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Title: A Mummer's Throne Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1000621h.html Language: English Date first posted: October 2010 Date most recently updated: October 2010 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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The Asturian Ambassador had been giving a garden party, and most of the guests were still there. The great majority of those present had come to meet the young King of Montenana. Taking it as a whole, the monarch in question had come up to their expectations.
There is always a certain flavour of romance hanging like a purple mist upon a palace, and there was an added perfume in the case of Fritz of Montenana because he had come westward with the avowed purpose of seeking a wife. As everybody knows, Montenana is a pocket kingdom, lying between Russia and Turkey. For the rest, it is mountainous and picturesque, somewhat poverty-stricken, and given over at times to the spirit of revolution.
Nevertheless, a wise administration contrived to rule the country fairly well and replenish the king's privy purse annually to the extent of some two hundred and fifty thousand pounds. Seeing that his Majesty boasted an army of twenty thousand men, and a navy of three dubious cruisers, and a brace of obsolete gunboats, he was a fairly eligible 'parti' as things go in these hard times. As to the rest, he was handsome in a clean-shaven, boyish way, which was more suggestive of Oxford and Cambridge and the Outer Bar than of the romantic possessor of a Crown and the last representative of a set of picturesque and undeniably cut-throat ancestors. Many fair breasts had fluttered when King Fritz's mission first became known, and most of the Chancelleries of Europe were mildly agitated. For, after all is said and done, the State of Montenana had its interests, and it has been a bone of contention at more than one International Conference.
In accordance with the eternal fitness of things, the king had not come alone. His watch dog was not far off in the shape of General Count Rutzstin. Every student of history knows the name of that distinguished warrior, and the important part he has played in the past in the story of the Balkan Peninsula. He stood now talking to a distinguished personage, and the subject of their conversation was the future of Montenana and its ruler.
"A grave responsibility, your Excellency," the count said thoughtfully. "A most charming young man, certainly. But, of course, young men will be young men, you know. And--er--well, it is rather dull in our capital."
"The prince is a great sportsman, General?" the personage murmured. "At least, so I have heard."
"Oh, dear, yes. I am afraid his English education is responsible for that. Of course, you know the boy was at Harrow. He was accompanied there by Prince Florizel Arcana, his cousin. But, no doubt, years will bring a sense of responsibility. Apart from that, his Majesty has been most carefully brought up, and in many respects he is little more than a child."
The great personage smiled blandly.
"As a constitutional monarch should be," he said. "Content, no doubt to leave everything to the wise heads of his ministers. That is as it should be, seeing that his father--"
The general coughed discreetly, and the personage hastened to change the subject of conversation, for without risk of less 'majeste' the less about the past of King Fritz's immediate progenitor the better. The old soldier's face was grave and stern now. His great gray moustache bristled. For, if report speaks truly, Count Rutzstin had anything but a rosy time during the late reign. And if the count had any ambitions of his own, he kept them entirely to himself. He stood there erect and upright on the grass, his face half in the shadow of the budding trees. It seemed to the personage that a greyer pallor was creeping over the old man's features.
"You are not well, count," he said anxiously.
"The old trouble, your Excellency," the count replied. "I have never recovered from that cut over the head I got at Sarspruit. A slight pressure on the brain, you know. What the doctors call a compression. I only hope and pray--"
What plea was in the old man's mind was never uttered, for he suddenly collapsed on the grass and lay there a huddled heap of scarlet and gold lace, his gray eyes turned up to the sky. There was a shudder and confusion amongst the guests, and immediately a score of them clustered round the unconscious figure. There were gay summer frocks amongst the mass of gray coats and uniforms, and a lady on the edge of the crowd turned away and shivered.
"How dreadful," she exclaimed, "how very dreadful!"
"How confoundedly lucky!" the man by her side muttered.
She turned upon him with reproach in her gray eyes.
"Does your Majesty really mean that?" she asked.
Fritz, King of Montenana, blushed to the roots of his fair hair. It was well, perhaps that no society paragraphist was present.
"You don't understand, marquise," he stammered. "Honestly, I am very fond of old Rutzstin, but he is a regular old martinet all the same. On the whole, I was better off when I was at school. And, really, there is very little the matter with the old man. He gets these queer attacks every now and then, which absolutely prostrate him for the time being. But they never last more than a day or two. Ah, you can see for yourself that he is better already."
The little gaudy group separated, and Rutzstin staggered into the Embassy in the arms of his host. The old warrior looked very pale and ghastly now in the light of the sun. His cunning, clever face was a mass of tiny wrinkles like the rind of a melon. Yet, there was no suggestion of anxiety on the face of his sovereign; indeed, a close observer might have said that he appeared to be pleased about something. One of the Embassy's secretaries came up to King Fritz at the same moment.
"This is a dreadful thing, your Majesty," he murmured. "His Excellency, the doctor, is now with the general. Will you kindly command us what to do?"
"Take him home and put him to bed," the King of Montenana said promptly. "All he wants is a nurse, and some crushed ice at the back of his head. Give him a couple of days in bed and he will be as well as ever again. That is all."
The secretary turned away, and the king strolled off in the direction of one of the little tea-tables as if the whole thing were a matter of everyday occurrence. There was a certain look of expectation on his keen, boyish face. He twisted his slight moustache joyously. He looked less like a king now than a smart, well set up young Englishman turned out by a complacent and conscientious Bond-street tailor. Seated at one of the little tables was his alter ego sipping coffee and smoking an Egyptian cigarette. The other young man rose and bowed profoundly as the King came up to his table.
Republicans and people of that kind who have no reverence for royalty would have declared that the king so far forgot himself as to wink at his companion.
"Here is a joke, Florizel," he murmured. "Old Rutzstin is knocked up. Got one of his old attacks, as far as I can judge."
"A serious matter, your Majesty," Prince Florizel murmured.
"Oh, Majesty be hanged!" the king said. "What is the good of keeping it up when there is no one about to hear? Don't you understand what this thing means to us?"
Prince Florizel so far forgot himself as to smile.
"Possibly a breaking off of diplomatic relations," he observed. "Negotiations with the Princess of Austinburg--"
"If you mention her again, I'll land you one in the eye," the king exclaimed. "I don't care a rap what Rutzstin says. What is the good of an impregnable frontier to me so long as I am tied to a wife who weighs twelve stone and has a complexion like a decayed orange. No, my boy, when I marry I am going to please myself."
"What is the good of being king if you can't pick and choose? Now let us trot along and see that the old chap is comfortable, and then we will proceed to enjoy ourselves. I am sick of all this bowing and scraping and being dragged about as if I were some puppet in a show. Here am I, at the age of twenty-five, knowing no more of life and with little or no more experience than I had when I left school. I used to say that our Harrow experiences were the happiest in our days, and upon my word, I believe I was right."
"You won't do anything rash," the prince said anxiously. "You see, with our aged general laid up--"
"My dear Florizel, this is our opportunity. The old man will be incapable of doing anything for the next two or three days, and we could not have a better excuse for putting off all the functions that these good people have arranged for us. Besides, look how it will add to our popularity. Picture us giving up all the joys of life to sit by the bedside of the man who made Montenana what it is. Think of the reams of gush in the papers, when all the while, my dear Florizel, we shall be sipping the delights of this queen of cities. Florizel, I am going to go it!"
The prince was wise in his day and generation, but he was young. Moreover, he was not entirely averse to going it himself. But, still, the sense of responsibility was upon him now, and the knowledge of it clouded his youthful ingenuous features.
"You won't rub it in too thick?" he said anxiously.
"No more than royal purple," the king laughed. "Or, perhaps, a deep vermillion. But now come along and make your excuses. As for the rest, is it not on the knees of the gods?"
The physicians' account of the condition of General Rutzstin was not in the least disturbing. The aged warrior was suffering from a compression which was merely a matter of time. He had to be kept perfectly quiet for a day or two, during which period it would be indiscreet to worry him with the affairs of state. And, indeed, the count was on the happy borderland when nothing matters, and even the dinning clash of nations comes dull and muffled to the ear. To all this the young king listened with resignation. Besides, he had seen his beloved chancellor in similar case many times before. That war-scarred old body was by no means exhausted yet, and, doubtless, Count Rutzstin would live to weather many a plot and storm yet.
With his mind easy and his brain full of eager expectation, his Majesty returned to his private apartments to dine. He was dressed now even as an ordinary gentleman should be. He had considerately dismissed his staff to their own devices, preferring to dine alone with Prince Florizel. Even his own pampered valet had been accorded a holiday, for the king had given a hint to the effect that he intended to retire early after an evening spent with affairs of the State. Altogether an exemplary monarch.
But the door of the cabinet was closed now, and the two were discussing their dinner together, assisted by an ordinary hotel waiter who knew nothing of the language which obtains in the mountains of Montenana. Therefore, the young men could discuss their plans openly, and without the fear of voracious halfpenny newspapers before their eyes. They had dined and wined discreetly. Their young blood was judiciously warm with the vintage of champagne, and all the world lay rosy fair before them. Imagination is not one of the gifts of youth, and the pair seated there could not guess at the tremendous consequences which sooner or later might arise as the fruit of their innocent adventures. The night was fading now to darkness. The lights of the fair city lay at their feet twinkling invitingly like sirens, luring them on to the land of excitement and adventure which lay outside the rims of electric stars.
"Have you made up your mind?" Florizel asked.
"Oh, I have thought it all out," the king exclaimed. "I don't think anybody is likely to recognise us. We are going to the Oderon Theatre in the first instance to see Nita Reinhardt. I have been reading all about her in the papers. She is a young actress who has taken the whole city by storm. She is playing in a piece called 'The Mummer's Throne.' They say she is absolutely perfect and plays the queen to the life."
"I have read the book," Florizel said, "the book on which the play was founded. It is the story of a simple, beautiful country girl who finds her way to the throne. It is a charming story, and the way in which the girl's character is developed is wonderfully done. On the whole, we might do much more harm."
"We might," the king said half regretfully. "When I think of the opportunity that Providence has put at my disposal, I marvel at my discretion. Still, we ought to see some fun later on when we come to sup at one of the cafes. I have locked my bedroom door and made an arrangement with one of the waiters so that I can get in by the window. For the first time since we left Harrow, Florizel, we are really going to enjoy ourselves. Can't you hear the city calling? Can't you hear the voice of the siren? I can."
On the whole, Prince Florizel rather thought he could. They set out, presently, on foot, and made their way in the direction of the Oderon Theatre. In their simple evening dress of black and white they passed unnoticed. They found themselves presently seated in the first row of the stalls just as the curtain was drawing up on the play which had set a whole nation talking, and which was drawing crowded houses nightly. It was a romantic play, fantastic, and, in places, decidedly unconvincing. For it rarely happens in real life that a daughter of the soil, however beautiful and however romantic, finds her way till her feet rest upon the footsteps of a throne. But here was a girl, little more than a child, whose native genius swept all those barriers away. By one of the freaks of Fate which appear to be almost peculiar to the stage Nita Reinhardt had had her chance quite unexpectedly. She had made the most of it almost from the first moment when she stood dazed and trembling in the flare of the footlights she had appealed irresistibly to her audience. In the first act she was shown in her simple country home, an imaginative child educated beyond her years and her station, and anxious to try a world which lay beyond the simple hollyhocks and primroses that bounded her father's garden. Then, gradually, the story developed till the one chance of a century came and a throne was placed at the girl's disposal. It was at this point that the young actress rose to the occasion and stamped herself as the one great emotional expert of her generation. Could she carry it through? Would she be worthy of the honour which had been thrust upon her? Wasn't it her duty to stay at home, or was this a call from Providence to save her suffering nation? The whole house hung on every word. The silence was tense and painful. Seated there with his hands gripped tight on the arms of his stall, the King of Montenana watched the play of the emotions with breathless interest. He had never seen a girl so bewitching and beautiful. She was fair and tall and queenly enough, and she was absolutely devoid of make-up. She seemed to grow more regal, and her mind appeared to expand as gradually she yielded to Fate and took up what she deemed to be the Heavenly mandate. And then Fritz of Montenana saw before him not an actress playing a part, but a real queen who feels the mantle of responsibility heavy upon her shoulders. The curtain came down on the third act and the whole house rocked with applause. The place shimmered with diamonds and pearls, the perfumed breath of the house seemed to creep into the young king's veins and intoxicated him. He turned eagerly to his companion.
"I am glad we did not miss this," he exclaimed. "Did you ever see anything like it before? And to think that I have been losing all this kind of thing merely to please old Rutzstin! Now, isn't she a queen? With our experience of courts, we ought to know the real article when we see it. How different she is to the dressed-up blue-eyed dolls that one sees hanging round the royal palaces on the look out for husbands! Florizel, I must know that girl."
"Better not," Prince Florizel said, fumbling feebly in the direction of prudence. "I wouldn't if I were you. For all she looks so young and innocent on the stage, I daresay, when she is washed she is forty and probably has a husband and a house full of children in the background."
But he of Montenana laughed the idea to scorn.
"She is not more than twenty at the outside. You never heard a middle-aged woman with a voice like that. And look at her eyes! Why, if she were my queen, I should never have trouble with the revolutionary party again. I should send my consort to make friends with them, and in future they would be my most devoted and loyal subjects. Don't you think we might manage to get behind. If you let the authorities know who we are, they would probably stretch a point. But shut up now; the curtain is going up again."
Here was the queen upon her throne at last--regal, magnificent, and filled with the one impulse to do the right thing to her adopted people. Here she was surrounded by enemies and intrigues, a sovereign to her finger tips struggling against the destiny which she knew to be inevitable. She was disillusioned now. She knew that her consort was no more than a feeble, dissolute creature. She knew that she was dishonoured and abandoned. And so the thing went on till the inevitable climax came, and the tragedy which had been branded on her forehead from the first was enacted. She had her audience in the hollow of her hand now. She played upon their feelings and emotions as a master plays upon some favourite instrument.
Fritz of Montenana sat there entranced. His eyes were focussed on the stage. He saw his own kingdom in little pictured there. The whole stage was crowded now. Here was a multitude of revolutionists carrying torches, and presently one of them touched some light draperies in the wings. Like a flash the flame crept along, and almost before the audience noticed it the stage was in a blaze. It was all done in the twinkling of an eye. There was a wild rush on both sides of the curtain, the fall of a piece of heavy carpentry as the stage hands tore the scenery away, and the actress lay there prone and insensible upon the boards, stunned by a blow from a batten. It seemed like a dream to the king afterwards. But he was across the foot lights and on the stage. He had the lovely form and figure in his arms. He could feel her heart beating against his own. He noted the subtle scent of her long fair hair. It was one of those glorious unforgotten moments possible to youth, but to middle age never. He was acting in a play of his own now, himself taking the leading part. As he stood there with that slender, white figure in his arms he called to the audience to keep their seats, for the danger was over now, and the fireproof curtain came down quickly.
She opened her eyes at length, those eyes of heavenly blue that seemed to have a depth in then like lakes under summer trees. A divine blush spread over her features. Her lips moved.
"How good of you," she murmured. "How brave and kind and thoughtful. I saw you in the audience to-night. They will be proud of you when they hear of this at home."
"You recognise me, then?" the king asked.
"O, yes, your Majesty. You are the King of Montenana."
The hope of Montenana went off, clean shaven and flannelled and immaculate to his destruction. As in duty bound. Prince Florizel made something in the way of a protest, but the thing lacked conviction, and the king merely smiled. Was not he released from bondage now? Was not Rutzstin still imprisoned in his darkened room? Besides, it was perfect May weather, and all the world was sweet and young and fair.
"There will be a devil of a row presently," Prince Florizel said. "Really, old chap, you are going it, you know."
The king turned up his moustache complacently.
"Oh, I know it," he said. "My dear Florizel, this is the chance of a lifetime. Besides, it isn't likely to last long. And she really is the dearest, sweetest, most fascinating--"
Prince Florizel went off hastily. He had heard a good deal of the adjective complimentary for the last day or two. Besides, he was young himself, and he had his own dish of little fish to fry. So the king went off into the heart of the sweet May morning, whistling blithely, as gallant a specimen of a young gentleman as the heart of shy maiden would like to meet in a day's march. There was nothing about him regal now. He was not borne down by the spirit of his ancestors. He was merely a healthy, wholesome young man, very much in love, and bent upon making a fool of himself without the least possible delay.
So it came about presently that he and Nita Reinhardt were drifting down a silver stream under the shadow of the city walls out into the shade of the woods where the bluebells lay like a carpet, and the air was faint with the smell of pale primroses. It was nothing to King Fritz now that in yon frowning tower an ancestor of his had been put to death. It was nothing to him that another progenitor had set siege to that fair city, and carried it at the point of the sword. He had forgotten his pedigree, his ambitions and expectations, he had even forgotten grim old Rutzstin himself. It was impossible that he should remember these trivial things, or recollect the sighs of hopeless princesses whilst he was looking into the fathomless blue eyes of his companion. He did not know and, incidentally, he did not care that certain rumours were floating about the cheap press, and that already some enterprising journalist had proclaimed the fact that the ruler of Montenana was missing. What did it all matter?
They drifted on and on down the bosom of the shining silver stream till they came at length to the place where they were going to lunch. It was a fairy meal altogether, the kind of feast that Oberon and Titania might have sat down to that time Puck stood slyly by and made fun of them. And when it did come to an end they went back to the boat again, and floated on between the level meadows down to Camelot, or so it seemed to King Fritz. It was enough for him that he should lie there on those silken cushions listening to the voice of his companion. And then he began to sketch out plans for the future, whereupon the little actress sighed.
"Do you object?" the king asked anxiously.
"Object, why should I? But it is altogether nonsense, delicious nonsense, but nonsense all the same. Have you already forgotten your hopes and inspirations?"
"I did not know that I had any," the king replied.
"Why, of course, you have. You would be the first of your name if you hadn't. Think of the possibilities of life before you! You are young and brave and clever. You are the first popular ruler that Montenana has ever had. Under your guidance she may be a great country some day. I shall want to feel proud of the old place. It will be a great joy to me if anything I said encouraged you."
The king glanced at the sweet, grave face.
"What do you know of Montenana?" he asked.
"I was born there," Nita went on. "It is my native place. My father lived up in the mountains beyond Rusta where he had a farm. Some time when I know you better I will tell you the history of my life. But not just yet."
"Tell it me now," the king commanded. "It is not for a subject of mine to speak to me in that fashion. And so, you are of the same country as myself. Well, I am glad to know that. It will be a pleasant surprise for my people one of these days."
"Don't they know it already?" Nita asked, with a demure smile. "But they are a simple people, and would have but little sympathy with a life like mine. Some day, when you are married, your wife might be amused when you tell her of this episode. But I am talking nonsense now. I have been thinking about you, and I see now that I had no right to come on these expeditions at all."
"Why not?" the king asked eagerly. "Don't you feel safe with me? Because I happen to be born to a throne, am I to be deprived of all pleasures? Besides, I shall never marry now unless--"
Discretion stood by the king's elbow for a moment. Perhaps he was conscious that he was going just a little too far. But the scent of the spring was in his blood now. The air was fragrant with the subtlety of the primrose.
"I won't marry one of those women," he declared vehemently. "Why should I be hawked about Europe like this? Why should I have to consult Russia and Austria and Germany before I can make my choice? And between ourselves, my dear child, these princesses are a pretty commonplace lot. When I marry I shall please myself, just as my great ancestor, King Boris, did. Didn't he marry a shepherd maiden, and didn't they found Montenana between them? Besides, we want some good healthy blood in our veins. We are getting feeble and anaemic. Oh, my child, what a queen you would make yourself!"
Nita hardly appeared to be listening. But the last few words touched her and fired her imagination. A subtle pink flush came over her cheeks, her blue eyes appeared to be far away. And why not? she asked herself. Kings and queens are only mortals like other people. They are swayed by the same passions and impulses originally. They had come from the same stock as herself in the good old days when might was right, and the sword had the last argument. Kings were commonplace enough.
And she could do it; she knew that. She would have no fear of the future before her eyes. Her little foot would be pressed firmly enough upon the footsteps of a throne. She would tenderly guard the best interests of her people. And why should she not be a queen? The suggestion of the romance fired her. Her heart was beating faster now. Her breath came quickly through her parted lips. And such a king, too! Any woman would be happy with the present ruler of Montenana. With a sudden impulse she bent forward and brushed her hand softly, almost caressingly over the king's crisp, brown curls. He thrilled to the touch of those moist cool fingers. They stirred him to a sudden energy.
"Don't do that," he said. "At least, I mean it is dangerous. We are very good friends, Nita."
"The very best of friends," Nita murmured.
"Very well, then. Why shouldn't we set an example? Why must I go from court to court until I find the passable woman with whom I might manage to live? There is something horrible about the whole business, something so cold-blooded and commercial. And, then, all the papers will gush and scream and cackle over King Fritz of Montenana and his love match. They will photograph me and paragraph me, and when I part from my future queen they will swear that my eyes are wet. So they will be with tears--of laughter."
Nita smiled under her long lashes.
"Is it as bad as all that?" she asked.
"Worse," the king said gloomily. "I tell you, I won't have it--I won't put up with it! What difference does it make to the Chancellories of Europe whom I marry? What is the good of being a king if one can't please oneself? Besides, it is easily managed. And once I am married according to the laws of our church, who is there who could part us?"
"I am afraid you are talking great nonsense," Nita smiled. "It would never do. Besides, the queen you have in your mind is impossible, she does not exist."
"She does exist," the king cried. "She is here at this moment. Ah! my sweetheart, it is not for you to pretend you do not know what I mean. I can read your knowledge in your eyes and the colour on your beautiful cheek. Besides, I am no headstrong boy who does not know his own mind. I am twenty-five. I shall have all the world before me. And what more would you have? Let people say what they please. You should not laugh. Remember that I am offering you all that I possess. What more could I say?"
"The throne," Nita faltered, "the crown?"
"Aye, everything," the king said passionately. "The throne, the crown, my heart and home. Before Heaven, you were born to be a queen--the fairest and best and sweetest that ever helped to rule over a fortunate and delighted people. They will worship you. Ah! they have a fine eye for beauty, those dogs of Montenana. And why should it not be, Nita? Why do you smile when you see that I speak from the bottom of my heart? And the thing is so easy, so simple. The world need not know until after we are married. And then, what matters what the people say?"
She should have checked him. She should have reproved him. She knew that perfectly well. But she sat there smiling and quivering with the suggestion of tears in her deep fringed eyes. She let him clasp her hand, and carry it passionately to his lips. She was only a girl after all to whom fortune had come swiftly and unexpectedly. She was floating down the stream of life, and not swimming as the more experienced do. There was something sweetly subtle to her in the flattery of the king, in the knowledge that this brave young man who lay at her feet controlled the destinies of a free and enlightened people. And he loved her, too. There was no doubt of that. She needed no lessons, no finishing hints in the art of coquetry to tell her this. She could read the admiration in the king's eyes, she could feel it in the grip of his fingers. And, she could be a queen, too. Had she not displayed the fact nightly to a score of delighted audiences? In imagination she could see her way now through all the difficulties and dangers that lay in her path till her foot was planted firmly upon the footstool of a throne, and she had compelled a nation to love her despite themselves.
"You cannot mean it," she whispered.
"Sweetheart, you know I do. You know that I was never more serious in my life. And why not? You are good. You are beautiful. You are all that Heaven allows woman to be. Before God, I could not commit blasphemy of a loveless marriage now. I swear I would rather abdicate and leave the throne to my cousin. What would it be to go back to Montenana without you?"
He was pleading wildly and passionately now, and every word he said went straight to the girl's heart. The thing was preposterous, ridiculous, and she knew it; and that was, perhaps, the reason why it seemed so natural and easy.
"I cannot listen," she whispered. "I have no right to let you talk like this. And, then, besides--"
There were voices in the woods close by--loud, clear, gay voices--that had no suggestion of trouble or thought in them. The boat had been pulled up under a bank all emerald with dripping ferns, and gay with starry, yellow blossoms. It was an ideal setting to a love duct, but the king frowned despite the noisy buoyancy of the voices in the woods. A king is not used to intrusions of this kind, and he of Montenana resented the fact accordingly. Then a half-smile touched the corners of his lips as he saw a pretty piquant face glancing through an opening in the leaves, and regarding Nita and himself with unmistakable mischief. The girl was dressed in some light, summer costume, her great, gray eyes looked half reproachfully, half-mischievously from under the brim of her straw hat. She did not appear to be unduly embarrassed; she made no stammering apology for the intrusion; on the contrary, she laughed merrily.
"Found," she cried, "found at last! What ho! my comrades. Come and see how our gracious queen passes her time!"
"Clarette," Nita cried, with confusion.
"Oh, the same," the vision through the trees said airily. "Why do you look at me like that? Do you suppose that you have the exclusive right to the river and these beautiful woods? Are you different to the rest of us because you play the queen night by night for two hundred francs a week? Oh, I am not saying you don't earn your money. And who may this gentleman be? Introduce me."
The king was fast giving way to amusement. There was something deliciously cool and audacious in the speaker's manner. Her innocent enjoyment was contagious. She climbed down to the edge of the water, and drew the boat into the bank.
"You are one of us, I can see," she said, addressing herself to the king. "Where are you playing at present?"
"I am resting," King Fritz said gravely. "Before long, I have an important part to play at Rusta. I am trying to induce Nita to join the same company."
"But who are you?" the intruder asked. "Come along and join us at tea. We are all here."
"The whole crowd from the Oderon?" the king asked delightedly. "My dear Nita. I see I am going to enjoy myself."
A distressed look came into Nita's blue eyes.
"I pray of you do nothing rash," she implored. "You don't know what our people are. They are good natured and kind hearted to a fault, but they are terribly indiscreet. Clarette, I am going to place myself at your mercy. I beg you to go back to the others and say nothing whatever as to our whereabouts. This gentleman is his Majesty the King of Montenana."
King Fritz waited for the listener to be properly impressed. But from that point of view the announcement was a dismal failure. The little actress threw back her head and laughed like a peal of silver bells. Even the king smiled.
"Oh, this is delicious," she cried. "Much flattery has turned the poor thing's head. She actually believes that she has found a king. Your Majesty, I am pleased to make your acquaintance. All sorts and conditions of men I have met, but the king before--never."
"She does not recognise me," the king said, sotto voce.
He threw an imploring glance at Nita over his shoulder. She bit her lips, and was conscious of her own indiscretion. After all, it would be a stupid thing to betray the identity of her companion. Doubtless, it would lead to all kinds of complications. It was better far to let the thing go, and to accept Clarette's point of view. Besides, the king was standing up in the boat now, and had drawn it close to the bank. The spirit of adventure was upon him. There was something in the close contact between these actors and actresses that appealed to him. Like most people he was more or less fascinated with the stage, and here was an opportunity to make the acquaintance of a whole crowd of them, which was not to be neglected. He held out his hand to Nita, and helped her from the boat. She followed him unresistingly.
"Don't say anything," he whispered. "Let it all pass as a joke. I wouldn't mind so much if it wasn't for those confounded newspapers. If they get hold of this, I shall have half my ministers coming post haste to take me back home again. Let the joke continue."
"Come along," Clarette cried. "Come and have tea with the others. I will introduce your king to the crowd. I am sure they will be delighted; as things go he is a very presentable king indeed. And now, what is your name, your Majesty?"
"Mr. Fritz," the king said gravely. "I am sure I shall be delighted and honoured."
They came presently to a little valley in the heart of the woods where a fair white tablecloth was laid upon the grass. A kettle, boiled in gipsy fashion, bubbled merrily on a tripod, and an actress with a European reputation was making tea. A score of men and women, chattering and laughing gaily, were gathered round, and the king had no difficulty in recognising most of the company which he had seen at the Oderon Theatre. One or two glanced at him curiously, and some of the women smiled. It was only natural from his clean-shaven face and alert air that he should be mistaken for one of the profession. With a laughable suggestion of melodrama, Clarette raised her hand, and introduced him to the rest of the company.
"Behold the missing queen," she cried. "Now we know what has become of her for the last few days. We might have saved ourselves from picturing her bent over the bedside of a dying friend. Deal with her gently girls, for her case is absolutely hopeless."
"How so?" asked the lady with the teapot.
"Mad, my dear, hopelessly and entirely mad. She swears that she is born to the purple, and that her ingenuous companion is no less a person than the King of Montenana."
"He is in the city," one of the men murmured.
"My dear boy, he is here. Gaze upon those classic features. Look into that regal and commanding eye. But sit down and make yourself at home. Even a king might do worse than drink a cup of Bertha Venis's tea."
A fine confusion stained Nita's checks. She was trembling with apprehension now, for it was more than humanly possible that some member of the crowd would recognise the features of Montenana's ruler. But the whole thing passed for a joke. The gay company fell in with Clarette's humour, and something like a throne was hastily improvised for the king. As to himself, he was delighted with the warmth and freedom of his reception. Nobody seemed to care who he was, nobody asked any questions. It was all the same to them so long as he wore the attributes of good fellowship, and was properly introduced as a member of the clan. He had forgotten his regal position now. He threw himself heart and soul into the pleasures of his companions. He would have been better pleased, perhaps, if Clarette's little joke had been allowed to die a natural death. But the whisper went round the gay chattering circle, and to his great amusement the king found himself treated with a mock deference which he heartily reciprocated. Clarette had snatched up a handful of flowers, and deftly woven them into a green and yellow circlet. She came demurely over to the king where Nita was sitting, and cast them lightly on her yellow hair.
"I crown thee queen," she cried. "Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to the Queen of Montenana. You did not know when you came out to-day how great an honour would be conferred upon us all. May I be allowed to have the felicity of giving his Majesty a cup of tea? I assure you it is not poisoned."
The king held out his hand smilingly.
"We are infinitely obliged to you," he said gravely. "Permit me to drink to the health of this excellent company. I assure you that I am charmed and delighted to make your acquaintance. Is not that so, my queen? Tell them you agree with all I say."
The colour came into Nita's cheeks, red and white chased one another like dappled shadows on a windy summer morning. The spirit of comedy was upon her. It was her mood to respond to the king's gaiety. Yet in a measure she was afraid. For this was getting a serious matter now. And the king of Montenana was carrying the joke too far. Yet his voice was so clear and buoyant, and his face so boyish that she had not the heart to repel him.
"Of course," she said demurely. "I will never forgive Clarette for betraying my secret. When I am the Queen of Montenana, she shall never be a guest at my court."
The others laughed merrily enough. They were in a mood when little seemed to please them. And from his throne amidst the spring flowers King Fritz surveyed the whole scene with unalloyed amusement. This, he told himself, was life, this was enjoyment. How different from the stern, hard creeds and shibboleths with which he had been fenced in up to now! What a contrast to the grim old castle at Rusta where he had passed the best part of his existence guarded by sentinels, and with no choice of company than old Rutsztin and his ministers for companionship. What mattered affairs of State now? Why should he care if Austria was fidgeting about the new frontier line and Russia was stirring up strife on account of the Hinterland Provinces? For he was young, and the spring day was fresh and fair, and was not the face of his companion the sweetest he had ever seen?
Why not? he asked himself. And yet, why not again? It seemed to him now that he was an actor, and that these mummers were the creatures who extracted every drop of the honey of his life. It was a revelation to him, a new harmonious existence which he had only read of in books, and every moment brought a fresh surprise; the tall woman, with the dark eyes and ivory complexion, was known far and wide as a great tragic actress. The little man, with the wrinkled face and Trilby hat, was the very prince of comedians. King Fritz picked up the names as they fell from lip to lip. He felt distinctly honoured that he was appreciated in such select company. And, meanwhile, old Rutzstin was laid by the heels beyond the power to interfere for Heaven knows how long a period.
And nobody asked any awkward questions, they all seemed to take the thing for granted. There was a charming gaiety and abandon about these actors. They tossed their quips and cranks from lip to lip, the purple silence of the woods rang with their innocent laughter. And they were not idly curious either. They did not seem to care who the king was, or where he came from, so long as he attuned himself to their melody and danced to their merry air. Here was life, then, fresh and vigorous, and full of sap as an oak in an April wind. The king was young, too; he had the command of means to make the adventure successful.
The talk for the most part was theatrical, and Fritz listened with the keenest possible interest. With one accord the company addressed him as 'your Majesty'; it seemed tacitly to be understood that the jest must be kept up.
All the same, there was something almost pathetic in the droop of Nita's lips and the wistfulness of her smile. The thing was utterly wrong. She checked an inclination to start up there and then and tell the truth. But the king's enjoyment was so wholesome and heartwhole that the necessary courage failed her. Still, it did not matter. The little romance would be ended in a day or two, and that frivolous-minded crowd would forget that they had ever met the handsome stranger by the margin of the silver stream. The chaplet slipped from Nita's hair. The yellow flowers lay unheeded in her lap. Under cover of them the king possessed himself of her hand. Her little fingers lay unresistingly in his.
"Sweetheart," he murmured, "don't be unkind. This is a glimpse of paradise to me. Ah, you little realise what a drab existence has been mine. I know you won't spoil it."
"Why should I not?" Nita whispered.
"Because it is going to last," the king said solemnly. "Dear heart, do you think I am going back now? Do you think that I would return to Montenana without you? No, not for the reversion of a score of crowns. I mean to have a real queen, not a human puppet trained from the cradle to be an automaton and a figure head."
Nita sighed gently. The whole thing was wildly extravagant to the last degree, but it held something real for her. Her lips trembled in a smile. It seemed as if she were about to say something warm and palpitating, when a burst of laughter from those gathered round the tea table drowned her voice.
"Oh, I assure you it is true," Clarette cried. "Nita told us so. Think of the audacity of it! None of us ever conceived such a gilded lie. Behold him! Let me introduce you to his Majesty the King of Montenana."
A little man in gleaming spectacles had come up and joined the group. He was a veritable note of exclamation. With a shrewd little smile on his lips now he ceased to play with his waxed moustache. There was something like consternation upon his face.
"Good Lord!" he exclaimed. "Why, this is actually--"
"What is the matter?" Clarette demanded shortly. "Boys and girls, here is Louis Benin actually lost for speech. The brilliant journalist whose mission it is to govern Europe is actually embarrassed. Dear little man, have you never been in the presence of Royalty before? Give him a glass of water, one of you."
The spick and span journalist forced a smile to his lips. He ceased to stare at the owner of a throne as if he had been some rare and curious animal. His snug self-complacency was coming back to him now.
"There is a likeness to his Majesty." he said. "Ha, ha, that is a good joke of Nita's. I did not know that this was one of her metiers. I hope you are well, sir."
The little journalist was swaggering now. He was apparently quite at his ease. Yet, there was a restlessness about him, and a queer glitter in his eyes which filled Nita with uneasiness.
"That man has recognised you," she whispered.
"It is more than possible," the king said coolly. "Indeed, I wonder that some of your companions have not already done so. I suppose they did not spot me out of one of those confounded uniforms that I am always decked in. But why so grave? Who is the little man, and how can he harm either of us?"
"He is a Journalist," Nita explained, "and a very brilliant one, too. Everything he says is listened to; in fact, he is quite a prominent figure here. I don't know what is passing through his mind, but assuredly he recognised you. I should not feel so anxious if he had not kept the fact to himself. You see, there is Bertha Venis telling him that there is an understanding between you and me. Oh! I wish she wouldn't. I wish we had never come here to-day."
There was another burst of laughter from the group round the tea table. One or two of the girls had laid hands upon the newspaper man, and were trying to detain him. He was desolate, he said. He was distracted to tear himself away from such pleasant company.
"I only looked in for a moment," he said. "After the theatre this evening, perhaps. Meanwhile, the slave of duty as I am, I must hurry back to the city. Au-revoir."
The shining light of the fourth estate hastened back to the city. He hurried along the boulevards in the direction of his office. People smiled and bowed, while a man more emphatic than the rest tried to detain him. But he shook him off and went his way.
"Is it so important?" the other asked. "Is there a fortune waiting at the office of 'La Cigale' for you?"
"Something like it," Benin cried gaily. "Fortune? Yes; if it is served up hot enough. And exclusive, my friend, exclusive! Come to me to supper at the Cafe Continental after the theatre to-night, and I promise you a feast of the gods with the wine of the widow galore. But not if you detain me, Alphonse."
The sun was westering now, the shadows of the forest trees were falling long and lank across the green turf, the violet mists were gathering in the leafy hollows. Seated there they could see the smoke of the city beyond, and could catch faint murmurs of the stress and hum of life there. They did not know, and the king did not care that already rumour was getting busy with his name. He little heeded the choice morceau of scandal which had been passed along from lip to lip in the cafes and at the little tables along the shaded boulevards. As yet no one knew anything. It was all the idlest gossip. But the evening edition of 'La Cigale' would be out presently, then they would know everything. If there was any truth in the story, 'La Cigale' would have every detail; its pink pages would blush with the embroidery of the scandal.
Meanwhile, the king was enjoying himself. He was in no haste to be rid of his companions. He had no feeling of resentment for their calm assumption that there was a perfect understanding between himself and Nita Reinhardt. But as the dusk began to fall a certain sense of responsibility enveloped the group, and one by one they rose and turned their faces in the direction of the city. The gravity and responsibility of life had come back to them.
"Where are you all going?" the king cried. "Why away so soon?"
Clarette made him a grave curtsey.
"Your Majesty seems to forget," she murmured. "You seem to disregard the fact that we are poor players who fret and fume our hour upon the stage, and then--well, and then get married like Nita is going to do. In other words, we are going back to the theatre."
"Oh, the theatre," the king exclaimed blankly. "I had quite forgotten that. But, stop; why should I not come with you. Why should you not smuggle me behind the stage? And after the performance is over, there is no reason at all why you should not all come and sup with me. As a personal favour I ask you to come to-night and sup with the King and Queen of Montenana. I may be a poor monarch, but I assure you I am an excellent judge of supper, and you will have no occasion to regret your kindness. What do you say?"
"An inspiration, a positive inspiration!" the great little comedian cried. "We will leave it to Bertha Venis. Gracious lady, shall we sup with his Majesty or not?"
"He is a pretty boy," the leading actress murmured. "And it would be ungracious to him not to accept an invitation offered in so friendly a spirit. Your Majesty shall come with us, and we will partake of your meal afterwards. Is it agreed?"
With one accord they all applauded. Then they drifted away together through the woods to the little thatched hotel where a conveyance was waiting them. It was characteristic of the king to forget all about his boat. He was only too glad now to carry his adventure out and extract the last sip of pleasure from the cup he had lifted to his eager lips.
Night had fallen over the city now. Under the deep blue of the sky beneath the shining stars a thousand points of flame were lighted. The purple and brown shadows lay over road and pavement. Thousands of pleasure seekers were afoot in search of an evening's amusement. People were already dining outside the restaurants. The air was pungent with the smell of tobacco smoke. A score or two of newsboys drifted up and down the boulevards with placards of 'La Cigale' in their hands. The king, with Nita seated by his side, caught the black letters under the flare of one of the electric standards. Nita clutched his arm.
"Do you see that?" she asked eagerly.
There it was plain enough for everybody to see who passed:--
"LE ROI S'AMUSE. QUEER STORY. SEE LAST EDITION."
"Does that refer to me?" the king asked laughingly.
"Is there another king in the city to night?" Nita asked. "I tell you I am frightened. Buy one of those papers. I cannot rest till I know what they say."
The King of Montenana declined to do anything of the kind. He objected strongly to the philosophy which meets trouble half way. He was enjoying himself now, and he wanted no fly in his ointment. By the time the Oderon Theatre was reached he had forgotten all about the incident, and Nita was her smiling self again.
Oh, it is a new life. There is no doubt about that. He saw his gay companions figged out in silk and satin and ermine now. He saw the mimic history of a kingdom, and how it was portrayed upon the stage. Nothing mattered at that moment. He would have accepted the news that Montenana had dispensed with his services with philosophic calmness. The golden moments sped along, the jewelled seconds were like so many gay butterflies gathered round the flowers that made up the sum total of an hour. And it was a fresh joy and pleasure, too, to watch Nita again fretting in a glorious existence on the stage, and playing the queen as no living consort to-day could have carried out her part. As the king stood there the impression deepened, the feeling of love in his heart increased; it seemed to him that life would be a drab and hollow thing unless he had this splendid woman by his side. For he was young and enthusiastic, and his knowledge of the world was represented by the conventional algebraical symbol. He made a fine picture of hope and expectation and manly beauty as he stood there waiting for his guests to change. Clarette came flitting along the corridor, and touched him on the arm.
"Well, your Majesty," she cried gaily, "what do you think of it all? Isn't Nita superb? And to think that six months ago she was practically unheard of. You are a lucky man, my little prince, and I hope from the bottom of my heart, that before long Nita will realise the fact that she is a lucky woman. And if you play her false, if you deceive her--"
"Heaven forbid," the king cried. "Child, child, what do you think I am made of? I am one of the most fortunate of men who ever drew the breath of life. I am going to marry Nita, and you shall come and dance at the wedding. Does that satisfy you?"
The others were coming up now. There stood a heedless merry crowd around the stage door.
"And now, where shall we go to?" the king exclaimed. "I am more or less a stranger in the city. I am going to place myself entirely in the hands of this prince of comedians here. Take us to the best restaurant in the city, beloved Comus, and let us have food fit for my royal rank. Let the thing be done as the circus proprietor says, entirely regardless of expense. This is my birthday. I have come into my fortune. Anything you like, so long as you may be the excuse for spending the money. Now, go ahead, mon ami, and let there be no niggard policy to-night."
"The Cafe Continental," a voice exclaimed.
The great comedian bowed and led the way. They were seated presently at a round table in a kind of rose garden, with an open roof. A score of waiters attended deferentially to their wishes. There was a murmur of conversation, a crash of plates, accompanied by the popping of champagne corks. Other people supping paused in their conversation and listened more or less enviously to the merry group at the round table. Laughter long and continuous rippled like water. The King of Montenana surpassed himself. He only knew this kind of thing faintly and nebulously through the medium of cold print. It outstepped his most sanguine expectations. Here was life fresh and uncontaminated at the fountain head. Here was wit and beauty about him, and the queen of his heart seated by his side. He made no protest presently when Clarette rose from her seat and crowned him with a circle of artificial flowers. He saw that the same mad freak had been played upon Nita, and that she was blushing deeply under her pink coronal of roses.
"Are you never tired of a joke?" he asked.
"Not so good a one as this," Clarette said smilingly. "This is an episode to be remembered. Comrades, I regard myself as the most fortunate of women. Do not unduly envy me, for I have no doubt you will be amongst the fortunate ones yourselves. And every woman worthy of the name loves a wedding."
"A wedding?" Bertha Venis asked. "Whose wedding?"
The king's head was humming now with the wit and champagne and the exhilaration of his company. Prudence and he were strangers just now. He caught Nita's hand in his. He looked smilingly round upon the assembled company.
"Mine," he cried boldly. "Mine and Nita's. And the day is not far off, either. In her name and mine, I solemnly invite you all to be present at the ceremony and the wedding breakfast after. Will you not join me, my sweetheart? Won't you say a word--"
A sweet confusion covered the girl like a garment. Yet her eyes were filled with tears, a certain sadness shadowed her face. She felt the sport of circumstance now. She felt how hard it would be to fight against the stream which was carrying her on to the edge of the chasm. Then, as the king looked round the room he saw, to his mingled amusement and annoyance that Prince Florizel was standing in the doorway. There was a grave and anxious look on the young man's face, but, at the same time, a certain admiration which the hope of Montenana did not view altogether with displeasure. It was only for a moment that Florizel stood there. Then he advanced to the supper table. He stammered as he spoke.
"Your Majesty," he exclaimed. "Really, I--"
A burst of laughter ran round the table. Possibly some new and subtle joke was being played here. But, from the king's point of view, the joke was going a little too far. He had just sufficient prudence left to see that it was far from advisable that these gay companions of his should know the truth.
"Excuse me for a moment," he said. "This is an old friend of mine. He is unfortunately in trouble, so I will not ask him to join us. I will be back directly."
The two were alone a minute or two later behind a belt of palms.
"Well, what do you want?" the king asked.
"I want to know," Florizel said pointedly, "if your Majesty has seen the last edition of 'La Cigale,' because, if you haven't, you ought to. Your story is told there with every picturesque detail; in fact, the whole thing is so florid that I am hoping it is a tissue of lies from one end to the other. See, here it is:--
"Le roi s'amuse. The king and the actress. Secret Marriage of his Majesty of Montenana with one of the leading ladies of the Oderon Theatre. Oh, upon my word, it is no laughing matter. The whole city is ringing with it. It reminds one of that dreadful business which happened to another Balkan monarch two years ago. But it isn't true, Fritz. For God's sake, say it isn't true!"
"Well, not yet," the king said calmly. "But it is going to be, my dear fellow. And now that the thing has got into the papers I cannot possibly hesitate any longer."
"What is to be done?" Florizel murmured.
"What is to be done?" the king echoed. "My dear boy, in the circumstances, there is only one thing to be done."
The white city by the silver stream was grateful for a new sensation. Its pleasure-loving inhabitants had something to watch now. They were ever glad of all that was fresh and bright in romance. And here was a romance sound and sweet to their hand. It might be said that the King of Montenana had awakened one morning to find himself famous. Naturally enough, his arrival in the white city had been duly chronicled, and there the Press had left him. On the face of it, he was no more than a commonplace young man, running a pocket kingdom and seeking for a wife who would put money in his purse and give him a surer foundation on the throne at the same time. One or two of the papers had given a sketch of his life and his personal appearance, and there they left him.
But now it was entirely different. He was a handsome man in the first flush of youth, brave and romantic and of high courage, breaking away from all the conditions of his caste, and actually making love to a popular actress. The same thing had happened before, but never quite under the same conditions. As a rule, there was something distinctly vulgar and commonplace in these intrigues. Usually the actress was past the first flush of her charm, the prince was a middle aged roue, with a tendency to embonpoint. But he of Montenana was decidedly handsome, decidedly untainted; in fact, just the sort of young man calculated to make a fool of himself, and set Europe thrilling from one end to the other with interest and expectation. And again, Nita Reinhardt was young and beautiful. There was not one word against her reputation. She was not the kind of girl to sell herself, even for a robe of ermine trimmed with purple. Here was a love match, if ever there was one, and the one problem which was discussed over dinner tables in cafes and at garden parties was whether the King of Montenana would marry this lady or not. On the whole, the white city gave its Royal visitor the benefit of the doubt. It was known that King Fritz had come there with the old bulldog Rutzstin to look after him. It was whispered that the war-scarred warrior was lying at the point of death in his bedroom; and when the cat's away, the mice will play.
Thus it was that the King of Montenana found himself a popular hero, and Nita Reinhardt was, if possible, a more central figure than ever. There were songs sung about her in the cafes. The whole thing went with roars of applause at the music halls, all of which was decidedly embarrassing for the Royal lover, who found himself a centre of more attention than he cared for. At the same time his resolution hardened. He had made up his mind to go through with the thing now; indeed, as a gentleman, he couldn't do anything else. The ways of diplomacy find excuses for kings in such circumstances, but the ruler of Montenana resolutely declined to view the situation through spectacles.
"Your Majesty hardly appreciates the position," Prince Florizel murmured discreetly, as the two sat together over their dinner two nights later. "Of course, as a mere matter of amusement, I can quite understand how it is that--"
The king started up furiously. His eyes were blazing now, the veins on his forehead stood out clean and blue.
"This to me?" he cried. "Your Highness is forgetting himself. Another word and I shall strike you."
"As your Majesty pleases," Florizel said quietly. "You may doubt many people, but when you doubt me--"
"A thousand pardons, Florizel," the king cried. The engaging smile was back upon his lips now. He laid his hands affectionately upon his companion's shoulder. "My dear friend, I am forgetting myself. Was man ever blessed with a more faithful comrade than you? You saved my life upon one occasion."
"Aye, and on one occasion you saved mine, Fritz," Florizel said half sadly. "Believe me, I am speaking in your best interests. I implore you to draw back before the matter has gone too far. I know that Nita Reinhardt is all that a girl should be. I know that she would part from you without a word of reproach if you only told her that it must be so. You might have stopped to think before you compromised her in this fashion."
"But, my dear friend, I have done nothing of the sort," the king protested. "Florizel, upon my soul, I cannot live without her. Compare her to the pasty-faced, goggle-eyed creatures dug out of musty castles for my inspection. Besides, I love her, and no man can say more than that. Of all the dearest, sweetest, most fascinating creatures that ever drew the breath of life; but there, I bore you. You are not listening."
"I am suffering in silence," Florizel said grimly. "Do you mean to tell me honestly that you are going to marry this woman?"
"Have I not been impressing it upon you for the last two or three days? I have made up my mind, Florizel. It shall be a secret marriage in this city where the religion is the same as our own. It shall take place this very night. I am sick of the persecution of these newspaper people. Why can't they leave a man alone? And, by the way, isn't that dreamer and visionary Pierre Bentos somewhere to be found, in these parts? I understand he had a mission here. He is the very man for our purpose."
Florizel proceeded to expostulate once more, but it was all in vain. He was behaving badly, and he knew it. A day of reckoning lay before him, but he was little heeding that now. He would have to answer presently to the grim, gray wolf overhead, who was fast recovering from his seizure. But Florizel put all these reflections behind him now. It was seldom that the King of Montenana appealed in vain to his friends, and Florizel would have gone to the death for him cheerfully. A few minutes later he was heart and soul in the adventure himself.
"I can find Bentos for you," he said. "I know where he is, and we can arrange matters accordingly. Bentos has a kind of monastery outside the city where he trains young men for the priesthood. The place is a fortress in its way, which, if you knew, is in your favour."
The king's brows knitted and frowned again.
"Why?" he demanded. "What are you hinting at? Who would care to use force where I am concerned?"
"Rutzstin would," Florizel said grimly, "and you know it. Can you ever remember that old fox stopping at anything where his interests were concerned? Have you forgotten that he has set his heart upon you marrying your cousin. Besides, there are other people in Rusta who would obey Rutzstin's lightest word, whilst they put off with lies and prevarications. And Schentein is here. I saw him by chance last night."
The king looked grave, for this Schentein in question was the leader of a guerilla band of irregulars, and a man as brave as he was utterly unscrupulous. He was Rutzstin's right hand man too, and at a word from the old soldier would have laid hands upon the Royal person without the slightest hesitation.
"I don't like this," he murmured. "And yet the thing sounds preposterous. They would never care to kidnap me."
"Schenstein would dare anything. And don't forget that I have warned you. You are safe enough in the day time, but the city will be hardly beneficial to you after nightfall. It would be far better to leave matters entirely in my hands."
The king sat there in a brown study. By tacit consent he appeared to leave matters as Florizel had suggested. He sat there until the darkness fell, and the lights of the city twinkled out one by one. His past life rose in view before him. His determination hardened. Who were these people? And why did they stand in his way like this? Surely, it could matter little or nothing to Europe in general whom he married. The map of the world would not be altered because he had allied himself to youth and beauty, instead of rank and commonplace femininity. His face hardened as he thought of Schentein and his satellites.
He rose presently and went in search of Florizel. But the latter had already left the hotel. It seemed almost impossible that he could sit quietly down there and wait upon events. He must be doing something, he must be moving towards his goal. He would go down to the theatre and see Nita. He slipped a revolver in the pocket of his overcoat, and set out upon his way. He walked quietly along the boulevards in the direction of the 'Oderon' lost in his own thoughts, till presently a messenger boy touched him on the shoulder. The mannikin in uniform had a letter in his hand which appeared to be in Florizel's handwriting. The envelope contained a few words scribbled on a visiting card, which were curt and to the point. Directly on receipt of the letter the king was to go to a certain address without delay, and there wait the arrival of his friend. He nodded curtly. He crushed the paper in his hand and passed on suspecting nothing.
But something like a gleam of prudence came to him presently as he found himself in an unfamiliar part of the city. He began to ask himself questions now. He hesitated in the deserted roadway. It was cowardly, perhaps, but he decided to go no further.
He had hardly turned before three figures materialised from the shadows, and he found his path cut off. The figures were masked, though it seemed to the king that one of them was familiar to him. Without a word they closed upon him. He had not passed five of the best years of his life in an English public school for nothing. His left hand shot out swiftly, and one of the ruffians went down crashing into the roadway. Before the other two could advance the king had whipped out his revolver and stood with it in his hand.
"Stand where you are," he whispered, "if you value your lives!"
The moment's delay was distinctly in King Fritz's favour. He stood there with his foot on the prostrate rascal's neck. He had his back to a friendly wall now, so that his other assailants could see down the grim mouth of the revolver barrel. A second later, and some one came hurrying up the street. The other two men glanced at one another involuntarily and vanished. Evidently discretion was the better part of valour in this case. The king suffered the man at his feet to crawl away. He smiled grimly as he recognised the figure of Florizel coming towards him.
"You were right and I was wrong," he said. "But it was a close call. I recognised Schentein right enough. I shall have an account to settle with that gentleman later on. But all these things prove to me that there is no time to be lost. Have you seen Pierre Bentos?"
"I have just come back from his retreat," Florizel explained. "Oh, I found him quite amenable to reason. He thinks--well, no matter what he thinks. He is convinced that it is your duty to marry Nita Reinhardt, and he regards himself as the special instrument of Providence designed to perform the ceremony. My dear Fritz, you needn't frown like that. What does it matter so long as we have a priest handy and complacent? Not another padre in this city would dare to do such a thing. Now go down to the theatre, and I will wait for you outside. Before you sleep to-night, you will have given your people a queen to rule over them."
King Fritz strode along resolutely enough now. It was getting late by the time the Oderon was reached. The last act was nearly finished. A packed audience was watching the final tableau breathlessly. It seemed to the king standing there as if Nita were excelling herself to-night. The curtain came down presently amidst a perfect tornado of applause. The queen of the moment stood before the footlights bowing to the rocking crowd, with piles of flowers about her feet and an enormous bouquet in either hand. There were friendly cries of badinage mixed with the cheers, and more than once the King of Montenana heard his own name mentioned. He flushed with mingled pride and anger--pride in the possession of this exquisite creature, anger that certain people there coupled their names so lightly. Fritz pencilled a few words on a card and sent it behind with one of the attendants. When Nita left the theatre later on she was absolutely alone, as the king had suggested. She looked pale and anxious, but her face flushed with a shy pleasure she could not conceal as she held out her hand.
"You heard them?" she whispered. "You were in this theatre to-night--I could not help seeing you."
"I heard them--yes, sweetheart," the king muttered. "Let us go into this little room for a moment. There is something that I have to say to you ... I am glad you mentioned the subject, Nita. Things cannot go on like this. For your sake it is impossible."
"And for yours also," Nita said sadly.
"For both our sakes, then. You know what people are saying. They think it is impossible that a king could so far forget himself as to marry a mere actress. Ah, I hate to speak like this. But, believe me, it is necessary. But why shouldn't a king marry an actress? They are of the same fiesta and blood, they come from the fame common ancestry. And were I to go away and leave you now, even if the heiress of all the ages awaited me, I should be acting like a coward and a scoundrel. But I do not want to leave you, Nita. I shall never leave you again. We are both actors in our way, both eternally posing before the footlights. I want to take you by the hand in the face of all the world and say, Here is my wife. Sweetheart, do not be cruel to me."
"Am I cruel?" Nita asked with a shy uplifting of her eyes. "Ah, my Fritz, if you only knew!"
Her hands went out to him now. He caught them passionately and drew her to his heart. Their lips met in a long, tender caress. And when at length Fritz put the woman of his choice from him, he saw deep down in her eyes the signal of victory.
"Come with me," he whispered, "come with me now. You can trust yourself to Prince Florizel and me. And there is an old friend of mine on the outskirts of the city who is waiting even now to marry us. Possibly you have heard of Father Pierre Bentos. Well, he is awaiting our arrival. Sweetheart, you won't say no; because, if you do, for your sake we must part now. Come with me and give me all the happiness that man could desire. Come and help me to rule my kingdom, so that I can say to my people that here is a daughter of the soil, here is one of ourselves. Why do you hesitate? Why don't you answer me?"
"I am not hesitating," the girl said through her tears. "I am only trying to persuade myself that I am doing so. I know in my heart of hearts that I cannot let you go. I honestly believe that I can make you happy. But it is so selfish of me."
"Selfish! In the name of Heaven, why? Surely, you realise the responsibilities and dangers that lie before you. It is no sinecure that I am offering. But we are wasting time. Come with me now, and to-morrow we will drive side by side through the city, and everybody shall know that we are man and wife."
Nita would have said something, but she was beyond words just then. She could only smile unsteadily and wipe the unshed tears from her eyes. She placed her hand in that of the king with an air of infinite trust and abandon, and he raised it to his lips.
"Queen of Montenana," he whispered. "The sweetest and best who ever sat upon the throne. Are you ready, mine?"
Nita drew herself up. Her smile was proud as well as tender now. She looked like a real queen enough. She was now as Fritz had seen her on the stage of the theatre. But there was something more real, more human and palpitating, something intangible and full of charm to which he could give no name.
They passed out into the street, arm in arm, in silence, to where Prince Florizel was awaiting them. Florizel bowed gravely. He was a perfect courtier now. He played his part as if he had been accustomed to this kind of adventures all his life, as if this were the usual way in which monarchs generally woo and wed their brides. Matters seemed to slip entirely into his hands. It was he who called a conveyance and gave the driver his directions. They came presently to the outskirts of the city, and stopped before a stout oak door in a heavy wall. Inside a few dim lights were burning, and there a tall, slim man awaited them.
"I am glad to see you again, father," the king murmured. "I shall know how to thank you presently for this inestimable service."
Something like a frown knitted the pale face of the priest. His skin was white and drawn as if from some long illness. It was only the steady gleam of his dark eyes which showed that occasionally the man fought for mastery with the priest and anchorite.
"You ought to have come here before," he said.
The king caught his lip between his teeth and bit it passionately. He might have exploded violently, only he caught the wounded look in Florizel's eyes.
"Lead the way," he said. "We can talk of these matters afterwards. This is my bride."
The priest's pale, hard face softened as he laid his hands gently on Nita's head and blessed her. It seemed a strange and weird dream to the girl afterwards. In a dull, muffled way she heard the hollow ring of her own footsteps upon the bare pavement, she saw the little chapel with its stone-hewn walls picked out feebly by a pair of candles burning on the altar. She could see figures masked and cowled in the carved oak stalls. She started presently when an unseen organ opened its silver throat, and the whole place was flooded with some rapt melody. She was not acting now. She stood there white and pale, trembling and frightened, and yet full of a fearful joy. In a kind of mist the long, lean, black figure of the priest stood out; he was saying words which to her were strange and yet oddly familiar. And presently the King of Montenana had her shaking hand in his, a plain gold ring encircled her finger.
It was all over now. The irrevocable step was taken, and the unseen organ broke out into a joyous chant which was like the tread of armed men coming back after some glorious victory. Then the mist faded away, and the whole situation flashed upon the young queen.
"Let me be the first to offer my congratulations," Father Bentos said. "Permit me to--"
He paused and held up his hand for silence, for there was a sudden thundering knocking on the chapel door and hoarse cries outside. With a dignity all his own, at a sign from Florizel, the priest threw back the heavy doors, and half a score of men entered. At the head of these, fully clad in uniform with his sword at his hip, came General Rutzstin. His great grizzled head was thrown back, his face was pale beyond the whiteness of his recent illness, a great grim rage blazed in his eyes.
"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded.
King Fritz confronted him. Here was the king stern and hard and full of courage, a dignified picture enough now. It was only at that moment Nita realised that here was a ruler indeed.
"That is precisely what I was going to ask you," the king said sternly. "What is the meaning of this? How dare you, a subject of mine, intrude in this insolent manner? But I am forgetting myself, general. Let me present to your Majesty my faithful subject, General Count Rutzstin. General, your queen."
The general bowed to his sword hilt.
"I am your humble servant," he said hoarsely. "Oh, this is indeed a great day for Montenana!"
High up above the town the fortress-palace gleamed with lights. It stood over Rusta like a flashing tiara on the dusky hair of a queen. A great dance was in progress at the palace, and most of Montenana's chivalry had gathered there. The streets of the capital were quiet for the most part; there was a powder of stars in the blue dome overhead. In the oleanders and myrtles a drifting tangle of fireflies glistened. Away beyond the fertile plain was the sea, and occasionally far out the flinging rays of a revolving lantern from the lighthouse on Martyr Island. Assuredly a happy country this!
Inside were thousands of glistening electric globes under pink shades clustered on the silver electroliers, strings and ropes of roses, a tangle of fern and foliage against the polished oak of the ancient walls, the dull flash of armour here and there. Here were pictures of dead-and-gone rulers of Montenana, makers of history before this age of luxury commenced, and before the stone flagged passages were littered with rare Persian rugs like tinted rose leaves in a Persian garden.
Surely the queen of all this should be a happy woman! It was a year to-night since she had come here first, blushing and palpitating with her new honours thick upon her! The nebulous dream of the throne had become a breathing reality! A year to-night King Fritz had stood by the side of his bride on the terrace yonder listening to the hoarse roar of the cheers from below uprising from beneath the smoke of the swinging torches. He had seen old Rutzstin grim and forbidding in the background, a figure of ill omen. It had seemed nothing then--to-night the king was not so sure ...
He was in the midst of his guests, upstanding, handsome, a smile upon his face. He had learnt how to smile though his heart was heavy within him and the shadow of the coming trouble kept him awake of nights. The atmosphere was warm and heavy, the music made by the band concealed behind a tank of azalias suggested love in idleness. There was a constant ebb and flow of silks and laces and foaming garments suggestive of a sea under the summer sunshine.
King Fritz turned his back upon it somewhat impatiently. Would the queen never tire of all this gilded frivolity? The last three months had been one delirious whirl of gaiety; there had been no time to think. Was that the same woman yonder, the woman with the tiara blazing in the wonder of her piled-up hair, the same gentle, timid creature that he had wooed and won amongst the primroses in the woods of Arcady? There was some proverb as to the setting up of a beggar on horseback, and--but that was not a pleasant thought. How had it all happened, how had they drifted apart? There had been no quarrel, no coolness, and yet it seemed to King Fritz that he was looking at his consort as if she were standing on a distant continent.
She could but see the peril coming, she did not realise for a moment that they were both little better than prisoners in this splendid cage. Well, let it go on--let her enjoy herself whilst there was yet time. Old Rutzstin would strike when the hour came. There was a whisper, too, that Schenteim was in Rusta, and that he and Rutzstin were working hand and glove together. The seeds of disaffection had been sown in the provinces, the name of the queen had become a byword of extravagance and folly, and--
Somebody was pushing a folded scrap of paper into the king's palm. He turned to see little Clarette of the Oderon Theatre before him. There was gladness and mocking laughter in her eyes, yet she laid a warning finger on her lips. As a matter of fact, most of the Oderon company were here. There was a dramatic performance to-morrow night in the castle theatre, and two thousand guests had been bidden to the performance. The play was by the queen herself, and she had summoned her old comrades from Asturia to take part in it.
What would become of all these butterflies before long? Fritz asked himself. The blow might fall at any time, the revolution be proclaimed to-night. There was tragedy red and stark lurking in the shadows of the city. There were those amongst Schenteim's followers who had sworn that the queen should never leave Montenana alive.
Some frothy nonsense broke from Clarette's red lips as she passed on. King Fritz opened the scrap of paper and read the message surreptitiously.
"The little cabinet behind the throne room at two o'clock," it ran. "Don't fail me."
The hour was near at hand. Rutzstin had vanished for the moment. Usually those keen old eyes were not far away. The king strode aimlessly along the long flower-decked corridor till he came to the deserted throne-room. The cabinet behind was hung with tapestry, the windows looked sheer down to the distant roadway. Once a hillman had climbed that precipice, and with the aid of a dagger had changed the dynasty.
Fritz stood there gloomily waiting. He touched the switches and flooded the room with light. Then the door was flung open, and the queen came in. She hesitated just a moment, a pink flush rose to her cheeks. Heavens, how beautiful she looked! The radiant loveliness had refined, the figure had expanded, the eyes were more clear and lustrous. In her gleaming white she looked every inch a queen. The golden wonder of her hair was crowned by a flashing diadem of stones; her red lips were parted as if she had run far.
"I--I thought that I should find you here," she said. "Rutzstin has gone?"
"I am not his keeper," Fritz said sullenly.
"Could he with truth say the same thing of you?" the queen retorted.
Fritz flushed to his eyes. How callous she had grown! She had ceased to care for him, she had never cared for him! She had merely been dazzled by the splendid prospect that he had held out to her. Well, let her make the most of her time.
"Do you understand what you are saying?" he asked.
"I think so," she said. "Oh, you think that I am a fool, a little brainless butterfly, content to flit in the sunshine and heedless of the morrow. You think our marriage was a mistake--"
"It is no matter of speculation, madame--I am certain of it."
There was something cold and cutting in the words. The queen reeled before them as if they had been a dagger in that dazzling white breast of hers. The beautiful face grew pale. She half turned away, sorely wounded, then she paused.
"You are cruel, cruel," she whispered. "You do not understand. I could have left you long ago had I wished. I could have taken away with me the fortune that lies in my jewel-cases. When I first saw the danger, I might have left you to your fate. But I stayed because--because I loved you, Fritz. Do you think that I am not blind to the danger? Do you suppose I do not know what is going to happen? I stayed to share your fate--"
"You stayed to share my fate! You! What are you afraid of?"
"Afraid! I am not afraid. It is you that I am thinking of. I could die by your side, but I don't want to live without you. And yet you are right--our marriage has been a mistake. My beautiful dream ended before I had been here a month. Your people refused to take me seriously. In their eyes I was a mere scheming adventuress, or a silly doll come here to play the leading lady in a comic opera. Their minds had been poisoned by the agents of old Rutzstin. That man is a fanatic, he is mad. He has dreamt of allying Montenana to Bergia by your marriage till the thing is a monomania with him. If you fall, then your cousin Bergius comes to the throne and Rutzstin's dream is a reality. To bring this about he would not scruple to murder both of us."
The king stood listening in amazement. He had guessed all this--he knew it, and more. But that those facts should be so familiar to the woman standing there!
"Who told you all this?" he asked. "I thought--"
"Oh, I knew exactly what you thought! Have I not eyes? Is there anything the matter with my hearing? But I thought you didn't care. I thought that you were given over to mere pleasures, to your dogs and hares and your guns. And in all these unhappy months--"
"Unhappy! You? I give you my word of honour that I regarded you--"
"And we have both been mistaken! Ah, well; it is hard in an atmosphere like this for the flower of love to thrive! And yet I did my best. I tried so hard to show your people that their interests were mine. We seem to have drifted into a tangle of frivolous amusements, to live for nothing else. And our enemies are pointing the finger of scorn at us. It is all Rutzstin's doing, every bit. And we are prisoners here at Rutzstin's good will and pleasure. When he is ready, Schenteim will strike the blow. It will be a case of Servia over again--perhaps."
"It would be cowardly to leave it dear."
The queen's face lighted in a tender smile. Her face glowed.
"Why?" she asked. "What do you gain by the martyr's crown? If we could get away! Fritz, if you have any love still left for me--"
The king took a stride forward. He caught the dazzling figure in his arms, he bent down and pressed his lips to the quivering mouth of his consort. They could catch faintly the dreamy music in the distance, they were in a world of their own for a moment.
"I could bless this chance," Fritz murmured. "Fool that I was ever to doubt you! And I saw all this coming! I did not care because--well, because I thought that you did not care! And now it is too late. The wolves are all about as, the city is full of them. I believe that Rutzstin has gone off now to meet Schenteim. I could have met them with my back to the wall. But not now, not now! To hold you in my arms again makes a coward of me. I cannot lose the happiness that I can read in your eyes, my sweet! Mark you, I made no mistake--I would do it again to-morrow. The mistake was in coming here at all. I should have renounced my throne, and you and I together ... But think! It is too late for us to try and escape. Even Florizel has abandoned me."
The queen shook her dainty head till the diadem trembled like liquid light.
"Never!" she cried. "Never! Some harm has happened to Florizel! He has been spirited away. We may never know the truth. What was that?"
A keen breath of air blew into the room, the tapestry on the walls trembled. The folds parted and a man stumbled and fell prostrate on the floor.
"For Heaven's sake lock the door," he whispered hoarsely. "I'm--I'm--"
He lay there in an utter state of prostration. His peasant's dress was torn and mud-stained, the white features were smeared with blood. A cry broke from the king.
"Florizel!" he exclaimed. "My dear old friend, what is the matter? Where have you been?"
The prince opened his eyes and smiled faintly. After a little while he contrived to struggle to his feet. His breath was coming less painfully now.
"Give me some food," he said. "A few sandwiches and a glass of wine. I came here by way of the cliff. I managed by a miracle to scale the height."
The queen turned hastily to the door. Fritz detained her a moment.
"Can you manage it?" he asked. "Be very cautious. If you see Rutzstin--"
"Rutzstin is safe for the present," Florizel said, "I know exactly where he is to be found. So you got my message, Fritz."
"I got it, yes. It came from little Clarette. I was wondering how--"
"Yes, yes. We will come to all that presently. She is a dear little thing, and for courage she has few equals. Give me food first for I have had nothing since daybreak. Schenteim's people fancy that I am lying dead in the mountains. It is no fault of theirs that I am not ... The danger is very close, Fritz."
"I know it," the king said moodily. "I have known it for a long time, but, like the fool that I am, I took no heed of it. And it's too late now."
"Not quite." Florizel smiled. "There is a chance for safety yet for all of us."
Before any further questions could be asked, the queen was back again. From beneath the long train thrown over her arm she produced a bottle and glass together with a plate of sandwiches. Florizel noted these with a gleaming eye. Presently the colour came back to his cheeks; he gave a deep sigh of satisfaction as he drained the last sip of the foaming amber in the glass.
"I am another man now," he said. "After all, there is not very much harm done. Did you begin to imagine that I had deserted you, Fritz?"
"I--I am afraid so," the king stammered. "I was a blind fool, Florizel. It seemed to me that I was absolutely alone in the world. I did not care what happened. But in one sense my eyes were clear enough--I saw what was coming."
"You saw the danger from Rutzstin, then?"
"I did. Each day he grows more insolent. He opens my correspondence. He forbids me to go here and there. I am a prisoner in my own palace. The very guards about the place pay more deference to my chancellor than they do to me."
"The man is mad," Florizel said. "His brain has been going for a long time. Your marriage was the crowning blow--it meant the destruction of all his fondest dreams. He has played on your indifference. He has arranged matters so that all Montenana looks upon you two as frivolous creatures given over to the pursuit of pleasure. He had hopes of a peaceful revolution, but that has not materialised. Now he is going to strike in another way. Schenteim is in Rusta with two thousand of his hillmen. They are scattered all over the town, but they are ready to rise at a given signal."
The king started; he smote his forehead despairingly.
"I am a murderer!" he cried. "I have murdered the sweetest and dearest woman who ever gave her heart to a blind man. My sweetheart, I have betrayed you--I have betrayed you to death as surely as if I had laid hands upon you. And I could have got you away so easily a little time ago. Any excuse would have been sufficient. And now--"
His voice broke and he was silent. There were tears in his eyes as he held the queen's hand to his lips and kissed it. Her smile was brave and steady.
"What does it matter," she asked, "so that we are together again? Believe me when I say that this is the happiest moment I have known since we came here nearly a year ago. My mistake was in believing that I was born to be a queen, in thinking that the stage was the same as life itself. But to take you away--"
"But I want to go--now. If I could only--my dear Florizel, is it possible--"
"I was coming to that," Florizel went on. "The sword hangs on a thread."
"I know it. But when is it going to fall? Can you tell me that?"
"Yes, I am here for the purpose. It was because they thought I knew too much that they kidnapped me and took me into the mountains. I had a friend amongst them, or it would have gone hard with me. But I learnt everything. The blow falls to-morrow night at twelve. The signal is a rocket from the ramparts here. A hundred picked men will overpower the guard, if they need overpowering, and then the castle will be taken. Rutzstin will be here, and so will Schenteim and a dozen of his confidants, passing as your guests. After the performance of the play is over they will induce you to enter the anteroom by the side of the stage, and then--my dear friends, I cannot possibly say any more!"
The queen was the only one who maintained the least composure.
"Then it will be our turn," she said calmly. "You are sure of your facts, Florizel?"
"Madame, would that I were mistaken. I could only get back here in time to warn you of the inevitable. I had to pretend to escape from the hills. I dropped into a ravine as if a shot had been the end of me. My friend followed and pretended to put a couple more bullets into my carcase, and went back with the news that I was finished. How I got here, Heaven only knows. If I could do anything, if I could lay down my life--"
"Dear friend, there is no need," the queen said softly. "I have seen all this coming. My great drawback was that I did not know when. And, sooth to say, I did not care. It seemed to me that I had lost more than life already. But I was going to give my liege a chance. By a strange coincidence our foes have fixed upon to-morrow night. The dramatic performance here was no mere chance, for I have been planning my scheme for weeks. The great trouble was that I could not see my way to getting all our enemies together in one spot. They have been good enough to save us all that anxiety. Fritz, is the yacht ready?"
The king started at the inconsequence of the question.
"The yacht is always ready, dear," he said. "The mischief is that I am not allowed to use it."
"You are quite certain that you can rely on your crew?"
"You need not worry about that, Nita. My captain and crew are all English."
"Ah, I had forgotten that. No treachery to be found there! Now I shall leave it to you to see that steam is up any time after midnight to-morrow. There will be something like thirty or forty fugitives besides ourselves. These, of course, represent the full company from the Oderon besides the supers who represent the stage army in the play."
"The yacht would accommodate a hundred," the king said.
"Oh, there will be no necessity for that many," the queen smiled. "Fritz, you will not regret--"
"Regret!" the king exclaimed. "What is there to regret? What am I but a mere puppet, a monkey chained to the organ of my master! A pinchbeck king, with straw sticking out of my broken boots! If you had not come into my life it would have been all the same--I should never have sold myself to that awful woman to gratify the ambitions of a madman! If you can show me a way to save your life, then you will have saved my soul for me. But can you, sweetheart?"
The queen smiled bravely.
"I can and will," she said. "I would do anything to get out of this place, where my days have been so wretched. And Florizel will come with us."
"Florizel is your humble servant to command," the prince murmured. "I have some little personal anxiety, too. When those wolves once taste blood they will not know when to stop. They will not disdain the breaking of a butterfly. I shall not breathe freely till I see you and Clarette safely on board the yacht to-morrow."
"And you will tell us your plan, dearest?" the king asked.
"I think not, my lord," the queen smiled. "It is a good plot, and I am rather proud of it. All you have to do is to go on as if you suspected nothing. When you are summoned to the anteroom to-morrow night, go without the slightest hesitation. I shall come just as I am from the stage. And the rest will be so easy--so easy, my dear husband. You have not seen our play yet, you have not troubled to come to any of the rehearsals. It is much on the same lines as the piece you first saw me in. I am not seeking to gratify any personal ambition, it is all part of my scheme. The performance will be a little late because it is part of my plan that the last act shall not be finished until we are asked to see our gaolers. And you shall see how a woman's wit shall be victorious against all the plotting of those murderous traitors. And now, don't you think that we have talked here long enough? I must go back to my guests. I will leave you to decide what is to be done with Florizel. He must not be seen here."
It was an easy matter, however, to find a hiding-place for the prince. So far as that was concerned, he might stay where he was, seeing that those apartments were sacred to the king. Here was a whole suite of them, and the matter of food presented no difficulty.
The music was still drifting dreamily on as the queen returned to the ballroom. The dark sinister figure of Rutzstin loomed in one the doorways presently. He stood there as if watching something, his eyes were hard and sombre. He was master there, and he knew it. Only a few hours more, and all this would be changed.
"You do not dance?" the queen asked gaily.
A sour smile lit up Rutzstin's wrinkled face ominously for a second.
"My dancing days are over, madame," he said. "There are some that dance even on the edge of a volcano. They did it in the saloons at Versailles before the Revolution. And history is a thing that is apt to repeat itself."
There was no misunderstanding the threat underlying this insolent speech. Just for a moment the blood glowed in the queen's cheeks, then she smiled again.
"But you will come and see me act to-morrow night?" she said.
"Ay, I'll come and see you do that," Rutzstin croaked. "What is it that Shakespeare says?--'A poor player, who frets and fumes her hour upon the stage, and then is seen no more!' Do I quote the poet correctly, madame?"
"Perfectly," the queen said gravely. "'And then is seen no more!' Now, I wonder if you would be very distressed if that proved to be true. Do you think you would count?"
The queen turned away without waiting a reply to her question. She did not see the murderous gleam in the old fanatic's eye. He was blind to all beauty now; he could see nothing but that wild scheme of his for the expansion of the territory of Montenana; he was prepared to wade in blood to get to it. And all the glitter and gaiety and frothy folly was so much added fuel to the blaze of his passion. He could hear the noise and bustle in the theatre as he came out of the king's cabinet after a private audience the following afternoon. The curtain was up, and the queen, together with Bertha Venis and Clarette and the rest of the company, was watching the manager drilling the stage army of supers, who seemed by no means raw to the work. Rutzstin frowned as he saw the Montenana uniform degraded, as he would have called it.
"This must not be, madame," he said harshly. "After all, this is only a play. It is not the custom with any nation to allow the national uniform to be dragged--"
"Do you presume to dictate to me?" the queen asked gently.
Rutzstin muttered something under his breath.
"They are no subjects of ours," the queen went on. "They came with the rest of the company--they are from the Oderon Theatre."
"I know a soldier when I see one," Rutzstin said madly. "Those men have carried arms before."
"Of course they have. My good Rutzstin, in any first-class theatre it is the object of the management to make everything as realistic as possible. And when I want your opinion on this or any other question, I will ask for it. You can go."
The queen stood there calmly, her head erect. There was just a little colour in her cheeks, but she betrayed no sign of the anger that moved her. Something brutal and bitter trembled on the tip of Rutzstin's tongue for the moment; he caught his lip between his teeth and held it with savage force. After all, it did not matter. It was only for a few hours longer, and the struggle would be finished, the house of cards come fluttering to the ground. Outside under the oleander trees on the boulevard Rutzstin encountered Schenteim smoking a cigarette. The big black-bearded mountaineer looked strangely out of place in his frock suit and glossy hat. He carried his gloves in his hand.
"Well, you old wolf," he said jocularly. "Why so pleased, why so amiable? Egad, you look like the conspirator in fifth-rate melodrama. Where are the dagger and the bowl, comrade. Has the little queen been offending you again?"
Rutzstin growled something in the back of his throat.
"For the last time," he said; "for the last time, Schenteim. After to-day she shall be no more than a white wisp of flesh for the crows to pick. You are ready?"
The big man laughed cheerfully as Rutzstin passed on. He glanced up at the castle overhead blazing in the sunshine. His smile was not pleasant to see.
"I shall be ready, dolt," he muttered. "Oh, yes, we shall be ready! And you think to make sure of me; Rutzstin, eh? There are two heads to fall to-night--and there is a third. And when that has fallen our dear old Rutzstin will be at rest, too!"
A score of the queen's intimates were dining with her in the yellow parlour. These for the most part consisted of the leading characters in the royal drama. The king was not present--it was understood that he disapproved of this new frivolity. The theatre was in the hands of a gang of workmen. An hour or so later, and some fifteen hundred guests would be gathered there. A supper and dance would follow, and these would bring to a fitting climax the gaieties of the Rusta season. On the morrow the court would move to the summer palace on the Danube.
All this was gravely recorded in the Continental Press. There were those, smiling grimly to themselves, who knew better. The next news from Rusta would be a tragedy thrilling Europe from one end to the other.
And yet Queen Nita had never been more gay and heedless. She was looking forward with the keenest interest to the coming performance. To a certain extent it would embody the history of her life--most of the scenes she had written herself. She had plunged into the scheme heart and soul at the time when life seemed to have lost its savour. She had nothing to live for--the king was hopelessly estranged from her, or so the gossip ran.
She had commanded most of the old troupe of colleagues from the Oderon. They had come east on a special express, eager and breathless for the adventure, and to-morrow they would be gone again. Here were Bertha Venis and Clarette and all the rest. A stream of chatter ran like a rippling brook round the table. Most of them were already dressed for the first act of the drama. No servants were in the room, for the players were waiting on themselves.
Clarette looked questionably at her royal hostess.
"What is the matter with you to night?" she asked. "You are dazzling. And those blue eyes of yours are wells of happiness. Are you not afraid?"
The last words came in a whisper. The rest of the company were listening to some sparkling anecdotes that Henri Navane, the leading comedy star, was telling. Clarette's face grew a little grave as she spoke.
"I was never so happy in my life," the queen murmured. "Ma cherie, I have found that which was lost. To be candid, it was never lost at all. I was like the old woman who looked for her spectacles when they were on her forehead all the time. But I speak a parables; you don't know what I mean."
Clarette's eyes grew soft and luminous.
"I do," she whispered. "He has come back to you again! Child, it was a daring experiment. I always had an uneasy feeling that you would fail."
"And you were right, Clarette; it has failed. My dream is ended. I must have been mad to think that I am the stuff that queens are made of. And yet I tried; God knows I tried! But Rutzstin and the rest had poisoned the wells. Montenana knows me only as a feather-headed mummer who cares nothing for suffering and sorrow, and who lives only for the pleasure of the moment. They say that I had corrupted the king. And all the while I thought that he did not care--till last night. And all the time he has loved me! It might have been too late; it was all resting on the weight of a feather. And just at the right moment Florizel came. Is anything wrong, Clarette?"
"Nothing," Clarette said with a face aflame. "I thought that he--he--you know what I mean. So Prince Florizel is back again. He is well?"
"Oh, he is well enough. Those people took him by force to the mountains. But for a friend amongst them he would have died. He goes with us to-night."
Clarette nodded her fair head absently. She glanced round the table with its glittering silver, its costly appointments, to the yellow satin panels on the walls where pictures were.
"Won't it be hard to leave all this?" she asked.
"Hard!" the queen smiled. "What is this castle but a gorgeous prison? They think that I am going to play the part of Marie Antoinette. But they are mistaken. I arranged all this for tonight for my own safety's sake. At the last moment I meant to tell the king. He is so headstrong and impetuous that I did not dare to tell him what I had learnt. But Florizel returned last night at the critical moment, and I had to speak. And then it was, my dear, that I put my hand to my head and--found my spectacles. I could see my love and my happiness through them as clear as ever. But we must not forget the danger. If anything happens to any of you I shall never forgive myself."
Clarette laughed lightly as she reacted for a bon-bon.
"We shall come through all right." she said. "A plot so daring and yet so simple is bound to succeed. Has Rutzstin no suspicions?"
"I think not. He did not like the supers to be wearing the Montenana uniform. But he does not guess. Your bodyguard knew exactly what to do. At the end of the big scene in the fourth act you will detach twelve of your men, and post them by the door of the ante-room. They will stand there as if waiting for their cue. Prolong the scene as long as you can, Clarette--don't 'die' till you hear the shots fired. And take care that the patriots who are defending you from your betrayers burn plenty of powder. The more noise the better. When you give that final, defiant scream, we shall strike. Then the curtain falls and our guests go into the banqueting hall for supper and await our coming. May they possess a pretty gift of patience, my friend!"
Clarette laughed in her own lighthearted way. And yet none knew better than herself what dangers the night was holding. It seemed impossible to believe that the grim shadow of tragedy was brooding there. Here was all light and sparkle and laughter, gaiety and happiness shone on every face. Yet for the most part they knew what was coming. It was well perhaps that they were all trained in the school that could either conceal the emotions or simulate them. Rutzstin himself would have been beguiled.
The feast was over presently, a clock somewhere was proclaiming the hour of 9. Down below in the street motors and carriages were beginning to gather. The people of Rusta were assembled--cynical, suspicious, and none too loyal. There were jokes, too, not meant to be complimentary to the queen. Amongst the masses of the people the followers of Schenteim mingled. They knew nothing as yet; they were merely waiting for the signal from the castle walls somewhere about midnight. The powder was handy and the hand with the match was not far off.
But there was no sign of this in the splendid theatre attached to the castle. Already it was filled by the favoured guests; they made a brave show there under the crystal chandeliers blazing with a thousand points of flame. The lights shimmered upon diamonds and pearls, upon silks and satins and orders. Nothing more brilliant had ever been seen in the ancient capital before.
Leaning with his back to the wall, Rutzstin watched it all sourly. His restless eyes gleamed under his shaggy eyebrows. All this would be charged presently. An hour or two more and the revolution would be an accomplished fact. Nobody would have guessed that the wiry figure in the shabby uniform was a dangerous regicide. And yet that was what Rutzstin had come to. There was not a drop of pity in his heart for the rulers whom he had sworn to obey. His hand went instinctively to his sword presently as the queen came on the scene. Her brilliant beauty, the pathetic pleading in her eyes, did not touch him at all. In her he beheld the source of all the mischief. As a patriot it was his duty to sweep her aside. He would have taken her by the white throat and choked the life out of her. But not yet. That would all come presently.
But the audience knew nothing of these things. They were watching one of the finest dramatic troupes in Europe in a strong and moving play. It was flavoured with the romance of Royalty; the stage was gay with uniforms. Even the soldiers of the guard carried themselves like real troops. No detail had been overlooked. Rutzstin was just a little interested in spite of himself.
Somebody touched the old man on the shoulder. He turned to see Florizel standing by his side. Hard as Rutzstin was, he fairly started. It was as if he were face to face with a ghost. The grim suggestiveness was heightened by the deadly pallor of the prince's face. But nothing could quench his gaiety, or drive the mocking laughter from his eyes. Even now he was enjoying Rutzstin's discomfiture.
"What are these frivolities to you, general?" he asked.
Rutzstin growled something in his beard. He was feeling just a little uneasy. Could it be possible that his plans had miscarried, that treachery was afoot? But if such was the case the drama would never have continued so smoothly. At any rate, he would know all about it in a short time now. The spectacle on the stage was fast approaching its great climax. Clarette in the part of the heroine had disclosed herself; the troops of the deposed tyrant were beginning to rally around her. It was merely a question now as to who should fire the first shot.
Across the restless sea of silks and satins and jewels Rutzstin caught Schenteins eye. The latter rose and strolled as if casually in the direction of the ante-room by the side of the stage. A moment or two later and Rutzstin followed. The thing was done in the most natural way. The king, seated in the front row of chairs, appeared not to have eyes for anything but the stage.
"Five minutes more," Rutzstin whispered. "Is everything ready?"
"Down to the rockets on the ramparts," Schenteim mattered. "And everything will be in our favour. There is to be a miniature battle on the stage just now, and the noise of the rifles will drown everything that sounds like strife yonder."
"Good!" Rutzstin saw with his sour smile. "Then send for him."
He jerked his beard in the direction of the king. Along the corridor leading to the anteroom a file of soldiers stood. They had nothing to do with the army of Montenana; they were the supers waiting for their cue, the army of the mimic queen ready to rush to the assistance of their beloved mistress when the time came. Schenteim regarded them with a critical eye.
"Good stuff, these," he said. "I could do with a thousand or so of them. Here, you fellow. Go to his Majesty with General Rutzstin's profound respects, and ask the favour of a few moments in the ante-room with him. Say that the affair admits of no delay."
The lackey bowed, and departed on his errand. The king appeared to listen with a smile. He rose leisurely from his seat; at the same moment the hour of midnight sounded. Rutzstin and his confederates exchanged glances.
The time had come for their foul, premeditated murder. In the eyes of those two fanatics there was no other way. The whole theatre was ringing with Clarette's denunciation of her enemies. Queen Nita stood in the wings watching with admiration. As the king passed her she joined him.
"Oh, I am coming," she said. "I dare not leave you now."
There were half a dozen men in the ante-room besides the king and queen. They had arrived there by another door, summoned by Rutzstin. They were the leaders of the revolutionary movement. There were men of all ages, and more than one of them shifted his ground and looked down as King Fritz and his consort entered. And every one of them carried arms. The rifles looked strangely out of place with court dress and the ribands of their various orders.
"What is the meaning of this, gentlemen?" the king demanded. "We had not looked forward to receiving a deputation. Rutzstin, will you kindly explain?"
"You have forced it on us," Rutzstin began. "You and that woman yonder. We have given you the chance to prove that you were worthy of the confidence--"
A shrill cry of defiance came from the stage. It rang in the roof. The theatre echoed with the quick, snapping fire of rifles until the noise was deafening. Again the cry from the stage cut the air exultingly, and then, as if by magic, the ante-room was filled with armed men. They were the supers that Schenteim had admired so much. Obviously they had mistaken their stage directions; they had committed an error in coming here. Rutzstin sprang forward to expostulate.
"Out of this at once!" he cried. "Don't you see that the king and queen--"
"Hands up!" a stern voice cut him short. "Hands up, all of you! You are prisoners."
A splutter of rage followed. One of the deputation, more prudent than the rest, backed to the door by which the conspirators had entered. It was locked! All the time the din of the mimic battles on the stage continued.
Schenstein was the first to recover from the surprise of it. He snatched a rifle from the hand of the man nearest him and pointed it at the heart of the king. He was just the fraction of a second too late. The hoarse command rang out again, there was a sharp crackle of musketry, and the room was filled with blinding smoke. As the gray cloud sullenly lifted, the picture in all its hideousness was disclosed. The defenders had done their work only too well. Schentein lay there with the blood pouring down his face, a heap of conspirators were huddled together by the door. One or two of them stirred faintly, but that was all. Rutzstin was the only one that remained standing.
"Seize him!" the king commanded. "And see that he is safely bound."
The queen covered her face with her hands. It all seemed like some horrible dream. She had never expected her plan to be so swiftly and terribly successful as this. Bloodshed had formed no part of her programme. And yet the evil thing had been absolutely necessary--it had been forced upon her by the treachery of the conspirators.
What she wanted now was to get away from it all. If Rusta, on bended knees, came to her to-morrow and implored her to she would refuse. And the whole thing was so terribly grotesque. Even as she stood there, in the face of this hideous slaughter, she could hear Clarette's clear, mocking voice and the laughter and applause of the heedless audience. Were there any traitors amongst them, she wondered.
"This is no place for you, my wife," the king said tenderly.
"But there is nowhere else I can go," Nita protested. "Look at me! Would not my face betray me instantly. It is terrible, but I must remain."
There was no word for it after that. Clearly the glittering audience in the theatre suspected nothing. All had been done in that moment of noise and bustle on the stage. The curtain would come down presently, and the royal guests would disperse to the various reception-rooms till supper was announced. They would not expect the actors for the best part of an hour or more. And by that time--
Rutzstin stood there stolid and apparently indifferent. It was only the uneasy glitter in his eye that betrayed him.
"You murderous dog," the king said sternly, "we have to thank you for all this. It is a year since you set out designedly to poison the minds of our subjects against us. I must congratulate you upon the way in which you have done your work. I have been held up as a pleasure-seeking fool, with the one object of gratifying my desires at the expense of my people. My consort of a frivolous-minded actress who cared nothing for the man she infatuated. And yet, you Judas, she planned all this. Directly she realised that we were prisoners in our own palace, she set her wits to work to get the best of you. And though you are a cunning old fox, she has done it. A score of the blackest-hearted ruffians in Montenana lie there, and lie there justly. There may be scores of others ready to take their places, but that is a matter of indifference to us now, seeing we are not going to remain. If you were not an old man, I would strip your uniform from your back and flog you round the ramparts of the castle."
"I have done no more than my duty," Rutzstin said doggedly.
The king turned away with a gesture of disgust.
"I am wasting time in arguing with you," he said. "Take him away and lock him up in one of the cells. He will be found sooner or later and released by his friends. After to-night he can plot and scheme as much as he likes. Take him away."
Rutzstin was smuggled out, his eyes glaring malignantly. Then the orchestra burst suddenly into the national anthem of Montenana. The players trooped from the stage. With a gesture the king ordered the ante-room to be cleared.
"See that the doors are properly locked," he commanded. "This is no place for women. Oh, yes, my friends, the scheme has been a brilliant means--fatally successful. And now to carry out the rest of the programme. We will have supper presently, but it can't be here--it will be on my yacht. See that all the sentries are got out of the way. We leave in half an hour by the lower exit to the town."
The clock was striking the hour of one, and the royal guests were still waiting their supper. At the same moment a strange-looking procession started from the castle gates and made its way along the main streets to the open country. There were four carriages, the blinds of which were closely drawn, and guarded by a file of soldiers in the uniform of Montenana. At the head of the cavalcade the figure of Rutzstin proceeded on horseback. The makeup reflected every credit upon the actor who played the part of the general.
Late as it was, the streets were full of prowling bands of hillmen, followers of Schentein waiting for some vague signal that would mean bloodshed and trouble later on. One of them stepped into the middle of the road and barred the procession.
"What would you?" the sham Rutzstin asked hoarsely. "Don't you know who I am, fellow? Your master is up at the castle yonder, and you will know what is happening before long. Were not the orders of all of you to wait for the signal?"
The man dropped back again, muttering something. And so the adventurers went on their way till they had passed the outskirts of the town and the open country was reached. A dazzling beam of tight shot up from the direction of the harbour and vanished. A window of one of the carriages was pulled up with a jerk, and the king looked out.
"That was well thought of," he said. "I mean our friend Carl Rosen's idea of impersonating old Rutzstin. We might have had all our trouble for our pains else."
"Oh, the suggestion belongs to the queen," Rosen laughed as he tore away his disguise and tossed it carelessly into a bush. "She seems to have thought of everything. Was that light from the yacht?"
"It was," the king explained. "Thank God the danger is passed now!"
The yacht was pulling at her moorings; the white hull of her hummed with the roar of the engines. Presently she slipped away into the open water of the bay. It was all dark and black enough out at sea, inland the lights of Rusta twinkled in the distance. Out of the mirk there suddenly rose a long, trailing string of flame, that burst presently far overhead in a shower of violet stars.
"The signal!" the queen said in a thrilling whisper as she clung to the king's arm. "They have managed to fire the rocket. This means that everything is discovered. Though we are safe now, I tremble when I think of it all. I would not go through the anxiety of the past two months for anything the world could offer."
"You did not enjoy your throne, dearest?"
"Not from the time I first saw Rusta. I am beginning to discover that most of the pleasures in life lie in their anticipation, Fritz. And, after all, what could one expect. Mine was no more than a mummer's throne."
The king caught Nita to his heart and kissed her passionately.
"Nay, sweetheart," he whispered. "There is a throne greater than that, and we are going to spend the golden time in sharing it together. I have lost nothing; I have found everything. My throne and yours is in the heart of the other, and that glorious reign begins--to-night."
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