The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter XXI. A Court Fete at the Red Chateau
At eight o'clock of the following evening, that is to say, the nineteenth of September, Maurice mounted the Thalian pass and left the kingdom in the valley behind him. He was weary, dusty, lame and out of humor; besides, he had a new weight on his conscience. The night before he had taken the life of a man. True, this had happened before, but always in warfare. He had killed in a moment of rage and chagrin a poor devil who was at most only a puppet. There was small credit in the performance. However, the rascal would have suffered death in any event, his act being one of high treason.
In the long ride he had made up his mind to lock away forever the silly dream, the tender, futile, silly dream. All men die with secrets locked in their hearts; thus he, too, would die. His fancy leaped across the chasm of intervening years to the day of his death, and the thought was a happy one! He smiled sadly, as young men smile when they pity themselves. He knew that he would never get over it--in a day. But to-morrow, or to- morrow's to-morrow . .
He took the pass's decline; the duchy spread away toward the south. A quarter of a mile below him he saw the barrack and the customs office which belonged to Madame the duchess. The corporal inspected him and his papers, spoke lowly to the customs inspector, who returned to his office.
"It is all right, Monsieur Carewe," said the corporal; "I ought to recognize the horse a mile away. You will arrive just in time."
"Just in time for what?"
"Ah, true. Her Highness gives a grand ball at the chateau to- night. The court has arrived from Brunnstadt. Some will reside at the chateau, some at General Duckwitz's, others at the Countess Herzberg's."
"Has the duchess arrived at last, then?" was the cynical inquiry.
"She will arrive this evening," answered the corporal, grinning. "A pleasant journey to you."
Maurice proceeded. "And that blockhead of an Englishman has not tumbled yet! The court here? A grand ball? What else can it mean but that Madame is celebrating a victory to come? If the archbishop has those consols, she will wage war; and this is the prelude." He jogged along. He had accomplished a third of the remaining distance, when he was challenged. The sentry came forward and scrutinized the rider.
"O, it is Monsieur Carewe !" he cried in delighted tones. He touched his cap and fell back into the shadows.
A mile farther, and the great chateau, scintillating with lights, loomed up against the yellow sky. He felt a thrill of excitement. Doubtless there would be some bright passages before the night drew to a close. He would make furious love to the pretty countess; it would be something in the way of relaxation. How would they greet him? What would be Madame's future plans in regard to Fitzgerald? How would she get him out of the way, now that he had served her purpose? He laughed.
"The future promises much," he said, half aloud. "I am really glad that I came back."
Maurice drew up. A sentry stepped out into the road.
"O, it is Monsieur Carewe!" he cried. With a short laugh he disappeared.
"Hang me," grumbled Maurice as he went on, "these fellows have remarkable memories. I can't recollect any of them." He was mystified.
Shortly he came upon the patrol. The leader ordered him to dismount, an order be obeyed willingly, for he was longing to stand again. He shook his legs, while the leader struck a match.
"Why, it is Monsieur Carewe!" he cried. "Good! We are coming out to meet you. This is a pleasure indeed."
Maurice gazed keenly into the speaker's face, and to his surprise beheld the baron whose arm he had broken a fortnight since. He climbed on his horse again.
"I am glad you deem it a pleasure, baron," he said dryly. "From what you imply, I should judge that you were expecting me."
"Nothing less! Your departure from Bleiberg was known to us as early as two o'clock this after-noon," answered the baron. "Permit us to escort you to the chateau before the ladies see you. 'Tis a gala night; we are all in our best bib and tucker, as the English say. We believed at one time that you were not going to honor us with a second visit. Now to dress, both of us; at ten Madame the duchess arrives with General Duckwitz and Colonel Mollendorf, who is no relation to the late minister of police in Bleiberg."
Underneath all this Maurice discerned a shade of mockery, and it disturbed him.
"First, I should like to know--" he began.
"Later, later!" cried the baron. "The gates are but a dozen rods away. To your room first; the rest will follow."
"The only clothes I have with me are on my back," said Maurice.
"We shall arrange that. Your guard-hussar uniform has been reserved for you, at the suggestion of the Colonel."
And Maurice grew more and more disturbed.
"Were they courteous to you on the road?"
"Patience! Here we are at the rear gates."
Maurice found it impossible to draw back; three troopers blocked the rear, the baron and another rode at his sides, and four more were in advance. The rear gates swung open, and the little troop passed into the chateau confines. Maurice snatched a glimpse of the front lawns and terraces. The trees and walls were hung with Chinese lanterns; gay uniforms and shimmering gowns flitted across his vision. Somewhere within the chateau an orchestra was playing the overture from "Linda di Chamounix." Indeed, with all these brave officers, old men in black bedecked with ribbons, handsome women in a brilliant sparkle of jewels, it had the semblance of a gay court. It was altogether a different scene from that which was called the court of Bleiberg. There was no restraint here; all was laughter, music, dancing, and wines. The women were young, the men were young; old age stood at one side and looked on. And the charming Voiture-verse of a countess, Maurice was determined to seek her first of all. He vaguely wondered how Fitzgerald would carry himself throughout the ordeal.
The troopers dismounted in the courtyard.
"I'm a trifle too stiff to dance," Maurice innocently acknowledged.
The baron laughed. "You will have to take luck with me in the stable-barrack; the chateau is filled. The armory has been turned into a ballroom, and the guard out of it."
"Lead on!" said Maurice.
At the entrance to the guardroom, which occupied the left wing of the stables, stood a Lieutenant of the hussars.
"This is Monsieur Carewe," said the baron, "who will occupy a corner in the guardroom."
"Ah! Monsieur Carewe," waving his hand cavalierly; "happy to see you again."
Maurice was growing weary of his name.
"Enter," said the baron, opening the door.
Maurice entered, but not without suspicion. However, he was in a hurry to mingle with the gay assembly in the chateau. But that body was doomed to proceed without the honor or the knowledge of his distinguished presence. Several troopers were lounging about. At the sight of the baron they rose.
"Messieurs," he said, "this is Monsieur Carewe, who was expected."
"Glad to see you!" they sang out in chorus. They bowed ironically.
Maurice gazed toward the door. As he did so four pairs of arms enveloped him, and before he could offer the slightest resistance, he was bound hand and foot, a scarf was tied over his mouth, and he was pushed most disrespectfully into a chair. The baron's mouth was twisted out of shape, and the troopers were smiling.
"My faith! but this is the drollest affair I ever was in;" and the baron sat on the edge of the table and held his sides. "Monsieur Carewe! Ha! ha! You are a little too stiff to dance, eh? Shall I tender your excuses to the ladies? Ass! did you dream for a moment that such canaille as you, might show your countenance to any save the scullery maids? Too stiff to dance! Ye gods, but that was rich! And you had the audacity to return here! I must go; the thing is killing me." He slipped off the table, red in the face and choking. "The telegraph has its uses; it came ahead of you. We trembled for fear you would not come! Men, guard him as your lives, while I report to Madame, I dare say she will make it droller in the telling."
He stepped to the door, turned, looking into the prisoner's glaring eyes; he doubled up again. "We are quits; I forgive you the broken arm; this laugh will repay me. How Madame the countess will laugh! And Duckwitz--the General will die of apoplexy! O, but you are a sorry ass; and how neatly we have clipped your ears!" And into the corridor he went, still laughing, heartily and joyously, as if what had taken place was one of the finest jests in the world.
Maurice, white and furious, was positive that he never would laugh again. And the most painful thought was that his honesty had brought him to this pass--or, was it his curiosity?
* * * * *
Fitzgerald stood alone in the library. The music of a Strauss waltz came indistinctly to him. He was troubled, and the speech of it lay in his eyes. From time to time he drummed on the window sill, and followed with his gaze the shadowy forms on the lawns. He was not a part of this fairy scene. He was out of place. So many young and beautiful women eyeing him curiously confused him. In every glance he innocently read his disgrace.
At Madame's request he had dressed himself in the uniform of a Lieutenant-Colonel, which showed how deeply he was in the toils. Though it emphasized the elegant proportions of his figure, it sat uncomfortably upon him. His vanity was not equal to his sense of guilt. The uniform was a livery of dishonor. He could not distort it into a virtue, try as he would. He lacked that cunning artifice which a man of the world possesses, that of winning over to the right a misdeed.
And Carewe, on whose honesty he would have staked his life, Carewe had betrayed him. Why, he could not conceive. He saw how frail his house of love was. A breath and it was gone. What he had until to-day deemed special favors were favors common to all these military dandies. They, too, could kiss Madame's hand, and he could do no more. And yet she held him. Did she love him? He could not tell. All he knew was that it was impossible not to love her. And to-night he witnessed the culmination of the woman beautiful, and it dazzled him, filled him with fears and oppressions. . . . To bind her hand and foot, to carry her by force to the altar, if need; to call her his in spite of all.
If she were playing with him, making a ball of his heart and her fancy a cup, she knew not of the slumbering lion within. He himself was but dimly conscious of it. Princess? That did not matter. Since that morning the veil had fallen from his eyes, but he had said nothing; he was waiting for her to speak. Would she laugh at him? No, no! The knowledge that had come to him had transformed wax into iron. Princess? She was the woman who had promised to be his wife.
Only two candles burned on the mantel-piece. The library was a room apart from the festivities. A soft, rose-colored darkness pervaded the room. Presently a darker shadow tiptoed over the threshold. He turned, and the shadow approached. Madame's gray eyes, full of lambent fires, looked into his own.
"I was seeking you," she said. The jewels in her hair threw a kind of halo above her head.
"Have I the happiness to be necessary to you?" he asked.
"You have not been enjoying yourself."
"No, Madame; my conscience is, unhappily, too green." He turned to the window again for fear he would lose control of himself.
"I have a confession to make to you," she said humbly. How broad his shoulders were, was her thought.
"It can not concern me," he replied.
"There is only one confession which I care to hear. You made it once, though you are not willing to repeat it. But I have your word, Sylvia; I am content. Not all the world could make me believe that you would willingly retract that word."
Her name, for the first time coming from his lips, caused her to start. She sent him a penetrating glance, but it broke on a face immobile as marble.
"I do not recollect granting you permission to use my given name," she said.
"O, that was before the world. But alone, alone as we are, you and I, it is different." The smile which accompanied these words was frankness itself, but it did not deceive Madame, who read his eyes too well. "Ali, but the crumbs you give this love of mine are so few!" "You are the only man in the world permitted to avow love to me. You have kissed my hand."
"A privilege which seems extended to all."
Madame colored, but there was not light enough for him to perceive it.
"The , hand you kissed is the hand of the woman; others kiss it to pay homage. Monsieur, 'forgive me for having deceived you, you were so easy to deceive." His eyes met hers steadily.
"I am not Madame simply. I am Stephonia Sylvia Auersperg; the name I assumed was my mother's." His lack of surprise alarmed her.
"I am well aware of that," he said. "You are the duchess."
Something in his tone warned her of a crisis, and she put forth her cunning to avert it. "And. you-you will not love me less?" her voice vibrant as the string of a viol. "I am a princess, but yet a woman. In me there are two, the woman and the princess. The princess is proud and ambitious; to gain her ends she stops at nothing. As a princess she may stoop to trickery and deceit, and step back untouched. But the woman-ah, well; for this fortnight I have been most of all the woman."
"And all this to me-is a preamble to my dismissal, since my promise remains unfulfilled? Madame, do not think that because fate has willed that my promise should become void, that my conscience acquits me of dishonor. For love of you I have thrown honor to the winds. But do I regret it? No. For I am mad, and being mad, I am not capable of reason. I have broken all those ties which bind a man's respect to himself. I have burned all bridges, but I laugh at that. It is only with the knowledge that your love is mine that I can hold high my head.
"As the princess in you is proud, so is the man in me. A princess? That is nothing; I love you. Were you the empress of all the Russias, the most unapproachable woman in the world, I should not hesitate to profess my love, to find some means of declaring it to you. I love you. To what further depths can I fall to prove it?" Again he sought the window, and leaned heavily on the sill. He waited, as a man waits for an expected blow.
As she listened a delicious sensation swept through her heart, a sensation elusive and intangible. She surrendered without question. At this moment the Eve in her evaded all questions. Here was a man. The mood which seized her was as novel as this love which asked nothing but love, and the willingness to pay any price; and the desire to test both mood and love to their full strength was irresistible. She was loved for herself alone; hitherto men had loved the woman less and the princess more. To surrender to both mood and love, if only for an hour or a day, to see to what length this man would go at a sign from her.
He was almost her equal in birth; his house was nearly if not quite as old and honored as her own; in his world he stood as high as she stood in hers. She had never committed an indiscretion; passion had never swayed her; until now she had lived by calculation. As she looked at him, she knew that in all her wide demesne no soldier could stand before him and look straight into his eyes. So deep and honest a book it was, so easily readable, that she must turn to its final pages. Love him? No. Be his wife? No. She recognized that it was the feline instinct to play which dominated her. Consequences? Therein lay the charm of it.
"Patience, Monsieur," she said. "Did I promise to be your wife? Did I say that I loved you? Eh, bien, the woman, not the princess, made those vows. I am mistress not only of my duchy, but of my heart." She ceased and regarded him with watchful eves. He did not turn. "Look at me, John!" The voice was of such winning sweetness that St. Anthony himself, had he heard it, must have turned. "Look at me and see if I am more a princess than a woman."
He wheeled swiftly. She was leaning toward him, her face was upturned. No jewel in her hair was half so lustrous as her eyes. From the threaded ruddy ore of her hair rose a perfume like the fabulous myrrhs of Olympus. Her lips were a cup of wine, and her eyes bade him drink, and the taste of that wine haunted him as long as he lived. He made as though to drain the cup, but Madame pushed down his arms, uttered a low, puzzled laugh, and vanished from the room. He was lost! He knew it; yet he did not care. He threw out his arms, dropped them, and settled his shoulders. A smile, a warm, contented smile, came into his face and dwelt there. For another such kiss he would have bartered eternity.
And Madame? Who can say?