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Title: A Queen in Hiding Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1200021h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2014 Most recent update: Aug 2014 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of 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 of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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THERE is still a mild feeling of surprise amongst certain circles of society at what is held to be the inexplicable conduct of Charles Montagu Stuart. So far as people can see, there is not the slightest reason why he should have given up his friends and his career and his beautiful estate in Devonshire to go and live on a more or less remote island a thousand miles or so from the Californian coast. There, is, of course, no scandal, because whatever Stuart's other failings may be, he is essentially a clean-living man, with a fine athletic record, and his property is absolutely unencumbered. It is usual in such cases to quote the old time-honoured phrase, 'cherchez la femme,' and in this respect it seems to the wiseacres that they have got to the bottom of the business. For, beyond all question, Mr. Charles Montagu Stuart is a married man, and not even his most intimate friend has ever had the privilege of seeing his wife.
Of course, all sorts of things are said about Mrs. Stuart. There are people who look solemn, and hint that they might say a good deal if they liked, but that it is best to be charitable. There are others who declare that Stuart has fallen a victim to an adventuress who possesses a great fascination for him. But this theory is slightly weakened by the fact that the Stuarts never come to England, where an assured position would be opened to the mysterious lady. As a matter of fact, nobody knows anything, and if society were really aware of the personality of Mrs. Charles Montagu there would be something like a sensation in Belgravia and Mayfair. For Charles Montagu Stuart can trace his descent without a shadow of a doubt back to the 'Merrie Monarch,' and, as far as blood is concerned, he is the equal of any prince whose name figures in the Almanach de Gotha.
It is now four years since people were beginning to ask themselves how much longer the state of things in the kingdom of Asturia was going to last. In these democratic times the world has little use for a scoundrel, even though he happens to be the occupant of a throne, and King Paul of Asturia was, perhaps, the choicest specimen of a finished blackguard that Europe possessed. Everybody knows how he came to the throne, and the act of bloodthirsty treachery that placed him there. In his day, King Paul must have been both clever and fascinating, or he would never have succeeded in persuading Princess Marie of Rheinbad to share his heart and throne. In the eyes of most people, the Grand Duke of Rheinbad is a philanthropist and a man of marked piety. There are others who regard him as a puritanical scoundrel, and one of the most successful humbugs who ever lived. At any rate, though the Grand Duke is a model of piety and the second son of a great reigning sovereign, he appeared to be quite willing, not to say eager, to see his daughter seated on the throne of Asturia. There were those who cried shame upon a match like this, but diplomatic reason prevailed, and Europe for the most part looked on complacently. Sentimentalists shuddered at the idea of a match between this drunken roue and a girl as bright and fascinating as the Princess Marie. But there it was, and there was an end of it. The Press no longer contained accounts of the princess's brilliant escapades. She was supposed to have settled down under the weight of her responsibilities and become a model queen. As a matter of fact, no slave in the Roman market, no poor Circassian girl sold into the terrors of the harem had a more cruel existence than Queen Marie. For three years this dreadful life continued, and then there was something like hope at last.
The people of Asturia had quite enough of it. They were getting tired of the king they seldom saw; they were groaning under oppression and tyranny which it was almost impossible to bear. Yet nobody who had a casual acquaintance of the city of Parva would have guessed the seething discontent which was festering beneath the surface. At any rate, Charles Montagu Stuart was not troubling himself much about that. For Parva just now was the gayest of the gay. There was one continual round of festivities. The cafes were thronged with a brilliant assemblage of visitors. There was little sign of poverty or distress here. Night after night Stuart was out somewhere or another. In his opinion there were no festivities elsewhere in Europe to compare with the public dances which were such a feature in the social life of Parva. And there was another reason, too. On one or two occasions lately Stuart had met a fascinating personality at these dances, and the flirtation had gone very far indeed. He had not the remotest notion who the girl was—but, then, in the brilliant Bohemian circle in which he mixed, a trifle like this mattered nothing. For the most part, these dances took the form of the bal masque, a favourite form of amusement to the Parvians, and thus the affair had the fascination which otherwise it might not have possessed. All that Stuart knew or cared was the fact that his lady friend was young and fascinating and beautiful, and he was not the less impressed because she had refused to give him her name, and had intimated that any excess of curiosity on his part would put an abrupt end to their acquaintance.
The last big dance which Stuart attended took place in the town hall at Parva on the night of November 14, 1903. Observing people noticed a very great lack of men, and that the military were more or less conspicuous by their absence. There had been strange hints and insinuations of late, and one or two diplomatists were having an anxious time of it. But this was not worrying Charles Stuart much, except that the anxiety was reflected to a certain extent in the beautiful eyes of his companion, who was obviously quite unhappy.
She had taken off her mask for a moment or two in the interval of a dance. She leant her golden head wearily against a bank of flowers. Evidently she was not herself tonight. Stuart was tender and sympathetic. He was wearing his very best manner, but could not win a smile from his companion.
"What is troubling you to-night, cherie?" he asked. "Why are you so sad? Is there nothing that I can do for you?"
The girl looked up, her eyes filled with tears. She replaced her mask hastily as a young officer in uniform bustled up and slipped a note into her hand. He was so young that even Stuart's feeling of jealously was disarmed. He saw the note opened, and after a hasty glance torn in to a thousand fragments. The mysterious woman's manner changed now; she became alert and vigorous.
"I must go," she whispered. "I cannot stay another moment. There is danger, and I must be at my post."
"And where may that be?" Stuart asked.
"At the castle," the fair stranger replied. "You did not know, perhaps, that I am connected with the Court. You may possibly have guessed it. But there is trouble on foot to-night—trouble so serious that all Asturia may be in a blaze to-morrow. And there is only one man to blame for it."
"You are speaking of the King," Stuart murmured.
The sensitive lips below the black velvet mask hardened.
"Who else?" she asked bitterly "Not that it matters in the least; there will soon be an end of all that. It only wants one brave man to put the match to the powder, and Asturia will be free. Hark! Did you hear that? What is it?"
Stuart strained his ears to listen.
"I am not quite sure," he said slowly. "It sounded to me very much like the sound of a rifle shot."
THEY were hurrying along now through the strangely silent deserted streets in the direction of the castle—that grim fortress that frowns down upon Parva, the stronghold from which many a tyrant ruler of Asturia has cowed his subjects by a display of armed force. There was a feeling of tragedy in the air, there was something ominous in the very silence of the roads and boulevards, which as a rule at that time of night teemed with life and gaiety. The glamour of adventure was upon Stuart now; his spirits rose as he strode along by the side of his companion.
They stood at length under the shadow of the castle walls. The woman stretched out her hand and knocked twice upon a small oak doorway. A man in uniform threw back the gate and started as he saw who his summoner was. He drew himself smartly up to attention and saluted gravely. Nevertheless, his aspect was suspicious and he hesitated just a moment as Stuart followed.
"Stay here," the woman whispered. "I many want you; on the contrary, I may not. It is good to know that I have at least one honest gentleman upon whom I can depend, and if anything happens to you to-night, your blood will be upon my unhappy head."
"I am prepared to risk that," Stuart said passionately.
The woman held out her hand, and Stuart caught it to his lips. A moment later and he was alone. The fraction of a second saw the place plunged in the deepest gloom. Stuart was standing there vague and mystified, in a darkness which could be felt. It was no pleasant position, but he was not going to draw back now. That great events were being born he did not doubt for a moment. It was just possible that not far off a handful of oppressed and impatient Asturians were making history with rapid and complete success. As he stood there, his ears strained, there suddenly uprose a tremendous cry—the still air hummed to the sound of rifle shots. Out of the darkness somewhere came a body of unseen men, palpitating and growling like so many wolves who scent their prey. How he progressed and where he was going Stuart had not the least idea. He only knew that he was carried off his feet by the rush, that he was borne up a flight of narrow stairs into a long stone corridor, at the end of which a solitary light gleamed. The atmosphere was heavy and pungent now with the smell of powder; a dropping volley of rifle fire was being carried on somewhere; there were yells and shrieks and groans and a steady crackling roar as if the place were on fire, and no attempt was being made to stifle the conflagration.
Stuart was past surprise now, therefore it was no astonishment to him to note that for the most part the men around him were private citizens in evening dress. But apparently they had left the thin veneer of civilisation outside; they were like so many ravenous wolves now, and each man grasped a magazine rifle in his hand. There were scores more behind, pushing and struggling until the narrow passage was choked and gorged with this stream of infuriated humanity. Stuart drew a long breath of relief when at length he was forced through the passage into a big flagged hall beyond, where a handful of soldiers in uniform were firing indiscriminately into the advancing mob.
Stuart could hear the pinging hum of bullets, he could hear the lead pattering dully against the stone walls; he saw more than one man throw up his hands, he saw more than one of those blazed shirt-fronts trickling red and bloody. It was all so swift and fierce, all in so short a span of time, that he could not grasp it yet. He saw the floor littered in black and white, like some ghastly tesselated pavement; he saw the little group of red uniforms wave and bend as the incoming rush poured over them. Then he saw a huge apartment, almost barbaric in its splendour, wherein stood a little man with red hair and a pimpled, blotched face like that of a ferret. The man was in uniform, with an order or two blazing on his breast, and, though Stuart was not acquainted with the personality of the King of Asturia, he wanted no one to tell that here was the man himself, and that his moments were numbered.
A frenzied roar went up from a hundred throats, but the King did not flinch. Whatever his vices were, he was certainly no coward. He stood there with his back to the wall, a revolver in his hand.
"Come here!" they yelled. "Come down and take it like a man. The Queen—where is the Queen? Let us make an end of the whole brood at the same time! The Queen!"
"No, no!" others cried. "She is with us! She is with us! Whatever you do, save the Queen."
These latter cries were drowned by the calls of the majority. There was another rush, which seemed to surge right over the man with the red hair. Stuart could see a dapper boot and a portion of the red silk sock quivering convulsively on the floor; then two heels came together, and the reign of King Paul of Asturia was at an end. A silence fell over the rioters now. They lifted up their late King and laid his body on the table. Just for an instant the storm ceased, but it broke out again presently with renewed vigour. By this time the more lawless of the populace had got a grip of what had taken place; they came surging in through the great iron gates; they filled the place with their hideous clamour. And above all the angry hum of voices there was that continuous, incessant roar which proclaimed the fact that the castle was on fire. There were thousands of people now yelling for the Queen. The lust of blood was upon them; common humanity was swept to the winds.
Stuart's blood was boiling within him. He sighed for a squad of cavalry now to sweep these cowardly wretches away. And what harm had the Queen done them? There was no solitary soul there more the instrument of fate or the sport of circumstance than was Queen Marie.
But the horrors were piling up now; the fire was drawing nearer, and the heat of the place was intense.
Stuart turned to fight his way out. It was useless as well as dangerous for him to stay any longer. He wondered sadly enough what had become of his late companion in this inferno. He was realising now what he had lost. He plunged along, distracted and desperate, till he came face to face with a wall or flame. There was a corridor dark as the throat of a wolf on his left hand, and along this he turned, caring nothing what happened. It seemed to him that he could hear the sound of footsteps in front, as if his ear caught the sobbing breath of one who was in distress. Surely a woman was here? He could catch the subtle fragrance of her hair. She would have darted past him, but he stretched out a hand and detained her.
"You can't go that way," he whispered. "The castle is on fire. Do not be afraid. I have not the honour of being an Asturian myself, but perhaps that is in my favour, for I am not a murderer."
A white arm suddenly dropped round Stuart's shoulder. He felt a palpitating body quivering against his own. A faint voice called him by name; and then Stuart blessed all his gods and his guiding star, for here, surely enough, was his lady of the domino!
"Steady," he whispered. "Hold up. For God's sake, don't give way now! Tell me which way to go, for I am going to save you."
They were outside presently under the cold, cool air of heaven; they were struggling through a dense mob of people, the woman clinging to Stuart's arm and dragging her faltering legs behind her as if in the very paralysis of fear. She had a military cloak around her shoulders, and a helmet on her head. The collar of the cloak obscured her features. With all the courage and tenacity of despair, Stuart fought his way forward till the fringe of the crowd was reached. A small boy raised a shrill shout. He danced along in front of Stuart and his companion.
"The Queen!" he screamed. "Here is the Queen!"
There was no time for hesitation. Stuart reached out a long, sinewy hand, and caught the gamin by the throat. He did not relax his grip till they turned at length into a shady by-road with trees on either side. Here they walked along side by side till they came at length to where the moon was shining on the sea.
FOR three whole days Stuart had seen nothing of his companion. She had sent him a message from her cabin from time to time that she hoped to be on deck to-morrow, when she would try and thank him for all his kindness. There were no European passengers on board that particular steamer, and Stuart was proportionately grateful. All be knew was that he had promised to accompany his mysterious friend to a certain island off the Californian coast, and what was going to happen after that he did not trouble to ask himself. In his masterful way he had his own views, but there would be plenty of time for expounding them later on. Meanwhile, he had been ashore, and had come back armed with a sheaf of papers, most of which were teeming with accounts of the recent events in Parva.
Stuart sat himself down in a shady corner of the deck, with a cigarette, to read. There were columns upon columns of it, all containing more or less excellent accounts of the death of King Paul of Asturia. A Republic had been proclaimed. The Asturians had made up their minds to manage their own affairs in the future. If there was any sympathy felt for anybody, it was for the Queen. On calmer reflection, people were beginning to find that the trouble was nothing of her doing. She had done her best for the people, but, after all, she had been powerless to stem the incoming tide; she had been deliberately sold by her hypocritical old scoundrel of a father to put money in his pocket. Stuart smiled grimly as he thought what the Grand Duke of Rheinbad's feeling would be when he came to hear what a free an enlightened Press had to say about him.
There was one deeper and more abiding mystery than all the others put together. The Queen had utterly and entirely disappeared; there was no trace of her to be found anywhere. Of course, it was more than possible that she had perished in the ruins of the castle, of which nothing remained but a few charred stones, to speak vengeance for a justly outraged people. The Queen had been seen in her private apartments just before the outbreak of hostilities, then she seemed to have vanished as completely as if the earth had swallowed her up. But still it was known that scores of unfortunate and innocent persons connected with the Court had perished in the flames, and yet, remarkable to say, no trace of the Queen's jewellery could be found either. Most of these jewels were historic, and a full description of them was given in the papers.
It was nearly dinner time when Stuart was finished. There was still more to read as he sat on the deck in the moonlight. Presently there came to his side a pale, white, beautiful figure, and a hand was placed in his.
"I am glad to see you again," he murmured. "Sit down here and let us talk, but don't let your mind dwell too much upon the past. You are safe enough for the future. I have been reading all that terrible business; it is even worse than I had expected. I shall dream of it for years to come. But for the terrible fate of the Queen, I should, perhaps——"
"What of the Queen?" the tall woman asked.
"Ah, of course, you don't know—you haven't read. They murdered the King, of course. Upon my word, when I come to understand things, I can hardly blame them. But the Queen has vanished; she has not left a single trace behind. Most people seem to think that she perished in the ruins of the castle."
The woman by Stuart's side looked thoughtfully out to sea.
"She would be quite content to accept that verdict," she said. "At any rate, she is at peace now. But don't let us talk about that now; let me try and thank you for all your goodness and kindness to me. You have never made the faintest effort to find out who I am, and for that I am grateful. All I want to do now is to forget, to go away from the hated past and to live a life of peace and seclusion somewhere where I can be my own mistress and attend to my own garden. I have no money, but I have many valuable jewels which I can dispose of to bring me more than enough for my requirements. If you will see me settled, then you will add one more debt, and, above all, I ask you to keep my secret. You are a gentleman, and I know I can trust you; in fact, I know who you are and all about you. Now, what do you think of these? Do you think I could dispose of a few of them at a time without attracting suspicion?"
She drew from her pocket a shabby case or two, and threw back the lids so that the jewels sparkled like streams of fire under the soft southern moonlight. Stuart started back as if something had stung him. For a moment he did not speak; he was silent until he saw that his companion had turned her troubled eyes upon him.
"Presently," he said in a strained voice. "First let me tell you something. It is a story of an Englishman of fortune and family who deemed himself impervious to woman's beauty and woman's wiles. Of course, he meant to marry eventually, for the sake of the name and the race, but that appeared to be a remote contingency. Then that Englishman went abroad and met his fate. He met her at a masked ball which shall be nameless; he hadn't the remotest idea who she was or what was her name. He knew she was a lady, or she would not have been connected so intimately with the Court circles. But I give you my word of honour that until a moment or two ago that foolish Englishman had no idea that he was making love to a real Queen. You believe me, don't you?"
The woman faltered and hesitated. The sad, beautiful face was suffused in a crimson blush.
"Shall I tell you the truth, Charles?" she whispered. "I did know you were in love with me—I have known it all along; but I know you will forgive me. Think that from my childhood till now I never had a single soul who cared a scrap for me. When I was old enough to understand, I was deliberately sold to a hateful scoundrel to put money in my father's pocket; and when you came along, and you did not know me, and you showed me what a good man's love can be, why, then the temptation was too great, and for once I allowed myself to be human."
"You cared?" Stuart cried.
"Well, why not? Do you suppose I am different from other people? Do you suppose I would have cared what people said? But then, the hands were too strong for me. My father would have hunted me all over the universe. Now, like everybody else, he deems me to be dead; he thinks that I went down in that awful cataclysm. And now let me make a confession. I was not going to tell you anything; I was going to let events take their own way; I was going to live like other women do, for love stretched out both hands to me, and from the bottom of my heart I was proud and grateful. But I might have known that happiness and myself were destined to be strangers. I will not ask you to forgive me. I suppose you recognised the description of the jewels, and came to the conclusion that I am—well, that I am what I am."
"And thank God for that!" Stuart said in a tone that he strove in vain to render steady. "Would I have you anything else? It is the woman that I love. Our secret is our own, and if we act discreetly no one will be any the wiser. Perhaps, later on, when it pleases a benign Providence to remove your father from his sorrowing subjects, we may come back to England again. Dearest, is there another word to say?"
She stretched out her hands to his.
"Not one," she whispered; "no, not one."
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