The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter XXV. The Fortunes of War
War! The whole city was in tumult. The guests were leaving the hotels, the timid were preparing to fly, and shopkeepers were putting up their blinds and hiding their valuables; the parks and cafes were deserted. The railway booking office was crowded, and a babel of tongues quarreled for precedence. The siege of Paris was but yesterday's news, and tourists did not propose to be walled in from the outer world. Some looked upon the scene as a comic opera; others saw the tragedy of men snarling at one another's throats.
Two hundred gendarmes patrolled the streets; for in war time the dregs of a city float to the surface. Above the foreign legations flags rose, offering protection to all those who possessed the right to claim it. Less than four thousand troops had marched from the city that day, but these were the flower of the army, consisting of two thousand foot, six cannon and twelve hundred horse. Europe has always depended largely on the cavalry, which in the past has been a most formidable engine in warfare.
With gay plumes and banners, glittering helmets and flashing cuirasses, they had gone forth to meet Madame and drive her back across the range. They had made a brave picture, especially the royal cuirassiers, who numbered three hundred strong, and who were to fight not only for glory, but for bread. Fifty of them had been left behind to guard the palaces.
In the royal bedchamber the king lay, all unconscious of the fate impending. The brain had ceased to live; only a feeble pulse stirred irregularly. The state physician shook his head, and, from time to time, laid his fingers on the unfeeling wrist. To him it was a matter of a few hours.
But to the girl, whose face lay hidden in the counterpane, close to one of those senseless hands, to her it was a matter of a breaking heart, of eyes which could be no longer urged to tears, the wells having dried up. Dear God, she thought, how cruel it was! Her tried and trusted friend, the one playmate of her childhood, was silently slipping out of her life forever. Ah, what to her were crowns and kingdoms, aye, and even war? Her father dead, what mattered it who reigned? How she prayed that he might live! They would go away together, and live in peace and quiet, undisturbed by the storms of intrigue. . . . It was not to be; he was dying. She would be the wife of no man; her father, hovering in spirit above her, would read her heart and understand. Dead, he would ask no sacrifice of her. Henceforth only God would be her king, and she would worship him in some sacred convent.
The old valet, who had served his master from boyhood, stood in the anteroom and fumbled his lips, his faded eyes red with weeping. He was losing the only friend he had. Elsewhere the servants wandered about restlessly, waiting for news from the front, to learn if they, too, were to join in the mad flight from the city. Few servants love masters in adversity. Self- interest is the keynote to their existences.
In the east wing three men were holding a whispered consultation. The faces of two were pale and deep-lined; the face of the third expressed a mixture of condolence and triumph. These three gentlemen were the archbishop, the chancellor and the Austrian ambassador. History has not taken into account what passed between these three men, but subsequent events proved that it signified disaster to one who dreamed of conquest and of power.
Said the ambassador, rising: "After what has been said, his Imperial Majesty will, I can speak authoritatively, further discredit Walmoden; for I have this day received information from a reliable source which precludes any rehabilitation of that prince. My deepest sympathies are with her Highness; his Majesty highly honored her unfortunate father. Permit me to bid you good day, for you know that the matter under my hand needs my immediate attention."
When he had gone the prelate said: "My friend, our services to the kingdom are nearly over."
"We are lost!" replied the chancellor. "The king is happy, indeed."
"I find," said the prelate, "that we have been lost for ten years. Had this Englishman proved true, it would not have mattered; had Prince Frederick arrived in time, still it would not have mattered. But above all, I was determined that Madame the duchess should not triumph. The end was written ten years ago. How invincible is fate! How incontestible its decrees!"
In the lower town the students were preparing a riot, which was to take place that night. Old Stuler's was thronged. Stuler himself looked on indifferently, even listlessly. He had heard of Kopf's death.
It was half after five of the afternoon. Six miles beyond the Althofen bridge, in all thirteen miles from Bleiberg, a long, low cloud of dust hung over the king's highway. This cloud of dust was caused by the hurried, rhythmic pad-pad of human feet, the striking of hoofs and the wheels of cannon. It marked the progress of an army. To the great surprise of the Marshal, the prince and the staff, they had pushed thus far during the afternoon without seeing a sign of the enemy. Was Madame asleep? Was she so confident her projects were unknown that she had chosen night as the time of her attack? Night, indeed, when the strength of her forces would be a matter of conjecture to the assaulted, who at the suddenness of her approach would succumb to panic! The prince was jubilant and hopeful. He had no doubt that they would arrive at the pass just as Madame was issuing forth. This meant an easy victory, for once the guns covered the narrow pass, though Madame's army were ten times as strong, its defeat was certain. A small force might hold it in check for hours.
A squadron of cuirassiers had been sent forward to reconnoiter, and as yet none had returned with alarms. The road had many windings, and was billowed frequently with hills, and ran through small forests. Only the vast blue bulk of the mountains remained ever in view.
"We shall drink at the Red Chateau to-night," said the prince, gaily, to Maurice.
"That we shall," replied Maurice; "and the best in the cellars."
Only the Marshal said nothing; he knew what war was. In his youth he had served in Transylvania, and he was not minded to laugh and jest. Then, too, there was injustice on both sides. Poor devil! as his thoughts recurred to the king. Touched for the moment by the wings of ambition, which is at best a white vulture, he had usurped another's throne, and to this end! But he was less answerable than the archbishop, who had urged him.
Occasionally he glanced back at the native troops, the foot, the horse, the artillery, and scowled. From these his glance wandered to the cold, impassive face of General Kronau, who rode at his side, and he rubbed his nose. Kronau had been a favorite of Albrecht's . . . How would he act? In truth, the Marshal's thoughts were not altogether pleasant. Some of these men surrounding him, exchanging persiflage, might never witness another sunset. For, while the world would look upon this encounter as one looks upon a comedy, for some it would serve as tragedy. Often he lent his ear to the gay banter of the young American, and watched the careless smile on his face. What was he doing here? Why was he risking his life for no cause whatever, an alien, in natural sympathy neither with the kingdom nor with the duchy? A sad, grim smile parted his lips.
"O, the urbanity of the young and the brave!" he murmured.
Maurice felt the old familiar exhilaration--the soldier's exhilaration--quicken the beat of his pulse. He did not ask himself why he was here; he knew why. A delightful flower had sprung up in his heart, and fate had nipped it. Whither this new adventure would lead him he cared not. From now on life for him must be renewed by continual change and excitement. Since no one depended on him, his life was his to dispose of as he willed. Friends? He laughed. He knew the world too well. He himself was his best friend, for he had always been true to himself.
He might be shot, but he had faced that possibility before. Besides, to-day's experience would be new to him. He had never witnessed a battle in the open, man to man, in bright, resplendent uniforms. A ragged, dusty troop of brown-skinned men in faded blue, with free and easy hats, irregular of formation, no glory, no brilliancy, skirmishing with outlawed white men and cunning Indians, that was the extent of his knowledge by experience. True, these self-same men in dingy blue fought with a daring such as few soldiers living possessed; but they lacked the ideal picturesqueness which made this army so attractive.
The sharp edges of his recent fatigue were not yet dulled, but his cuirass sat lightly upon him, the sound of the dangling saber at his side smote pleasantly his ear, and the black Mecklenberg under him was strong and active. To return to Madame's chateau in the guise of a conqueror was a most engaging thought. She had humbled his self-love, now to humble hers! He no longer bothered himself about Beauvais, whose case he had placed in the hands of the Austrian ambassador.
Gay and debonair he rode that late September afternoon. No man around him had so clear an eye nor so constant a vivacity. Since he had nothing but his life to lose, he had no fear. Let the theater be full of light while the play lasted, and let the curtain fall to a round of huzzas! For a few short hours ago he had kissed a woman's hand and had looked into her sad brown eyes. "Why you do this I do not know, nor shall I ask. Monsieur, my prayers go with you." Was not that an amulet? His diplomatic career! He fell to whistling.
"Ah! que j'aime les militaires!"
More than once the prince felt the sting of envy in his heart at the sight of this embodiment of supreme nonchalance. It spoke of a healthy salt in the veins, a salt such as kings themselves can not always boast of. A foreigner, a republican? No matter; a gallant man.
"Monsieur," he said impulsively, "you shall always possess my friendship, once we are well out of this."
"Thanks, your Highness," replied Maurice, and laughing; "the after-thought is timely!"
The sun lay close to the western rim of hills; an opal sky encompassed the earth; the air was balmy.
"The French call this St. Martin's summer," said Maurice. "In my country we call it Indian summer--ah!" lifting in his stirrups.
The army was approaching a hill, when suddenly a whirlwind of dust rolled over the summit, and immediately a reconnoitering patrol came dashing into view, waving their sabers aloft. . . . The enemy was less than a mile away, and advancing rapidly.
To anticipate. Madame the duchess had indeed contemplated striking the blow at night. That morning, like the brave Amazon she was, she had pitched her tent in the midst of her army, to marshal and direct its forces. It was her intention to be among the first to enter Bleiberg; for she was a soldier's daughter, and could master the inherent fears of her sex.
That same morning a woman entered the lines and demanded an audience. What passed between her and Madame the duchess others never knew. She had also been apprised of the prisoners' escape, but, confident that they would not be able to make a crossing, she disdained pursuit. The prince had missed his wedding day; he was no longer of use to her. As to the American, he would become lost, and that would be the end of him.
But the Englishman. . . . He was conscience eternally barking at her heels. The memory of that kiss still rankled in her mind, and not an hour went by in which she did not chide herself for the folly. How to get rid of him perplexed her. Here he was, in the uniform of a Lieutenant-Colonel, ready to go to any lengths at a sign from her. There was something in her heart which she had not yet analyzed. First of all, her crown; as to her heart, there was plenty of time in which to study that peculiar and unstable organ. The possibility of the prince's arriving in Bleiberg before her in no way disturbed her. Whenever her attack was made, failure would not attend it. She broke camp at two o'clock and took the road leisurely toward Bleiberg.
Thus, the two armies faced each other comparatively in the open. A battle hung in the air.
The king's forces came to an abrupt halt. Orderlies dashed to and fro. The artillery came rumbling and creaking to the front, wheeled, the guns unlimbered and ranged so as to enfilade the road. The infantry deployed to right and left while the cavalry swung into position on the flanks. All this was accomplished with the equanimity of dress parade. Maurice could not control his admiration. Madame, he thought, might win her crown, but at a pretty cost.
The Marshal and the staff posted themselves on the right breast of the hill, from whence, by the aid of binoculars, they could see the enemy. From time to time General Kronau nervously smoothed his beard, formed his lips into words, but did not utter them, and glanced slyly from the corner of his eye at the Marshal, who was intent on the enemy's approach. Maurice was trying with naked eye to pierce the forest and the rolling ground beyond, and waiting for the roar of the guns.
Orders had been issued for the gunners to get the range and commence firing; but as the gunners seemed over long in getting down to work, Maurice gazed around impatiently. The blood rushed into his heart. For this is what he saw: the infantry leaning indolently on their guns, their officers snipping the grasses with their swords; the cuirassiers hidden in the bulk of the native cavalry; artillerymen seated carelessly on the caissons, and the gunners smoking and leaning against the guns. All action was gone, as if by magic; nothing but a strange tableau remained! Moreover, a troop of native cavalry, which, for no apparent reason, had not joined the main body, had closed in on the general staff. Appalled by a sudden thought, Maurice touched the prince, who lowered his glasses and turned his head. Bewilderment widened his eyes, and the flush on his cheeks died away. He, too, saw.
"Devil's name!" the Marshal burst forth, "why don't the blockheads shoot? The enemy--" He stopped, his chin fell, for, as he turned, a single glance explained all to him. The red on his face changed into a sickly purple, and the glasses slipped from his hands and broke into pieces on the stony ground.
"Marshal," began General Kronau, "I respect your age and valiant services. That is why we have come thirteen miles. You may keep your sword, and also Monsieur the prince. For the present you are prisoners."
For a moment the Marshal was stupefied. His secret fears had been realized. Suddenly a hoarse oath issued from his lips, he dragged his saber from the scabbard, raised it and made a terrible sweep at the General. But the stroke fell on a dozen intervening blades, and the Marshal's arms were held and forced to his sides.
"Kronau . . . you?" he roared. "Betrayed! You despicable coward and traitor! You--" But speech forsook him, and he would have fallen from the horse but for those who held his arms.
"Traitor?" echoed Kronau, coolly. "To what and to whom? I am serving my true and legitimate sovereign. I am also serving humanity, since this battle is to be bloodless. It is you who are the traitor. You swore allegiance to the duke, and that allegiance is the inheritance of the daughter. How have you kept your oath?"
But the Marshal was incapable of answer. One looking at him would have said that he was suffering from a stroke of apoplexy.
"I admit," went on the General, not wholly unembarrassed, "that the part I play is not an agreeable one to me, but it is preferable to the needless loss of human life. The duchess was to have entered Bleiberg at night, to save us this present dishonor, if you persist in calling it such. But his Highness, who is young, and Monseigneur the archbishop, who dreams of Richelieu, made it impossible. No harm is intended to any one."
The prince, white and shivering as if with ague, broke his sword on the pommel of the saddle and hurled the pieces at Kronau, who permitted them to strike him.
"God's witness," the prince cried furiously, "but your victory shall be short-lived. I have an army, trusty to the last sword, and you shall feel the length of its arm within forty-eight hours."
"Perhaps," said Kronau, shrugging.
"It is already on the way."
"Your Highness forgets that Carnavia belongs to the confederation, and that the king, your father, dare not send you troops without the consent of the emperor, which, believe me, will never be given;" and he urged his horse down the slope.
The army of the duchess had now gained the open. The advance was composed of cavalry, which came along the road with wings on either side, and with great dash and splendor.
A noisy cheer arose, to be faintly echoed by the oncoming avalanche of white horses and dazzling blue uniforms.
This was the incident upon which Madame the duchess relied.
With rage and chagrin in his heart, Maurice viewed the scene. The knell of the Osians had been struck. He gazed forlornly at the cuirassiers; they at least had come to sell their lives honestly for their bread. Presently the two armies came together; all was confusion and cheers. Kronau approached the leader of the cavalry. . . . Maurice was greatly disturbed. He leaned toward the prince.
"Your Highness," he whispered, "I am going to make a dash for the road."
"Yes, yes!" replied the prince, intuitively. "My God, yes! Warn her to fly, so that she will not be compelled to witness this cursed woman's triumph. Save her that humiliation. Go, and God be with you, my friend! We are all dishonored. The Marshal looks as if he were dying."
The native troopers, in their eagerness to witness the meeting between Kronau and the former Colonel of the cuirassiers, had pushed forward. A dozen, however, had hemmed in the Marshal, the prince and Maurice. But these were standing in their stirrups. Maurice gradually brought his horse about so that presently he was facing north. Directly in front of him was an opening. He grasped his saber firmly and pressed the spurs. Quick as he was, two sabers barred his way, but he beat them aside, went diagonally down the hill, over the stone wall and into the road.
While he was maneuvering for this dash, one man had been eying him with satisfaction. As the black horse suddenly sank from view behind the hill, Beauvais, to the astonishment of Kronau, drew his revolver.
"There goes a man," he cried, "who must not escape. He is so valuable that I shall permit no one but myself to bring him back!" And the splendid white animal under him bounded up the hill and down the other side.
Beauvais had a well-defined purpose in following alone. He was determined that one Maurice Carewe should not bother anyone hereafter; he knew too much.
The white horse and the black faded away in the blur of rising dust.