The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter XXVIII. Into the Hands of Austria
Madame, surrounded by her staff and courtiers, sat in the main salon of the Continental Hotel, waiting for the archbishop. The false, self-seeking ministers of Leopold's reign crowded around her to pay their respects, to compliment and to flatter her. Already they saw a brilliant court; already they were speculating on their appointments. Offices were plenty; new embassies were to be created, old embassies to be filled anew.
Madame listened to all coldly. There was a canker in her heart, and no one who saw that calm, beautiful face of hers dreamed how deeply the canker was eating. There were two men who held aloof from compliments and flattery. On the face of one rested a moody scowl; on the other, agony and remorse. These two men were Colonel Mollendorf and Lord Fitzgerald. The same thought occupied each mind; the scene in the throne room.
Presently an orderly announced: "Monseigneur the archbishop."
Madame arose, and all looked expectantly, toward the door.
The old prelate entered, his head high and his step firm. He appeared to see no one but Madame. But this time she met his glance without a tremor.
"Monseigneur," she began, "I have come into my own at last. But for you and your ambitious schemes, all this would not have come to pass. You robbed my father of his throne and set your puppet there instead. By trickery my father was robbed of his lawful inheritance. By trickery I was compelled to regain it. However, I do not wish to make an enemy of you, Monseigneur. I have here two letters. They come from Rome. In one is your recall, in the other a cardinal's hat. Which do you prefer?"
"Surely not the cardinal's hat," said the prelate. "Listen to me, Madame, for I have something to say to you which will cause you some reflection. If I had any ambitions, they are gone; if I had any dreams, they have vanished. Madame, some twenty years ago your duchy was created. It was not done to please Albrecht's younger brother, the duke, your father. Albrecht was childless. When your father was given the duchy it was done to exclude forever the house of Auersperg from reigning on this throne. You say that you were tricked; well, and so was I. Unhappily I touched the deeper current too late.
"This poor king, who lies silent in the palace, was not my puppet. I wished to make him great, and bask in his greatness. But in that I failed; because Leopold was a poet and a philosopher, and the greatness of earthly things did not concern him. Leopold and I were dupes of Austria, as you are at this moment, Madame. So long as Leopold reigned peacefully he was not to be disturbed. Had you shown patience and resignation, doubtless to-day you would be a queen. You will never be more than a duchess.
"Madame, you have done exactly as Austria intended you should. There is no longer any kingdom." There was a subdued triumph in his eyes. "To you," with a gesture toward the courtiers and office-seekers, "to you I shall say, your own blind self- interest has destroyed you. Madame, you are bearing arms not against this kingdom, but against Austria, since from to-day this land becomes the property of the imperial crown. If you struggle, it will be futilely. For, by this move of yours, Austria will declare that this kingdom is a menace to the tranquility of the confederation. Madame, there is no corner- stone to your edifice. This is what I wished to say to you. I have done. Permit me to withdraw."
For a moment his auditors were spellbound; then all the emotions of the mind and heart portrayed themselves on the circle of faces. Madame's face alone was inscrutable.
"His Excellency, the Austrian ambassador!" announced the orderly.
The archbishop bowed and left the apartment.
"Your Highness," began the Austrian, "his Imperial Majesty commands your immediate evacuation of Bleiberg, and that you delay not your departure to the frontier. This kingdom is a crown land. It shall remain so by the consent of the confederation. If you refuse to obey this injunction, an army will enforce the order. Believe me, Madame, this office is distasteful to me, but it was not avoidable. What disposition am I to submit to his Majesty?"
"Monsieur," she said, "I am without choice in the matter. To pit my forces against the emperor's would be neither politic nor sensible. I submit." There was not a sign of any emotion, no hint of the terrible wrath which lay below the surface of those politely modulated tones. But it seemed to her as she stood there, the object of all eyes, that some part of her soul had died. Her pride surmounted the humiliation, the pride of a woman and a princess. She would show no weakness to the world.
"Then, Madame," said the ambassador, suppressing the admiration in his eyes at this evidence of royal nonchalance, "I shall inform his Majesty at once."
When he had gone, Madame turned coldly to her stricken followers. "Messieurs, the fortunes of war are not on our side. I thank you for your services. Now leave me; I wish to be alone."
One by one they filed out into the corridors. The orderly was the last to leave, and he closed the door behind him. Madame surveyed the room. All the curtains were drawn. She was alone. She stood idly fingering the papers which lay scattered on the table. Suddenly she lifted her hands above her head and clenched them in a burst of silent rage. A dupe! doubly a dupe! To-morrow the whole world would laugh at her, and she was without means of wreaking vengeance. Presently the woman rose above the princess. She sat down, laid her face on her arms and wept.
Fitzgerald stepped from behind one of the curtains. He had taken refuge there during the archbishop's speech. He had not the strength to witness the final humiliation of the woman he loved. He was gazing out of the window at the troops in the Platz when the door closed.
Madame heard the rustle of the curtain and looked up. She sprang to her feet, her eyes blazing.
"You?" she cried. "You? You have dared to hide that you might witness my weakness and my tears? You. . . ."
"Go! I hate you!"
"Ah, Madame, we always hate those whom we have wronged. Do not forget that I love you, with a love that passes convention."
"Monsieur, I am yet a princess. Did you not hear me bid you go?"
"Why?" in a voice singularly free from agitation. "Because I am the only man who has served you unselfishly? Is that the reason, Madame? You have laughed at me. I love you. You have broken me. I love you. I can never look an honest man in the face again. I love you. Though the shade of my father should rise to accuse me, still would I say that I love you. Madame, will you find another love like mine, the first love of a man who will know no second? Forgive me if I rejoice in your despair, for your despair is my hope. As a queen you would be too far away; but in your misfortune you come so near! Madame, I shall follow you wherever you go to tell you that I love you. You will never be able to shut your ears to my voice; far or near, you will always hear me saying that I love you. Ambition soars but a little way; love has no fetters. Madame, your lips were given to me. Can you forget that?"
"Monsieur, what do you wish?" subdued by the fervor of his tones.
"You! nothing in the world but you."
"Princesses such as I am do not wed for love. What! you take advantage of my misfortune, the shattering of my dreams, to force your love upon me?"
"Madame," the pride of his race lighting his eyes, "confess to me that you did not win my love to play with it. If my heart was necessary to your happiness, which lay in these shattered dreams, tell me, and I will go. My love is so great that it does not lack generosity."
For reply she sorted the papers and extended a blood-stained packet toward him. "Here, Monsieur, are your consols." But the moment his hand touched them, she made as though to take them back. On the top of the packet was the letter she had written to him, and on which he had written his scornful reply to her. She paled as she saw him unfold it.
"So, Madame, my love was a pastime?" He came close to her, and his look was like an invisible hand bearing down on her. "Madame, I will go."
"No, no!" she cried, yielding to the impulse which suddenly laid hold of her. "Not you! You shall not misjudge me. No, not you! Those consols were given to me by the woman of your guide, Kopf, who found them no one knows how. They were given to me this morning. That letter. . . . . I did not intend that you should see it. No, Monsieur; you shall not misjudge the woman, however you judge the princess. Forgive me, it was not the woman who sought your love; it was the princess who had need of it.
"I thought it would be but a passing fancy. I did not dream of this end. To-morrow I shall be laughed at, and I cannot defend myself as a man can. I must submit; I must smile and cover my chagrin. O, Monsieur, do not speak to me of love; there is nothing in my heart but rage and bitterness. To stoop as I have stooped, and in vain! I am defeated; I must remain passive; like a whipped child I am driven away. Talk not of love to me. I am without illusion." She fell to weeping, and to him she was lovelier in her tears than ever in her smiles. For would she have shown this weakness to any but himself, and was it not a sign that he was not wholly indifferent to her?
"Madame, what is it?" he cried, on his knees before her. "What is it? Do you wish a crown? Find me a kingdom, and I will buy it for you. Be mine, and woe to those who dare to laugh! Ah, could I but convince you that love is above crowns and kingdoms, the only glimpse we have on earth of Paradise. There is no boundary to the dreams; no horizons; a vast, beautiful wilderness, and you and I together. There are no storms, no clouds. Ambition, the god of schemes, finds no entrance. Ah, how I love you! Your face is ever before me, waking or sleeping. All thoughts are merged into one, and that is of you. Self has dropped out of my existence. Forget that you are a princess; remember only that you are a woman, and that I love you."
Love has the key to eloquence. Madame forgot her vanished dreams; the bitterness in her heart subsided. That mysterious, indefinable thrill, which every woman experiences when a boundless love is laid at her feet, passed through her, leaving her sensible to a delicious languor. This man was strong in himself, yet weak before her, and from his weakness she gained a visible strength. Convention was nothing to him; that she was of royal blood was still less. What other man would have dared her wrath as he had done?
Nobility, she thought, was based on the observance of certain laws. Around the central star were lesser stars, from which the central star drew its radiance. Whenever one of these stars deviates from its orbit, the glory of the central star is diminished. To accept the love of the Englishman would be a blow to the pride of Austria. She smiled.
"Monsieur," she said, in a hesitating voice, "Monsieur, I am indeed a woman. You ask me if I can forget that I offered you my lips? No. Nor do I wish to. Why did I permit you to kiss me? I do not know. I could not analyze the impulse if I tried. Monsieur, I am a woman who demands much from those who serve her. I am capricious; my moods vary; I am unfamiliar with sentiment; I hate oftener than I love. Listen. There is a canker in my heart, made there by vanity. When it heals--well--mayhap you will find the woman you desire. Mind you, I make no promises. Follow me, if you will, but have patience; love me if you must, but in silence;" and with a gesture which was not without a certain fondness, she laid her hand upon his head.