The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter V. Behind the Puppet Booth
While the absent-minded hunter strode down toward the lower town, and Maurice sipped his cognac, the king lay in his bed in the palace and aimlessly fingered the counterpane. There was now no beauty in his face. It was furrowed and pale, and an endless fever burned in the sunken eyes--eyes like coals, which suddenly flare before they turn to ash.
The archbishop nor the chancellor could see anything in the dim corners of the royal bed chamber, but he could. It was the mocking finger of death, and it was leveled at him. Spring had come, and summer and autumn and winter, and spring again, but he had not wandered through the green fields, except in dreams, and the byways he loved knew him no more. Ah, to sit still like a spectator and to see the world pass by! To be a part of it, and yet not of it! To see the glory of strength and vigor just beyond one's grasp, the staffs to lean on crumble to the touch, and the stars of hope fade away one by one from the firmament of one's dreams! Here was weariness for which there was no remedy.
Day by day time pressed him on toward the inevitable. No human hand could stay him. He could think, but he could not act. He could move, but he could not stand nor walk. And that philosophy which had in other days sustained him was shattered and threadbare. He was dead, yet he lived. Fate has so many delicate ironies.
He had tried to make his people love him, only to acquire their hate. He had reduced taxation, only to be scorned. He had made the city beautiful, only to be cursed. A paralytic, the theme of ribald verse, the butt of wineroom wits, the object of contumely to his people, his beneficiaries!
The ingratitude of kings bites not half so deep as the ingratitude of the people. Tears filled his eyes, and he fumbled his lips. There were only two bright spots in his futile life. The first was his daughter, who read to him, who was the first in the morning to greet him and last at night to leave him. The second was the evening hour when the archbishop and the chancellor came in to discuss the affairs of state.
"And Prince Frederick has not yet been heard from?" was his first inquiry.
"No, Sire," answered the chancellor. "The matter is altogether mysterious. The police can find no trace of him. He left Carnavia for Bleiberg; he stopped at Ehrenstein, directed his suite to proceed; there, all ends. The ambassador from Carnavia approached me to-day. He scouts the idea of a peasant girl, and hinted at other things."
"Yes," said the king, "there is something behind all this. Frederick is not a youth of peccadilloes. Something has happened to him. But God send him safe and sound to us, so much depends on him. And Alexia?"
"Says nothing," the archbishop answered, "a way with her when troubled."
"And my old friend, Lord Fitzgerald?"
The prelate shook his head sadly. "We have just been made acquainted with his death. God rest his kindly soul."
The king sank deeper into his pillows.
"But we shall hear from his son within a few days," continued the prelate, taking the king's hand in his own. "My son, cease to worry. Alexia's future is in good hands. I have confidence that the public debt will be liquidated on the twentieth."
"Or renewed," said the chancellor. "Your Majesty must not forget that Prince Frederick sacrifices his own private fortune to adjust our indebtedness. That is the wedding gift which he offers to her Highness. One way or the other, we have nothing to fear."
"O!" cried the king, "I had forgotten that magnanimity. His disappearance is no longer a mystery. He is dead."
His auditors could not repress the start which this declaration caused them to make.
"Sire," said the chancellor, quietly, "princes are not assassinated these days. Our worry is perhaps all needless. The prince is young, and sometimes youth flings off the bridle and runs away. But he loves her Highness, and the Carnavians are not fickle."
The prelate and the statesman had different ideas in regard to the peasant girl. To the prelate a woman was an unknown quantity, and he frowned. The statesman, who had once been young, knew a deal about woman, and he smiled.
"Sometimes, my friends," said the king, "I can see beyond the human glance. I hear the crumbling of walls. But for that lonely child I could die in peace. The crown I wear is of lead; God hasten the day that lifts it from my brow." When the king spoke again, he said: "And that insolent Von Rumpf is gone at last? I am easier. He should have been sent about his business ten years ago. What does Madame the duchess say?"
"So little," answered the chancellor, "that I begin to distrust her silence. But she is a wise woman, though her years are but five and twenty, and she will not make any foolish declaration of war which would only redound to her chagrin."
"What is the fascination in these crowns of straw?" said the king to the prelate. "Ah, my father, you strive for the crown to come; and yet your earnest but misguided efforts placed this earthly one on my head. You were ambitious for me."
"Nay," and the prelate bent his head. "It was self that spoke, worldly aggrandizement. I wished --God forgive me!--to administer not to the prince but to the king. I am punished. The crown has broken your life. It was the passing glory of the world; and I fell."
"And were not my eyes as dazzled by the crown as yours were by the robes? Why did we leave the green hills of Osia? What destiny writes, fate must unfold. And oh, the dreams I had of being great! I am fifty-eight and you are seventy. And look; I am a broken twig, and you tower above me like an ancient oak, and as strong." To the chancellor he said: "And what is the budget?"
"Sire, it is fairly quiet in the lower town. The native troops have been paid, and all signs of discontent abated. The duchess can do nothing but replace von Rumpf. The Marshal is a straw in the wind; von Wallenstein and Mollendorf, I hold a sword above their necks. Nearly half the Diet is with us. There has been some strange meddling in the customs. Englishmen have brought me complaints, through the British legation, regarding such inspections as were never before heard of in a country at peace. I consulted the chief inspector and he affirmed the matter. He was under orders of the minister of police. It appears to me that a certain Englishman is to be kept out of the country for reasons well known to us. I have suspended police power over the customs. Ah, Sire, if you would but agree with Monseigneur to dismiss the cabinet."
"It is too late," said the king.
"There is only one flaw," continued the chancellor. "This flaw is Colonel Beauvais, chief in command of the cuirassiers, who in authority stands between the Marshal and General Kronau. I fear him. Why? Instinct. He is too well informed of my projects for one thing; he laughs when I suggest in military affairs. Who is he? A Frenchman, if one may trust to a name; an Austrian, if one may trust from whence he came, recommended by the premier himself. He entered the cuirassiers as a Captain. You yourself, Sire, made him what he is--the real military adviser of the kingdom. But what of his past? No one knows, unless it be von Wallenstein, his intimate. I, for one, while I may be wrong, trust only those whose past I know, and even then only at intervals."
"Colonel Beauvais?" murmured the king. "I am sure that you are unjustly suspicious. How many times have I leaned on his stout arm! He taught Alexia a thousand tricks of horse, so that to-day she rides as no other woman in the kingdom rides. Would that I stood half so straight and looked at the world half so fearlessly. He is the first soldier in the kingdom."
"All men are honest in your Majesty's eyes," said the archbishop.
"All save the man within me," replied the king.
At this juncture the king's old valet came in with the evening meal; and soon after the prelate and the chancellor withdrew from the chamber.
"How long will he live?" asked the latter.
"A year; perhaps only till to-morrow. Ah, had he but listened to me several years ago, all this would not have come to pass. He would see nothing; he persisted in dreams. With the death of Josef he was convinced that his enemies had ceased to be. Had he listened, I should have dismissed the cabinet, and found enough young blood to answer my purposes; I should have surrounded him with a mercenary army two thousand strong; by now he should have stood strongly entrenched.
"They have robbed him, but you and I were permitted to do nothing. Where is the prosperity of which we formerly boasted? I, too, hear crumbling walls. Yet, the son of this Englishman, whose strange freak is still unaccountable, will come at the appointed time; I know the race. He will renew the loan for another ten years. What a fancy! Lord Fitzgerald was an eccentric man. Given a purpose, he pursued it to the end, neither love nor friendship, nor fear swerved him. Do you know that he made a vow that Duke Josef should never sit on this throne, nor his descendants? What were five millions to him, if in giving them he realized the end? The king would never explain the true cause of this Englishman's folly, but I know that it was based on revenge, the cause of which also is a mystery. If only the prince were here!"
"He will come; youth will be youth."
"You have never been young."
"Not in that particular sense to which you refer," dryly.
* * * * * *
In the chamber of finance Colonel Beauvais leaned over the desk and perused the writing on a slip of paper which the minister had given him. Enough daylight remained to permit the letters to stand out legibly. When he had done the Colonel tossed back the missive, and the minister tore it into shreds and dropped them into the waste basket.
"So much for your pains," said Beauvais. "The spy, who has eaten up ten thousand crowns, is not worth his salt. He has watched this man Hamilton for two days, been his guide in the hills, and yet learns nothing. And the rigor of the customs is a farce."
"This day," replied the minister, "the police lost its jurisdiction over the customs. Complaints have been entered at the British legation, which forwarded them to the chancellor."
"O ho!" The Colonel pulled his mustache.
"I warned you against this. The chancellor is a man to be respected, whatever his beliefs. I warned you and Mollendorf of the police what the result would be. The chancellor has a hard hand when it falls. He was always bold; now he is more so since he practically stands alone. In games of chance one always should play close. You are in a hurry."
"I have waited six years."
"And I have waited fourteen."
"Well, then, I shall pass into the active. I shall watch this Englishman myself. He is likely to prove the agent. Count, the time for waiting is gone. If the debt is liquidated or renewed-- and there is Prince Frederick to keep in mind-- we shall have played and lost. Disgrace for you; for me--well, perhaps there is a power behind me too strong. The chancellor? Pouf! I have no fear of him. But you who laugh at the archbishop--"
"He is too old."
"So you say. But he has dreams unknown to us. He has ceased to act; why? He is waiting for the curtain to rise. Nothing escapes him; he is letting us go to what end we will, only, if we do not act at once, to draw us to a sudden halt. Now to this meddling Englishman: we have offered him a million--five millions for four. He laughs. He is a millionaire. With characteristic bombast he declares that money has no charms. For six months, since his father's death, we have hounded him, in vain. It is something I can not understand. What is Leopold to these Englishmen that they risk a princely fortune to secure him his throne? Friendship? Bah, there is none."
"Not in France nor in Austria. But this man was an Englishman; they leave legacies of friendship."
The Colonel walked to the window and looked down into the gardens. He remained there for a time. Von Wallenstein eyed him curiously. Presently the soldier returned to his seat.
"We are crossing a chasm; a man stands in our way; as we can not go around him, we, being the stronger, push him aside. Eh?"
"You would not kill--" began the minister.
"Let us use the French meaning of the word `suppress.' And why not? Ambition, wherever it goes, leaves a trail of blood. What is a human life in this game we play? A leaf, a grain of sand."
"But, since the prince promises to liquidate the debt, what matters it if the Englishman comes? It is all one and the same."
"Within twenty, nay, within fifteen days, what may not happen?"
"You are ambitious," said von Wallenstein, slyly.
"And who is not?"
"Is a Marshal's baton so much, then, above your present position? You are practically the head of the army."
"A valiant army!" laughing; "five thousand men. Why, Madame the duchess has six thousand and three batteries."
"Her army of six thousand is an expedient; you can raise volunteers to the amount of ten thousand."
"To be sure I could; but supposing I did not want to?"
The minister dropped his gaze and began fingering the paper cutter. The Colonel's real purpose was still an enigma to him. "Come, you have the confidence of the king, the friendship of her Royal Highness. What do you gain in serving us? The baton?"
"You embarrass me. Questions? I should not like to lie to you. Batons were fine things when Louises and Napoleons conferred them. I have thrown my dice into the common cup; let that be sufficient."
"A man who comes from a noble house such as you come from--"
"Ah, count, that was never to be referred to. Be content with my brain and sword. And then, there is the old saying, Give a man an ell, and look to your rod. We are all either jackals or lions, puppets or men behind the booth. I am a lion." He rose, drew his saber half-way from the scabbard, and sent it slithering back. "In a fortnight we put it to the touch to win or lose it all, as the poet says. Every man for himself, and let the strongest win, say I."
"You are playing two games," coldly.
"And you? Is it for pure love of Madame the duchess that you risk your head? Come, as you say; admit that you wish to see my hand without showing yours. A baton is not much for me, as you have hinted, but it is all that was promised me. And you, if we win, will still be minister of finances? What is that maggot I see behind your eyes? Is it not spelled `chancellor'? But, remember, Madame has friends to take care of in the event of our success. We can not have all the spoils. To join the kingdom and the duchy will create new offices, to be sure, but we can have only part of them. As to games, I shall, out of the kindness in my heart, tell you that I am not playing two, but three. Guess them if you can. Next to the chancellorship is the embassy to Vienna, and an embassy to Paris is to be created. Madame is a superior woman. Who knows?" with a smile that caused the other to pale.
"You are mad to dream of that."
"As you say, I come of a noble house," carelessly.
"You are mad."
"No, count," the soldier replied. "I have what Balzac calls a thirst for a full life in a short space."
"I would give a deal to read what is going on in that head of yours."
"Doubtless. But what is to become of our friends the Marshal and Mollendorf? What will be left for them? Perhaps there will be a chamber of war, a chamber of the navy. As a naval minister the Marshal would be nicely placed. There would be no expense of building ships or paying sailors, which would speak well for the economy of the new government. The Marshal is old; we shall send him to Servia. At least the office will pay both his vanity and purse to an extent equal to that of his present office. By the way, nothing has yet been heard from Prince Frederick. Ah, these young men, these plump peasant girls!"
"Till this evening, then;" and the Colonel went from the room.
The minister of finance applied a match to the tapers. He held the burning match aloft and contemplated the door through which the soldier had gone. The sting of the incipient flame aroused him.
"What," he mused aloud, as he arranged the papers on his desk, "is his third game?"
"It appears to me," said a voice from the wall behind, "that the same question arises in both our minds."
The minister wheeled his chair, his mouth and brows puckered in dismay. From a secret panel in the wall there stepped forth a tall, thin, sour-visaged old man of military presence. He calmly sat down in the chair which Beauvais had vacated.
"I had forgotten all about you, Marshal!" exclaimed the count, smiling uneasily.
"A statement which I am most ready to believe," replied old Marshal Kampf, with a glance which caused the minister yet more uneasiness. "What impressed me among other things was, `But what is to become of our friends the Marshal and Mollendorf?' I am Marshal; I am about to risk all for nothing. Why should I not remain Marshal for the remainder of my days? It is a pleasant thing to go to Vienna once the year and to witness the maneuvers, with an honorary position on the emperor's staff. To be Marshal here is to hold a sinecure, yet it has its compensations. The uniforms, gray and gold, are handsome; it is an ostrich plume that I wear in my chapeau de bras; the medals are of gold. My friend, it is the vanity of old age which forgives not." And the Marshal, the bitterest tongue in all Bleiberg, reached over and picked up the cigar which lay by the inkwells. He lit it at one of the tapers, and sank again into the chair. "Count, how many games are you playing?"
"My dear Marshal, it was not I who spoke of games. I am playing no game, save for the legitimate sovereign of this kingdom. I ask for no reward."
"Disinterested man! The inference is, however, that, since you have not asked for anything, you have been promised something. Confess it, and have done."
"Is it possible that you suspect me?" The cold eyes grew colder, and the thin lips almost disappeared.
"When three men watch each other as do Beauvais, Mollendorf and you, it is because each suspects the other of treachery. You haven't watched me because I am old, but because I am old I have been watching you. Mollendorf aspires to greatness, you have your gaze on the chancellorship, and curse me if the Colonel isn't looking after my old shoes! Am I to give up my uniform, my medals and my plume--for nothing? And who the devil is this man Beauvais, since that is not his name? Is he a fine bird whose feathers have been plucked?"
The minister did not respond to the question; he began instead to fidget in his chair.
"When I gave my word to his Highness the duke, it was without conditions. I asked no favors; I considered it my duty. Let us come to an understanding. Material comfort is necessary to a man of my age. Fine phrases and a medal or two more do not count. I am, then, to go to Servia. You were very kind to hide me in your cabinet."
"It was to show you that I had no secrets from you," quickly.
"Let us pass on. Mollendorf is to go to Paris, where he will be a nonentity, while in his present office he is a power in the land-- Devil take me, but it seems to me that we are all a pack of asses! Our gains will not be commensurate with our losses. The navy? Well, we'll let that pass; the Colonel, I see, loves a joke."
"You forget our patriotism for the true house."
"Why not give it its true name--self-interest?"
"Marshal, in heaven's name, what has stirred your bile?" The minister was losing his patience, a bad thing for him to do in the presence of the old warrior.
"It is something I've been swallowing this past year." The Marshal tipped the ash of his cigar into the waste basket.
"Marshal, will you take the word not of the minister, but of the von Wallenstein, that whatever my reward shall be for my humble services, yours shall not be less?"
"Thanks, but I have asked for no reward. If I accepted gain for what I do, I should not be too old to blush."
"I do not understand."
"Self-interest blinds us. I have nothing but pity for this king whose only crime is an archbishop; and I can not accept gain at his expense; I should blush for shame. Had I my way, he should die in peace. He has not long to live. The archbishop--well, we can not make kings, they are born. But there is one thing more: Over all your schemes is the shadow of Austria."
"Yes. The Colonel speaks of a power behind him. Bismarck looks hungrily toward Schleswig-Holstein. Austria casts amorous eyes at us. A protectorate? We did not need it. It was forced on us. When Austria assumed to dictate to us as to who should be king, she also robbed us of our true independence. Twenty years ago there was no duchy; it was all one kingdom. Who created this duchy when Albrecht came on the throne? Austria. Why? If we live we shall read." He rose, shook his lean legs. "I have been for the most part neutral. I shall remain neutral. There is an undercurrent on which you have failed to reckon. Austria, mistress of the confederation. There are two men whom you must watch. One is the archbishop."
"The archbishop?" The minister was surprised that the Marshal should concur with the Colonel. "And the other?"
"Your friend the Colonel," starting for the door.
The minister smiled. "Will you not dine with me?" he asked.
"Thanks. But I have the Servian minister on my hands to-night. A propos, tell the Colonel that I decline Belgrade. I prefer to die at home." And he vanished.
Von Wallenstein reviewed the statements of both his visitors.
"I shall watch Monseigneur the archbishop." Then he added, with a half-smile: "God save us if the Marshal's sword were half so sharp as his tongue! It was careless of me to forget that I had shut him up in the cabinet."
Meanwhile Beauvais walked slowly toward his quarters, with his saber caught up under his arm. Once he turned and gazed at the palace, whose windows began to flash with light.
"Yes, they are puppets and jackals, and I am the lion. For all there shall serve my ends. I shall win, and when I do--" He laughed silently. "Well, I am a comely man, and Madame the duchess shall be my wife."