The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter VII. Some Dialogue, a Sprained Ankle, and Some Soldiers
The stranger returned Maurice's salute with open-mouthed dismay; the monocle fell from his eye, he grasped the table with one hand and pushed back the chair with the other, while Maurice heard the name of an exceedingly warm place.
The gendarme, who was leaning against the pillar, straightened, opened his jaws, snapped them, and hurried off.
"Maurice--Maurice Carewe?" said the bewildered Englishman.
"No one else, though I must say you do not seem very glad to see me," Maurice answered, conscious that he was all things but welcome.
"Hang you, I'm not!" incogitantly.
"Go to the devil, then!" cried Maurice, hotly.
"Gently," said Fitzgerald, catching Maurice by the coat and pulling him down into a chair. "Confound you, could you not have made yourself known to me without yelling my name at the top of your voice?"
"Are you ashamed of it?" asked Maurice, loosing his coat from Fitzgerald's grip.
"I'm afraid of it," the Englishman admitted, in a lowered voice. "And your manly, resonant tones have cast it abroad. I am here incognito."
"Who the deuce are you?"
"I am Don Jahpet of Armenia; that is to say that I am a marked man. And now, as you would inelegantly express it, you have put a tag on me. When I left you in Vienna the other day I lied to you. I am sorry. I should have trusted you, only I did not wish you to risk your life. You would have insisted on coming along."
"Risked my life?" echoed Maurice. "How many times have I not risked it? By the way," impressed by a sudden thought, "are you the Englishman every one seems to be expecting?"
"Yes." Fitzgerald knocked his pipe against the railing. "I am the man. Worse luck! Was any one near when you called me by name?"
"Only one of those wooden gendarmes."
"Only one of those wooden gendarmes!" ironically. "Only one of those dogs who have been at my heels ever since I arrived. And he, having heard, has gone back to his master. Well, since you have started the ball rolling, it is no more than fair that you should see the game to its end."
"What's it all about?" asked Maurice, his astonishment growing and growing.
"Where are your rooms?"
"You have something important to tell me?"
"Perhaps you may think so. At the Continental? Come along."
They passed out of the pavilion, along the path to the square, thence to the terrace of the Continental, which they mounted. Not a word was said, but Maurice was visibly excited, and by constant gnawing ruined his cigar. He conducted his friend to the room on the second floor, the window of which opened on a private balcony. Here he placed two chairs and a small table; and with a bottle of tokayer between them they seated themselves.
"What's it all about?"
"O, only a crown and a few millions in money."
"Only a crown and a few millions in money," repeated Maurice very slowly, for his mind could scarcely accept Fitzgerald and these two greatest treasures on earth.
A gendarme had leisurely followed them from the park. He took aside a porter and quietly plied him with questions. Evidently the answers were satisfactory, for he at once departed.
Maurice stared at the Englishman.
"Knocks you up a bit, eh?" said Fitzgerald. "Well, I am rather surprised myself; that is to say, I was."
"Fire away," said Maurice.
"To begin with, if I do not see the king to-morrow, it is not likely that I ever shall."
"My business here is with his Majesty."
Maurice filled the glasses and pushed one across the table.
"Here's!" said he, and gulped.
Fitzgerald drank slowly, however, as if arranging in his mind the salient points in his forthcoming narrative.
"I have never been an extraordinarily communicative man; what I shall tell you is known only to my former Colonel and myself. At Calcutta, where you and I first met, I was but a Lieutenant in her Majesty's. To-day I am burdened with riches such as I know not how to use, and possessor of a title which sounds strange in my ears."
The dim light from the gas-jet in the room flickered over his face, and Maurice saw that it was slightly contorted, as if by pain.
"My father was Lord Fitzgerald."
"What!" cried Maurice, "the diplomat, the historian, the millionaire?"
"The same. Thirteen years ago we parted--a misunderstanding. I never saw him again. Six months ago he died and left me a fortune, a title and a strange legacy; and it is this legacy which brings me to Bleiberg. Do you know the history of Leopold?"
"I do. This throne belongs to the house of Auersperg, and the Osian usurps. The fact that the minister of the duchess has been discredited was what brought me here. Continue."
And Fitzgerald proceeded briefly to acquaint the other with the strange caprice of his father; how, when he left Bleiberg, he had been waylaid and the certificates demanded; how he had entrusted them to his valet, who had gone by another route; how the duke had sought him in Vienna and made offers, bribes and threats; how he had laughed at all, and sworn that Duke Josef should never be a king.
"My father wished to save Leopold in spite of himself; and then, he had no love for Josef. At a dinner given at the legation, there was among others a toast to her Majesty. The duke laughed and tossed the wine to the floor. It lost him his crown, for my father never forgave the insult. When the duke died, his daughter took up the work with surprising vigor. It was all useless; father was a rock, and would listen neither to bribes nor threats. Now they are after me. They have hunted me in India, London, and Vienna. I am an obscure soldier, with all my titles and riches; they threaten me with death. But I am here, and my father's wishes shall be carried out. That is all. I am glad that we have come together; you have more invention than I have."
"But why did you come yourself? You could have sent an agent. That would have been simple."
"An agent might be bought. It was necessary for me to come. However, I might have waited till the twentieth. I should have come openly and informed the British minister of my mission. As to the pheasants, they could have waited. Perhaps my fears are without foundation, unless you have been the unconscious cause of my true name being known. Every one has heard the story. It is known as 'Fitzgerald's folly,' and has gone the rounds of the diplomatic circles for ten years. I shall ask for an audience to- morrow morning."
"And these certificates fall due the same day that the princess is to be married," mused his auditor. "What a yarn for the papers!" his love of sensation being always close to the surface. "Your father, you say, took four million crowns; what became of the fifth?"
"The duke was permitted to secure that."
"A kind of court plaster for his wounds, eh? Why don't you get that other million and run the kingdom yourself? It's a great opportunity." Maurice laughed.
"Her Royal Highness must not be forgotten. My father thought much of her."
"But really I do not see why you are putting yourself to all this trouble. The king will pay off the indebtedness; the kingdom is said to be rich, or Austria wouldn't meddle with it."
"The king, on the twentieth of this month, will be some three millions short."
"And since he can not pay he is bankrupt. Ah, I see the plan. The duke knew that he wouldn't be able to pay."
"You have hit it squarely."
"But Austria, having placed Leopold here, is his sponsor."
"Austria has too many debts of her own; she will have to disavow her protege, which is a fact not unthought of by the house of Auersperg. By constant machination and intrigue the king's revenues have been so depleted that ordinary debts are troublesome. The archbishop, to stave off the probable end, brought about the alliance between the houses of Carnavia and Osia. My business here is to arrange for a ten years' renewal of the loan, and that is what the duchess wishes to prevent, mon ami. What's to become of the king and his daughter if aught in the way of mishap should befall me? I have not seen the king, but I have seen her Royal Highness."
"What is she like?" Maurice asked, innocently. He saw no reason why he should confide to the Englishman his own adventure.
"I'm not much of a judge," said Fitzgerald cautiously. "I have lived most of my life in cantonments where women were old and ran mostly to tongue. I should say that she is beautiful." A short sigh followed this admission.
"Ah!" said Maurice with a loud laugh to cover the sudden pang of jealousy which seized him; "in gratitude for saving her father's throne the daughter will fall in love with you. It is what the dramatist calls logical sequence."
"Why don't you write novels? Your imagination has no bounds."
"Writing novels is too much like work. But I'm serious. Your position in the world to-day is nearly equal to hers, and certainly more secure. Ah, yes; I must not forget that prince. He's a lucky dog--and so are you, for that matter. Millions and titles! And I have slapped you cavalierly on the back, smoked your cigars, drunk your whisky, and beaten you at poker!" comically.
"Ah, Maurice, it is neither wealth nor titles; it is freedom. I am like a boy out of school for good and all. Women, the society of women, who are the salt of earth; that is what I want. I have knocked out thirteen years of my life in furnace holes, and have not met nor spoken to a dozen young women in all that time. How I envy you! You know every one; you have seen the world;. you are at home in Paris, or London, or Vienna; you have enjoyed all I wish to enjoy."
"Why did you ever get into the army?"
"You ought to know."
"But it was bread and butter to me."
"Well, I was young; I saw fame and glory. If the matter under hand is closed to-morrow, what do you say to the Carpathians and bears? I shall not remain here; some one will be looking for blood. What do you say?"
"I don't know," said Maurice, thoughtfully. He was thinking of Mademoiselle of the Veil and her prophecy of ravens. "I don't know that I shall be able. It is my opinion that your part in the affair is only a curtain-raiser to graver things. Every one of importance in town goes about with an air of expectancy. I never saw anything like it. It is the king, the archbishop and the chancellor against two hundred thousand. You're a soldier; can't you smell powder?"
"Powder! You do not believe the duchess mad enough to wage war?"
"Trust a woman to do what no one dreams she will."
"But Austria would be about her ears in a minute!"
"Maybe. Have you seen this Colonel Beauvais of the royal cuirassiers, the actual head of the army here?"
"A fine soldier," said the Englishman, heartily. "Rides like a centaur and wields a saber as if it were a piece of straw."
"I can hold a pretty good blade myself; I've an idea that I can lick him at both games."
Fitzgerald laughed good-naturedly. "There is the one flaw in your make-up. I admit your horsemanship; but the saber! Believe me, it is only the constant practice and a wrist of iron which make the saber formidable. You are more familiar with the pen; I dare say you could best him at that."
"What makes you think I can not lick him?"
"Since when have the saber and the civilian been on terms? And these continental sabers are matchless, the finest in the world. I trust you will steer clear of the Colonel; if you have any challenge in mind, spring it on me, and I'll let you down easy." Then: "Why the devil do you want to lick him, anyway?"
"I don't know," said Maurice. "I had a close range to-night, and somehow the man went against the grain. Well, Jack, I'll stay with you in this affair, though, as the county judge at home would say, it's out of my circuit."
They shook hands across the table.
"Come," said Fitzgerald; "a toast, for I must be off."
"What do you say to her Royal Highness?"
"Let us make it general: to all women!"
They set down the glasses and shook hands again.
"It seemed good to run across you in Vienna, Maurice. You were one of the bright spots in the old days."
"Do you want me to walk with you to the Grand? It's a fine night," said Maurice, waving his hand toward the moon. "By George, what a beautiful place this end of Bleiberg is! I do not wonder that the duchess covets it."
"No, I'll go alone. All I have to do is to march straight up the Strasse."
"Well, good-night and good luck to you," said Maurice, as he led the Englishman into the hallway. "Look me up when you have settled the business. I say, but it gets me; it's the strangest thing I ever heard." And he waited till the soldierly form disappeared below the landing.
Then he went back to his chair on the balcony to think it over. At four o'clock that afternoon he had grumbled of dullness. He lit a pipe, and contemplated the soft and delicate blues of earth and heaven, the silvery flashes on the lake, and the slim violet threads of smoke which wavered about his head. It was late. Now and then the sound of a galloping horse was borne up by the breeze, and presently Maurice heard the midnight bell boom forth from the sleepy spires of the cathedral--where the princess was to be married.
One by one the lamps of the park went out, but the moon shone on, lustrous and splendid. First he reviewed his odd adventure in the archbishop's gardens. He had spoken to princesses before, but they were women of the world, hothouse roses that bloom and wither in a short space. The atmosphere which surrounded this princess was idyllic, pastoral. She had seen nothing of the world, its sports and pastimes, and the art of playing at love was unknown to her. Again he could see her serious eyes, the delicate chin and mouth, the oval cheeks, and the dog that followed in her steps. Here was an indelible picture which time could never efface. Something stirred in his heart, and he sighed.
And ah, the woman in the veil! Who could she be? The more he thought of her the more convinced he was that she stood high in the service of any one but Leopold of Osia. And Fitzgerald! That sober old soldier concerned with crowns and millions! It was incredible; it was almost laughable. They had met up-country in India, and had hunted, and Maurice had saved the Englishman's life. Occasionally they had corresponded.
"Well, to bed," said the young diplomat. "This has been a full day." And, like the true newspaper man he was, for all his diplomacy, he emptied the bottle and entered the room. He was about to disrobe, when some one rapped on the door. He opened it, and beheld a man in the livery of the Grand Hotel. He was breathing hard.
"Yes. What's wanted?"
"Hamilton? O, yes. Go on."
"Herr Hamilton bade me to tell your Excellency that in returning to the hotel he sprained his ankle, and wishes to know if Herr would not be so kind as to spend the night with him."
"Certainly. Run down to the office, and I shall be with you shortly." Again alone, Maurice opened his trunk. He brought forth a pint flask of brandy, some old handkerchiefs to be used as bandages, and a box of salve he used for bruises when on hunting expeditions. In turning over his clothes his hand came into contact with his old army revolver. He scratched his head. "No, it's too much like a cannon, and there's no room for it in my pockets." He pushed it aside, rose and slammed the lid of the trunk. "Sprained his ankle? He wasn't gone more than an hour. How the deuce is he to see the king to-morrow? Probably wishes to appoint me his agent. That's it. Very well." He proceeded to the office, where he found the messenger waiting for him. "Come on, and put life into your steps."
Together they traversed the moonlit thoroughfare. Few persons were astir. Once the night patrol clattered by. They passed through the markets, and not far ahead they could see the university. It looked like a city prison.
"This is the hotel, Herr," said the messenger.
They entered. Maurice approached the proprietor, who was pale and flurried; but as Maurice had never seen the natural repose of his countenance, he thought nothing of it.
"My friend, Herr Hamilton, has met with an accident. Where is his room?"
"Number nine; Johann will show you." He acted as if he had something more to say, but a glance from the round-faced porter silenced him. Maurice lost much by not seeing this glance. He followed the messenger up the stairs.
There were no transoms. The corridor was devoid of illumination. The porter struck a match and held it close to the panel of a door under which a thread of light streamed.
"This is it, Herr," he bawled, so loudly that Maurice started.
"There was no need of waking the dead to tell me," he growled.
The door opened, and before Maurice could brace himself--for the interior of the room made all plain to him--he was violently pushed over the threshold on to his knees. He was up in an instant. The room was filled with soldiers, foot soldiers of the king, so it seemed.
"What the devil is this?" he demanded, brushing his knees and cursing himself because he had not brought his Colt when fate had put it almost in his hand.
"It is a banquet, young man. We were waiting for the guest of honor."
Maurice turned to the speaker, and saw a medium-sized man with gray hair and a frosty stubble of a mustache. He wore no insignia of office. Indeed, as Maurice gazed from one man to the next he saw that there were no officers; and it came to him that these were not soldiers of the king. He was in a trap. He thought quickly. Fitzgerald was in trouble, perhaps on his account. Where was he?
"I do not see my friend who sprained his ankle," he said coolly.
This declaration was greeted with laughter.
"Evidently I have entered the wrong room," he continued imperturbably. He stepped toward the door, but a burly individual placed his back to it.
"Am I a prisoner, or the victim of a practical joke?"
"Either way," said the man with the frosty mustache.
"You have recently formed a dangerous acquaintance, and we desire to aid you in breaking it."
"Are you aware, gentlemen--no, I don't mean gentlemen--that I am attached to the American legation in Vienna, and that my person is inviolable?"
Everybody laughed again--everybody but Maurice.
"Allow me to correct you," put in the elderly man, who evidently was the leader in the affair. "You are not attached; you are detached. Gentlemen, permit me, M. Carewe, detache of the American legation in Vienna, who wishes he had stayed there."
Maurice saw a brace of revolvers on the mantel. The table stood between.
"Well," he said, banteringly, "bring on your banquet; the hour is late."
"That's the way; don't lose your temper, and no harm will come to you."
"What do you wish of me?"
"Merely the pleasure of your company. Lieutenant, bring out the treasure."
One of the soldiers entered the next room and soon returned pushing Fitzgerald before him. The Englishman was bound and gagged.
"How will you have the pheasant served?" asked the leader.
"Like a gentleman!" cried Maurice, letting out a little of his anger. "Take out the gag; he will not cry."
The leader nodded, and Fitzgerald's mouth was relieved. He spat some blood on the carpet, then looked at his captors, the devil in his eyes.
"Proceed to kill me and have done," he said.
"Kill you? No, no!"
"I advise you to, for if you do not kill me, some day I shall be free again, and then God help some of you."
Maurice gazed at the candles on the table, and smiled.
"I'm sorry they dragged you into it, Maurice," said Fitzgerald.
"I'm glad they did. What you want is company." There was a glance, swift as light. It went to the mantel, then passed to the captive. "Well," said Maurice, "what is next on your damned program?"
"The other side of the frontier."
"Maybe," said Maurice.
With an unexpected movement he sent the table over, the lights went out; and he had judged the distance so accurately that he felt his hands close over the revolvers.
"The door! the door!" a voice bawled. "Knock down any one who attempts to pass."
This was precisely what Maurice desired. With the soldiers massed about the door, he would be free to liberate Fitzgerald; which he did. He had scarcely completed the task, when a flame spurted up. The leader fearlessly lit a candle and righted the table. He saw both his prisoners, one of them with extended arms, at the ends of which glistened revolver barrels.
"The devil!" he said.
"Maybe it is," replied Maurice. "Now, my gay banqueteers, open the door; and the first man who makes a suspicious movement will find that I'm a tolerable shot."
"Seize him, your Excellency!" shouted one of the troopers. "Those are my revolvers he has, and they are not loaded."