The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter VIII. The Red Chateau
Two o'clock in the morning, on the king's highway, and a small body of horse making progress. The moon was beginning to roll away toward the west, but the world was still frost-white, and the broad road stretched out like a silver ribbon before the horsemen, until it was lost in the blue mist of the forests.
The troop consisted of ten men, two of whom rode with their hands tied behind their backs and their feet fastened under the bellies of the horses. The troop was not conspicuous for this alone. Three others had their heads done up in handkerchiefs, and a fourth carried his arm in a sling.
Five miles to the rear lay the sleeping city of Bleiberg, twenty miles beyond rose the formidable heights of the Thalians. At times the horses went forward at a gallop, but more often they walked; when they galloped the man with his arm in the sling complained. Whenever the horses dropped into a walk, the leader talked to one of the prisoners.
"You fight like the very devil, my friend," he said; "but we were too many by six. Mind, I think none the less of you for your attempt; freedom is always worth fighting for. As I said before, no harm is meant to you, physically; as to the moral side, that doesn't concern me. You have disabled four of my men, and have scarcely a dozen scratches to show for it. I wanted to take only four men with me; I was ordered to take eight. The hand of providence is in it."
"You wouldn't be so polite, Colonel," spoke up the trooper whose arm was in the sling, "if you had got this crack."
"Baron, who told you to call me Colonel?" the leader demanded.
"Why, we are out of the city; there's no harm now that I can see."
"Is it possible," said Maurice ironically, "that I have had the honor of hitting a baron on the head and breaking his arm?"
The baron muttered a curse and fell back.
"And you," went on Maurice, addressing the leader, "are a Colonel?"
"For the duchess?"
"For the duchess."
"A black business for you, Colonel; take my word for it."
"A black business it is; but orders are orders. Have you ever been a soldier?"
"Well, there's nothing more to be said."
"America--" Maurice began.
"Is several thousand miles away."
"Not if you reckon from Vienna."
"I'd rather not reckon, if it's all the same to you. Your friend-- I might say, your very valuable friend--takes the matter too much to heart."
"He's not a talkative man."
Fitzgerald looked straight ahead, stern and impassive.
"But now that we are talking," said Maurice, "I should like to know how the deuce you got hold of my name and dragged me into this affair?"
"Simple enough. A card of yours was given to me; on it was your name and address. The rest was easy."
Maurice grew limp in the saddle.
"By George! I had forgotten! The woman is at the bottom of it."
"Quite likely. I thought you'd come to that conclusion. Sometimes when we play with foxes they lead us into bear traps. Young man, witness these gray hairs; never speak to strange women, especially when they wear veils."
Fitzgerald was now attending the conversation.
"And who is this woman?" asked Maurice.
"Mademoiselle of the Veil, according to your picturesque imagination; to me she is the intimate friend and adviser of her Highness Stephonia." He wheeled to the troopers with a laugh: "Hoch, you beggars, hoch!"
Maurice indulged in some uncomplimentary remarks, among which was: "I'm an ass!"
"Every man improves on making that discovery; the Darwinian theory is wrong."
After a pause Maurice said: "How did you get on the ground so quickly?"
"We arrived yesterday afternoon as the escort of your charmer. A pretty woman finds it troublesome to travel alone in these parts. When you slapped your friend on the back and bawled out his name--a name known from one end of the kingdom to the other--the plan of action was immediately formed. You were necessary, for it was taken for granted that you knew too much. You had also promised your sword," with a chuckle.
"I made no promise," said Maurice. "I only said that I should easily be found when wanted."
"Well, so you were; there's no gainsaying that."
Maurice said some more uncomplimentary things.
"It was neatly done, you will admit. Life is a game of cards; he wins who plays first."
"Or he doesn't. Colonel, a game is won only when it is played'."
"That's true enough."
"Kings are a tolerable bother on earth," Maurice declared, trying to ease his wrists by holding them higher against his back.
"What do you know about them?"
"When I was in the army I often fell in with three or four of a night."
"Yes; but usually I was up against aces or straight flushes."
"Cards! Well, well; when you get down to the truth of the matter, real kings differ but little from the kings in pasteboard; right side up, or wrong side up, they serve the purpose of those who play them. There's a poor, harmless devil back there," with a nod toward Bleiberg. "He never injured a soul. Perhaps that's it; had he been cruel, avaricious, sly, all of them would be cringing at his feet. Devil take me--but I'm a soldier," he broke off abruptly; "it's none of my business."
"Have you any titles?" Maurice asked presently.
"Titles?" The Colonel jerked around on his horse. "Why?"
"O," said Maurice carelessly, "I thought it not unlikely that you might have a few lying around loose."
The Colonel roared. "You Americans beat the very devil with your questions. Well, I am politely known as Count Mollendorf, if that will gratify you."
"What! brother of Mollendorf of the king's police?"
"God save the mark! No; I am an honest man --some of the time."
Maurice laughed; the old fellow was amusing, and besides, this conversation helped to pass away the time.
"Wake up, Jack; here's entertainment," he said.
A scowl added itself to the stern expression on Fitzgerald's face.
"I trust that none of your teeth are loose," ventured the Colonel.
"If they are, they'll be tight enough ere many days have passed," was the threatening reply.
"Beware the dog!" cried the Colonel, and he resumed his place at the head of the little troop.
Maurice took this opportunity to bend toward Fitzgerald. "Have you anything of importance about you?" he whispered significantly.
"Nothing. But God send that no chambermaid change the sheet in my bed at the hotel."
"Silence." Fitzgerald saw the trooper next with his hand to his ear.
After a time the Colonel sang out: "Fifteen miles more, with three on the other side, men; we must put more life into us. A trot for a few miles. The quicker the ride is done, baron, the quicker the surgeon will look to your arm."
And silence fell upon the troop. Occasionally a stray horse in the fields whinneyed, and was answered from the road; sometimes the howl of a dog broke the monotony. On and on they rode; hour and mile were left behind them. The moon fell lower and lower, and the mountains rose higher and higher, and the wind which had risen had a frosty sting to it. Maurice now began to show the true state of his temper by cursing his horse whenever it rubbed against one of its fellows. His back was lame, and there was a dull pain in one of his shoulders. When he had made the rush for the door, clubbing right and left with the empty revolvers, he had finally been thrown on an overturned chair.
"Here, hang you!" he said to the trooper who held the bridle of his horse, "I'm cold; you might at least turn up my collar about my throat."
"You are welcome to my cloak," said the trooper, disengaging that article from his shoulders.
"Thank you," said Maurice, somewhat abashed by the respectful tone.
The trooper offered his blanket to Fitzgerald.
"I wish no favors," said the Englishman, thanklessly.
The trooper shrugged, and caught up Maurice's bridle.
At length the troop arrived at the frontier. There was no sign of life at the barrack. They passed unchallenged.
"What!" exclaimed Maurice, "do they sleep here at night, then? A fine frontier barrack." He had lived in hopes of more disturbance and a possible chance for liberty.
"They will wake up to-day," answered the Colonel; "that is, if the wine we gave them was not too strong. Poor devils; they must be good and cold by this time, since we have their clothes. What do you think of a king whose soldiers drink with any strangers who chance along?"
Maurice became resigned. To him the present dynasty was as fragile as glass, and it needed but one strong blow to shatter it into atoms. And the one hope rode at his side, sullen and wrathful, but impotent; the one hope the king had to save his throne. He had come to Bleiberg in search of excitement, but this was altogether more than he had bargained for.
The horses began to lift and were soon winding in and out of the narrow mountain pass. The chill of the overhanging snows fell upon them.
"It wouldn't have hurt you to accept the blanket," said Maurice to Fitzgerald.
"Curse it! I want nothing but two minutes freedom. It would be warm enough then."
"No confidences, gentlemen," warned the Colonel; "I understand English tolerably well."
"Go to the devil, then, if you do!" said Fitzgerald discourteously.
"When the time comes," tranquilly. "Of the two I like your friend the better. To be resigned to the inevitable is a sign of good mental balance."
"I am not used to words," replied the Englishman.
"You are used to orders. I am simply obeying mine. If I took you off your guard it was because I had to, and not because I liked that method best. Look alive, men; it's down hill from now on."
A quarter of an hour later the troop arrived at the duchy's frontier post. There was no sleep here. The Colonel flung himself from his horse and exercised his legs.
"Sergeant," he said, "how far behind the others?"
"They passed two hours ago, Excellency. And all is well?" deferentially.
"All is indeed well," with a gesture toward the prisoners.
"I've a flask of brandy in my hip pocket," said Maurice. "Will you help me to a nip, Colonel?"
"Pardon me, gentlemen; I had forgotten that your hands were still in cords. Corporal," to a trooper, "relieve their hands."
The prisoners rubbed their wrists and hands, which were numb and cold. Maurice produced his flask.
"I was bringing it along for your sprained ankle," he said, as he extended the flask to Fitzgerald, who drank a third of it. "I'd offer you some, Colonel, only it would be like heaping coals of fire on your head; and, besides, I want it all myself." He returned the emptied flask to his pocket, feeling a moderate warmth inside.
"Drink away, my son," said the Colonel, climbing into the saddle; "there'll be plenty for me for this night's work. Forward!"
The troop took up the march again, through a splendid forest kept clear of dead wood by the peasants. It abounded with game. The shrill cry of the pheasants, the rustle of the partridges in the underbrush, the bark of the fox, all rose to the ears of the trespassers. The smell of warm earth permeated the air, and the sky was merging from silver into gold.
When Napoleon humiliated Austria for the second time, one of his mushroom nobles, who placed too much faith in the man of destiny, selected this wooded paradise as a residence. He built him a fine castle of red brick, full of wide halls and drawing rooms and chambers of state, and filled it with fabulous paintings, Gobelin tapestries, and black walnut wainscot. He kept a small garrison of French soldiers by converting the huge stables partly into a barrack. One night the peasantry rose. There was a conflict, as the walls still show; and the prince by patent fled, no one knew where. After its baptism in blood it became known far and wide as the Red Chateau. Whenever children were unruly, they were made docile by threats of the dark dungeons of the Red Chateau, or the ghosts of the French and German peasants who died there. As it now stood, it was one of the summer residences of her Highness.
It was here that the long night's journey came to an end.
"Gentlemen," said the Colonel, dismounting, "permit me, in the name of her Highness, to offer you the hospitality of Red Chateau. Consider; will you lighten my task by giving me your word of honor to make no attempt to escape? Escape is possible, but not probable. There are twenty fresh men and horses in the stables. Come, be reasonable. It will be pleasanter on both sides."
"So far as I'm concerned," said Maurice, who needed liberty not half so much as sleep, "I pass my word."
"And you, sir?" to Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald gazed about him. "Very well," he said, as he saw the futility of a struggle.
"Your humble servant, Messieurs," touching his cap. "Take the ropes off their ankles, men."
When Maurice was lifted from his horse and placed on the ground, his legs suddenly bent under him, and he went sprawling to the grass. A trooper sprang to his assistance.
"My legs have gone to sleep!"
The Englishman was affected likewise, and it was some moments before either could walk. They were conducted to a chamber high up in the left wing, which overlooked the forest and the mountains. It was a large airy room, but the windows were barred and there were double locks on the doors. The Colonel followed them into the room and pointed to the table.
"Breakfast, Messieurs, and a good sleep for you till this noon. As for the rest, let that take care of itself." And he left them.
Maurice, after having tried all the bars and locks in answer to his conscience, gave his attention to the breakfast. On lifting the covers he found fish, eggs, toast and coffee.
"Here's luck!" he cried. "We were expected."
"Curse it, Maurice!" Fitzgerald began pacing the room.
"No, no," said Maurice; "let us eat it; that's what it's here for," and he fell to with that vigor known only to healthy blood.
"But what's to be done?"
"Follow Solomon's advice, and wait."
"You're taking it cursed cool."
"Force of habit," breaking the toast. "What's the use of wasting powder? Because I have shown only the exterior, our friend the Colonel has already formed an opinion of me. I am brave if need be, but young and careless. In a day or so--for I suppose we are not to be liberated at once--he'll forget to use proper caution in respect to me. And then, 'who can say?' as the Portuguese says when he hasn't anything else to say. They'll keep a strict watch over you, my friend, because you've played the lion too much. Just before I left the States, as you call them, a new slang phrase was going the rounds;--'it is better to play the fox some of the time than to roar all of the time.' Ergo, be foxy. Take it cool. So long as you haven't got that mint packed about your person, the game breaks even."
"But the king!"
"Is as secure on his throne as he ever was. If you do not present those consols, either for renewal or collection, on the twentieth, he loses nothing. As you said, let us hope that the chambermaid is a shifty, careless lass, who will not touch your room till you return." Maurice broke an egg and dropped a lump of sugar into his cup.
"Is this the way you fight Indians?"
"Indians? What the deuce has fighting Indians to do with this? As to Indians, shoot them in the back if you can. Here, everything depends not on fighting but the right use of words. A man may be a diplomat and not render his country any large benefit; still, it's a fine individual training. Thrones stand on precipices and are pushed back to safety by the trick of a few words. Have an egg; they're fresh."
Fitzgerald sat down and gulped his coffee. "They broke my monocle in the struggle."
Maurice choked in his cup.
"I've worn it twelve years, too," went on Fitzgerald.
"Everything is for the best," said Maurice. "You will be able to see out of both eyes."
"Confound you!" cried Fitzgerald, smiling in spite of himself; "nothing will disturb you."
"You mean, nothing shall. Now, there's the bed and there's the lounge. Since you are the principal, that is to say, the constituent part of this affair, and also the principal actor in this extravaganza, suppose you take the bed and leave me the lounge? And the deuce take the duchess, who is probably a woman with a high forehead and a pair of narrow eyes!" He threw down his napkin and made for the lounge, without giving any particular attention to the smile and frown which were struggling in the Englishman's eyes. In less than a minute Maurice was dozing.
Fitzgerald thought that the best thing he could do was to follow the philosophical example of his friend. "These Americans," he mused, as he arranged the pillow under his ear, "are `fifteen puzzles'; you can move them, or you can't."
As for Maurice, he was already dreaming; he was too tired to sleep. Presently he thought he was on a horse again, and was galloping, galloping. He was heading his old company to the very fringe of the alkali. The Apaches had robbed the pay train and killed six men, and the very deuce was to pay all around. . . . Again he was swimming, and a beautiful girl reached out a hand and saved him. Ah! how beautiful she was, how soft and rich the deep brown of her eyes! . . . The scene shifted. The president of the South American republic had accepted his sword (unbeknown to the United States authorities), and he was aiding to quell the insurrection. And just then some one whispered to him that gold would rise fifty points. And as he put out his hands to gather in the glittering coins which were raining down, the face of Colonel Beauvais loomed up, scowling and furious. . . . And yet again came the beautiful girl. He was holding her hand and the archbishop had his spread out in benediction over their heads. . . . A hand, which was not of dreamland, shook him by the arm. He opened his eyes. Fitzgerald was standing over him. The light of the sun spangled the walls opposite the windows. The clock marked the eleventh hour of day.
"Hang you!" he said, with blinking eyes; "why didn't you let me be? I was just marrying the princess, and you've spoiled it all. I--" He jumped to his feet and rubbed his eyes, and, forgetful of all save his astonishment, pursed his lips into a low whistle.