The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter IX. Nothing More Serious than a House Party
Standing just within the door, smiling and rubbing the gray bristles on his lip, was the Colonel. In the center of the room stood a woman dressed in gray. Maurice recognized the dress; it belonged to Mademoiselle of the Veil, who was now sans veil, sans hat. A marvelous face was revealed to Maurice, a face of that peculiar beauty which poets and artists are often minded to deny, but for the love of which men die, become great or terrible, overturn empires and change the map of the world.
Her luxuriant hair, which lay in careless masses about the shapely head and intelligent brow, was a mixture of red and brown and gold, a variety which never ceases to charm; skin the pallor of ancient marble, with the shadow of rose lying below the eyes, the large, gray chatoyant eyes, which answered every impulse of the brain which ruled them. The irregularity of her features was never noticeable after a glance into those eyes. At this moment both eyes and lips expressed a shade of amusement.
Maurice, who was astonished never more than a minute at a time, immediately recovered. His toilet was somewhat disarranged, and the back of his head a crow's nest, but, nevertheless, he placed a hand over his heart and offered a low obeisance.
"Good morning, gentlemen," she said, in a voice which Maurice would have known anywhere. "I hope the journey has caused you no particular annoyance."
"The annoyance was not so particular, Madame," said Fitzgerald stiffly, "as it was general."
"And four of my troopers will take oath to that!" interjected the Colonel.
"Will Madame permit me to ask when will the opera begin?" asked Maurice.
"I am glad," said she, "that you have lost none of your freshness."
Maurice was struck for a moment, but soon saw that the remark was innocent of any inelegance of speech. Fitzgerald was gnawing his mustache and looking out of the corner of his eyes--into hers.
"My task, I confess, is a most disagreeable one," she resumed, lightly beating her gauntlets together; "but when one serves high personages one is supposed not to have any sentiments." To Fitzgerald she said: "You are the son of the late Lord Fitzgerald."
"For your sake, I regret to say that I am."
"For my sake? Worry yourself none on that point. As the agent of her Highness I am inconsiderable."
"Madame," said Maurice, "will you do us the honor to inform us to whom we are indebted for this partiality to our distinguished persons?"
"I am Sylvia Amerbach," quietly.
"Amerbach?" said Maurice, who was familiar with the great names of the continent. "Pardon me, but that was once a famous name in Prussia."
"I am distantly related to that house of princes," looking at her gauntlets.
"Well, Madame, since your business doubtless concerns me, pray, begin;" and Fitzgerald leaned against the mantelpiece and fumbled with the rim of his monocle.
Maurice walked to one of the windows and perched himself on the broad sill. He began to whistle softly:
Voici le sabre de mon pere! Tu vas le mettre a ton cote. . . .
Beyond the window, at the edge of the forest, he saw a sentinel pacing backward and forward. Indeed, no matter which way he looked, the autumnal scenery had this accessory. Again, he inspected the bars. These were comparatively new. It was about thirty feet to the court below. On the whole, the outlook was discouraging.
"Count," said the distant relative of the house of Amerbach, "how shall I begin?"
"I am not a diplomat, Madame," answered the Colonel. "If, however, you wish the advice of a soldier, I should begin by asking if my lord the Englishman has those consols about his person."
"Fie, count!" she cried, laughing; "one would say that was a prelude to robbery."
"So they would. As for myself, I prefer violence to words. If we take these pretty papers by violence, we shall still have left our friend the Englishman his self-respect. And as for words, while my acquaintance with our friend is slight, I should say that they would only be wasted here."
The whistle from the window still rose and fell.
"Monsieur, I have it in my power to make you rich."
"I am rich," replied Fitzgerald.
"Madame, the title I have is already a burden to me." Fitzgerald laughed, which announced that the cause of the duchess was not getting on very well. Once or twice he raised the tortoiseshell rim to his eye, but dropped it; force of habit was difficult to overcome.
"Your father nourished a particular rancor against the late duke."
"And justly, you will admit."
"Her Highness has offered you five millions for slips of paper worth no more than the ink which decorates them."
"And I have refused. Why? Simply because the matter does not rest with me. You have proceeded with a high hand, Madame, or rather your duchess has. Nothing will come of it. Had there been any possibility of my considering your proposals, this kidnaping would have destroyed it."
She smiled. Maurice saw the smile and stopped whistling long enough to scratch his chin, which was somewhat in need of a razor. He had seen many women smile that way. He had learned to read it. It was an inarticulate "perhaps."
"The rightful successor to the throne--"
"Is Madame the duchess," Fitzgerald completed. "I haven't the slightest doubt of that. One way or the other, it does not concern me. I came here simply to fulfill the wishes of my father; and my word, Madame, fulfill them I shall. You are holding me a prisoner, but uselessly. On the twentieth the certificates fall due against the government. If they are not presented either for renewal or collection, the bankruptcy scheme of your duchess will fall through just the same. I will tell you the truth, Madame. My father never expected to collect the moneys so long as Leopold sat on the throne."
The whistle grew shrill.
"This officer here," continued Fitzgerald, while the Colonel made a comical grimace, "suggests violence. I shall save him the trouble. I have seen much of the world, Madame--the hard side of it --and, knowing it as I do, it is scarcely probable that I should carry about my person the equivalent of four millions of crowns."
"Well, Madame," said the Colonel, pushing his belt closer about his hips, as a soldier always does when he is on the point of departure, "what he says is true, every word of it. I see nothing more to do at present."
Mademoiselle of the Veil was paying not so much attention to the Colonel's words as she was to Maurice's whistle.
"Monsieur," she said, coldly, "have you no other tune in your repertory?"
"Pardon me!" exclaimed Maurice. "I did not intend to annoy you." He stepped down out of the window.
"You do not annoy me; only the tune grows rather monotonous."
"I will whistle anything you may suggest," he volunteered.
She did not respond to this flippancy, though the pupils of her gray eyes grew large with anger. She walked the length of the room and back.
"Count, what do you think would be most satisfactory to her Highness, under the circumstances?"
"I have yet to hear of her Highness' disapproval of anything you undertake."
"Messieurs, your parole d'honneur, and the freedom of the chateau is yours--within the sentry lines. I wish to make your recollections of the Red Chateau rather pleasant than otherwise. I shall be most happy if you will honor my table with your presence."
The Colonel coughed, Maurice smoothed the back of his head, and Fitzgerald caught up his monocle.
"My word, Madame," said Maurice, "is not worth much, being that of a diplomat, but such as it is it is yours. However, my clothes are scarcely presentable," which was true enough. Several buttons were missing, and the collar hung by a thread.
"That can be easily remedied," said she. "There are several new hussar uniforms in the armory."
"O, Madame, and you will permit me to wear one of those gay uniforms of light blue and silver lace?"
The Colonel looked thoughtfully at Maurice. He was too much a banterer himself to miss the undercurrent of raillery. He eyed Madame discreetly; he saw that she had accepted merely the surface tones.
"And you will wear one, too, Jack?" said Maurice.
"No, thank you. I pass my word, Madame; I do not like confinement."
"Well, then, the count will shortly return and establish you in better quarters. Let us suppose you are my guests for a--a fortnight. Since both of us are right, since neither your cause nor mine is wrong, an armistice! Ah! I forgot. The east corridor on the third floor is forbidden you. Should you mistake and go that way, a guard will direct you properly. Messieurs, till dinner!" and with a smile which illumined her face as a sudden burst of sunshine flashes across a hillside, she passed out of the room, followed by her henchman, who had not yet put aside the thoughtful repose of his countenance.
"A house party," said Maurice, when he could no longer hear their footsteps. "And what the deuce have they got so valuable in the east corridor on the third floor?"
"It's small matter to me," said Fitzgerald tranquilly. "The main fact is that she has given up her game."
Said Maurice, his face expressing both pity and astonishment: "My dear, dear John! Didn't you see that woman's eyes, her hair, her chin, her nose?"
"True; you haven't had any experience with petticoats. This woman will rend heaven and earth rather than relinquish her projects, or rather those of her mistress. I should like to see this duchess, who shows a fine discernment in the selection of her assistants. Beware of the woman who is frankly your enemy. If she is frank, it is because she is confident of the end; if not, she is frank in order to disarm us of the suspicion of cunning. I would give much to know the true meaning of this house party."
"Hang me if I can see what difference it makes. She can not do anything either by frankness or by cunning."
"She gathered us in neatly, this red-haired Amazon."
"Red-haired!" in a kind of protest.
"Why, yes; that's the color, isn't it?" innocently.
"I thought it a red-brown. It's too bad that such a woman should be mixed up in an affair like this."
"Woman will sacrifice to ambition what she never will sacrifice to love. Hush; I hear the Colonel returning."
They were conducted to the opposite wing of the chateau, to a room on the second floor. Its windows afforded an excellent view of the land which lay south. Hills rolled away like waves of gold, dotted here and there with vineyards. Through the avenue of trees they could see the highway, and beyond, the river, which had its source in the mountains ten miles eastward.
The room itself was in red, evidently a state chamber, for it contained two canopied beds. Several fine paintings hung from the walls, and between the two windows rose one of those pier glasses which owe their existence to the first empire of France. On one of the beds Maurice saw the hussar uniform. On the dresser were razors and mugs and a pitcher of hot water.
"Ah," he said, with satisfaction.
"The boots may not fit you," said the Colonel, "but if they do not we will manage some way."
"I shall not mind the fortnight," said Maurice. "By the way, Colonel, I notice that French seems to prevail instead of German. Why is that?"
"It is the common language of politeness, and servants do not understand it. As for myself, I naturally prefer the German tongue; it is blunt and honest and lacks the finesse of the French, which is full of evasive words and meanings. However, French predominates at court. Besides, heaven help the foreigner who tries to learn all the German tongues to be found in the empires of the Hohenzollern and Hapsburg. Luncheon will be served to you in the dining hall; the first door to the right at the foot of the grand staircase. I shall send you a trooper to act as valet."
"Spare me, Colonel," said Maurice, who did not want any one between him and the Englishman when they were alone.
"I have never had a valet," said Fitzgerald; "he would embarrass me."
"As you please," said the Colonel, a shade of disappointment in his tones. "After all, you are soldiers, where every man is for himself. Make yourselves at home;" and he withdrew.
Maurice at once applied lather and razor, and put on the handsome uniform, which fitted him snugly. The coat was tailless, with rows of silver buttons running from collar to waist. The breast and shoulders and sleeves were covered with silver lace, and Maurice concluded that it must be nothing less than a captain's uniform. The trousers were tight fitting, with broad stripes of silver; and the half boots were of patent leather. He walked backward and forward before the pier-glass.
"I say, Fitz, what do you think of it?"
"You're a handsome rascal, Maurice," answered the Englishman, who had watched his young friend, amusement in his sober eyes. "Happily, there are no young women present."
"Go to! I'll lay odds that our hostess is under twenty-five."
"I meant young women of sixteen or seventeen. Women such as Madame have long since passed the uniform fever."
"Not when it has lace, my friend, court lace. Well, forward to the dining hall."
Both were rather disappointed to find that Madame would be absent until dinner. Fitzgerald could not tell exactly why he was disappointed, and he was angry with himself for the vague regret. Maurice, however, found consolation in the demure French maid who served them. Every time he smiled she made a courtesy, and every time she left the room Maurice nudged Fitzgerald.
"Smile, confound you, smile!" he whispered. "There's never a maid but has her store of gossip, and gossip is information."
"Pshaw!" said Fitzgerald, helping himself to cold ham and chicken.
"Wine, Messieurs?" asked the maid.
"Ah, then Madame offers the cellars?" said Maurice.
"Yes, Messieurs. There is chambertin, champagne, chablis, tokayer and sherry."
"Bring us some chambertin, then."
"Hurry along, my Hebe," said Maurice.
The maid was not on familiar terms with the classics, but she told the butler in the pantry that the smooth-faced one made a charming Captain.
"Keep your eyes open," grumbled the butler; "he'll be kissing you next."
"He might do worse," was the retort. Even maids have their mirrors, and hers told a pretty story. When she returned with the wine she asked: "And shall I pour it, Messieurs?"
"No one else shall," declared Maurice. "When is the duchess to arrive?"
"I do not know, Monsieur," stepping in between the chairs and filling the glasses with the ruby liquid.
"Who is Madame Sylvia Amerbach?"
"Madame Sylvia Amerbach," placing the bottle on the table and going to the sideboard. She returned with a box of "Khedives."
Fitzgerald laughed at Maurice's disconcertion.
"Where has Madame gone?"
"To the summer home of Countess Herzberg, who is to return with Madame."
"Oho!" cried Maurice, in English. "A countess! What do you say to that, my Englishman?"
"She is probably old and plain. Madame desires a chaperon."
"You forget that Madame desires nothing but those certificates. And the chaperon does not live who could keep an eye on Madame Sylvia Amerbach."
The mention of the certificates brought back all the Englishman's discomfort, and he emptied his glass of wine not as a lover of good wine should. Soon they rose from the table. The maid ran to the door and held it open. Fitzgerald hurried through, but Maurice lingered a moment. He put his hand under the porcelain chin and looked into the china-blue eyes. Fitzgerald turned.
"What was that noise?" he asked, as Maurice shouldered him along the hall.
Madame came back to the chateau at five, and dinner was announced at eight. The Countess Herzberg was young and pretty, the possessor of a beautiful mouth and a charming smile. The Colonel did the honors at the table. Maurice almost fancied himself in Vienna, the setting of the dining room was so perfect. The entire room was paneled in walnut. On the mantel over the great fireplace stood silver candlesticks with wax tapers. The candlestick in the center of the table was composed of twelve branches. The cuisine was delectable, the wines delicious. Madame and the countess were in evening dress. The Colonel was brimming with anecdote, the countess was witty, Madame was a sister to Aspasia.
Maurice, while he enjoyed this strange feast, was puzzled. It was very irregular, and the Colonel's gray hairs did not serve to alter this fact. What was the meaning of it? What lay underneath?
Sometimes he caught Fitzgerald in the act of staring at Madame when her attention was otherwise engaged; at other times he saw that Madame was returning this cursory investigation. There was, however, altogether a different meaning in these surreptitious glances. In the one there were interest, doubt, admiration; in the other, cold calculation. At no time did the conversation touch politics, and the crown was a thousand miles away--if surface indications went for aught.
Finally the Colonel rose. "A toast--to Madame the duchess, since this is her very best wine!"
Maurice emptied his glass fast enough; but Fitzgerald lowered his eyes and made no movement to raise his glass. The pupils in Madame's eyes grew small.
"That is scarcely polite, Monsieur," she said.
"Madame," he replied gently, "my parole did not include toasts to her Highness. My friend loves wine for its own sake, and seldom bothers his head about the toast as long as the wine is good. Permit me to withdraw the duchess and substitute yourself."
"Do so, if it will please you. In truth, it was bad taste in you, count, to suggest it."
"It's all the same to me;" and the Colonel refilled his glass and nodded.
The countess smiled behind her fan, while Maurice felt the edge of the mild reproach which had been administered to him.
"I plead guilty to the impeachment. It was very wrong. Far from it that I should drink to the health of the Philistines. Madame the countess was beating me down with her eyes, and I did not think."
"I was not even looking at you!" declared the countess, blushing.
The incident was soon forgotten; and at length Madame and the countess rose.
Said the first: "We will leave you gentlemen to your cigars; and when they have ceased to interest you, you will find us in the music room."
"And you will sing?" said Maurice to the countess.
"If you wish." She was almost beautiful when she smiled, and she smiled on Maurice.
"I confess," said he, "that being a prisoner, under certain circumstances, is a fine life."
"What wicked eyes he has," said the countess, as she and Madame entered the music room.
"Do not look into them too often, my dear," was the rejoinder. "I have asked not other sacrifice than that you should occupy his attention and make him fall in love with you."
"Ah, Madame, that will be easy enough. But what is to prevent me from falling in love with him? He is very handsome."
"You are laughing!"
"Yes, I am laughing. It will be such an amusing adventure, a souvenir for my old age--and may my old age forget me."
The men lit their cigars and smoked in silence.
"Colonel," said Maurice at last, "will you kindly tell me what all this means?"
"Never ask your host how old his wine is. If he is proud of it, he will tell you." He blew the smoke under the candle shades and watched it as it darted upward. "Don't you find it comfortable? I should."
"Conscience will not lie down at one's bidding."
"I understood that you were a diplomat?" The Colonel turned to Fitzgerald. "I hope that, when you are liberated, you will forget the manner in which you were brought here."
"I shall forget nothing," curtly.
"The devil! I can not fight you; I am too old."
Fitzgerald said nothing, and continued to play with his emptied wine-glass.
"The Princess Alexia," went on the Colonel, "has a bulldog. I have always wondered till now what the nationality of the dog was. The bulldog neither forsakes nor forgives; he is an Englishman."
This declaration was succeeded by another interval of silence. The Englishman was thinking of his father; the thoughts of Maurice were anywhere but at the chateau; the Colonel was contemplating them both, shrewdly.
"Well, to the ladies, gentlemen; it is half after nine."
The countess was seated at the piano, improvising. Madame stood before the fireplace, arranging the pieces on a chess board. In the center of the room was a table littered with books, magazines and illustrated weeklies.
"Do you play chess, Monsieur?" said Madame to Fitzgerald.
"I do not."
"Well, Colonel, we will play a game and show him how it is done."
Fitzgerald drew up a chair and sat down at Madame's elbow. He followed every move she made because he had never seen till now so round and shapely an arm, hands so small and white, tipped with pink filbert nails. He did not learn the game so quickly as might be. He, like Maurice, was pondering over the unusual position in which he found himself; but analysis of any sort was not his forte; so he soon forgot all save the delicate curve of Madame's chin and throat, the soft ripple of her laughter, the abysmal gray of her eyes.
"Monsieur le Capitaine," said the countess, "what shall I sing to you?"
"To me?" said Maurice. "Something from Abt."
Her fingers ran lightly over the keys, and presently her voice rose in song, a song low, sweet, and sad. Maurice peered out of the window into the shades of night. Visions passed and repassed the curtain of darkness. Once or twice the countess turned her head and looked at him. It was not only a handsome face she saw, but one that carried the mark of refinement. . . . Maurice was thinking of the lonely princess and her grave dark eyes. He possessed none of that power from which princes derive benefits; what could he do? And why should he interest himself in a woman who, in any event, could never be anything to him, scarcely even a friend? He smiled.
If Fitzgerald was not adept at analysis, he was. Nothing ever entered his mind or heart that he could not separate and define. It was strange; it was almost laughable; to have fenced as long and adroitly as he had fenced, and then to be disarmed by one who did not even understand the foils! Surrender? Why not? . . . By and by his gaze traveled to the chess players. There was another game than chess being played there, though kings and queens and knights and bishops were still the sum of it.
"Are you so very far away, then?" The song had ceased; the countess was looking at him curiously.
"Thank you," he said; "indeed, you had taken me out of myself."
"Do you like chestnuts?" she asked suddenly.
"I am very fond of them."
"Then I shall fetch some." It occurred to her that the room was very warm; she wanted a breath of air--alone.
"Checkmate!" cried the Colonel, joyfully.
"Do you begin to understand?" asked Madame.
"A little," admitted Fitzgerald, who did not wish to learn too quickly. "I like to watch the game."
"So do I," said Maurice, who had approached the table. "I should like to know what the game is, too."
Both Madame and the Colonel appeared to accept the statement and not the innuendo. Madame placed the figures on the board.
Maurice strolled over to the table and aimlessly glanced through the Vienna illustrated weeklies. He saw Franz Josef in characteristic poses, full-page engravings of the military maneuvers and reproductions of the notable paintings. He picked up an issue dated June. A portrait of the new Austrian ambassador to France attracted his attention. He turned the leaf. What he saw on the following page caused him to widen his eyes and let slip an ejaculation loud enough to be heard by the chess players. Madame seemed on the point of rising. Maurice did not lower his eyes nor Madame hers.
"Checkmate in three moves, Madame!" exclaimed the Colonel; "it is wonderful."
"What's the matter, Maurice?" asked Fitzgerald.
"Jack, I am a ruined man."
"How? What?" nearly upsetting the board.
"I just this moment remember that I left my gas burning at the hotel, and it is extra."
The Colonel and Fitzgerald lay back in their chairs and roared with laughter.
But Madame did not even smile.