The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter XXVII. Wormwood and Lees
Madame, like a statue of expectancy, riveted her gaze on the throne. Hers at last! Her dreams were realized. She was no longer a duchess by patent; she was a queen by right of inheritance; she was now to be a power among the great. The kingdom of her forefathers was hers. She had reached the goal without bloodshed; she had been patient, and this was her reward. The blaze of her ambition dimmed all other stars. Her bosom heaved, triumph flashed in her beautiful eyes, and a smile parted her lips. Her first thought had been to establish headquarters in the parlors of the Continental Hotel, and from there to summon the archbishop, as a conqueror summons the chief of the vanquished. But no; she could not wait; above all things she desired the satisfaction of the eye. The throne of her forefathers!
"Mine!" she murmured.
Over her shoulders peered eager faces, in which greed and pleasure and impassibility were written. One face, however, had on it the dull red of shame. Not until now did the full force of his intended dishonesty come home to the Englishman; not until now did he realize the complete degradation to which his uniform had lowered him. His had been the hand to stay this misfortune, and he had not lifted it. This king had been his father's friend; and he had taken up arms against him. O, he had begun life badly; he was making the end still more dismal. Would this woman ever be his? Her promises were not worth the air that had carried them to his ear. He, the consort of a queen? A cold sweat dampened his forehead. How he loved her! And that kiss. . . . Queen or not, he would not be her dupe, his would not be a tame surrender.
From the Platz and the Park, where the two armies had bivouacked, came an intermittent cheering. The flames of bonfires were reflected on the windows, throwing out in dull, yellow relief the faces of Madame and her staff.
Between the private apartments of the king and the throne room was a wide sliding door. Suddenly this opened and closed. With his back against it, a pistol in one hand and a saber in the other, stood Captain von Mitter, his face cold and resolute. All eyes were instantly directed toward him.
"Captain," said Madame, imperiously, "summon to me Monseigneur the archbishop!"
Her command fell on ears of stone. Von Mitter made no sign that he heard her.
"Take care, Monsieur," she warned; "I am mistress here. If you will not obey me, my officers will."
"Madame, I acknowledge no mistress save the daughter of the king. No one shall pass this door to announce your presence to Monseigneur."
This reply was greeted with sundry noises, such as sabers coming from scabbards, clicking of pistol locks, and the moving of feet. Madame put out her hand suggestively, and the noise ceased. Von Mitter smiled disdainfully, but did not stir.
"I warn you, Madame," he said, "that this is war. I accept all the responsibilities of my position. I know nothing of any surrender or victory. To me you are simply an enemy. I will kill any one who attempts to pass. I should be pleased if General Kronau would make the first step to question my sincerity."
Kronau's fingers twitched around his revolver, but Madame touched his arm. She could read faces. The young Captain was in earnest. She would temporize.
"Captain, all here are prisoners of war," she said. "Do not forget that soon there will be benefits for those who serve me."
He laughed rudely. "I ask no benefits from your hands, Madame. I would rather stand on the corner and beg." He sent an insolent, contemptuous glance at Kronau, who could not support it. "And now that you have gratified your curiosity, I beg you to withdraw to the street. To-night this palace is a tomb, and woe to those who commit sacrilege."
"The king?" she said, struck by a thought which caused a red spot to appear on each cheek.
"Is dead. Go and leave us in peace."
The wine which had tasted so sweet was full of lees, and the cup wormwood. Madame looked down, while her officers moved uneasily and glanced over their shoulders. Kronau brushed his forehead, to find it wet. Madame regretted the surrendering to the impulse. Her haste to triumph was lacking both in dignity and judgment. She had given the king so little place in her thoughts that the shock of his death confused her. And there was something in the calm, fearless contempt of the young soldier which embarrassed her.
"In that case, Captain," she said, her voice uncertain and constrained, "bid Monseigneur to wait on me at the Continental."
"Whenever that becomes convenient, Madame, Monseigneur will certainly confer with you and your rascally pack of officers." He longed for some one to spring at him; he longed to strike a blow in earnest.
As he leaned against the door he felt it move. He stepped aside. The door rolled back, and her Royal Highness, the archbishop and the chancellor passed in. The princess's eyes were like dim stars, but her fine nostrils palpitated, and her mouth was rigid in disdain. The chancellor looked haggard and dispirited, and he eyed all with the listlessness of a man who has given up hope. The prelate's face was as finely drawn as an ancient cameo, and as immobile. He gazed at Madame with one of those looks which penetrate like acid; and, brave as she was, she found it insupportable. There was a tableau of short duration.
"Madame," said her Royal Highness, with a noble scorn, "what would you say if one desecrated your father's tomb while you were kneeling beside it? What would you say? In yonder room my father lies dead, and your presence here, in whatever role, is an insult. Are you, indeed, a woman? Have you no respect for death and sorrow? Was the bauble so precious to your sight that you could not wait till the last rites were paid to the dead? Is your heart of stone, your mind devoid of pity and of conscience? Are you lacking in magnanimity, which is the disposition of great souls? Ah, Madame, you will never be great, for you have stooped to treachery and deceit. You, a princess! You have purchased with glittering promises that which in time would have been given to you. And you will not fulfill these promises, for honesty has no part in your affair. Shame on you, Madame. By dishonorable means you have gained this room. By dishonorable means you destroyed all those props on which my father leaned. You knew that he had not long to live. Had you come to me as a woman; had you opened your heart to me and confided your desires-- Ah, Madame, how gladly would I have listened. Whatever it signifies to you, this throne is nothing to me. Had you come then--but, no! you must come to demand your rights when I am defenseless. You must come with a sword when there is none to defend. Is it possible that in our veins there runs a kindred blood? And yet, Madame, I forgive you. Rule here, if you will; but remember, between you and your crown there will always be the shadow of disgrace. Monsieur," turning toward Fitzgerald, whose shame was so great that it engulfed him, "your father and mine were friends--I forgive you. Now, Madame, I pray you, go, and leave me with my dead."
The girlhood of Princess Alexia was gone forever.
To Madame this rebuke was like hot iron on the flesh. It left her without answer. Her proud spirit writhed. Before those innocent eyes her soul lay bare, offering to the gaze an ineffaceable scar. For the first time she saw her schemes in their true light. Had any served her unselfishly? Aye, there was one. And strangely enough, the first thought which formed in her mind when chaos was passed, was of him.
How would this rebuke affect her in his eyes? What was he to her that she cared for his respect, his opinion, good or bad? What was the meaning of the secret dread? How she hated him for his honesty to her; for now perforce she must look up to him. She had stepped down from the pinnacle of her pride to which she might never again ascend. He had kissed her. How she hated him! And yet . . . Ah, the wine was flat, tinctured with the bitterness of gall, and her own greed had forced the cup to her lips. She could not remain silent before this girl; she must reply; her shame was too deep to resolve itself into silence.
"Mademoiselle," she said, "I beg of you to accept my sympathies; but the fortunes of war--"
"Ah, Madame," interrupted the prelate, lifting his white, attenuated hand, "we will discuss the fortunes of war--later."
Madame choked back the sudden gust of rage. She glanced covertly at the Englishman. But he, with wide-astonished eyes, was staring at the foot of the throne, from which gradually rose a terrible figure, covered with blood and caked with drying clay. The figure leaned heavily on the hilt of a saber, and swayed unsteadily. He drew all eyes.
"Ha!" he said, with a prolonged, sardonic intonation, "is that you, Madame the duchess? You are talking of war? What! and you, my lord the Englishman? Ha! and war? Look at me, Madame; I have been in a battle, the only one fought to-day. Look at me! Here is the mark of that friend who watched over your interests. But where is he? Eh? Where? Did you pick him up on the way? . . . . He is dead. For all that he was a rascal, he died like a man. . . . . as presently I shall die! Princes and kings and thrones; the one die and the other crumble, but truth lives on. And you, Madame, have learned the truth. Shame on your mean and little souls! There was only one honest man among you, and you dishonored him. The Marshal . . . I do not see him. An honest man dies but once, but a traitor dies a thousand deaths. Kronau . . . . is that your name? It was an honest one once. And the paltry ends you gain! . . . . The grand duchess of Gerolstein ! . . . . What a comic opera! Not even music to go by! Eh, you,-- you Englishman, has Madame made you a Lieutenant?--a Captain?--a General? What a farce! Nobles, you? I laugh at you all for a pack of thieves, who are not content with the purse, but must add honor to the bag. A man is what he makes himself. Medals and clothes, medals and clothes; that is the sum of your nobility!" He laughed, but the laughter choked in his throat, and he staggered a few paces away from the throne.
"Seize him!" cried Madame.
When the men sprang forward to execute this command, Fitzgerald barred the way.
"No," he said doggedly; "you shall not touch him."
"Stand aside, Monsieur," said Madame, determined to vent her rage on some one.
"Madame," said von Mitter, "I will shoot down the first man who lays a hand on Monsieur Carewe."
The princess, her heart beating wildly at the sudden knowledge that lay written on the inner vision, a faintness stealing away her sight, leaned back against the prelate.
"He is dying," she whispered; "he is dying for me!"
Maurice was now in the grasp of the final delirium. "Come on!" he cried; "come on! I will show you how a brave man can die. Come on, Messieurs Medals and Clothes! Aye, who will go out with me?" He raised the saber, and it caught the flickering light as it trailed a circle above his head. He stumbled toward them, sweeping the air with the blade. Suddenly there came a change. He stopped. The wild expression faded from his face; a surprised look came instead. The saber slipped from his fingers and clanged on the floor. He turned and looked at the princess, and that glance conveyed to her the burden of his love. "Mademoiselle . . . . " His knees doubled, he sank, rolled face downward, and a dark stain appeared and widened on the marble floor.
"Go, Madame," said the prelate. "This palace is indeed a tomb." He felt the princess grow limp on his arm. "Go."
"Maurice!" cried Fitzgerald, springing to the side of the fallen man. "My God! Maurice!"