The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter XXIV. The Prisoner of the Red Chateau
There the two stood, mottled in the moonshine and shadow, with wild eyes and nostrils distended, the one triumphant, the other raging and impotent. Maurice was growing weary of fortune's discourtesies. He gazed alternately from his own revolver, lying at his feet, to the one in the hand of this unexpected visitant. Only two miles between him and freedom, yet he must turn back. The Colonel had reckoned without Madame, and therefore without reason. This man had probably got around in front of him when he climbed the tree. He turned sullenly and started to walk away, expecting to be followed.
"Halt! Where the devil are you going?"
"Why, back to your cursed chateau!" Maurice answered surlily.
The strange trooper laughed discordantly. "Back to the chateau? I think not. Now, then, right about face--march! Aye, toward the frontier; and if I have to go on alone, so much the worse for you. I've knocked in one man's head; if necessary, I'll blow off the top of yours. You know the way back to Bleiberg, I don't; that is why I want your company. Now march."
But Maurice did not march; he was filled with curiosity. "Are you a trooper in Madame the duchess's household?" he asked.
"No, curse you!"
"Who are you, then?"
"Come, come; this will not pass. No tricks; you have been following me these twenty minutes."
"The deuce I have!" exclaimed Maurice, bewildered. "To Bleiberg, is it?"
"And without loss of time. When we cross the Thalians I shall be perfectly willing to parley with you."
"To Bleiberg, then," said Maurice. "Since that is my destination, the devil I care how I get there."
"Do you mean to tell me that you are going to Bleiberg?" surprise mingling with his impatience.
"No place else."
"Are you a spy?" menacingly.
"No more than you."
"But that uniform!"
"I fancy yours looks a good deal like it," Maurice replied testily.
"I confess I never saw you before, and your tongue has a foreign twist," with growing doubt.
"I am sure I never saw you before, nor want to see you again."
"What are you doing in that uniform?"
"You have the advantage of me; suppose you begin the introduction?"
"Indeed I have the advantage of you, and propose to maintain it. Who are you and what are you doing here? Answer!"
There was something in the young man's aspect which convinced Maurice that it would be folly to trifle. Besides, he gave to his words an air which distinguishes the man who commands from the man who serves. Maurice briefly acquainted the young man with his name and position.
"And you?" he asked.
"I?" The young man laughed again. It was an unpleasant laugh. "Never mind who I am. Let us go, we are losing time. What is the date?" suddenly.
"The twentieth of September," answered Maurice.
"My God, a day too late!" The young man had an attack of vertigo, and was obliged to lean against a tree for support. "Are you telling me the truth about yourself?"
"I am. I myself was attempting to dispense with the questionable hospitality of the Red Chateau--good Lord!" striking his forehead.
"What's the matter?"
"Are you the mysterious prisoner of the chateau, the man they have been keeping at the end of the east corridor on the third floor?"
"Yes. And woe to the woman who kept me there! How came you there?"
Maurice, confident that something extraordinary was taking place, related in synopsis his adventures.
"And this cursed Englishman?"
"Will drain a bitter cup. Madame is playing with him."
"And the king; is he dead?"
"He is dying." Maurice's wonder grew. What part had this strange young man in this comedy, which was rapidly developing into a tragedy?
"And her Highness--her Royal Highness?" eagerly clutching Maurice by the arm; "and she?"
"She does not murmur, though both her pride and her heart are sore. She has scarcely a dozen friends. Her paralytic father is the theme of ribald jest; and now they laugh at her because the one man who perhaps could have saved the throne has deserted her like a coward. Hang him, I say!"
"What do they say?" The tones were hollow.
"They say he is enamoured of a peasant girl, and dallies with her, forgetting his sacred vows, his promised aid, and perhaps even this, his wedding day."
"God help him!" was the startling and despairing cry. . . . He was again seized with the vertigo, and swayed against the tree. For a moment he forgot Maurice, covered his face with his unengaged hand, and sobbed.
Maurice was helpless; he could offer no consolation. This grief he could not understand. He stooped and picked up his revolver and waited.
"I am weak," said the other man, dashing his hand from his eyes; "I am weak and half starved. It would be better for all concerned if I blew out my brains. The twentieth, the twentieth!" he repeated, dully. "Curse her!" he burst forth; "as there's a God above us, I'll have revenge. Aye, I'll return to the chateau, Madame, that I will, but at the head of ten thousand men! . . . The twentieth! She will never forgive me; she will think I, too, deserted her!" He broke down again.
"An army!" cried Maurice.
"Aye, and ten thousand men! Come," taking Maurice by the arm; "come, they may be seeking us. To the frontier. Every hour is precious. To a telegraph office! We shall see if I dally with peasant girls, if I forsake the woman I love!"
"You?" Maurice retreated a step. The silver moonshine became tinged with red.
"I am Prince Frederick, and I love her Highness. I would sacrifice a thousand kingdoms to spare her a moment's sorrow. I have always loved her."
"What a woman!" Maurice murmured, as the scheme of Madame's flashed through his mind. "What a woman! And she had the audacity to kidnap you, too!"
"And by the most dishonorable device. I and my suite of gentlemen were coming to Bleiberg to make the final arrangements. At Ehrenstein I received a telegram which requested me to visit till the following train a baron who was formerly a comrade of my father. The telegram advised me of his sudden illness, and that he had something important to disclose to me. I bade my gentlemen, save one, proceed to Bleiberg. My aide and I entered the carriage which was to convey us to the castle. We never reached it. On the road we fell into an ambush, a contrivance of Madame's. I was brought to the chateau. Whatever happened to Hofer, my aide, I do not know. Doubtless he is dead. But Madame shall pay, both in pride and wealth. I will lay waste this duchy of hers, though in the end the emperor crush me. Let us be off."
They stumbled on through the forest. So confused was Maurice that he forgot his usual caution. The supreme confidence of this woman and the flawlessness of her schemes dazed him. So far she had stopped at nothing; where would she end? A Napoleon in petticoats, she was about to appall the confederation. She had suppressed a prince who was heir to a kingdom triple in power and size to the kingdom which she coveted. Madame the duchess was relying on some greater power, else her plans were madness.
As for the prince, he had but one thought: to reach Bleiberg. The confinement, together with mental suffering, anxiety and forced inaction, began to tell on him. Twice he tripped and fell, and Maurice had to return to assist him to his feet. However could they cross the mountains, a feat which needed both courage and extreme physical endurance?
"I am so weak," said the prince, "so pitiably weak! I thought to frighten the woman by starving myself, poor fool that I was!"
And they went on again. Maurice was beginning to feel the effect of his wine-bibbing; he had a splitting headache.
"Silence!" he suddenly whispered, sinking and dragging the prince with him.
A hundred yards in advance of them stood a sentinel, his body bent forward and a hand to his ear. Presently he, too, lay down. Five minutes passed. The sentinel rose, and convinced that his ears had tricked him, resumed his lonely patrol. He disappeared toward the west, while the fugitives made off in an easterly direction. Maurice was a soldier again. Every two or three hundred yards he knelt and pressed his ear to the cold, damp earth and waited for a familiar jar. The prince watched these movements with interest.
"You have been a soldier?" he asked.
"Yes. Perhaps we had better strike out for the mountains. The sentry line can not extend as far as this."
But now they could see the drab peaks of the mountains which loomed between the partly dismantled trees. Beyond lay the kingdom. Would they ever reach it? There was only one pass; this they dared not make. Yet if they attempted to cross the mountains in a deserted place, they might very easily get lost; for in some locations it was fully six miles across the range, and this, with the ups and downs and windings in and out, might lengthen into twenty miles. They struck out toward the mountains, and after half an hour they came upon an unforeseen obstacle. They sat down in despair. This obstacle was the river, not very, wide, but deep, turbulent and impassable.
"We shall have to risk the pass," said Maurice, gloomily; "though heaven knows how we are to get through it. We have ten shots between us."
They followed the river. The roar of it deadened all other sounds. For a mile they plodded on, silent, watchful and meditative. The prince thought of his love; Maurice tried to forget his. For him the romance had come to an end, its logical end; and it was now only a question of getting back to the world to which he belonged and remaining there. He recalled a line he had read somewhere: a deep love, gashes into the soul as a scar is hewn upon the body and remains there during the whole life. . .
"Look!" cried the prince. He pointed toward the west.
Maurice came out of his dream and looked. Some distance west of the pass, perhaps half a mile from where they stood, Maurice saw the twinkle of a hundred campfires. It was Madame's army in bivouac.
"What does this mean?" asked the prince.
"It means that the duchess is on the eve of striking a blow for her crown," answered Maurice. "And how are we to make the pass, which is probably filled with soldiers? If only we could find a boat! Ah! what would your Highness call this?" He pointed to a thread-like line of bare earth which wended riverward.
"A sheep or cattle path," said the prince, after a close inspection.
"Then the river is perhaps fordable here!" exclaimed Maurice jubilantly. "At any rate, we'll try it; if it gets too deep, we'll come back."
He walked to the water's edge, studied the black whirling mass, shrugged and stepped in. The prince came after him, unhesitatingly. Both shivered. The water was intensely cold. But the bed was shallow, and the river never mounted above the waist. However, in midstream it rushed strongly and wildly along, and all but carried them off their feet. They arrived in safety at the opposite shore, weak and cold in body, but warm in spirit. They lay on the grass for several moments, breathing heavily. They might now gain the pass by clambering up the mountain and picking their way down from the other side. It was not possible that Madame's troopers had entered into the kingdom.
"I am giving out," the prince confessed reluctantly. "Let us make as much headway as we can while I last."
They stood up. Now the moon fell upon them both; and they viewed each other with no little curiosity. What the prince saw pleased him, for he possessed a good eye. What Maurice saw was a frank, manly countenance, youthful, almost boyish. The prince did not look to be more than three and twenty, if that; but there was a man's determination in his jaw. This jaw pleased Maurice, for it confided to him that Madame had now something that would cause her worry.
"I put myself in your care," said the prince, offering his hand. "I am not equal to much. A man can not see his wedding day come and go without him, helpless to prevent it, and not have the desire to sit down and weep and curse. You will see nothing but the unfavorable side of me for the next dozen hours."
"I'm not altogether amiable myself," replied Maurice with a short laugh. "Let us get out of the moonlight," he added; "we are somewhat conspicuous, and besides, we should keep moving; this cold is paralyzing. Is your Highness equal to the climbing?"
"Equal or not, lead the way. If I fall I'll call you."
And the weary march began again; over boulders, through tangles of tough shrubbery, up steep inclines, around precipices, sometimes enveloped in mists, yet still they kept on. Often the prince fell over ragged stones, but he picked himself up without assistance; though he swore some, Maurice thought none the less of him for that bit of human weakness. The cold was numbing, and neither felt the cuts and bruises.
After two hours of this fatiguing labor they arrived upon a small plateau, about two thousand feet above the valley. The scene was solemn and imposing. The world seemed lying at their feet. The chateau, half hidden in the mist, sparkled like an opal. Maurice scowled at it. To the prince the vision was as reviving as a glass of wine. He threatened it with his fist, and plunged on with renewed vigor. There are few sensations so stimulating as the thought of a complete revenge. The angle of vision presently changed, and the historic pile vanished. Maurice never saw the Red Chateau again.
Little more in the way of mishap befell them; and when the moon had wheeled half way down from the zenith, the kingdom lay below them. A descent of an hour's duration brought them into the pass. Maurice calculated that nearly five hours had passed since he left the chateau; for the blue was fading in the east. The phantom vitality of the prince now forsook him; his legs refused their offices, and he sank upon a boulder, his head in his hands. Maurice was not much better; but the prince had given him the burden of responsibility, and he was determined to hold up under it.
"If your Highness will remain here," he said, "I will fetch assistance, for the barrack can not be far off."
The prince nodded and Maurice tramped away. But the miniature barrack and the quaint stone customs house both were wrapt in gloom and darkness. Maurice investigated. Both buildings were deserted; there was no sign of life about. He broke a window, and entered the customs office. Remembering that Colonel Mollendorf smoked, he searched the inner pocket of his coat. He drew forth a box of wax matches, struck one and looked about. A struggle had taken place. Evidences were strewn on the floor. The telegraph operator's table had been smashed into bits, the instrument twisted out of shape, the jars broken and the wires cut. Like indications of a disturbance were also found in the barrack.
Maurice began to comprehend. Madame's troopers had crossed the frontier, but they had returned again, taking with them the handful of troopers belonging to the king. It was plain that the object of this skirmish had been to destroy communications between Bleiberg and the frontier. Madame desired to effect a complete surprise, to swoop down on the capital before it could bring a large force into the field.
There is an unwritten law that when one country intends to wage war against its neighbor a formal declaration shall be made. But again Madame had forsaken the beaten paths. More than three weeks had passed since the duchy's representative in Bleiberg had been discredited and given his passports. At once the duchess had retaliated by discrediting the king's representative in Brunnstadt. Ordinarily this would have been understood as a mutual declaration of war. Instead, both governments ignored each other, one suspiciously, the other intentionally. All of which is to say, the gage of war had been flung, but neither had stooped to pick it up.
Perhaps Madame expected by this sudden aggressiveness to win her fight with as little loss of blood as possible, which in justice to her was to her credit. Again, a declaration of war openly made might have moved the confederation to veto it by coercion. To win without loss of life would leave the confederation powerless to act. Therefore it will be seen that Madame was not only a daring woman, but a general of no mean ability.
This post was an isolated one; between it and Bleiberg there was not even a village. The main pass from the kingdom into the duchy was about thirty miles east. Here was a small but lively city named Coberg, a railway center, garrisoned by one thousand troops. At this pass Madame's contemplated stroke of war would have been impossible. The railway ran directly from Coberg to Brunnstadt, fifty miles south of the frontier. A branch of the railway ran from Brunnstadt to a small town seven miles south of the Red Chateau, which accounts for the ease with which Madame's troops had reached the isolated pass. It was now likely that Madame would arrive before Bleiberg ere her enemies dreamed of the stroke. Maurice could see how well the traitorous administration had played into Madame's hands. Here was the one weak spot, and they had allowed it to remain thus weak.
"The kingdom is lost," thought Maurice. "His Highness and I may as well return to the chateau, for all the good our escape will do us. Hang them all!"
He began to forage, and discovered a bottle full of peach brandy. He drank half the contents, reserving the remainder for the prince. As he lowered the bottle there came a sound which caused him almost to lose hold of the vigorous tonic. The sound he heard was the shrill whinney of a horse. He pocketed the bottle and dashed out to the stables. To his joy several horses stamped restlessly in the stalls. The attacking party had without doubt come on foot. He led out two, saddled and bridled them and returned to the prince, who had fallen asleep. Maurice roused him.
"To Bleiberg, your Highness," he cried, at the same time offering the bottle, which the prince did not hesitate to empty.
"Ha !" staggering to his feet. "Where are the men?"
Maurice explained the cause of their absence. The prince swore, and climbed with difficulty into the saddle.
"Thank God," he said, as they galloped away, "we shall be there first."
"Adieu, Madame!" Maurice cried, airily. He was free.
"To our next meeting, duchess!" The prince, too, was free, but he thirsted for a full revenge.
They had been on the way but a short time when Maurice lifted his arm.
The prince raised his head. It was dawn, yellow and cold and pure.
They fell into silence; sometimes Maurice caught himself counting the beat of the hoofs and the variation of sounds, as when they struck sand or slate, or crossed small wooden bridges. Here and there he saw peasants going into the fields to begin the long, long day of toil. The saddle on which he sat had been the property of a short man, for the stirrups were too high, and the prince's were too low. But neither desired to waste time to adjust them. And so they rode with dangling legs and bodies sunken in the saddles; mute, as if by agreement.
They had gone perhaps ten miles when they perceived a horse flying toward them, half a mile away. The rider was not yet visible. They felt no alarm, but instinctively they drew together. Nearer and nearer came the lonely horseman, and as the distance lessened into some hundred yards they discerned the flutter of a gown.
"A woman!" exclaimed Maurice. "And alone this time of morning!"
"Eh?" cried the prince; "and heading for the duchy? Let us wait."
They drew up to the side of the highway. The woman came fearlessly on, her animal's head down and his tail flaring out behind. On, on; abreast of them; as she flew past there was a vision of a pale, determined face, a blond head bared to the chill wind. She heeded not their challenge; it was a question whether or not she heard it. They stood watching her until she and her horse dwindled into a mere moving speck, finally to become lost altogether in a crook of the road.
"I should like to know what that means," said Maurice.
"It is very strange," the prince said, musingly. "I have seen that woman before. She is one of the dancers at the opera."
"Mayhap she has a lover on the other side."
"Mayhap. Let us be on. There's the sun, and we are a good thirteen miles away!" and the prince slapped the neck of his horse, which bounded forward.
This tiring pace they maintained until they mounted the hill from which they could see the glittering spires of the city, and the Werter See as it flashed back the sunlight.
"Bleiberg!" Maurice waved his hand.
"Thanks to you, that I look on it."
It was ten o'clock when they passed under the city gates.
"Monsieur, will you go with me to the palace?" asked the prince.
"If your Highness will excuse me," said Maurice; "no, I should be in the way; and besides I am dead for want of sleep."
"I shall never sleep," grumbled the prince, "till I have humbled that woman. And you? Have you no rankle in your heart? Have you no desire to witness that woman's humiliation?"
"Your Highness, I belong to a foreign country."
"No matter; be my aide. Come; I offer you a complete revenge for the treatment you have received at Madame's hands. Your government shall never know."
Maurice studied the mane of his horse. Suddenly he made a gesture. This gesture consigned to the four winds his diplomatic career. "I accept," he said. "You will find me at the Continental. I confess that I have no love for this woman. She has robbed me of no little conceit."
"To the palace, then; to the palace! And this hour to-morrow we, you and I, will drink to her Royal Highness at the Red Chateau. To the palace!"
Up the Strasse they raced, through the lower town to the upper, and down the broad asphalt to the palace gates. The prince rushed his horse to the very bars and shook them in his wild impatience.
"Ho! open, open!" he called.
Several cuirassiers lounged about. At the sight of these two hatless, bedraggled men storming the gates, they ran forward with drawn swords and angry cries. Lieutenant Scharfenstein was among them. At second glance he recognized Maurice, who hailed him.
"Open, Lieutenant," he cried; "it is his Highness, Prince Frederick!"
The bars came down, the gates swung in.
"Go and sleep," said the prince to Maurice; "I will send an orderly for you when the time comes." And with this he dashed up the driveway to the main entrance of the palace, leaped from his horse and disappeared.
Maurice wheeled and drove leisurely to the Continental, leaving the amazed cuirassiers gaping after him. He experienced that exuberance of spirits which always comes with a delightful day dream. He forgot his weariness, his bruises. To mingle directly in the affairs of kings and princes, to be a factor among factors who surround and uphold thrones, seemed so at variance with his republican learning that he was not sure that all this was not one long dream--Fitzgerald and his consols, the meeting with the princess, the adventures at Madame's chateau, the duel with Beauvais, the last night's flight with the prince across the mountains! Yes; he had fallen asleep somewhere and had been whisked away into a kind of fairyland. Every one was in trouble just now, as they always are in certain chapters of fairy tales, but all would end happily, and then--he would wake.
Meanwhile the prince entered the palace and was proceeding up the grand corridor, when a bared sword stayed his progress.
"Monsieur," said von Mitter, "you have lost your way. You can not enter here."
"I?" a haughty, threatening expression on his pale face. "Are you sure?"
Von Mitter fell back against the wall and all but lost hold of his saber. "Your Highness?" he gasped, overcome.
"Even so!" said the prince. "The archbishop! the Marshal! Lead me to them at once!"
Von Mitter was too much the soldier not to master his surprise at once. He saluted, clicked his heels and limped toward the throne room. He stopped at the threshold, saluted again, and, in a voice full of quavers, announced:
"His Highness Prince Frederick of Carnavia."
He stepped aside, and the prince pushed past him into the throne room. At this dramatic entrance there rose from the archbishop, the Marshal, the princess, the Carnavian ambassador, from all the court dignitaries, a cry of wonder and astonishment.
"Aye!" cried the prince, brokenly, for his joy at seeing the princess nigh overcame him. "I have been a prisoner of Madame's, who at this moment is marching on Bleiberg with an army four thousand strong!" And stumblingly he related his misadventures.
The Marshal did not wait until he had done, nor did the new Colonel of the cuirassiers; both rushed from the room. The archbishop frowned; while the princess and the court stared at the prince with varying emotions. Before the final word had passed his lips, he approached her Highness, fell on his knee and raised her hand to his lips. He noticed not how cold it was.
"Thank God, Mademoiselle," he said, "that once more I look into your eyes. And if one wedding day is gone--well, there is yet time for another!" He, rose, and proudly before them all he drew her toward him and kissed her cheek. It was his right; she was, the light of all his dreams, at once his bride-to-be and lady- love. But in his joy and eagerness he did not see how pale she grew at the touch of his lips, nor how the lids of her eyes trembled and fell.
Next the prince recounted Maurice's adventures, how he became connected with those at the chateau, even Fitzgerald's fall from grace. The indignation and surprise which was accorded this recital was unbounded.
The brown eyes of the princess filled. In a moment she had traversed the space of ten years to a rare September noon, when a gray-haired old man had kissed her hand and praised her speech. A young dog stood beside her, ready for a romp in the park. Across the path sat her father, who was smiling, and who would never smile again. How many times had her girlish fancy pictured the son of that old man! How many times had she dreamed of him-- aye, prayed for him! The room grew dark, and she pressed her hand over her heart. To her the future was empty indeed. There was nothing left but the vague perfume of the past, the faint incense of futile, childish dreams. To stand on the very threshold of life, and yet to see no joy beyond! She struggled against the sob which rose, and conquered it.
"To arms, Messieurs, to arms!" cried the prince, feverishly. "To arms!"
The archbishop stepped forward and took the prince's hand in his own.
"God wills all things," he said, sadly, "and perhaps he has willed that your Highness should come too late!" And that strange, habitual smile was gone--forever. No one could fathom the true significance of this peculiar speech.
"But "aux armes" was taken up, and spread throughout the city.