The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter XXII. In Which Maurice Recurs to Offenbach
Midnight; the music had ceased, and the yellow and scarlet lanterns had been plucked from the autumnal hangings. The laughing, smiling, dancing women, like so many Cinderellas, had disappeared, and with them the sparkle of jewels; and the gallant officers had ridden away to the jingle of bit and spur. Throughout the courtly revel all faces had revealed, besides the happiness and lightness of spirit, a suppressed eagerness for something yet to come, an event surpassing any they had yet known.
Promptly at midnight Madame herself had dropped the curtains on the gay scene because she had urgent need of all her military household at dawn, when a picture, far different from that which had just been painted, was to be limned on the broad canvas of her dreams. Darkness and quiet had fallen on the castle, and the gray moon film lay on terrace and turret and tile.
In the guardroom, Maurice, his hands and feet still in pressing cords, dozed in his chair. He had ceased to combat drowsiness. He was worn out with his long ride, together with the chase of the night before; and since a trooper had relieved his mouth of the scarf so that he could breathe, he cared not what the future held, if only he might sleep. It took him a long time to arrive at the angle of comfort; this accomplished, he drifted into smooth waters. The troopers who constituted his guard played cards at a long table, in the center of which were stuck half a dozen bayonets, which served as candlesticks. They laughed loudly, thumped the board, and sometimes sang. No one bothered himself about the prisoner, who might have slept till the crack of doom, as far as they were concerned.
Shortly before the new hour struck, the door opened and shut. A trooper shook the sleeper by the sleeve. Maurice awoke with a start and gazed about, blinking his eyes. Before him he discovered Madame the duchess, Fitzgerald and Mollendorf, behind whom stood the Voiture-verse of a countess. The languor forsook him and he pulled himself together and sat as upright as his bonds would permit him. Something interesting was about to take place.
Madame made a gesture which the troopers comprehended, and they departed. Fitzgerald, with gloomy eyes, folded his arms across his breast, and with one hand curled and uncurled the drooping ends of his mustache; the Colonel frowned and rubbed the gray bristles on his upper lip; the countess twisted and untwisted her handkerchief; Madame alone evinced no agitation, unless the perpendicular line above her nose could have been a sign of such. This lengthened and deepened as her glance met the prisoner's.
He eyed them all with an indifference which was tinctured with contempt and amusement.
"Well, Monsieur Carewe," said Madame, coldly, "what have you to say?"
"A number of things, Madame," he answered, in a tone which bordered the insolent; "only they would not be quite proper for you to hear."
The Colonel's hand slid from his lip over his mouth; he shuffled his feet and stared at the bayonets and the grease spots on the table.
"Carewe," said Fitzgerald, endeavoring to speak calmly, "you have broken your word to me as a gentleman and you have lied to me."
The reply was an expressive monosyllable, "O!"
"Do you deny it?" demanded the Englishman.
"Deny what?" asked Maurice.
"The archbishop," said Madame, "assumed the aggressive last night. To be aggressive one must possess strength. Monsieur, how much did he pay for those consols? Come, tell me; was he liberal? It is evident that you are not a man of business. I should have been willing to pay as much as a hundred thousand crowns. Come; acknowledge that you have made a bad stroke." She bent her head to one side, and a derisive smile lifted the corners of her lips.
A dull red flooded the prisoner's cheeks. "I do not understand you."
"You lie!" Fitzgerald stepped closer and his hands closed menacingly.
"Thank you," said Maurice, "thank you. But why not complete the melodrama by striking, since you have doubled your fists?"
Fitzgerald glared at him.
"Monsieur," interposed the countess, "do not forget that you are a gentleman; Monsieur Carewe's hands are tied."
"Unfortunately," observed Maurice.
Madame looked curiously at the countess, while Fitzgerald drew back to the table and rested on it.
"I can not comprehend how you dared return," Madame resumed. "One who watches over my affairs has informed me of your dishonorable act."
"What do you call a dishonorable act?" Maurice inquired quietly.
"One who breaks his sacred promise!" quickly.
The prisoner laughed maliciously. Madame had answered the question as he hoped she would. "Chickens come home to roost. What do you say to that, my lord?" to the Englishman.
This time it was not the prisoner's cheeks which reddened. Even Madame was forced to look away, for if this reply touched the Englishman it certainly touched her as deeply. Incidentally, she was asking herself why she had permitted the Englishman to possess her lips, hers, which no man save her father had ever possessed before. A kiss, that was all it had been, yet the memory of it was persistent, annoying, embarrassing. In the spirit of play--a spirit whose origin mystified her--she had given the man something which she never could regain, a particle of her pride.
Besides, this was not all; she had in that moment given up her right to laugh at him when the time came; now she would not be able to laugh. She regretted the folly, and bit her lip at the thought of it. Consequences she had laughed at; now their possibilities disturbed her. She had been guilty of an indiscretion. The fact that the Englishman had ruined himself at her beck did not enter her mind. The hour for that had not yet arrived.
Seeing that his neat barb had left them all without answer, Maurice said: "Doubtless the informant who watches over your interests and various other interests of which you have no inkling, was the late Colonel Beauvais? For my part, I wish it was the late Beauvais in the sense in which we refer to the departed ones. But let us give him his true name--Prince Konrad, the last of the Walmodens, a cashiered gamester."
Only Fitzgerald showed any surprise. Maurice once saw that the others were in the secret. They knew the Colonel. Did they know why he was in Bleiberg? Let them find it out for themselves. He would not lift a finger to aid them. He leaned back and yawned.
"Pardon me," he said, with mock politeness, "but my hands are tied, and the truth is, I am sleepy."
"Count," said Madame, "release him. He will be too well guarded to fear his escaping."
The Colonel performed this service with alacrity. He honestly admired the young fellow who so seldom lost his temper. Besides, he had a sneaking idea that the lad was being unjustly accused.
Maurice got up and stretched himself. He rubbed his wrists, then sat down and waited for the comedy to proceed.
"So you confess," said Madame, "that you sold the consols to the archbishop?"
"I, confess?" Maurice screwed up his lips and began to whistle softly:
"Voici le sabre de mon Pere."
"You deny, then?" Madame was fast losing patience, a grave mistake when one is dealing with a banterer.
Maurice changed the tune:
"J'aime les militaires, Leur uniforme coquet, Leur moustache et leur plumet--"
"Answer!" with a stamp of the foot.
"Je sais ce que je voudrais, Je voudrais etre cantiniere!" . . .
"Monsieur," said the pretty countess, after a furtive glance at Madame's stormy eyes, "do you deny?"
The whistle ceased. "Madame, to you I shall say that I neither deny nor affirm. The affair is altogether too ridiculous to treat seriously. I have nothing to say." The whistle picked up the thread again.
Doubt began to stir in the eyes of the Englishman. He looked at Madame with a kind of indecision, to find that she was glancing covertly at him. His gaze finally rested on Maurice, who had crossed his legs and was keeping time to the music with his foot. Indeed, these were not the violent protestations of innocence he had looked for. This demeanor was not at all in accord with his expectations. Now that he had possessed Madame's lips (though she might never possess the consols), Maurice did not appear so guilty.
"Carewe," he said, "you have deceived me from the start."
"Ah! c'est un fameux regiment, Le regiment de la Grande Duchesse!"
"You knew that Madame was her Highness," went on the Englishman, "and yet you kept that a secret from me. Can you blame me if I doubt you in other respects?"
"Sonnez donc la trompette, Et battez les tambours!"
And the warbler nodded significantly at Madame, whose frown grew still darker.
"Eh! Monsieur," cried the Colonel, with a protesting hand, "you are out of tune!"
"I should like to know why you returned here," said Madame. "Either you have some plan, or your audacity has no bounds."
The whistle stopped again. "Madame, for once we agree. I, too, should like to know why I returned here."
"Carewe," said Fitzgerald, "if you will give me your word--"
"Do not waste your breath, Monsieur," interrupted Madame.
"Will you give me your word?" persisted Fitzgerald, refusing to see the warning in Madame's eyes.
"I will give you nothing, my lord; nothing. I have said that I will answer neither one way nor the other. The accusation is too absurd. Now, Madame, what is your pleasure in regard to my disposition?"
"You are to be locked up, Monsieur," tartly. "You are too inquisitive to remain at large."
"My confinement will be of short duration," confidently.
"It rests with my pleasure alone."
"Pardon me if I contradict your Highness. I returned here incidentally as a representative of the British ambassador in Vienna; I volunteered this office at the request of my own minister."
A shade of consternation came into the faces of his audience.
"If nothing is heard of me within two days, an investigation will ensue. It is very droll, but I am here to inquire into the whereabouts of one Lord Fitzgerald, who has disappeared. Telegrams to the four ends of the world have brought no news of his present residence. The archbishop instituted the latter inquiries, because it was urgent and necessary he should know."
Fitzgerald became enveloped in gloom.
"And your credentials, Monsieur?" said the duchess. "You have them, I presume?"
"I came as a private gentleman; a telegram to my minister in Vienna will bring indorsement."
"Ah! Then you shall be locked up. I can not accord you recognition; without the essential representations, I see nothing in you but an impertinent meddler. To-morrow evening you shall be conveyed to Brunnstadt, where you will reside for some time, I can assure you. Perhaps on your head will rest the blood of many gallant gentlemen; for within another twenty-four hours I shall declare war against Leopold. This will be the consequence of your disloyalty to your word." And she moved toward the door, the others imitating her. Fitzgerald, more than any one else, desired to get away.
And one by one they vanished. Once the countess turned and threw Maurice a glance which mystifled him; it was half curtained with tears. Presently he was alone. His eye grasped every object. There was not a weapon in sight; only the bayonets on the table, and he could scarcely hope to escape by use of one of these. A carafe of water stood on the table. He went to it and half emptied it. His back was toward the door. Suddenly it opened. He wheeled, expecting to see the troopers. His surprise was great. Beauvais was leaning against the door, a half humorous smile on his lips. The tableau lasted several minutes.
"Well," said Beauvais, "you do not seem very glad to see me."
Maurice remained silent, and continued to gaze at his enemy over the tops of the upturned bayonets.
"You are, as I said before, a very young man."
"I killed a puppet of yours last night," replied Maurice, with a peculiar grimness.
"Eh? So it was you? However, Kopf knew too much; he is dead, thanks to your service. After all, it was a stroke of war; the princess, whose little rose you have, was to have been a hostage."
"If she had refused to be a wife," Maurice replied.
Beauvais curled his mustache.
"I know a good deal more than Kopf."
"You do, certainly; but you are at a convenient nearness. What you know will be of no use to you. Let us sit down."
"I prefer to stand. The honor you do me is too delicate."
"O, you may have no fear."
"I have none--so long as my back isn't turned toward you."
Beauvais passed over this. "You are a very good blade; you handle a sword well. That is a compliment, considering that I am held as the first blade in the kingdom. It was only to-day I learned that formerly you had been a cavalryman in America. You have the making of a soldier."
Maurice bowed, his hand resting near one of the bayonets.
"You are also a soldier of fortune-like myself. You made a good stroke with the archbishop. You hoodwinked us all."
Maurice did not reply.
"Very well; we shall not dwell on it. You are discreet."
Maurice saw that Beauvais was speaking in good faith.
"You have something to say; come to it at once, for it is trying to watch you so closely."
I will give you--" He hesitated and scratched his chin. "I will give you ten thousand crowns as the price of your silence in regard to the South American affair."
A sardonic laugh greeted this proposal. "I did not know that you were so cheap. But it is too late."
"Doubtless, since by this time the authorities are in possession of the interesting facts."
"I beg to differ from you."
"Do as you please," said Maurice, triumphantly. "I sent an account of your former exploits both to my own government and to the one which you so treacherously betrayed. One or the other will not fail to reach."
"I am perfectly well aware of that," Beauvais smiled. He reached into a pocket, and for a moment Maurice expected to see a pistol come forth. But he was needlessly alarmed. Beauvais extracted two envelopes from the pocket and sailed them through the intervening space. They fell on the table. "Put not your trust in hotel clerks," was the sententious observation. "At least, till you have discovered that no one else employs them. I am well served. The clerk was told to intercept your outgoing post; and there is the evidence. Ten thousand crowns and a safe conduct."
Maurice picked up the letters mechanically. They were his; the stamps were not canceled, but the flaps were slit. He turned them this way and that, bewildered. He was convinced that he could in no way cope with this man of curious industries, this man who seemed to have a key for every lock, and whom nothing escaped. And the wise old Marshal had permitted him to leave the kingdom without let or hindrance. Perhaps the Marshal understood that Beauvais was a sort of powder train, and that the farther he was away from the mine the better for all concerned.
"You are a great rascal," Maurice said finally.
"We will waive that point. The matter at present is, how much will it take to buy your silence for the future?"
"And I am sorry I did not kill you when I had the chance," continued Maurice, as if following a train of thought.
"We never realize how great the opportunity is till it has passed beyond our reach. Well, how much?"
"I am not in need of money."
"To be sure; I forgot. But the archbishop could not have given you a competence for life."
"I choked a few facts out of Kopf," said Maurice. "You will wear no crown--that is, earthly."
"And your heavenly one is near at hand," rejoined Beauvais.
Maurice absently fingered a bayonet.
"You refuse this conciliation on my part?" asked Beauvais.
"Well, then, if anything happens to you, you will have only yourself to blame. I will leave you to digest that suggestion. Your life hangs in the balance. I will give you till to-morrow morning to make up your mind."
"Go to the devil!"
"In that, I shall offer you the precedence." And Beauvais backed out; backed out because Maurice had wrenched loose one of the bayonets.
Maurice flung the bayonet across the room, went back to his chair, and tore his ill-fated letters into ribbons. When this was done he stared moodily at the impromptu candlesticks, and tried to conceive the manner in which Beauvais's threat would materialize.
When the troops returned to their watch, they found the prisoner in a recumbent position, staring at the cracks in the floor, oblivious to all else save his thoughts, which were by no means charitable or humane. They resumed their game of cards. At length Maurice fell into a light slumber. The next time he opened his eyes it was because of a peculiar jar, which continued; a familiar, monotonous jar, such as the tread of feet on the earth creates. Tramp, tramp, tramp; it was a large body of men on the march. Soon this was followed by a lighter and noisier sound --cavalry. Finally, there came the rumbling of heavy metal--artillery. More than an hour passed before these varying sounds grew indistinct.
Maurice was now fully awake. An army had passed the Red Chateau.