The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter IV. An Adventure with Royalty
Maurice Carewe, attached to the American legation in Vienna, leaned against the stone parapet which separated the terraced promenade of the Continental Hotel from the Werter See, and wondered what had induced him to come to Bleiberg.
He had left behind him the glory of September in Vienna, a city second only to Paris in fashion and gaiety; Vienna, with its inimitable bands, its incomparable gardens, its military maneuvers, its salons, its charming women; and all for a fool's errand. His Excellency was to blame. He had casually dropped the remark that the duchy's minister, Baron von Rumpf, had been given his passports as a persona non grata by the chancellor of the kingdom, and that a declaration of war was likely to follow. Maurice's dormant love of journalistic inquiry had become aroused, and he had asked permission to investigate the affair, a favor readily granted to him.
But here he was, on the scene, and nobody knew anything, and nobody could tell anything. The duchess had remained silent. Not unnaturally he wished himself back in Vienna. There were no court fetes in the city of Bleiberg. The king's condition was too grave to permit them. And, besides, there had been no real court in Bleiberg for the space of ten years, so he was told. Those solemn affairs of the archbishop's, given once the week for the benefit of the corps diplomatique, were dull and spiritless. Her Royal Highness was seldom seen, save when she drove through the streets. Persons who remembered the reign before told what a mad, gay court it had been. Now it was funereal. The youth and beauty of Bleiberg held a court of its own. Royalty was not included, nor did it ask to be.
A strange capital, indeed, Maurice reflected, as he gazed down into the cool, brown water. He regretted his caprice. There were pretty women in Vienna. Some of them belonged to the American colony. They danced well, they sang and played and rode. He had taught some of them how to fence, and he could not remember the times he had been "buttoned" while paying too much attention to their lips and eyes. For Maurice loved a thing of beauty, were it a woman, a horse or a Mediterranean sunset. What a difference between these two years in Vienna and that year in Calcutta! He never would forget the dingy office, with its tarnished sign, "U. S. Consul," tacked insecurely on the door, and the utter loneliness.
He cast a pebble into the lake, and watched the ripples roll away and disappear, and ruminated on a life full of color and vicissitude. He remembered the Arizona days, the endless burning sand, the dull routine of a cavalry trooper, the lithe brown bodies of the Apaches, the first skirmish and the last. From a soldier he had turned journalist, tramped the streets of Washington in rain and shine, living as a man lived who must.
One day his star had shot up from the nadir of obscurity, not very far, but enough to bring his versatility under the notice of the discerning Secretary of State, who, having been a friend of the father, offered the son a berth in the diplomatic corps. A consulate in a South American republic, during a revolutionary crisis, where he had shown consummate skill in avoiding political complications (and where, by a shrewd speculation in gold, he had feathered his nest for his declining years), proved that the continual incertitude of a journalistic career is a fine basis for diplomatic work. From South America he had gone to Calcutta, thence to Austria.
He was only twenty-nine, which age in some is youth. He possessed an old man's wisdom and a boy's exuberance of spirits. He laughed whenever he could; to him life was a panorama of vivid pictures, the world a vast theater to which somehow he had gained admission. His beardless countenance had deceived more than one finished diplomat, for it was difficult to believe that behind it lay an earnest purpose and a daring courage. If he bragged a little, quizzed graybeards, sought strange places, sported with convention, and eluded women, it was due to his restlessness. Yet, he had the secretiveness of sand; he absorbed, but he revealed nothing. He knew his friends; they thought they knew him. It was his delight to have women think him a butterfly, men write him down a fool; it covered up his real desires and left him free.
What cynicism he had was mellowed by a fanciful humor. Whether with steel or with words, he was a master of fence; and if at times some one got under his guard, that some one knew it not. To let your enemy see that he has hit you is to give him confidence. He saw humor where no one else saw it, and tragedy where it was not suspected. He was one of those rare individuals who, when the opportunity of chance refuses to come, makes one.
"Germany and Austria are great countries," he mused, lighting a cigar. "Every hundredth man is a king, one in fifty is a duke, every tenth man is a prince, and one can not take a corner without bumping into a count or a baron. Even the hotel waiters are disquieting; there is that embarrassing atmosphere about them which suggests nobility in durance vile. As for me, I prefer Kentucky, where every man is a colonel, and you never make a mistake. And these kingdoms!" He indulged in subdued laughter. "They are always like comic operas. I find myself looking around every moment for the merry villagers so happy and so gay (at fifteen dollars the week), the eternal innkeeper and the perennial soubrette his daughter, the low comedian and the self-conscious tenor. Heigho! and not a soul in Bleiberg knows me, nor cares.
"I'd rather talk five minutes to a pretty woman than eat stuffed pheasants the year around, and the stuffed pheasant is about all Bleiberg can boast of. Well, here goes for a voyage of discovery;" and he passed down the stone steps to the pier, quite unconscious of the admiring glances of the women who fluttered back and forth on the wide balconies above.
It was four o'clock in the afternoon; a fresh wind redolent of pine and resin blew across the lake. Maurice climbed into a boat and pulled away with a strong, swift stroke, enjoying the liberation of his muscles. A quarter of a mile out he let the oars drift and took his bearings. He saw the private gardens of the king and the archbishop, and, convinced that a closer view would afford him entertainment, he caught up the oars again and moved inland.
The royal gardens ran directly into the water, while those of the archbishop were protected by a wall of brick five or six feet in height, in the center of which was a gate opening on the water. Behind the gate was a small boat dock. Maurice plied the oars vigorously. He skirted the royal gardens, and the smell of newly mown lawns filled the air. Soon he was gliding along the sides of the moss-grown walls. A bird chirped in the overhanging boughs. He was about to cast loose the oars again, when the boat was brought to a violent stop. A few yards waterward from the gate there lay, hidden in the shadowed water, a sunken pier. On one of the iron piles the boat had become impaled.
Maurice was tumbled into the bow of the boat, which began rapidly to fill. First he swore, then he laughed, for he was possessed of infinite good humor. The only thing left for him to do was to swim for the gate. With a rueful glance at his thin clothes, he dropped himself over the side of the wreck and struck out toward the gate. The water, having its source from the snowclad mountains, was icy. He was glad enough to grasp the lower bars of the gate and draw himself up. He was on the point of climbing over, when a picture presented itself to his streaming eyes.
Seated on a bench made of twisted vine was a young girl. She held in her hand a book, but she was not reading it. She was scanning the unwritten pages of some reverie; her eyes, dark, large and wistful, were holding communion with the god of dreams. A wisp of hair, glossy as coal, trembled against a cheek white as the gown she wore.
At her side, blinking in the last rays of the warm sun, sat a bulldog, toothless and old. Now and then a sear leaf, falling in a zig-zag course, rustled past his ears, and he would shake his head as if he, too, were dreaming and the leaves disturbed him. All at once he sniffed, his ears stood forward, and a low growl broke the enchantment. The girl, on discovering Maurice, closed the book and rose. The dog, still growling, jumped down and trotted to the gate. Maurice thought that it was time to speak.
"Mademoiselle," he said, "pardon this intrusion, but my boat has met with an accident."
The girl came to the gate. "Why, Monsieur," she exclaimed, "you are wet!"
"That is true," replied Maurice, his teeth beginning to knock together. "I was forced to swim. If you will kindly open the gate and guide me to the street, I shall be much obliged to you."
The gate swung outward, and in a moment Maurice was on dry land, or the next thing to it, which was the boat-dock.
"Thank you," he said.
"O! And you might have been drowned," compassion lighting her beautiful eyes. "Sit down on the bench, Monsieur, for you must be weak. And it was that sunken pier? I shall speak to Monseigneur; he must have it removed. Bull, stop growling; you are very impolite; the gentleman is in distress."
Maurice sat down, not because he was weak, but because the desire to gain the street had suddenly subsided. Who was this girl who could say "must" to the formidable prelate? His quick eye noticed that she showed no sign of embarrassment. Indeed, she impressed him as one who was superior to that petty disturbance of collected thought. Somehow it seemed to him, as she stood there looking down at him, that he, too, should be standing. But she put forth a hand with gentle insistence when he made as though to rise. What an exquisite face, he thought. Against the whiteness of her skin her lips burned like poppy petals. Innocent, inquisitive eyes smiled gently, eyes in whose tranquil depths lay the glory of the world, asleep. Presently a color, faint and fugitive, dimmed the whiteness of her cheeks. Maurice, conscious of his rudeness and of a warmth in his own cheeks, instinctively lowered his gaze.
"Pardon my rudeness," he said.
"What is your name, Monsieur," she asked calmly.
"It is Maurice Carewe. I am living in Vienna. I came to Bleiberg for pleasure, but the first day has not been propitious," with an apologetic glance at his dripping clothes.
"Maurice Carewe," slowly repeating the full name as if to imprint it on her memory. "You are English?"
He said: "No; I am one of those dreadful Yankees you have possibly read about."
Her teeth gleamed. "Yes, I have heard of them. But you do not appear so very dreadful; though at present you are truly not at your best. What is this--this Yankeeland like?"
"It would take me ever so long to tell you about it, it is such a great country."
"You are a patriot!" clapping her hands. "No other country is so fine and large and great as your own. But tell me, is it as large as Austria?"
"Austria? You will not be offended if I tell you?"
"Well," with fun in his eyes, "it is my opinion that I could hide Austria in my country so thoroughly that nobody would ever be able to find it again." He wondered how she would accept this statement.
She lifted her chin and laughed, and the bulldog wagged his tail, as he always did when mirth touched her. He jumped up beside Maurice and looked into his face. Maurice patted his broad head, and he submitted. The girl looked rather surprised.
"Are you a magician?" she asked.
"Bull never makes friends."
"But I do," said Maurice; "perhaps he understands that, and comes half-way. But it is rather strange to see a bulldog in this part of the country."
"He was given to me, years ago, by an Englishman."
"That accounts for it." He was experiencing a deal of cold, but he dared not mention it. "And may I ask your name?"
"Ah, Monsieur," shyly, "to tell you my name would be to frighten you away."
"I am sure nothing could do that," he declared earnestly. Had he been thinking of aught but her eyes he might have caught the significance of her words. But, then, the cold was numbing.
She surveyed him with critical eyes. She saw a clean-shaven face, brown, handsome and eager, merry blue eyes, a chin firm and aggressive, a mischievous mouth, a forehead which showed the man of thought, a slim athletic form which showed the man of action-- all of which combined to produce that indescribable air which attaches itself to the gentleman.
"It is Alexia," she said, after some hesitation, watching him closely to observe the effect.
But he was as far away as ever. "Alexia what?"
"Only Alexia," a faint coquetry stealing into her glance.
"O, then you are probably a maid?"
"Y--es. But you are disappointed?"
"No, indeed. You have put me more at ease. I suppose you serve the princess?"
"Whenever I can," demurely.
He could not keep his eyes from hers. "They say that she is a very lonely princess."
"So lonely." And the coquetry faded from her eyes as her glance wandered waterward and became fixed on some object invisible and far away. "Poor lonely princess!"
Maurice was growing colder and colder, but he did not mind. He had wished for some woman to talk to; his wish had been granted. "I feel sorry for her, if what they say is true," having no other words.
"And what do they say, Monsieur?"
"That she and her father have been socially ostracized. I should be proud to be her friend." Once the words were gone from him, he saw their silliness. "A presumptuous statement," he added; "I am an obscure foreigner."
"Friendship, Monsieur, is a thing we all should prize, all the more so when it is disinterested."
He said rapidly, for fear she might hear his teeth chatter: "They say she is very beautiful. Tell me what she is like."
"I am no judge of what men call beauty. As to her character, I believe I may recommend that. She is good."
He was sure that merriment twitched the corners of her lips, and he grew thoughtful. "Alexia. Is that not her Highness's name also?"
"Yes, Monsieur; we have the same names." Her eyes fell, and she began to finger the pages of the book.
"I am rested now," he said, with a sudden distrust. "I thank you."
"Come, then, and I will show you the way to the gate."
"I am sorry to have troubled you," he said.
She did not reply, and together they walked up the path. The plants were dying, and the odor of decay hovered about them. Splashes of rich vermilion crowned the treetops, leaves of gold, russet and faded green rustled on the ground. The sun was gone behind the hills, the lake was tinted with salmon and dun, and Maurice (who honestly would have liked to run) was turning purple, not from atmospheric effect, but from the partly congealed state of his blood. Already he was thinking that his adventure had turned out rather well. It was but a simple task for a man of his imagination to construct a pretty romance, with a kingdom for a background. A maid of honor, perhaps; no matter, he would find means for future communication. A glamour had fallen upon him.
As to the girl, who had scarce spoken to a dozen young men in her life, she was comparing four faces; one of a visionary character of which she had dreamed for ten years, and three which had recently entered into the small circle of her affairs. It was little pleasure to her to talk to those bald diplomats, who were always saying what they did not mean, and meaning what they did not say. And the young officers in the palace never presumed to address her unless spoken to.
What a monotonous life it was! She was like a bird in a cage, ever longing for freedom, not of the air, but of impulse. To be permitted to yield to the impulses of the heart! What a delightful thought that was! But she, she seemed apart from all which was desirable to youth. Women courtesied to her, men touched their hats; but homage was not what she wanted. To be free, that was all; to come and go at will; to laugh and to sing. But ever the specter of royal dignity walked beside her and held her captive.
She was to wed a man on whom she looked with indifference, but wed him she must; it was written. A toy of ambition, she was neither more nor less. Ah, to be as her maids, not royal, but free. Of the three new faces one belonged to the man whom she was to wed; another was a tall, light-haired man whom she had seen from her carriage; the last walked by her side. And somehow, the visionary face, the faces of the man whom she was to wed and the light-haired man suddenly grew indistinct. She glanced from the corner of her eyes at Maurice, but meeting his glance, in which lay something that caused her uneasiness, her gaze dropped to the path.
"I shall be pleased to tell her Highness that a stranger, who has not met her, who does not even suspect her rebel spirit, desires to be her friend."
"O, Mademoiselle," he cried in alarm, "that desire was expressed in confidence."
"I know it. It is for that very reason I wish her to know. Have no fear, Monsieur;" and she laughed without mirth. "Her Highness will not send you to prison"
Close at hand Maurice discovered a cuirassier, who, on seeing them, saluted and stood attention. Maurice was puzzled.
"Lieutenant," said the girl, "Monsieur--Carewe?" turning to Maurice.
"Yes, that is the name."
"Well, then, Monsieur Carewe has met with an accident; please escort him to the gate. I trust you will not suffer any inconvenience from the cold. Good evening, Monsieur Carewe."
She retraced her steps down the path. The bulldog followed. Once he looked back at Maurice, and stopped as if undecided, then went on. Maurice stared at the figure of the girl unfil it vanished behind a clump of rose bushes.
"Well, Monsieur Carewe!" said the Lieutenant, a broad smile under his mustache.
"I beg your pardon, Lieutenant. May I ask you who she is?"
"What! You do not know?"
Maurice suddenly saw light. "Her Royal Highness?" blankly.
"Her Royal Highness, God bless her!" cried the Lieutenant heartily.
"Amen to that," replied Maurice, his agitation visible even to the officer.
They arrived at the gate in silence. The cuirassier raised the bar, touched his helmet, and said, with something like an amused twinkle in his eyes: "Would Monsieur like to borrow my helmet for a space?"
Maurice put up a hand to his water-soaked hair, and gave an ejaculation of dismay. He had forgotten all about his hat, which was by now, in-all probabilities, at the bottom of the lake.
"Curse the luck!" he said, in English.
"Curse the want of it, I should say!" was the merry rejoinder, also in English.
Maurice threw back his head and laughed, and the cuirassier caught the infection.
"However, there is some compensation for the hat," said the cuirassier, straightening his helmet. "You are the first stranger who has spoken to her Highness this many a day. Did the dog take to your calves? Well, never mind; he has no teeth. It was only day before yesterday that the Marshal swore he'd have the dog shot. Poor dog! He is growing blind, too, or he'd never have risked his gums on the Marshal, who is all shins. If you will wait I will fetch you one of the archbishop's skull caps."
"Don't trouble yourself," laughed Maurice. "What I need is not a hat, but a towel, and I'll get that at the hotel. George! I feel so like an ass. What is your name, Lieutenant?"
"Von Mitter, Carl von Mitter, at your service. And you are Monsieur Carewe."
"Of the American legation in Vienna. Thanks for your trouble."
"None at all. You had better hurry along; your nails are growing black."
Maurice passed into the street. "Her Royal Highness!" he muttered. "The crown princess, and I never suspected. Her name is Alexia, and she serves the princess whenever she can! Maurice, you are an ass!"
Having arrived at this conclusion, and brushing the dank hair from his eyes, he thrust his hands into his oozing pockets, and proceeded across the square toward the Continental, wondering if there was a rear entrance. Happily the adventure absorbed all his thoughts. He was quite unobservant of the marked attention bestowed on him. Carriages filled the Strasse, and many persons moved along the walks. It was the promenade hour. The water, which still dripped from his clothes and trickled from his shoes, left a conspicuous trail behind; and this alone, without the absence of a hat, would have made him the object of amused and wondering smiles.
A gendarme stared at him, but seeing that he walked straight, said nothing. Maurice, however, was serenely unaware of what was passing around him. He did not notice even the tall, broad- shouldered man who, with a gun under his arm, brushed past him, followed by a round-faced German over whose back was slung a game-bag. The man with the gun was also oblivious of his surroundings. He bumped into several persons, who scowled at him, but offered no remonstrance after having taken his measure. The German put his pipe into his pocket and advanced a step.
"The other gun, Herr," he said, "would have meant the boar."
"So it would, perhaps," was the reply.
"We've done pretty good work these two days," went on the German; but as the other appeared not to have heard he fell to the rear again, a sardonic smile flitting over his oily face.
When Maurice reached the hotel cafe he left an order for a cognac to be sent to his room, whither he repaired at once. As he got into dry clothes he mused.
"I wonder what sort of a man that crown prince is? Now, if I were he, an army could not keep me away from Bleiberg. Either he is no judge of beauty, or the peasant girls hereabout are something extraordinary. Pshaw! a man always makes an ass of himself on his wedding eve; the crown prince is simply starting in early. I believe I'll hang on here till the wedding day; a royal marriage is one of those things which I have yet to see. I have a fortnight or more to knock around in. I should like to know what the duchess will eventually do."
He sipped the last drop of the cognac and went down the stairs.