Chapter XXIII. A Game of Poker and the Stakes
 

The next morning Beauvais came for his answer. It was not the answer he had expected.

"So be it," he replied. "Your government had better appoint your successor at once. Good morning."

"You will die suddenly some day," said Maurice.

Beauvais shrugged, and departed.

It was a dreary long day for the prisoner, who saw no one but his jailers. He wondered what time they would start for Brunnstadt. He had never seen Brunnstadt. He hoped the city would interest him. Was he to be disposed of on the road? No, that would scarcely be; there were too many witnesses. In the city prison, then; that was possible. The outlook was not rose- colored. He set to work to challenge each of his jailers, but this did not serve. At five o'clock the bluff old Colonel Mollendorf came in. He dismissed the troopers, who were glad enough to be relieved.

"I'll be responsible for the prisoner from now on," he said. As soon as he and Maurice were alone he propped his chin and contemplated the sullen face of the prisoner. "Well, my son, I am positive that you have been accused somewhat hastily, but that's the way women have, jumping at conclusions before they read the preface. But you must give Madame credit for being honest in the matter, as well as the others. Beauvais is positive that the move of the archbishop is due to your selling out to him. Come, tell me the story. If you wish, I'll promise not to repeat it. Madame is determined to lock you up in any event."

There was something so likable about the old warrior that Maurice relented.

"There was nothing in the gun-barrels," he said. "Some one had entered that room before me. I thought at first that Beauvais had them; but he is the last man in the world to dispose of them to the prelate. But has the archbishop got them? I wish I knew. That's all there is to the story."

"And her Royal Highness's dog?" slyly.

"What! Did you hear about that?" Maurice flushed.

"There is little going on in Bleiberg that we don't hear about. The princess is charming. Poor girl!"

"Madame's victory will have a strange odor. Can she not let the king die in peace?"

"My son, she dares not. If that throne were vacant of a king-- Let us not talk politics."

"Madame has no love for me," said Maurice.

"Madame has no love for any one, if that will give you any satisfaction."

"It does. My lord the Englishman came near striking me last night."

"I would not lay that up against him. Madame was the power behind the throne."

"And the impulse behind Madame?" smiling.

"You are the only man who has ever crossed Madame's path; she can not forget it."

"And she has put me in a bad light, as far as Fitzgerald is concerned. A man will believe anything a woman says to him, if he loves her."

"Let us avoid dissertations."

"What do you want to talk about?"

"Yourself; you are interesting, entertaining, and instructive," the Colonel answered, laughing. "I never ran across an American who wasn't, and I have met a number. What have you done to Beauvais?"

"It is not exactly what I've done; it is what I know."

"What do you know?"

Maurice repeated the story.

"And you bested him at the rapiers?" in astonishment.

"Is there anything startling about it?" asked Maurice.

"He has no match hereabout." The Colonel looked across the table at the smooth-faced boy-- he was scarcely else--and reflected. "Why did you give up the army?"

"The army in America doesn't run to good clothes; the officers have to work harder than the privates, and, save in Washington, their social status is nil. Besides, there is too much fighting going on all the time. Here, an officer is always on dress parade."

"Still, we are always ready. In the past we show up pretty well in history. But to return to Beauvais, it is very embarrassing, very."

"It will be for him, if I live long enough."

"Eh?"

"Beauvais has promised to push me off the board, to use his own words. I am wondering how he will do it."

"Don't let that disturb you; he will do nothing--now. Well, well; it is all a sorry game; and I find that making history has its disadvantages. But I have dandled Madame as a child on my knee, and her wish is law; wherever her fortunes lead, I must follow. She will win; she can not help winning. But I pity that poor devil of a king, who, they say, is now bereft of speech. Ah, had he been a man, I could have gone into this heart and soul."

"He is on his deathbed. And his daughter, God knows what is in store for her. Prince Frederick is dallying with his peasant girl. The day for the wedding has come and gone, unless he turned up to-day, which is not likely."

"Which is not likely indeed," repeated the Colonel sadly. He pulled out his pipe, and smoked for a time. "But let us not judge harshly, says the Book. There may be circumstances over which Prince Frederick has no control. I suppose your sympathies are on the other side of the path. Youth is always quick and generous; it never stops to weigh causes or to reason why. And strange, its judgment is almost always unerring. I am going to share my dinner with you to-night. I'll try to brighten you up a bit."

"Thanks."

"Then after dinner we'll play poker until they come to take you to Brunnstadt."

"What sort of a city is it?"

"You will not see much of it; so I will not take the trouble to tell you that it is slightly inferior to Bleiberg."

Sure enough, when the dark of evening fell, two servants entered with trays and baskets, and proceeded to lay the table. They put new candles in the bayonets.

"Ha!" said the Colonel; "you have forgotten the wine, rascals!"

"Bring a dozen bottles," Maurice suggested, having an idea in mind.

"Eh?"

"Remember, Colonel, I've been a soldier and a journalist in a country where they only wash with water. In the summer we have whisky iced, in the winter we have it hot; an antidote for both heat and cold. Ah, Colonel, if you only might sniff a mint julep!"

"A dozen bottles, then," said the Colonel to the servants, who retired to execute the order.

"How old will it be?" asked Maurice.

"Twice your age, my son. But do not make any miscalculation about my capacity for tokayer."

"Any miscalculation?" Maurice echoed.

"Yes; if you plan to get me drunk. There are no troopers about, and it would be easy enough for you to slip out if I should lose my head."

Maurice's laugh had a false ring to it. The Colonel had made a very shrewd guess.

"Well!" said the Colonel, with a gesture toward the table.

They sat down, and both made an excellent dinner. Maurice demolished a roasted pheasant, stuffed with chestnuts, while the Colonel disintegrated a duck. The wine came, and the servants ranged six bottles on the side of each plate. It was done so gravely that Maurice laughed heartily. The wine was the oldest in Madame's cellar, and Maurice wondered at the Colonel's temerity in selecting it. The bottles were of thick glass, fat- bottomed, and ungainly, and Maurice figured that there was more than a pint in each. It possessed a delicious bouquet. The Colonel emptied three bottles, with no more effect than if the wine had been water. Maurice did not appreciate this feat until he had himself emptied a bottle. It was then he saw that the boot was likely to be on the other foot.

He looked at the Colonel enviously; the old soldier was a gulf. He had miscalculated, indeed. But he was fertile in plans, and a more reasonable one occurred to him. He drank another bottle and began to talk verbosely. Later he grew confidential. He told the Colonel a great many things which-- had never happened, things impossible and improbable. The Colonel listened soberly, and nodded now and again. Dinner past, they pushed the remains aside and began to play poker, a game at which the Colonel proved to be no novice, much to Maurice's wonder.

"Why, you know the game as thoroughly as an Arizona corporal."

"I generally spend a month of the winter in Vienna. One of your compatriots taught me the interesting game." The Colonel shuffled the cards. "It is the great American game, so I am told."

"O, they play checkers in the New England states," said Maurice, hiccoughing slightly. "But out west and in all the great cities poker has the way."

"What have you got?" asked the Colonel, answering a call.

"Jacks full."

"Takes the pot;" and this Americanism came so naturally that Maurice roared.

"Poker is a great preliminary study to diplomacy," said the Colonel, as he scrutinized his hand. "You raise it?"

"Yes. One card. Diplomacy? So it is. I played a game with the Chinese ambassador in Washington one night. I was teaching him how to play. I lost all the ready money I had with me. Next day I found out that he was the shrewdest player in the diplomatic circles. Let's make it a jackpot."

"All the same to me."

And the game went on. Presently Maurice threw aside his coat. He was feeling the warmth of the wine, but he opened another bottle.

"Is there any truth," said the Colonel, "about your shooting a man who is found cheating in your country?"

"There is, if you can draw quicker than he." Maurice glanced at his hand and threw it down.

"What did you have?"

"Nothing. I was trying to fill a straight."

"So was I," said the Colonel, sweeping the board. "It's your deal." He unbottoned his coat.

Maurice felt a shiver of delight. Sticking out of the Colonel's belt was the ebony handle of a cavalry revolver, and he made up his mind to get it. There were no troopers around--the Colonel had admitted as much. He began talking rapidly, sometimes incoherently. In a corner of the room he saw the cords which had been around his wrists and ankles the night before.

"Poker," said the Colonel, "depends mostly on what you Americans call bluff. A bluff, as I understand it, is making the others think you have them when you haven't, or you haven't got them when you have. In one case you scare them, in the other you fish. You're getting flushed, my son; you'll have a headache to-night; and in an hour you start."

An hour! There was fever in Maurice's veins, but it was not caused wholly by the heat of the wine. How should he manage it? He must have that revolver.

"Call? What have you got?" asked the Colonel.

"Three kings--no, by George! only a pair. I thought a queen was a king. My head's beginning to get shaky. Colonel, I believe I am getting drunk."

"I am sure of it."

Maurice got up and rolled in an extraordinary fashion, but he was careful not to overdo it. He began to sing. The Colonel got up, too, and he was laughing. Maurice accidentally knocked over some empty bottles; he kicked them about.

"Sh!" cried the Colonel, coming around the table; "you'll stampede the horses."

Maurice staggered toward him, and the Colonel caught him in his arms. Maurice suddenly drew back, and the Colonel found himself looking into the cavernous tube of his own revolver. Not a muscle in his face moved.

"Take off your coat," said Maurice, quietly.

The Colonel complied. "You are not so very drunk just now."

"No. It was one of those bluffs when you make them think you haven't them when you have."

"What next?" asked the Colonel.

"Those cords in the corner."

The Colonel picked them up, sat down and gravely tied one around his ankles. Maurice watched him curiously. The old fellow was rather agreeable, he thought.

"Now," the Colonel inquired calmly, "how are you going to tie my hands? Can you hold the revolver in one hand and tie with the other?"

"Hang me!" exclaimed Maurice, finding himself brought to a halt.

"My son," said the Colonel, "you are clever. In fact, you are one of those fellows who grow to be great. You never miss an opportunity, and more often than not you invent opportunities, which is better still. The truth is, you have proceeded exactly on the lines I thought you would; and thereby you have saved me the trouble of lying or having it out with Madame. I am a victim, not an accomplice; I was forced at the point of a revolver; I had nothing to say. If I had really been careless you would have accomplished the feat just the same. For it was easily accomplished you will admit. 'Tis true I knew you were acting because I expected you to act. All this preamble puzzles you."

Certainly Maurice's countenance expressed nothing less than perplexity. He stepped back a few paces.

"You have," continued the Colonel, "perhaps three-quarters of an hour. You will be able to get out of here. You will have to depend on your resources to cross the frontier."

"Would you just as soon explain to me--"

"It means that a certain young lady, like myself, believes in your innocence."

"The countess?" Maurice cried eagerly, remembering the look of the night before and the tears which were in it.

"I will not mention any names. Suffice it to say that it was due to her pleading that I consented to play poker--and to let you fall into my arms. Come, to work," holding out his hands.

First Maurice clasped the hand and wrung it. "Colonel, I do not want you to get into trouble on my account--"

"Go along with you! If you were really important," in half a banter, "it would be altogether a different matter. As it is, you are more in the way than anything else, only Madame does not see it in that light. Come, at my wrists, and take your handkerchief and tie it over my mouth; make a complete job of it while you're at it."

"But they'll wonder how I tied you--"

"By the book, the boy is quite willing to sit down and play poker with me till the escort comes! Don't trouble yourself about me; Madame has too much need of me to give me more than a slight rating. Hurry and be off, and remember that Beauvais has promised to push you off the board. Take the near path for the woods and strike northeast. If you run into any sentries it will be your own fault."

"And the army?"

"The army? Who the devil has said anything about the army?"

"I heard it go past last night."

"Humph! Keep to the right of the pass. Now, quick, before my conscience speaks above a whisper."

"I should like to see the countess."

"You will--if you reach Bleiberg by to-morrow night."

Maurice needed no further urging, and soon he had the Colonel securely bound and silenced. Next he put on the Colonel's hat and coat, and examined the revolver.

"It was very kind of you to load it, Colonel."

The Colonel blinked his eyes.

"Au revoir!" said Maurice, as he made for the door. "Vergis mein nicht!" and he was gone.

He crept down the stairs, cautiously entered the court, it was deserted. The moon was up and shining. The gate was locked, but he climbed it without mishap. Not a sentry was in sight. He followed the path, and swung off into the forest. He was free. Here he took a breathing spell. When he started onward he held the revolver ready. Woe to the sentry who blundered on him! For he was determined to cross the frontier if there was a breath of life in him. Moreover, he must be in Bleiberg within twenty hours.

He was positive that Madame the duchess intended to steal a march, to declare war only when she was within gunshot of Bleiberg. It lay with him to provent this move. His cup of wrath was full. From now on he was resolved to wage war against Madame on his own account. She had laughed in his face. He pushed on, examining trees, hollows and ditches. Sometimes he put his hand to his ear and listened. There was no sound in the great lonely forest, save for the low murmur of the wind through the sprawling boughs. Shadows danced on the forest floor. Once he turned and shook his clenched fist toward the spot which marked the location of the Red Chateau. He thanked Providence that he was never to see it again. What an adventure to tell at the clubs when he once more regained his Vienna! Would he regain it?

Why did Madame keep Fitzgerald to her strings? He concluded not to bother himself with problems abstract; the main object was to cross the Thalians by a path of his own choosing. When he had covered what he thought to be a quarter of a mile, he mounted a lookout. The highway was about three hundred yards to the left. That was where it should be. He saw no sentries, so he slid down from the tree and resumed his journey. The chestnuts, oaks, and firs were growing thicker and denser. A dead branch cracked with a loud report beneath his feet. With his heart almost in his throat, he lay down and listened. A minute passed; he listened in vain for an answering noise. He got up and went on.

Presently he came upon a cluster of trees which was capable of affording a hiding place for three or four men. He stood still and surveyed it. The moon cast moving shadows on either side of it, but these had no human shape. He laughed silently at his fear, and as he was about to pass the cluster a man stepped out from behind it, his eyes gleaming and his hand extended. He was rather a handsome fellow, but pale and emaciated. He wore a trooper's uniform, and Maurice, swearing softly, concluded that his dash for liberty had come to naught. He, too, held a revolver in his hand, but he dared not raise it. There was a certain expression on the trooper's face which precluded any arguing.

"If you move," the trooper said, in a mild voice; "if you utter a sound, I'll blow off the top of your cursed head!"