he turned, into that, expecting each moment to be challenged, for the white saddle blanket of the cuirassiers stood out conspicuously. At last he had but a corner to turn. He stopped, slid from the saddle and gave the animal a cut across the face. The horse reared, then plunged forward at a wild gallop. Johann staggered along the street, fumbling in his pockets for his keys.
Gertrude of the opera company was usually in the ballet. To- night she had left the stage after the first dance. She had complained of a severe headache, and as the manager knew her worth he had permitted her withdrawal from the corps. She lived off the Frohngarten, in an apartment on the second floor, over a cheap restaurant. She was bathing her temples in perfumed ammonia water, when she heard footsteps in the corridor, and later the rasp of a key in the lock. As the door opened she beheld a spectacle which caused her to scream.
"Hush! Gertrude, I am dying. . . . Brandy! I must talk to you! Silence!" Johann tottered to a lounge and dropped on his side.
The woman, still trembling with fright and terror, poured into her palm some of the pungent liquid with which she had been bathing her temples, and held it under his nose. It revived him. And in a few broken sentences he made known to her what had happened.
"Gertrude, I am lost!" He breathed with difficulty. "I have lived like a rascal, and I die like one. But I have always loved you; I have always been true to you; I have never beaten nor robbed you." His eyes closed.
"O God," she cried, "what shall I do? Johann, you must not die! We will leave the country together. Johann, you do not speak! Johann!" She kissed him, pressed him in her arms, regardless of the stains which these frantic fondlings gathered from his breast. "Johann!"
"Rich," he said dreamily; "rich . . . and to die like a dog!"
She left him and rushed to the sideboard, poured out a tumbler of brandy, and returned to his side. She raised his head, but he swallowed with effort.
"In the lungs," he said. "God! how it burns! Rich; we are rich, Gertrude; a hundred thousand crowns. . . . And I am dying! . . . What a failure! Curse them all; they never offered to lend a hand unless it led toward hell! Gertrude . . . I must tell you. Here; here, put your hand in this pocket; yes. Draw them out. . . A hundred thousand crowns!"
The woman shuddered. Her hand and what it held were wet with blood.
"Hide them!" And Johann fainted away for the second time. When he came to his senses, several minutes had passed. Quickly, with what remaining strength he had, he unfolded his plan.
And her one idea was to save him. She drenched her handkerchief with the ammonia, and bade him hold it to his nose, while she fetched a basin of water and a sponge. Tenderly she drew back his coat and washed the blood from his throat and lips, and moistened his hair.
"Listen!" he cried suddenly, rising on his elbow. "It is they! They have found me! Quick! to the roof!" He struggled to his feet, with that strength which imparts itself to dying men, super-human while it lasts. He threw one arm around her neck. "Help me!"
And thus they gained the hall, mounted the flight to the roof, he groaning and urging, she sobbing, hysterical, and frenzied. She climbed the ladder with him, threw back the trap, and helped him on the roof.
"Now leave me!" he said, kissing her hand.
She gave him her lips, and went down to her rooms, and waited and waited. This agony of suspense lasted a quarter of an hour, when again came the clatter of hoofs. Would this, too, prove a false alarm? She held her hand to her ear. If he were dying. . . They had stopped; they were mounting the stairs; O God, they were beating on the door!
"Open!" cried a voice without; "open in the king's name!"
She gasped, but words would not come. She clenched her hands until the nails sank into the flesh.
"Open, Madame, or down comes the door."
The actress in her came to the rescue. The calm of despair took possession of her.
"In a moment, Messieurs," she said. Her voice was without agitation. She opened the door and the cuirassiers pushed past her. "In heaven's name, Messieurs, what does this mean?"
"We want Johann Kopf," was the answer, "and we have it from good authority that he is here. Do not interfere with us; you are in no wise connected with the affair."
"He is not here," she replied. She wondered at herself, her tones were so even, her mind was so clear.
One of the cuirassiers caught up her gown. "What's this, Madame?" he demanded, pointing to the dark wet stains; "and this?" to her hands, "and this?" to the spots on the carpet, the basin and the sponge. "To the roof, men; he has gone by the roof! Up with you!"
The ballet dancer held forth her hands in supplication; life forsook her limbs; she sank.
The cuirassiers rushed to the roof. . . . When they came down it was slowly and carefully. What they had found on the roof was of no use to them. They laid the inanimate thing on the lounge, and frowned. One of the cuirassiers lifted the ballet dancer and carried her into her bed-room, and laid her on the bed. He had not the heart to revive her. Death softens all angers; even an enemy is no longer such when dead. And Johann Kopf was dead.