The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter III. An Episode Ten Years After
One fine September morning in a year the date of which is of no particular importance, a man stepped out of a second-class carriage on to the canopied platform of the railway terminus in the ancient and picturesque city of Bleiberg. He yawned, shook himself, and stretched his arms and legs, relieved to find that the tedious journey from Vienna had not cramped those appendages beyond recovery.
He stood some inches above the average height, and was built up in a manner that suggested the handiwork of a British drill- master, his figure being both muscular and symmetrical. Besides, there was on his skin that rich brown shadow which is the result only of the forces of the sun and wind, a life in the open air. This color gave peculiar emphasis to the yellow hair and mustache. His face was not handsome, if one accept the Greek profile as a model of manly beauty, but it was cleanly and boldly cut, healthful, strong and purposeful, based on determined jaws and a chin which would have been obstinate but for the presence of a kindly mouth.
A guard deposited at his feet a new hatbox, a battered traveling bag and two gun cases which also gave evidence of rough usage. The luggage was literally covered with mutilated square and oblong slips of paper of many colors, on which were printed the advertisements of far-sighted hotel keepers all the way from Bombay to London and half-way back across the continent.
There was nothing to be seen, however, indicative of the traveler's name. He surveyed his surroundings with lively interest shining in his gray eyes, one of which peered through a monocle encircled by a thin rim of tortoise shell. He watched the fussy customs officials, who, by some strange mischance, overlooked his belongings. Finally he made an impatient gesture.
"Find me a cab," he said to the attentive guard, who, with an eye to the main chance, had waved off the approach of a station porter. "If the inspectors are in no hurry, I am."
"At once, my lord;" and the guard, as he stooped and lifted the luggage, did not see the start which this appellation caused the stranger to make, but who, after a moment, was convinced that the guard had given him the title merely out of politeness. The guard placed the traps inside of one of the many vehicles stationed at the street exit of the terminus. He was an intelligent and deductive servant.
The traveler was some noted English lord who had come to Bleiberg to shoot the famed golden pheasant, and had secured a second-class compartment in order to demonstrate his incognito. Persons who traveled second-class usually did so to save money; yet this tall Englishman, since the train departed from Vienna, had almost doubled in gratuities the sum paid for his ticket. The guard stood respectfully at the door of the cab, doffed his cap, into which a memento was dropped, and went along about his business.
The Englishman slammed the door, the jehu cracked his whip, and a moment later the hoarse breathings of the motionless engines became lost in the sharper noises of the city carts. The unknown leaned against the faded cushions, curled his mustache, and smiled as if well satisfied with events. It is quite certain that his sense of ease and security would have been somewhat disturbed had he known that another cab was close on the track of his, and that its occupant, an officer of the city gendarmerie, alternately smiled and frowned as one does who floats between conviction and uncertainty. At length the two vehicles turned into the Konigstrasse, the principal thoroughfare of the capital, and here the Englishman's cab came to a stand. The jehu climbed down and opened the door.
"Did Herr say the Continental?" he asked.
"No; the Grand."
The driver shrugged, remounted his box, and drove on. The Grand Hotel was clean enough and respectable, but that was all that could be said in its favor. He wondered if the Englishman would haggle over the fare. Englishmen generally did. He was agreeably disappointed, however, when, on arriving at the mean hostelry, his passenger plunged a hand into a pocket and produced three Franz-Josef florins.
"You may have these," he said, "for the trouble of having them exchanged into crowns."
As he whipped up, the philosophical cabman mused that these tourists were beyond the pale of his understanding. With a pocket full of money, and to put up at the Grand! Why not the Continental, which lay close to the Werter See, the palaces, the royal and public gardens? It was at the Continental that the fine ladies and gentlemen from Vienna, and Innsbruck, and Munich, and Belgrade, resided during the autumn months. But the Grand-- ach! it was in the heart of the shops and markets, and within a stone's throw of that gloomy pile of granite designated in the various guide books as the University of Bleiberg.
The Englishman had some difficulty in finding a pen that would write, and the ink was oily, and the guest-book was not at the proper angle. At last he managed to form the letters of his name, which was John Hamilton. After some deliberation, he followed this with "England." The proprietor, who acted as his own clerk, drew the book toward him, and after some time, deciphered the cabalistic signs.
"Ah, Herr John Hamilton of England; is that right?"
"Yes; I am here for a few days' shooting. Can you find me a man to act as guide?"
"This very morning, Herr."
Then he proceeded up the stairs to the room assigned to him. The smell of garlic which pervaded the air caused him to make a grimace. Once alone in the room, he looked about. There was neither soap nor towel, but there was a card which stated that the same could be purchased at the office. He laughed. A pitcher of water and a bowl stood on a small table, which, by the presence of a mirror (that could not in truth reflect anything but light and darkness), served as a dresser. These he used to good advantage, drying his face and hands on the white counterpane of the bed, and laughing quietly as he did so. Next he lit a pipe, whose capacity for tobacco was rather less than that of a lady's thimble, sat in a chair by the window, smoked quietly, and gazed down on the busy street.
It was yet early in the morning; sellers of vegetables, men and women peasants, with bare legs and wooden shoes, driving shaggy Servian ponies attached to low, cumbersome carts, passed and repassed, to and from the markets. A gendarme, leaning the weight of his shoulder on the guard of a police saber, rested against the corner of a wine shop across the way. Students, wearing squat caps with vizors, sauntered indolently along, twirling canes and ogling all who wore petticoats. Occasionally the bright uniform of a royal cuirassier flashed by; and the Englishman would lean over the sill and gaze after him, nodding his head in approval whenever the cuirassier sat his horse well.
In the meantime the gendarme, who followed him from the station, had entered the hotel, hastily glanced at the freshly written name, and made off toward the palace.
"Well, here we are," mused the Englishman, pressing his thumb into the bowl of his pipe. "The affair promises some excitement. To-morrow will be the sixth; on the twentieth it will be a closed incident, as the diplomats would say. I don't know what brought me here so far ahead of time. I suppose I must look out for a crack on the head from some one I don't know, but who knows me so deuced well that he has hunted me in India and England, first with fine bribes, then with threats." He glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the gun cases. "It was a capital idea, otherwise a certain ubiquitous customs official, who lies in wait for the unwary at the frontier, would now be an inmate of a hospital. To have lived thirty-five years, and to have ground out thirteen of them in her Majesty's, is to have acquired a certain disdain for danger, even when it is masked. I am curious to see how far these threats will go. It will take a clever man to trap me. The incognito is a fort. By the way, I wonder how the inspectors at the station came to overlook my traps? Strange, considering what I have gone through."
At this moment the knuckles of a hand beat against the door.
"Come in!" answered the Englishman, wheeling his chair, but making no effort to rise. "Come in!"
The door swung in, and there entered a short, spectacled man in dark gray clothes which fairly bristled with brass buttons. He was the chief inspector of customs. He bowed.
The Englishman, consternation widening his eyes, lowered his pipe.
"Monsieur Hamilton's pardon," the inspector began, speaking in French, "but with your permission I shall inspect your luggage and glance at your passports." He bowed again.
"Now do you know, mon ami," replied the Englishman, "that Monsieur Hamilton will not permit you to gaze even into yonder washbowl?" He rose lazily.
"But, Monsieur," cried the astonished official, to whom non- complaisance in the matter of inspection was unprecedented, "you certainly will not put any obstacle in the path of my duty!"
"Your duty, Monsieur the Spectacles, is to inspect at the station. There your assistants refused to award me their attention. You are trespassing."
"Monsieur forgets," sternly; "it is the law. Is it possible that I shall be forced to call in the gendarmes to assist me? This is extraordinary!"
"I dare say it is, on your part," admitted the Englishman, polishing the bowl of his pipe against the side of his nose. "You had best go at once. If you do not, I shall take you by the nape of your Bleibergian neck and kick you down the stairs. I have every assurance of my privileges. The law here, unless it has changed within the past hour, requires inspection at the frontier, and at the capital; but your jurisdiction does not extend beyond the stations. Bon jour, Monsieur the Spectacles; bon jour!"
"Monsieur, it is my duty; I must!"
"Good day! How will you go, by the stairs or by the window? I-- but wait!" an idea coming to him which caused him to reflect on the possible outcome of violence done to a government official, who, perhaps, was discharging his peculiar duty at the orders of superiors. He walked swiftly to the door and slid the bolt, to the terror of the inspector, on whose brow drops of perspiration began to gather. "Now," opening the hat box and taking out a silk hat, "this is a hat, purchased in Paris at Cook's. There is nothing in the lining but felt. Look into the box; nothing. Take out your book and follow me closely," he continued, dividing the traveling bag into halves, and he began to enumerate the contents.
"But, Monsieur!" remonstrated the inspector, who did not enjoy this infringement of his prerogatives; his was the part to overhaul. "This is--"
"Be still and follow me," and the Englishman went on with the inventory. "There!" when he had done, "not a dutiable thing except this German-Scotch whisky, and that is so bad that I give it to you rather than pay duty. What next? My passports? Here they are, absolutely flawless, vised by the authorities in Vienna."
The slips crackled in the fluttering fingers of the inspector. "They are as you say, Monsieur," he said, returning the permits. Then he added timidly, "And the gun cases?"
"The gun cases!" The pipe spilled its coal to the floor. "The gun cases!"
"And why do you wish to look into them?" with agitation.
"Smugglers sometimes fill them with cigars."
"Ah!" The Englishman selected two loaded shells, drew a gun from the case, threw up the breech and rammed in the shells. Then he extended the weapon to within an inch of the terrified inspector's nose. "Now, Monsieur the Spectacles, look in there and tell me what you see."
The fellow sank half-fainting into a chair. "Mon Dieu, Monsieur, would you kill me who have a family?"
"What's a customs inspector, more or less?" asked the terrible islander, laughing. "I advise you not to ask me to let you look into the other gun, out of consideration for your family. It has hair triggers, and my fingers tremble."
"Monsieur, Monsieur, you do wrong to trifle with the law. I shall be obliged to report you. You will be arrested."
"Nothing of the kind," was the retort. "I have only to inform the British minister how remiss you were in your obligations. I should go free, whereas you would be discharged. But what I demand to know is, what the devil is the meaning of this farce."
"I am simply obeying orders," answered the inspector, wiping his forehead. "It is not a farce, as Monsieur will find." Then, as if to excuse this implied threat: "Will Monsieur please point the gun the other way?"
The Englishman unloaded the gun and tossed it on the bed.
"Thanks. In coming here I simply obeyed the orders of the minister of police."
"And what in the world did you expect to find?"
"We are looking--that is, they are looking--O, Monsieur, it is impossible for me to disclose to you my government's purposes."
"What and whom were you expecting?" demanded the Englishman. "You shall not leave this room till you have fully explained this remarkable intrusion."
"We were expecting the Lord and Baronet Fitzgerald."
"The lord!" laughing. "Does the lord visit Bleiberg often, then, that you prepare this sort of a reception? And the Baronet Fitzgerald?"
"They are the same and the one person."
"And who the deuce is he; a spy, a smuggler, a villain, or what?"
"As to that, Monsieur," with a wonder why this man laughed, "I know no more than you. But I do know that for the past month every Englishman has been subjected to this surveillance, and has submitted with more grace than you," with an oblique glance.
"What! Examined his luggage at the hotel?"
"Yes, Monsieur. It is the order of the minister of police. I know not why." The natural color was returning to his cheeks.
"This is a fine country, I must say. At least the king should acquaint his visitors with the true cause of this treatment." In his turn the Englishman resorted to oblique glances.
"The king?" The inspector raised a shoulder and spread his hands. "The king is a paralytic, Monsieur, and has little to say these days."
"A paralytic? I thought he was called `the handsome monarch'?"
"That was years ago, Monsieur. For three years he has been helpless and bedridden. The archbishop is the real king nowadays. But he meddles not with the police."
"This is very sad. I suppose it would be impossible for strangers to see him now."
"An audience?" a sparkle behind the spectacles. "Is your business with the king, Monsieur?"
"My business is mine," shortly. "I am only a tourist, and should have liked to see the king from mere curiosity. However, had you explained all this to me, I should not have caused you so many gray hairs."
"Monsieur did not give me the chance," simply.
"True," the Englishman replied soberly. He began to think that he had been over hasty in asserting his privileges. "But all this has nothing to do with me. My name is John Hamilton. See, it is engraved on the stock of the gun," catching it up and holding it under the spectacled eyes, which still observed it with some trepidation. "That is the name in my passports, in the book down stairs, in the lining of my hat. I am sorry, since you were only obeying orders, that my rough play has caused you alarm." He unbolted the door. "Good morning."
The inspector left the room as swiftly as his short legs could carry him, ignoring the ethics of common politeness. As he stumbled down the stairs he cursed the minister of police for requiring this spy work of him, and not informing him why it was done. Ah, these cursed Anglais from Angleterre! They were all alike, and this one was the worst he had ever encountered. And those ugly black orifices in the gun! Peste! He would resign! Yes, certainly he would resign.
As to the Englishman, he stood in the center of the room and scratched his head. "Hang it, I've made an ass of myself. That blockhead will have the gendarmes about my ears. If they arrest me there will be the devil to pay. The Lord and the Baronet Fitzgerald!" he repeated. He sat down on the edge of the bed, and fell to laughing again. "Confound these picture-book kingdoms! They always take themselves so seriously. Well, if the gendarmes call this afternoon I'll not be at home. No, thank you. I shall be hunting pheasants."
And thereat he set to work cleaning the gun which had all but prostrated the inspector. Soon the room smelled of oiled rags and tobacco. Some-times the worker whistled softly. Sometimes he let the gun fall against his knee, and stared dreamily through the window at the flight of the ragged clouds. Again, he would shake his head, as if there were something which he failed to understand. Half an hour passed, when again some one knocked on the door.
"Come in!" Under his breath he added: "The gendarmes, likely."
But it was only the proprietor of the hotel. "Asking Herr's pardon," he said, "for this intrusion, but I have secured a man for you. I have the honor to recommend Johann Kopf as a good guide and hunter."
"Send him up. If he pleases me, I'll use him."
The proprietor withdrew.
Johann Kopf proved to be a young German with a round, ruddy face, which was so innocent of guile as to be out of harmony with the shrewd, piercing black eyes looking out of it. The Englishman eyed him inquisitively, even suspiciously.
"Are you a good hunter?" he asked.
"There is none better hereabout," answered Johann, twirling his cap with noticeably white fingers. It was only in after days that the Englishman appreciated the full significance of this answer.
"No. Herr's German is excellent, however."
"Humph!" The Englishman gave a final glance into the shining tubes of the gun, snapped the breach, and slipped it into the case. "You'll do. Return to the office; I'll be down presently."
"Will Herr hunt this morning?"
"No; what I wish this morning is to see the city of Bleiberg."
"That is simple," said Johann. The fleeting, imperceptible smile did not convict his eyes of false keenness.
He bowed out. When the door closed the Englishman waited until the sound of retreating steps failed. Then he took the gun case which he had not yet opened, and thrust it under the mattress of the bed.
"Johann," he said, as he put on a soft hat and drew a cane from the straps of the traveling bag, "you will certainly precede me in our hunting expeditions. I do not like your eyes; they are not at home in your boyish face. Humph! what a country. Every one speaks a different tongue."
The city of Bleiberg lay on a hill and in the valleys which fell away to the east and west. It was divided into two towns, the upper and the lower. The upper town and that part which lay on the shores of the Werter See was the modern and fashionable district. It was here that the king and the archbishop had their palaces and the wealthy their brick and stone. The public park skirted the lake, and was patterned after those fine gardens which add so much to the picturesqueness of Vienna and Berlin. There were wide gravel paths and long avenues of lofty chestnuts and lindens, iron benches, fountains and winding flower beds. The park, the palaces, and the Continental Hotel enclosed a public square, paved with asphalt, called the Hohenstaufenplatz, in the center of which rose a large marble fountain of several streams, guarded by huge bronze wolves. Here, too, were iron benches which were, for the most part, the meeting-place of the nursemaids. Carriages were allowed to make the circuit, but not to obstruct the way.
The Konigstrasse began at the Platz, divided the city, and wound away southward, merging into the highway which continued to the Thalian Alps, some thirty miles distant. The palaces were at the southeast corner of the Platz, first the king's, then the archbishop's. The private gardens of each ran into the lake. Directly across from the palaces stood the cathedral, a relic of five centuries gone. On the northwest corner stood the Continental Hotel, with terrace and parapet at the water's edge, and a delightful open-air cafe facing the Platz. September and October were prosperous months in Bleiberg. Fashionable people who desired quiet made Bleiberg an objective point. The pheasants were plump, there were boars, gray wolves, and not infrequently Monsieur Fourpaws of the shaggy coat wandered across from the Carpathians.
As to the lower town, it was given over to the shops and markets, the barracks, the university, and the Rathhaus, which served as the house of the Diet. It was full of narrow streets and quaint dwellings.
Up the Konigstrasse the guide led the Englishman, who nodded whenever the voluble chatter of the German pleased him. When they began the descent of the hill, the vista which opened before them drew from the Englishman an ejaculation of delight. There lay the lake, like a bright new coin in a green purse; the light of the sun broke on the white buildings and flashed from the windows; and the lawns twinkled like emeralds.
"It makes Vienna look to her laurels, eh, Herr?" said Johann.
"But it must have cost a pretty penny."
"Aye, that it did; and the king is being impressed with that fact every day. There are few such fine palaces outside of first- class kingdoms. The cathedral there was erected at the desire of a pope, born five hundred years ago. It is full of romance. There is to be a grand wedding there on the twentieth of this month. That is why there are so many fashionable people at the hotels. The crown prince of Carnavia, which is the large kingdom just east of us, is to wed the Princess Alexia, the daughter of the king."
"On the twentieth? That is strange."
"), I meant nothing," said the Englishman, jerking back his shoulders; "I had in mind another affair."
There was a flash in Johann's eyes, but he subdued it before the Englishman was aware of its presence. "However," said Johann, "there is something strange. The prince was to have arrived a week ago to complete the final arrangements for the wedding. His suite has been here a week, but no sign of his Highness. He stopped over a train at Ehrenstein to visit for a few hours a friend of the king, his father. Since then nothing has been heard from him. The king, it is said, fears that some accident has happened to him. Carnavia is also disturbed over this disappearance. Some whisper of a beautiful peasant girl. Who can say?"
"Any political significance in this marriage?"
"Leopold expects to strengthen his throne by the alliance. But--" Johann's mouth closed and his tongue pushed out his cheek. "There will be some fine doings in the good city of Bleiberg before the month is gone. The minister from the duchy has been given his passports. Every one concedes that trouble is likely to ensue. Baron von Rumpf--"
"Baron von Rumpf," repeated the Englishman thoughtfully.
"Yes; he is not a man to submit to accusations without making a disagreeable defense."
"What does the duke say?"
"His Highness has been dead these four years."
"Dead four years? So much for man and his futile dreams. Dead four years," absently.
"What did you say, Herr?"
"I? Nothing. How did he die?"
"He was thrown from his horse and killed. But the duchess lives, and she is worthy of her sire. Eh, Herr, there is a woman for you! She should sit on this throne; it is hers by right. These Osians are aliens and were forced on us."
"It seems to me, young man, that you are talking treason."
"That is my business, Herr." Johann laughed. "I am a socialist, and occasionally harangue for the reds. And sometimes, when I am in need of money, I find myself in the employ of the police."
The muscles of the Englishman's jaws hardened, then they relaxed. The expression on the face of his guide was free from anything but bonhomie.
"One must live," Johann added deprecatingly.
"Yes, one must live," replied the Englishman.
"O! but I could sell some fine secrets to the Osians had they money to pay. Ach! but what is the use? The king has no money; he is on the verge of bankruptcy, and this pretty bit of scenery is the cause of it."
"So you are a socialist?" said the Englishman, passing over Johann's declamatory confidences.
"Yes, Herr. All men are brothers."
"Go to!" laughed the Englishman, "you aren't even a second cousin to me. But stay, what place is this we are passing?" indicating with his cane a red-brick mansion which was fronted by broad English lawns and protected from intrusion by a high iron fence.
"That is the British legation, Herr."
The Englishman stopped and stared, unconscious of the close scrutiny of the guide. His eyes traveled up the wide flags leading to the veranda, and he drew a picture of a square- shouldered old man tramping backward and forward, the wind tangling his thin white hair, his hands behind his back, his chin in his collar and at his heels a white bulldog. Rapidly another picture came. It was an English scene. And the echo of a voice fell on his ears. "My way and the freedom of the house and the key to the purse; your way and a closed door while I live. You can go, but you can not come back. You have decided? Yes? Then good morning." Thirteen years, thirteen years! He had sacrificed the freedom of the house and the key to the purse, the kind eyes and the warm pressure of that old hand. And for what? Starvation in the deserts, plenty of scars and little of thanks, ingratitude and forgetfulness.
And now the kind eyes were closed and the warm hand cold. O, to recall the vanished face, the silent voice, the misspent years, the April days and their illusions! The Englishman took the monocle from his eye and looked at it, wondering what had caused the sudden blur.
"There was a fine old man there in the bygone days," said Johann.
"And who was he?"
"Lord Fitzgerald, the British minister. He and Leopold were close friends." Johann's investigating gaze went unrewarded. The Englishman's face had resumed its expression of mild curiosity.
"Ah; a compatriot of mine," he said. Inwardly he mused: "This guide is watching me; let him catch me if he can. His duchess? I know far too much of her!"
"He was a millionaire, too," went on Johann.
"Well, we can't all be rich. Come."
They crossed the Strasse and traversed the walk at the side of the palace enclosures. The Englishman aimlessly trailed his cane along the green pickets of the fence till they ended in a stone arch which rose high over the driveway. The gates were open, and coming toward the two wanderers as they stood at the curb rolled the royal barouche, on each side of which rode a mounted cuirassier, sashed and helmeted. The Englishman, however, had observed nothing; he was lost in some dream.
"Look, Herr!" cried Johann, rousing the other by a pull at the sleeve. "Look!" Socialist though he claimed to be, Johann touched his cap.
In the barouche, leaning back among the black velvet cushions, her face mellowed by the shade of a small parasol, was a young woman of nineteen or twenty, as beautiful as a da Vinci freshly conceived. The Englishman saw a pair of grave dark eyes which, in the passing, met his and held them. He caught his breath.
"Who is that?" he asked.
"That is her Royal Highness the Crown Princess Alexia."
Afterward the Englishman remembered seeing a white dog lying on the opposite seat.