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Title: A Son of the Immortals
Author: Tracy, Louis, 1863-1928
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Son of the Immortals" ***

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produced from images generously made available by The
Internet Archive)



 A Son
 of the Immortals

 By
 LOUIS TRACY

 Author of "The Stowaway," "The Message,"
 "The Wings of the Morning," etc.

 Illustrations by
 HOWARD CHANDLER CHRISTY

 New York
 Edward J. Clode
 Publisher



 Copyright, 1909, by
 EDWARD J. CLODE

 Entered at Stationers' Hall


 [Illustration: The sight of Alec and his fair burden brought a cheer
 from the crowd
     Frontispiece]



                     CONTENTS

 CHAPTER                                                     PAGE


    I. THE FORTUNE TELLER                                      1
   II. MONSEIGNEUR                                            22
  III. IN THE ORIENT EXPRESS                                  44
   IV. THE WHITE CITY                                         64
    V. FELIX SURMOUNTS A DIFFICULTY                           89
   VI. JOAN GOES INTO SOCIETY                                112
  VII. JOAN BECOMES THE VICTIM OF CIRCUMSTANCES              132
 VIII. SHOWING HOW THE KING KEPT HIS APPOINTMENT             154
   IX. MUTTERINGS OF STORM                                   176
    X. WHEREIN THE SHADOWS DEEPEN                            196
   XI. JOAN DECIDES                                          221
  XII. THE STORM BREAKS                                      241
 XIII. WHEREIN A REASON IS GIVEN FOR JOAN'S FLIGHT           263
  XIV. THE BROKEN TREATY                                     284
   XV. THE ENVOY                                             310



 LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS


 The sight of Alec and his fair burden brought a
         cheer from the crowd                      _Frontispiece_

                                                             PAGE

 "Gentlemen, here stands Alexis Delgrado"                     75
 Beaumanoir and Felix fortified the position                 153
 Joan laughed at Alec's masterful methods                    199
 Stampoff saluted the King in silence                        268
 In a few minutes the three were securely bound              298
 He felt the thrill that ran through her veins               306



A SON OF THE IMMORTALS



CHAPTER I

THE FORTUNE TELLER


On a day in May, not so long ago, Joan Vernon, coming out into the
sunshine from her lodging in the Place de la Sorbonne, smiled a morning
greeting to the statue of Auguste Comte, founder of Positivism. It would
have puzzled her to explain what Positivism meant, or why it should be
merely positive and not stoutly comparative or grandly superlative. As a
teacher, therefore, Comte made no appeal. She just liked the bland look
of the man, was pleased by the sleekness of his white marble. He seemed
to be a friend, a counselor, strutting worthily on a pedestal labeled
"_Ordre et Progrès_"; for Joan was an artist, not a philosopher.

Perhaps there was an underthought that she and Comte were odd fish to be
at home together in that placid backwater of the Latin Quarter. Next
door to the old-fashioned house in which she rented three rooms was a
cabaret, a mere wreck of a wineshop, apparently cast there by the
torrent of the Boule Mich, which roared a few yards away. Its luminous
sign, a foaming tankard, showed gallantly by night, but was garish by
day, since gas is akin to froth, to which the sun is pitiless. But the
cabaret had its customers, quiet folk who gathered in the evening to
gossip and drink strange beverages, whereas its nearest neighbor on the
boulevard side was an empty tenement, a despondent ghost to-day, though
once it had rivaled the flaunting tankard. Its frayed finery told of gay
sparks extinguished. A flamboyant legend declared, "Ici on chante, on
boit, on s'amuse(?)" Joan always smirked a little at that suggestive
note of interrogation, which lent a world of meaning to the
half-obliterated statement that Madame Lucette would appear "tous les
soirs dans ses chansons d'actualités."

Nodding to Léontine, the cabaret's amazingly small maid of all work, who
was always washing and never washed, Joan saw the query for the
hundredth time, and, as ever, found its answer in the blistered paint
and dust covered windows: Madame Lucette's last song of real life
pointed a moral.

Joan's bright face did not cloud on that account. Paul Verlaine, taking
the air in the Boulevard Saint Michel, had he chanced to notice the dry
husk of that Cabaret Latin, might have composed a chanson on the vanity
of dead cafés; but this sprightly girl had chosen her residence there
chiefly because it marched with her purse. Moreover, it was admirably
suited to the needs of one who for the most part gave her days to the
Louvre and her evenings to the Sorbonne.

She was rather late that morning. Lest that precious hour of white light
should be lost, she sped rapidly across the place, down the boulevard,
and along the busy Quai des Grands Augustins. On the Pont Neuf she
glanced up at another statuesque acquaintance, this time a kingly
personage on horseback. She could never quite dispel the notion that
Henri Quatre was ready to flirt with her. The roguish twinkle in his
bronze eye was very taking, and there were not many men in Paris who
could look at her in that way and win a smile in return. To be sure, it
was no new thing for a Vernon to be well disposed toward Henry of
Navarre; but that is ancient history, and our pretty Joan, blithely
unconscious, was hurrying that morning to take an active part in
redrafting the Berlin treaty.

At the corner of the bridge, where it joins the Quai du Louvre, she met
a young man. Each pretended that the meeting was accidental, though,
after the first glance, the best-natured recording angel ever
commissioned from Paradise would have refused to believe either of them.

"What a piece of luck!" cried the young man. "Are you going to the
Louvre?"

"Yes. And you?" demanded Joan, flushing prettily.

"I am killing time till the afternoon, when I play Number One for the
Wanderers. To-day's match is at Bagatelle."

She laughed. "'Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech
betrayeth thee,'" she quoted.

"I don't quite follow that, Miss Vernon."

"No? Well, I'll explain another time. I must away to my copying."

"Let me come and fix your easel. Really, I have nothing else to do."

"Worse and worse! En route, _alors_! You can watch me at work. That must
be a real pleasure to an idler."

"I am no idler," he protested.

"What? Who spoke but now of 'killing time,' 'play,' 'Number One,' and
'Bagatelle'? Really, Mr. Delgrado!"

"Oh, is that what you are driving at? But you misunderstood. Bagatelle
is near the polo ground in the Bois, and, as Number One in my team, I
shall have to hustle. Four stiff chukkers at polo are downright hard
work, Miss Vernon. By teatime I shall be a limp rag. I promised to play
nearly a month ago, and I cannot draw back now."

"Polo is a man's game, at any rate," she admitted.

"Would you care to see to-day's tie?" he asked eagerly. "We meet
Chantilly, and, if we put them out in the first round of the tournament,
with any ordinary luck we ought to run right into the semi-final."

She shook her head. "You unhappy people who have to plan and scheme how
best to waste your hours have no notion of their value. I must work
steadily from two till five. That means a sixteenth of my picture.
Divide two hundred and fifty by sixteen, and you have--dear me! I am no
good at figures."

"Fifteen francs, sixty-two and a half centimes," said he promptly.

She flashed a surprised look at him. "That is rather clever of you," she
said. "Well, fancy a poor artist sacrificing all that money in order to
watch eight men galloping after a white ball and whacking it and each
other's ponies unmercifully."

"To hit an adversary's pony is the unforgivable sin," he cried, smiling
at her, and she hastily averted her eyes, having discovered an unnerving
similarity between his smile and--Henri Quatre's!

They walked on in eloquent silence. The man was cudgeling his brains for
an excuse whereby he might carry her off in triumph to the Bois. The
girl was fighting down a new sensation that threatened her independence.
Never before had she felt tonguetied in the presence of an admirer. She
had dismissed dozens of them. She refrained now from sending this
good-looking boy packing only because it would be cruel, and Joan Vernon
could not be cruel to anyone. Nevertheless, she had to justify herself
as a free lance, and it is the rôle of a lance to attack rather than
defend.

"What do you occupy yourself with when you are not playing polo or
lounging about artists' studios?" she asked suddenly.

"Not much, I am afraid. I like shooting and hunting; but these Frenchmen
have no backbone for sport. Will you believe it, one has the greatest
difficulty in getting a good knock at polo unless there is a crowd of
ladies on the lawn?"

"Ah! I begin to see light."

"That is not the reason I asked you to come. If you honored me so
greatly you would be the first woman, my mother excepted, I have ever
driven to the club. To-day's players are mostly Americans or English. Of
course there are some first-rate French teams; but you can take it from
me that they show their real form only before the ladies."

"As in the tourneys of old?"

"Perhaps. It is the same at the châteaux. Everyone wants his best girl
to watch his prowess with the gun."

He stopped, wishing he had left the best girl out of it; but Joan was
kind hearted and did not hesitate an instant.

"So you are what is known as a gentleman of leisure and independent
means?" she said suavely.

"Something of the sort."

"I am sorry for you, Mr. Delgrado."

"I am rather sorry for myself at times," he admitted, and if Joan had
chanced to glance at him she would have seen a somewhat peculiar
expression on his face. "But why do you call me Mr. Delgrado?"

She gazed at him now in blank bewilderment--just a second too late to
see that expression. "Isn't Delgrado your name?" she asked.

"Yes, in a sense. People mostly call me Alec. Correctly speaking, Alec
isn't mother's darling for Alexis; but it goes, anyhow."

"Sometimes I think you are an American," she vowed.

"Half," he said. "My mother is an American, my father a Kosnovian--well,
just a Kosnovian."

"And pray what is that?" she cried.

"Haven't you heard of Kosnovia? It is a little Balkan State."

"Is there some mystery, then, about your name?"

"Oh, no; plain Alec."

"Am I to call you plain Alec?"

"Yes."

"But it follows that you would call me plain Joan."

"Let it go at Joan."

"Very well. Good morning, Alec."

"No, no, Miss Vernon. Don't be vexed. I really did not mean to be rude.
And you promised, you know."

"Promised what?"

"That I might help carry your traps. Please don't send me away!"

He was so contrite that Joan weakened again. "It is rather friendly to
hear one's Christian name occasionally," she declared. "I will compound
on the Alec if you will tell me why the Delgrado applies only in a
sense."

"Done--Joan," said he, greatly daring. He waited the merest fraction of
time; but she gave no sign. "My stipulation is of the slightest," he
added, "that I discourse in the Louvre. Where are you working?"

"In the Grande Galerie; on a subject that I enjoy, too. People have such
odd notions as to nice pictures. They choose them to match the
furniture. Now, this one is quite delightful to copy, and not very
difficult. But you shall see."

They entered the Louvre from the Quai.

Joan was undoubtedly flurried. Here, in very truth, was that
irrepressible Henri descended from his bronze horse and walking by her
side. That his later name happened to be Alec did not matter at all. She
knew that a spiteful Bourbon had melted down no less than two statues of
Napoleon in order to produce the fine cavalier who approved of her every
time she crossed the Pont Neuf, and it seemed as if some of the little
Corsican's dominance was allied with a touch of Béarnais swagger in the
stalwart youth whom she had met for the first time in Rudin's studio
about three weeks earlier.

They were steel and magnet at once. Delgrado had none of the
boulevardier's abounding self-conceit, or Joan would never have given
him a second look, while Joan's frank comradeship was vastly more
alluring than the skilled coquetry that left him cold. Physically, too,
they were well mated, each obviously made for the other by a
discriminating Providence. They were just beginning to discover the
fact, and this alarmed Joan.

She could not shake off the notion that he had waylaid her this morning
for a purpose wholly unconnected with the suggested visit to the polo
ground. So, tall and athletic though he was, she set such a pace up the
steps and through the lower galleries that further intimate talk became
impossible. Atalanta well knew what she was about when she ran her
suitors to death, and Meilanion showed a deep insight into human nature
when he arranged that she should loiter occasionally.

Delgrado, however, had no golden apples to drop in Joan's path, could
not even produce a conversational plum; but he was young enough to
believe in luck, and he hoped that fortune might favor him, once the
painting was in hand.

Each was so absorbed in the other that the Louvre might have been empty.
Certainly, neither of them noticed that a man crossing the Pont du
Carrousel in an open cab seemed to be vastly surprised when he saw them
hastening through the side entrance. He carried his interest to the
point of stopping the cab and following them. Young, clear skinned,
black-haired, exceedingly well dressed, with the eyes and eyelashes of
an Italian tenor, he moved with an air of distinction, and showed that
he was no stranger to the Louvre by his rapid decision that the Salle
des Moulages, with its forbidding plaster casts, was no likely resting
place for Delgrado and his pretty companion.

Making straight for the nearest stairs, he almost blundered upon Alec,
laden with Joan's easel and canvas; but this exquisite, having something
of the spy's skill, whisked into an alcove, scrutinized an old print,
and did not emerge until the chance of being recognized had passed.
After that, he was safe. He appeared to be amused, even somewhat amazed,
when he learned why Delgrado was patronizing the arts. Yet the discovery
was evidently pleasing. He caressed a neat, black mustache with a
well-manicured hand, while taking note of Joan's lithe figure and well
poised head. The long, straight vista of the gallery did not permit of a
near view, and he could not linger in the narrow doorway, used chiefly
by artists and officials, whence he watched them for a minute or more.

So he turned on his heel and descended to the street and his waiting
victoria, waving that delicate hand and smiling with the manner of one
who said, "Fancy that of Alec! The young scamp!"

Joan was copying Caravaggio's "The Fortune Teller," a masterpiece that
speaks in every tongue, to every age. Its keynote is simplicity. A
gallant of Milan, clothed in buff-colored doublet slashed with brown
velvet, a plumed cavalier hat set rakishly on his head, and a lace
ruffle caught up with a string of seed pearls round his neck, is holding
out his right palm to a Gypsy woman, while the fingers of his left hand
rest on a swordhilt. The woman is young and pretty, her subject a mere
boy, and her smug aspect of divination is happily contrasted with the
youth's excitement at hearing what fate has in store.

"There!" cried Joan. "What do you think of it?"

She had almost completed the Gypsy, and there was already a suggestion
of the high lights in the youngster's face and his brightly colored
garb.

"I like your copy more than the original," said Delgrado.

"Your visits to Rudin have not taught you much about art, then," said
she tartly.

"Not even that great master would wish me to be insincere."

"No, indeed; but he demands knowledge at the back of truth. Now, mark
me! You see that speck of white fire in the corner of the woman's eye?
It gives life, intelligence, subtle character. Just a little blob of
paint, put there two hundred years ago, yet it conveys the whole stock
in trade of the fortune teller. Countless numbers of men and women have
gazed at that picture, a multitude that must have covered the whole
range of human virtues and vices; but it has never failed to carry the
same message to every beholder. Do you think that my poor reproduction
will achieve that?"

"You have chosen the only good bit in the painting," he declared
stoutly. "Look at the boy's lips. Caravaggio must have modeled them from
a girl's. What business has a fellow with pouting red lips like them to
wear a sword on his thigh?"

Joan laughed with joyousness that was good to hear.

"Pooh! Run away and smite that ball with a long stick!" she said.

"Hum! More than the Italian could have done."

He was ridiculously in earnest. Joan colored suddenly and busied herself
with tubes of paint. She believed he was jealous of the handsome
Lombard. She began to mix some pigments on the palette. Delgrado,
already regretting an inexplicable outburst, turned from the picture and
looked at Murillo's "woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her
feet, and upon her head a diadem of twelve stars."

"Now, please help me to appreciate that and you will find me a willing
student," he murmured.

But Joan had recovered her self-possession. "Suppose we come off the
high art ladder and talk of our uninteresting selves," she said. "What
of the mystery you hinted at on the Quai? Why shouldn't I call you Mr.
Delgrado? One cannot always say 'Alec,' it's too short."

Then he reddened with confusion. "Delgrado is my name, right enough," he
said. "It is the prefix I object to. It implies that I am sailing under
false colors, and I don't like that."

"I am not good at riddles, and I suspect prefix," she cried.

"Ah, well, I suppose I must get through with it. Have you forgotten how
Rudin introduced me?"

She knitted her brows for a moment. Pretty women should cultivate the
trick, unless they fear wrinkles. It gives them the semblance of looking
in on themselves, and the habit is commendable. "Rudin is fond of his
little joke," she announced at last.

"But--what did he say?"

"Oh, there was some absurdity. He addressed me as if I were a royal
personage, and asked to be allowed to present his Serene Highness Prince
Alexis Delgrado."

The man smiled constrainedly. "It sounds rather nonsensical, doesn't
it?" he said.

"Rudin often invents titles. I have heard efforts much more amusing."

"That is when he is original. Unfortunately, in my case, he was merely
accurate."

Joan whirled round on him. "Are you a Prince?" she gasped, each word
marking a crescendo of wonder.

"Yes--Joan."

"But what am I to do? What am I to say? Must I drop on one knee and kiss
your hand?"

"I cannot help it," he growled. "And I was obliged to tell you. You
would have been angry with me if I had kept it hidden from you. Oh, dash
it all, Joan, don't laugh! That is irritating."

"My poor Alec! Why did they make you a Prince?"

"I was born that way. My father is one. Do you mean to say you have
lived in Paris a year and have never seen our names in the newspapers?
My people gad about everywhere. The Prince and Princess Michael
Delgrado, you know."

"I do not know," said Joan deliberately.

Her alert brain was slowly assimilating this truly astonishing
discovery. She did not attempt to shirk its significance, and her first
thought was to frame some excuse to abandon work for the day; since, no
matter what the cost to herself, this friendship must go no farther. The
decision caused a twinge; but she did not flinch, for Joan would always
visit the dentist rather than endure toothache. She could not dismiss a
Serene Highness merely because he declared his identity, nor was she
minded to forget his rank because she had begun to call him Alec. But it
hurt. She was conscious of a longing to be alone. If not in love, she
was near it, and hard-working artists must not love Serene Highnesses.

Delgrado was watching her with a glowering anxiety that itself carried a
warning. "You see, Joan, I had to tell you," he repeated. "People make
such a fuss about these empty honors----"

Joan caught at a straw. She hoped that a display of sarcastic humor
might rescue her. "Honors!" she broke in, and she laughed almost
shrilly, for her voice was naturally sweet and harmonious. "Is it an
honor, then, to be born a Prince?"

"If a man is worth his salt, the fact that he is regarded as a Prince
should make him princely."

"That is well said. Try and live up to it. You will find it a task,
though, to regulate your life by copybook maxims."

"The princedom is worth nothing otherwise. In its way, it is a handicap.
Most young fellows of my age have some sort of career before them, while
I--I really am what you said I was, an idler. I didn't like the taunt
from your lips; but it was true. Well, I am going to change all that. I
am tired of posturing as one of Daudet's 'Kings in Exile.' We expelled
potentates all live in Paris; that is the irony of it. I want to be
candid with you, Joan. I have seen you every day since we met at
Rudin's; but I did not dare to meet you too often lest you should send
me away. You have given me a purpose in life. You have created a sort of
hunger in me, and I refuse to be satisfied any longer with the easygoing
existence of the last few years. No, you must hear me out. No matter
what you say now, the new order of things is irrevocable. I almost
quarreled with my father last night; but I told him plainly that I meant
to make a place for myself in the world. At any rate, I refuse to live
the life he lives, and I am here to-day because the awakening is due to
you, Joan."

A tremor ran through the girl's limbs; but she faced him bravely. Though
her lips quivered, she forced herself to utter words that sounded like a
jibe. "I am to play Pallas Athene to your Perseus," she said, and it
seemed to him for a moment that she was in a mood to jest at heroics.

"If you mean that I regard you as my goddess, I am well content," he
answered quickly.

"Ah, but wait. Pallas Athene came to Perseus in a dream, and let us make
believe that we are dreaming now. She had great gray eyes, clear and
piercing, and she knew all thoughts of men's hearts and the secrets of
their souls. My eyes are not gray, Alec, nor can they pierce as hers;
but I can borrow her beautiful words, and tell you that she turns her
face from the creatures of clay. They may 'fatten at ease like sheep in
the pasture, and eat what they did not sow, like oxen in the stall. They
grow and spread, like the gourd along the ground; but, like the gourd,
they give no shade to the traveler, and when they are ripe death gathers
them, and they go down unloved into hell, and their name vanishes out of
the land.' But to the souls of fire she gives more fire, and to those
who are manful she gives a power more than man's. These are her heroes,
the sons of the Immortals. They are blest, but not as the men who live
at ease. She drives them forth 'by strange paths ... through doubt and
need and danger and battle.... Some of them are slain in the flower of
their youth, no man knows when or where, and some of them win noble
names and a fair and green old age.' Not even the goddess herself can
tell the hap that shall befall them; for each man's lot is known only to
Zeus. Have you reflected well on these things, Alec? Be sure of
yourself! There may be Gorgons to encounter, and monsters of the deep."

He came very near to her. Her eyes were glistening. For one glowing
second they looked into each other's hearts.

"And perhaps a maiden chained to a rock to be rescued," he whispered.

Then she drew herself up proudly. "Do not forget that I am Pallas
Athene," she said. "My shield of brass is an easel and my mighty spear a
mahl-stick; but--I keep to my rôle, Alec."

He longed to clasp her in his arms; but it flashed upon him with an
inspiration from topmost Olympus that, all unwittingly, she had bound
herself to his fortunes.

"Then I leave it at that," he said quietly.

This sudden air of confidence was bewildering. She had been swept off
her feet by emotion, and the very considerations she thought she had
conquered were now tugging at her heart-strings. He must not go away as
her knight errant, eager and ready to slay dragons for her sake.

"Do not misunderstand me," she faltered. "I was only quoting a passage
from one of Kingsley's Greek fairy tales that has always had a peculiar
fascination for me."

"I'll get that story and read it. But I am interfering with your work,
and here comes your friend, the Humming Bee. If he said anything funny
to me just now, I should want to strangle him. So good-by, dear Joan. I
will turn up again to-morrow and tell you how I fared in each round."

And he was gone, leaving her breathless and shaken; for well she knew
that he held her pledged to unspoken vows, that his eager confidences
would apply alike to the day's sport and his future life. With hands
that trembled she essayed a further mixing of colors; but she scarcely
realized what she was doing, until a queer, cracked voice that yet was
musical sang softly in German at her elbow:

          If the Song should chance to wander
          Forth the Minstrel too must go.

It was passing strange that crooked little Felix Poluski, ex-Nihilist,
the wildest firebrand ever driven out of Warsaw, and the only living
artist who could put on canvas the gleam of heaven that lights the
Virgin's face in the "Immaculate Conception," should justify his
nickname of Le Bourdon by humming those two lines.

"I hope you are not a prophet, Felix," said Joan with a catch in her
throat.

"No, _ma belle_, no prophet, merely an avenger, a slayer of Kings. I see
you have just routed one."

She turned and looked into the deepset eyes of the old hunchback, and
for the first time noted that they were gray and very bright and
piercing. At the same time the fancy crossed her mind that perhaps Henri
Quatre had had blue eyes, bold yet tender, like unto Alec's.

"So you too are aware that Monsieur Delgrado is a Prince?" she said,
letting her thought bubble forth at random.

"Some folk call him that, and it is the worst thing I know of him so
far. It may spoil him in time; but at present I find him a nice young
man."

Joan swung round to her picture. "If Alec had the chance of becoming a
King, he would be a very good one," she said loyally.

Poluski's wizened cheeks puckered into a grin. He glanced at the easel
and thence to the picture on the wall.

"Perfectly, my dear Joan," he said. "And, by the bones of Kosciusko, you
have chosen a proper subject, The Fortune Teller! Were you filling our
warrior with dreams of empire? Well, well, I don't know which is more
potent with monarchs, woman or dynamite. In Alec's case I fancy I should
bet on the woman. Here, for example, is one that shook Heaven, and I
have always thought that Eve was not given fair treatment, or she would
surely have twisted the serpent's tail," and, humming the refrain of
"Les Demi-Vièrges," he climbed the small platform he had erected in
front of the world famous Murillo.

Back to back, separated by little more than half the width of the
gallery, Joan and Poluski worked steadily for twenty minutes. The Pole
sang to himself incessantly, now bassooning between his thin lips the
motif of some rhapsody of Lizst's, now murmuring the words of some
catchy refrain from the latest review. Anybody else who so transgressed
the rules would have been summarily turned out by the guards; but the
men knew him, and the Grande Galerie, despite its treasures, or perhaps
because of them, is the least popular part of the Louvre. Artists haunt
it; but the Parisian, the provincial, the globe trotter, gape once in
their lives at Andrea del Sarto, Titian, Salvator Rosa, Murillo of
course, and the rest of the mighty dead, and then ask with a yawn,
"Where are the Crown Jewels?"

So the Humming Bee annoyed none by his humming; but he stopped short in
an improvised variation on the theme of Vulcan's song in "Philemon and
Baucis" when he heard a subdued but none the less poignant cry of
distress from Joan. In order to turn his head he was compelled to twist
his ungainly body, and Joan, who was standing well away from her canvas,
was aware of the movement. She too turned.

"I am going," she announced. "I cannot do anything right to-day. Just
look at that white feather!"

"Where?"

"In the boy's hat, you tease! Where else would you look?"

"In your face, _belle mignonne_," said the Pole.

It was true. Joan was not ill; but she was undeniably low spirited, and
the artist's mood has a way of expressing itself on the palette. She
laughed, with a certain sense of effort.

"I like you best when you sing, Felix. Sometimes, when you speak, you
are Infelix."

"By all means go home," he grinned. "One cannot both joke and copy a
Caravaggio."

He began to paint with feverish industry, did not look at her again, but
tossed an adieu over his humped shoulder when she hurried away. Then he
gazed reproachfully, almost vindictively, at the uplifted eyes of the
transfigured Virgin.

"Now, you!" he growled. "Vous êtes bénie entre toutes les femmes! This
affair is in your line. Why don't you help? _Saperlotte!_ The girl is
worth it."



CHAPTER II

MONSEIGNEUR


The Wanderers beat Chantilly. One minute before the close of the fourth
chukkur the score stood at four all. Both teams were playing with
desperation to avoid a decider on tired ponies, when the Wanderers'
third man extricated the ball from a tangle of prancing hoofs and
clattering sticks, and Alec Delgrado got away with it. He thought his
pony was good for one last run at top speed, that and no more. Risking
it, he sprinted across two hundred yards of green turf with the
Chantilly Number One in hot chase. His opponent was a stone lighter and
better mounted; so Alec's clear start would not save him from being
overhauled and ridden off ere he came within a reasonable striking
distance of the opposing goalposts. That was the Chantilly man's supreme
occupation,--some experts will have it that the ideal Number One should
not carry a polo stick,--and the pursuer knew his work.

A hundred, eighty, sixty, yards in front Alec saw a goal keeping centaur
waiting to intercept him. In another couple of strides a lean, eager
head would be straining alongside his own pony's girths. So he struck
hard and clean and raced on, and the goalkeeper judged the flight of the
white wooden ball correctly, and smote it back again fair and straight.

It traveled so truly that it would have passed Alec three feet from the
ground to drop almost exactly on the spot whence he had driven it. But
there was more in that last gallop along the smooth lawn than might be
realized by any one present save Alec himself. It was his farewell to
the game. From that day he would cease to be dependent on a begrudged
pittance for the upkeep of his stable, and that meant the end of his
polo playing. But he was not made of the stuff that yields before the
twelfth hour. His mallet whirled in the air, there was a crack like a
pistol shot, and the ball flew over the amazed goalkeeper's head and
between the posts.

The yelling and handclapping of the few spectators almost drowned the
umpire's whistle.

"By gad, that was a corker!" said he of Chantilly, as the ponies' wild
gallop eased to a canter.

"I hope that flourish of mine did not come too close, Beaumanoir," said
Alec.

"Don't give a tuppenny now," laughed Lord Adalbert Beaumanoir. "The
match is over, and you've won it, and if you play till Doomsday you'll
never score a better notch."

"It was lucky, a sheer fluke."

"Oh, that be jiggered for a yarn! A fellow flukes with his eyes shut.
You meant it!"

"Yes, that is right. So would you, Berty, if it was your last knock."

"Well, time's up, anyhow," said Beaumanoir, not comprehending.

They trotted off to the group of waiting grooms. Delgrado ran the
gauntlet of congratulations, for Paris likes to see Chantilly's flag
lowered, and escaped to the dressing room. He gave a letter, already
written and sealed, to an attendant, and drove away in his dogcart.
Bowling quickly along the broad Allée de Longchamps, he turned into the
Route de l'Etoile, and so to the fine avenue where all Paris takes the
summer air.

He found himself eying the parade of fashion in a curiously detached
mood. Yesterday he thought himself part and parcel of that gay throng.
To-day he was a different being. All that had gone before was merged in
"yesterday's seven thousand years."

His cob's pace did not slacken until he drew rein at the giant doorway
of a block of flats in the Rue Boissière. It was then about five
o'clock, and he meant to appear at his mother's tea table. He was far
from looking the "limp rag" of his phrase to Joan. Indeed, it might have
taxed the resources of any crack regiment in Paris that day to produce
his equal in condition. Twenty-four years old, nearly six feet in
height, lean and wiry, square wristed, broad shouldered, and straight as
a spear, he met the physical requirements, at least, of those classic
youths beloved of Joan's favorite goddess.

Usually his clean cut face, typically American in its high cheekbones,
firm chin, mobile mouth, and thoughtful eyes, wore a happy-go-lucky
expression that was the despair of matchmaking mamas; but to-day Alec
was serious. He was thinking of the promise that to the souls of fire
would be given more fire, to the manful a might more than man's.

If he had not been so preoccupied, he would certainly have heard the
raucous shouts of newsboys running frantically along the boulevards.
That is to say, he heard, but did not heed, else some shadow of a
strange destiny must have dimmed his bright dreams.

Their nature might be guessed from his words to Joan. The question he
addressed to the concièrge proved that his intent was fixed.

"Is Monseigneur at home?" he asked.

"_Oui, m'sieur._ His Excellency has mounted a little half-hour ago,"
said the man.

Alec nodded. "Now for it!" he said to himself.

His father, a born fop, a boulevardier by adoption, cultivated habits
that seemed to follow the mechanical laws of those clockwork manikins
that ingenious horologists contrive for the amusement of children, big
and little. Whether eating, sleeping, driving, strolling, chatting or
card playing, the whereabouts and occupation of Prince Michael Delgrado
could be correctly diagnosed at any given hour of the day and night.
Fortune delights at times in tormenting such men with great
opportunities. Prince Michael, standing now with his back to the
fireplace in his wife's boudoir, was fated to be an early recipient of
that boon for which so many sigh in vain.

Of course he knew nothing of that. His round, plump, rosy face, at first
sight absurdly disproportionate to his dapper and effeminate body, wore
a frown of annoyance. In fact, he had been obliged to think, and the
effort invariably distressed him. Apparently he had a big head, and big
headed men of diminutive frame usually possess brains and enjoy using
them. But closer inspection revealed that his Highness' skull resembled
an egg, with the narrow end uppermost.

Thus, according to Lavater, he was richly endowed with all the baser
qualities that pander to self, and markedly deficient in the higher
attributes of humanity. The traits of the gourmand, the cynic, the
egoist, were there; but the physiognomist would look in vain for any
sign of genius or true nobility. Recognition of his undoubted rank had,
of course, given him the grand manner. That was unavoidable, and it was
his chief asset. He liked to be addressed as "Monseigneur"; he had a
certain reputation for wit; he carried himself with the ease that marks
his caste; and he had shown excellent taste in choosing a wife.

The Princess did indeed look the great lady. Her undoubted beauty, aided
by a touch of Western piquancy, had captivated the Paris salons of an
earlier generation, and those same salons repaid their debt by
conferring the repose, the dignity, the subtle aura of distinction, that
constitute the aristocrat in outward bearing. For this reason, Princess
Delgrado was received in poverty stricken apartments where her husband
would be looked at askance, since the frayed Boulevard Saint Germain
still shelters the most exclusive circle in France.

Here, then, was an amazing instance of a one-sided heredity. Alexis
Delgrado evidently owed both mind and body to his mother. Looking at the
Princess, one saw that such a son of such a father did not become
sheerly impossible.

To-day, unhappily, neither Prince Michael nor his wife was in tune for a
family conclave. Monseigneur was ruffled, distinctly so, and Madame was
on the verge of tears.

When Alec entered the room he was aware of a sudden silence, accentuated
by a half-repressed sob from his mother. Instantly he took the blame on
his own shoulders. He expected difficulties; but he was not prepared for
a scene.

"Why, mother dear," he said, bending over her with a tenderness that
contrasted strongly with Prince Michael's affected indifference, "what
is the matter? Surely you and dad have not been worrying about me! You
can't keep me in the nest always, you know. And I only want to earn the
wherewithal to live. That is not so very terrible, is it?"

The distressed woman looked up at him with a wan smile. She seemed to
have aged since the morning. There was a pathetic weakness in her mouth
and chin that was noticeably absent from her son's strong lineaments,
and it occurred to Alec with a pang that he had never before seen his
mother so deeply moved.

"I suppose one must endure the world's changes," she murmured. "It was
foolish on my part to imagine that things could continue forever on the
same lines; but I shall not grieve, Alec, if no cloud comes between you
and me. It would break my heart----"

"Oh, come now!" he cried, simulating a lively good humor he was far from
feeling. "What has dad been saying? Clouds! Where are they? Not around
my head, at any rate. I have dispelled the only one that existed, the
silly halo of class that stops a fellow from working because he happens
to be born a Prince. It was different for dad, of course. My respected
grandfather, Ferdinand VII., was really a King, and dad was a grown man
when the pair of them were slung out of Kosnovia. Sorry, sir; but that
is the way they talk history nowadays. It has ceased to be decorous. I
am afraid Paris is largely responsible. You see, we have an Emperor in
the next block, two Kings in the Avenue Victor Hugo, and a fugitive
ex-President in the Hôtel Métropole. I have seen the whole lot, even our
noble selves, burlesqued in a Montmartre review. And I laughed! That is
the worst part of it. I roared! We looked such a funny crew. And we were
all jolly hard up, borrowing five-franc pieces from one another, and
offering to sell scepters at a ridiculous sacrifice. That came rather
near home. We haven't got what the storybooks calls an embarrassment of
riches, have we? So, a cup of tea, please, mother, and I'll hear the
Czar's edict. It is pending. I can see it in his eye."

Usually Prince Michael responded to that sort of airy nonsense. When
sure of his audience, he had spoken much more disrespectfully of the
Parisian band of Kings in exile. But to-day his chubby cheeks refused to
crease in a grin. He remained morose, oracular, heavy jowled. In fact,
he had set himself a very difficult task. Now that the moment had
arrived for its fulfilment, he shirked it.

"May I ask, Alec, if you have any scheme in view?" he said, strutting on
the hearthrug in front of a grate filled with ferns. He always stood
there,--in winter because it was warm, and he was a martyr to
chilblains; in summer because of the habit contracted in winter.

"Well, sir, candidly speaking, I have not. But I saw in a newspaper the
other day a paragraph of advice to a young man. 'No matter how small
your income may be, live within it: that is the beginning of wealth,' it
said. How profound! I applied it to myself. My income is nil. There I
encountered a serious obstacle at the very start of the Great Money
Stakes. But----"

"This is a grave discussion, Alec. I have that to say which may pain
you. Pray be serious."

"Oh, I am--quite serious. My ponies and the dogcart are in Dumont's
catalogue for the next sale. I resigned my membership of the polo club
to-day. To-morrow, or eke to-night, I look for a job. As you, mother o'
mine, have heard men say in your beloved west, I'm going to butt in."

"I--er--suppose you--er--look to me for some assistance?" coughed Prince
Michael.

His wife rose. Her face was gray-white, her eyes blazed. "Alec knows we
are poor. Why torture him--and me? I refuse to allow it. I refuse!" Her
voice took a tragic note, thin and shrill; there was a pitiful quivering
of her lips that wrung her son's heart, and he was utterly at a loss to
understand why a discussion as to his future should lead to this display
of passion.

"But, mother darling," he cried, "why are you grieving so? You and dad
must maintain a certain state,--one begins by assuming that,--and it is
no secret that the Delgrado side of the family was not blessed with
wealth. Very well. Let me try to adjust the balance--the bank balance,
eh? Really, why weep?"

Alec's gallant attempt to avert the storm failed again. His Serene
Highness muttered words in a foreign tongue that sounded anything but
serene. The Princess did not understand; but her son did. His brows
wrinkled, and the good humored gleam died out of his eyes.

"Perhaps, sir," he said stiffly, "this subject had better be discussed
when my mother is not present."

Prince Michael looked at him fixedly. For some reason the little man was
very angry, and he seemed to resent the implied slur on his good taste.

"I am determined to end this farce once and for all," he vowed. "Before
you joined us, I told the Princess----"

The door was flung open. The young man who had followed Joan and Alec
into the Louvre that morning rushed in. His pink and white face was
crimson now, and his manner that of unmeasured, almost uncontrollable
excitement. He gazed at them with a wildness that bordered on frenzy,
yet it was clear that their own marked agitation was only what he
expected to find.

"Ah, you have heard?" he snapped, biting at each syllable.

"Heard what, Julius?" demanded Monseigneur, with an instant lowering of
the princely mask, since Julius dabbled in stocks and was reputed well
to do.

"The news! The news from Kosnovia!"

Prince Michael affected to yawn. "Oh, is that all?" he asked.

"All! _Grand Dieu_, what more would you have? It means--everything."

"My good Julius, it is long since I was so disturbed. What, then, has
happened? The Danube in flood is no new thing."

"The Danube!" and the newcomer's voice cracked. "So you do not
know--sire?"

The little word seemed to have the explosive force of nitroglycerine.
Its detonation rang through the room and left them all silent, as though
their ears were stunned and their tongues paralyzed. Alec was the first
to see that some event far out of the common had reduced his cousin,
Count Julius Marulitch, almost to a state of hysteria.

"We are at cross purposes," he said quietly. "My father, like the rest
of us, read this morning's telegram about the overflowing of the
river----"

Count Marulitch waved his hands frantically. He was literally beside
himself. His full red lips, not at all unlike those of the youth in
Joan's picture, moved several times before sounds came.

"It is at least my good fortune to be the first to congratulate my
King!" he cried at last. "Be calm, I pray you; but a tremendous change
has been affected at Delgratz. Last night, while Theodore and the Queen
were at dinner, the Seventh Regiment mutinied. It was on guard at the
Schwarzburg. Officers and men acted together. There was no resistance.
It was impossible. Theodore and Helena were killed!" This man, who
appealed for calmness, was himself in a white heat of emotion.

A stifled scream, a sob, almost a groan, broke from the Princess, and
she clung to her son as though she sought protection from that
bloodthirsty Seventh Regiment. Prince Michael, fumbling with an
eyeglass, dropped it in sheer nervousness. Alec, throwing an arm round
his mother, recalled the hoarse yelling of the newsboys on the
boulevards. Was it this latest doom of a monarchy that they were bawling
so lustily? He glanced at his father, and the dapper little man found it
incumbent on him to say something.

"But, Julius--is this true? There are so many canards. You know our
proverb: 'A stone that falls in the Balkans causes an earthquake in St.
Petersburg.'"

"Oh, it is true, sire. And the telegrams declare that already you have
been proclaimed King."

"I!"

Prince Michael's exclamation was most unkingly. Rather was it the wail
of a criminal on being told that the executioner waited without. His
ruddy cheeks blanched, and his hands were outstretched as if in a
piteous plea for mercy. There was a tumult of objurgations in the outer
passage; but this King in spite of himself paid no heed.

"I?" he gasped again, with relaxed jaws.

"You, sire," cried Marulitch. "Our line is restored. There will be
fighting, of course; but what of that? One audacious week will see you
enthroned once more in the Schwarzburg. Ah! Here come Stampoff and
Beliani. You are quick on my heels, messieurs; but I promised my cabman
a double fare."

A scared manservant, vainly endeavoring to protect his master's private
apartments, was rudely thrust aside, and a fierce looking old warrior
entered, followed by a man who was obviously more of a Levantine than a
Serb. The older man, small, slight, gray haired, and swarthy, but
surprisingly active in his movements for one of his apparent age, raced
up to Prince Michael. He fell on his knees, caught that nerveless right
hand, and pressed it to his lips.

"Thank Heaven, sire, that I have been spared to see this day!" he
exclaimed.

The Greek, less demonstrative, nevertheless knelt by Stampoff's side. "I
too am your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subject," said he.

The Prince did then make a supreme effort to regain his self possession.
"Thank you, General," he murmured, "and you also, Monsieur Beliani. I
have only just been told. Theodore and Helena both dead! What a thing!
They were my enemies; but I am shocked, I may almost say grieved. And
what am I to do? I am practically powerless,--few friends, no money. One
does not merely pack a valise and go off by train to win a throne. You
say I am proclaimed King, Julius. By whom? Have the representatives met?
Is there an invitation from the people?"

Stampoff was on his feet instantly. A man of steel springs and volcanic
energy, his alertness waged constant war against his years. "The
people!" he shouted. "What of them? What do they know? There is talk of
a Republic. Think of that! Could folly go farther? A Republic in the
Balkans, with Russia growling at one door, Austria picking the lock of
another, and the Turk squatting before a third! No, Monseigneur. Start
from Paris to-night, cross the Danube, reveal yourself to your
supporters, and you will soon show these windbags that a man who means
to rule is worth a hundred demagogues who exist only to spout."

His Serene Highness was slowly but surely recovering lost ground. He
grasped the eyeglass again, and this time gouged it into its accustomed
crease.

"You, Beliani, you are not one to be carried away by emotion," he said.
"Count Marulitch spoke of a proclamation. Who issued it? Was there any
authority behind it?"

"God's bones! what better authority is there than your Majesty's?"
roared Stampoff.

But the Prince extended a protesting palm. "An excellent sentiment, my
friend; but let us hear Beliani," he said.

The Greek, thus appealed to, seemed to find some slight difficulty in
choosing the right words. "At present, everything is vague,
Monseigneur," he said. "It is certain that a battalion of the Seventh
Regiment revolted and declared for the Delgrado dynasty. Two other
battalions of the same regiment in the capital followed their lead. But
the Chamber met this morning, and there was an expression of opinion in
favor of a democratic Government. No vote was taken; but the latest
reports speak of some disorder. The approaches to the Schwarzburg are
held by troops. There are barricades in the main streets."

Prince Michael's hands went under his coattails. His face had not
regained its claret red color, and its present tint suggested that it
had been carved out of a Camembert cheese; but he was gradually taking
the measure of current events in Kosnovia.

"Barricades seem to argue decided opinions," he said, and there was a
perceptible tinge of cynicism in the phrase that jarred on his hearers.

"One must be bold at times," muttered Count Julius.

General Stampoff was chewing an end of his long mustaches in impotent
wrath, and Beliani merely shrugged.

"Of course, my father means that prudence must be allied with boldness,"
broke in Alec, who had placed his mother in a chair and was now gazing
sternly at Marulitch as if he would challenge the unspoken thought.

"Exactly, my boy. Well said! One looks before one leaps, that is it! Now
I am not so young, not so young, and I have not forgotten the pleasant
ways of Kosnovia. Theodore thought all was well; but you see what has
happened after thirty years. Just think of it. A lifetime! Why, I came
to Paris twenty-four years ago, just after you were born, Alexis, and
even then the Obrenovitch line seemed to be well established. And here
you are, a grown man, and Theodore and his Queen are lying dead in the
Black Palace. It gives one to think. Now, our good Stampoff here would
have me rush off and buy a ticket for Delgratz to-night. As if Austria
had not closed every frontier station and was not waiting to pounce on
any Delgrado who turned up at this awkward moment on the left bank of
the Danube!"

Beliani was stroking his nose; Stampoff evidently meant to shorten his
mustache by inches; and Julius Marulitch was waxen, and thereby rendered
more than ever like a clothier's model.

Alec was a dutiful son. There were elements in the composition of the
senior Delgrado that he did not admire; but he had never before
suspected his father of cowardice. His cousin Julius, whom he thoroughly
disliked, was betraying a whole world of meaning in the scorn that
leaped from his eyes, and there was no mistaking the thoughts that
inspired the furious General and the impassive Greek. For the first time
in his life, Alec despised Prince Michael. There was a quickening in his
veins, a tingling at the roots of his hair, a tension of his muscles, at
the repulsive notion that a Serene Highness might, after all, be molded
of common clay. And in that spasm of sheer agony he remembered how
Joan's sweet voice had thrilled him with the message of Pallas Athene.
Was he, indeed, one of those sons of the immortals whom the goddess
"drives forth by strange paths ... through doubt and need and danger
and battle?" Surely some such hazardous track was opening up now before
his feet! His whole nature was stirred in unknown depths. It seemed to
him that there was only one man in the room whose words had the ring of
truth and honest purpose. He strode forward and caught old Paul Stampoff
by the shoulder.

"I'll tell you what," he said, unconsciously adopting the free and easy
style of speech that came naturally to him, "you and I must carry this
thing through, General! My father is glued to Paris, you know. He has
lost some of his enthusiasm, and one must be enthusiastic to the point
of death itself if he would snatch a Kingdom out of such a fire as is
raging now in Kosnovia. Austria has never seen me, probably has never
even heard of me. I can slip through her cordon, swim ten Danubes if
need be. What say you, General? Will I fill the bill? If I fail, what
does it matter? If I win--well, we must reverse the usual order of
things, and my respected parent can step into my shoes."

"Alexis, I am proud of you----" began Prince Michael pompously; but a
sigh that was blended with a groan came again from his wife, and
Princess Delgrado drooped in a faint.

Alec lifted her in his arms and carried her to a bedroom. A queer
silence fell on the four men in the boudoir. Even his Serene Highness
was discomfited, and abandoned his position on the hearthrug to gaze
out of the window. To his displeased surprise, a small crowd had
gathered. A man was pointing to the Delgrado apartments. Another man,
carrying a bundle of newspapers, bore one of the curious small Parisian
contents bills, but its heavy black type was legible enough:
"Assassination of the King and Queen of Kosnovia! King Michael in
Paris!"

Alec, having given the Princess to the care of her maid, came back. He
found his father looking into the street, General Stampoff standing on
the hearthrug, and Count Julius whispering something in Beliani's ear.

"My mother will soon be all right," he announced cheerily. "She was a
bit upset, I suppose, by our warlike talk; but we were so excited that
we forgot she was present. Well, father, what say you to my proposal?"

Prince Michael turned. His face was no longer in the light. Perhaps that
was his notion when he first approached the window. "I think it is an
excellent one," he said. "Of course, there is a regrettable element of
risk----"

"But what are we to understand?" broke in Stampoff's gruff accents.
"These things are not to be settled as a shopkeeper appoints an agent.
Does your Highness renounce all claim to the throne of Kosnovia in favor
of your son?"

Words have a peculiar value on such occasions. The substitution of
"Highness" for "Majesty" was not devoid of significance; for Stampoff,
though loyal to the backbone, was no courtier.

"No!" cried Alec sharply.

"Yes," said Prince Michael, after a pause.

Count Julius Marulitch breathed heavily, and Constantine Beliani threw a
wary eye over Alec.

"Good!" said Stampoff. "That clears the air. I shall be ready to
accompany your Majesty by the train that leaves the Gare de l'Est at
seven-thirty P.M."

Prince Michael laughed dryly. "You see," he said. "I was sure Stampoff
would interfere with my dinner hour."

There was almost a touch of genius in the remark. Its very vacuity told
of the man's exceeding unfitness for the rôle thrust upon him by certain
desperadoes in the far off Balkans.

"We must have money," growled Stampoff with a most unflattering lack of
recognition of the elder Delgrado's humor.

"Ah!" said Prince Michael, plunging both hands into his trousers'
pockets and keeping them there.

"How much?" inquired Beliani.

"To begin with, fifty thousand francs. After that, all that can be
raised."

"It is most unfortunate, but my--er--investments have been singularly
unremunerative of late," said his Serene Highness.

"Why fifty thousand francs?" inquired Alec, half choked with wrath at
sight of his father's obvious relief when the terrifying phantom of the
Black Castle was replaced by this delectable Paris. Yet, with it all, he
was aware of a consuming desire to laugh. There was a sense of utter
farce in thus disposing of the affairs of nations in a flat in the Rue
Boissière. He recalled the exiled potentates of the music hall review,
and the bitter wit of the dramatist was now justified. It was ludicrous,
too, of Stampoff to address him as "your Majesty."

"Even Kings must give bribes occasionally," explained the impetuous
General.

"Or promise them," said Count Julius.

"Or take them," said Beliani.

"If I am to be a King, I mean to dispense with these bad habits," said
Alec. "We need our railway fares only, General. Once at Delgratz, our
fickle Kosnovia must either maintain us or shoot us. In either event, we
are provided for."

"Still, we must have sufficient funds to secure a foothold," urged
Stampoff.

"I charge myself with providing ten thousand francs," said the Greek.

Alec glanced at his watch. "Give the money to Stampoff. He may want it.
I do not," he said. "Dumont, though a horse dealer, is fairly honest. My
four ponies are worth another ten, and he will surely pay me five, cash
down. We meet at the Gare de l'Est. Who goes? You, Julius?"

"No," said the Count, "I shall follow when you have made a beginning. My
presence would hamper you now. I am too well known, and secrecy is
all-important until you are at the head of the army."

Alec turned on him with an air that would have delighted Joan, could she
have been present.

"The army!" he cried. "I know nothing of leading armies. I mean to place
myself at the head of the people."

"Nonsense, Alexis! Make for the troops. They alone can make or mar you,"
said Prince Michael.

"We shall settle those points at Delgratz," declared the brusk Stampoff.
"You will bring the money, half in gold, to the station?" he added to
Beliani.

"Yes. Gold is best. For the remainder, you will want Russian notes."

Something seemed to be troubling the august mind of Prince Michael. "By
the way, my dear Beliani," he began; but the Greek awoke into a very
panic of action.

"Pray forgive me, your Highness," he said. "If I have to raise such a
large sum before seven o'clock I cannot lose an instant."

"I shall see you off from the Gare de l'Est," cried Marulitch hurriedly,
and the two quitted the room in company. Alec went to pay a brief visit
to his mother, and Prince Michael was left alone with the rugged old
General. Then, for a few seconds, he became a man.

"You must forgive me, Paul," he said huskily. "I am not fitted for the
work. I am broken down, a trifler, a worn out old dandy. You have got
the right metal in Alexis. See to it that he does not follow my example,
but keeps unstained the family name."

"God's bones! he will do that at least," muttered Stampoff. "If you or
your father had possessed half his spirit, there would never have been
an Obrenovitch on the throne of Kosnovia! Ferdinand VII., Michael V.,
Alexis III.! By the patriarch! somehow you Delgrados have managed at
last to breed a King!"



CHAPTER III

IN THE ORIENT EXPRESS


After some haggling, Alec wrung four thousand five hundred francs out of
Dumont. Then, at five minutes past six, he jumped into a cab and was
driven to the Place de la Sorbonne.

Of course he had ascertained Joan's address easily. He made no secret of
the fact that he had seen her on her way to the Louvre nearly every day
of the twenty that had elapsed since their first meeting. His knowledge
of the route she followed advanced quickly until he found out where she
lived. He would not have dared to call on her now, if it had not been
for the tremendous thing that had happened in his life; for he was sure
he would become King of Kosnovia. The art that conceals art is good; but
the art that is unconscious of artifice is better, and never had
soothsayer arranged more effective preliminaries for astounding
prediction than sibyl Joan herself.

Paris, too, might well witness the rising of his star. What other city
stages such memorials to inspire ambition? Behind him, as his cab sped
down the Champs Elysées, rose the splendid pile of the Arch of Triumph;
in front, beyond the Place de la Concorde, the setting sun gilded a
smoke blackened fragment that marked the site of the Tuileries; while
near at hand the statue of France, grief stricken yet defiant, gazed
ever and longingly in the direction of her lost Provinces. Here, within
a short mile, stood the silent records of three Empires, founded, as
time counts, within a few years. Two were already crumbled to the dust.
The survivor, consolidated on the ruins of France, flourished beyond the
Rhine.

Perhaps, if read aright, these portents were not wholly favorable to one
about to try his luck in that imperial game. But Alec, though a good
deal of a democrat at heart, was cheered by the knowledge that so long
as the world recognizes the divine right of Kings, no monarch by descent
could lay better claim to a throne than he. And he was young, and in
love, and ready to believe that youth and love can level mountains, make
firm the morass, bridge the ocean.

He wondered how Joan would take his great news. He thought he could
guess her attitude. At first she would urge him to forget that such a
person as Joan Vernon existed. Then he would plead that she was asking
that which was not only impossible but utterly unheroic. And the minutes
were flying. He would remind her that time does not wait even for Kings,
nor would the Orient Express delay its departure by a single second to
oblige such a fledgling potentate as he.

"We must part now, my sweet," he would say. "I am going to demand my
birthright. When I am admittedly a King, I shall send for you. If you do
not answer, I shall become my own envoy. You will make a beautiful
Queen, Joan. You and I together will raise Kosnovia from the mire of
centuries."

Somewhat stilted lovemaking this; but what was a poor fellow to do who
had been taken from the Rue Boissière and plunged into empire making,
all in the course of a summer's evening?

He crossed the Pont Neuf without ever a look at Henri Quatre. That was a
pity. The sarcastic Béarnais grin might have revealed some of the
pitfalls that lay ahead. At any rate, the King of Navarre could have
given him many instances of a woman's fickleness--and fickleness was the
ugly word that leaped into Alec's puzzled brain when an ancient dame at
Joan's lodgings told him that Mademoiselle and her maid had gone away
that afternoon.

"Gone! Gone where?" he asked blankly.

"It is necessary to write," said Madame, and shut the door in his face,
since it is forbidden in the Quartier for good looking and unknown young
men to make such urgent inquiries concerning the whereabouts of discreet
young women like Mademoiselle Joan.

Léontine, still scrubbing, came to the rescue. Never had she seen any
one so distinguished as this Monsieur. _Mon Dieu!_ but it was a pity
that the belle Américaine should have packed her boxes that very day!
And diminutive Léontine was romantic to the tips of her stubby fingers.

"M'sieu'? wishes to know where he will find the young lady who lives
there?" said she archly, jerking her head and a broom handle toward the
neighboring house.

"But yes, my pretty one," cried Alec.

"Well, Pauline said--Pauline is her domestic, see you--said they were
going to the forest to paint."

"To Fontainebleau?"

"Perhaps, m'sieu'--to the forest, that was it."

"No name? Barbizon?"

"It might be. I have no head for those big words, m'sieu'."

Alec gave her a five-franc piece. It was the first coin he found in his
pocket, and the sight of it caused a frown. Confound those Montmartre
playwrights! Why was their stupid travesty constantly recurring to his
mind? He frowned again, this time at Auguste Comte's smugness, and
looked at his watch. Twenty-five minutes to seven! It was too late now
to do other than write--if he succeeded. If not--ah, well! "Some of them
are slain in the flower of their youth." At least, she would remember,
and those glorious eyes of hers would glisten with tears, and the belief
helped to console him. Still, he was saddened, disappointed, almost
dulled. Doubt came darkly with the dispelling of the dream that he might
commence his Odyssey with Joan's first and farewell kiss on his lips.
Love and ambition seemed to be at variance; but love had flown, whereas
ambition remained.

Back, then, to the Rue Boissière, to an uproar of visitors, sightseers,
journalists. Prince Michael had become Monseigneur again. He was holding
a reception. Alec, pressing through the throng, was waylaid by a
servant.

"This way, monsieur," whispered the man, drawing him into a passage and
thence to the room of Princess Delgrado. Alec was soothing his mother's
grief when his father entered secretly on tiptoe with the hushed voice
and stealthy air of a conspirator. He carried a parcel, long and narrow,
wrapped in brown paper.

"I have been consumed with anxiety," said he. "Julius came and warned me
that your departure from Paris ought to be incognito. This is wise; so I
remain King-elect till you reach Delgratz. The newspapers are pestering
me to declare a program. They all expect that I shall leave Paris
to-night or early to-morrow. Indeed, an impudent fellow representing
'_Le Soir_' says that if I don't bestir myself I shall be christened the
Sluggard King. But I shall humbug them finely. Leave that to me. Your
portmanteaus have been smuggled out by way of the servants' quarters,
and you must vanish unseen. Buy a ticket for Vienna, ignore Stampoff
during the journey, accept my blessing, and take this." He held out the
parcel.

"What is it?" inquired Alec.

"My father's sword, your grandfather's sword. I have kept it bright for
you."

Alec squirmed. He knew the weapon, a curved simitar inlaid with gold,
and reposing in a scabbard of gilt metal and purple velvet. In its
wrapping of brown paper and twine it suspiciously resembled a child's
toy, and Prince Michael's grandiloquent manner added a touch of
buffoonery to a farewell scene made poignant by a woman's tears.

"I shall use it only on the skulls of eminent personages," said Alec
gravely. In truth, this Parisian kingship was rapidly becoming farcical.
What a line, what a situation, for that review!

But there was worse to come. Checked in his outburst of family pride,
Monseigneur became practical. "What of Dumont?" said he.

"He was touched; but he knocked off five hundred francs."

"Ah, bah! I rather hoped--well, I must return to the salon and play my
part. Remember, you will see no one except a servant at the Gare de
l'Est. Julius has arranged passports, everything."

"He is taking an extraordinary interest in me. Of course, if I pull
through, he becomes heir presumptive."

"Parbleu! That is so. But--you will marry. Bide your time, though.
Choose a Queen who--" his shifty eyes fell on the trembling form of his
wife, who had remained strangely silent during this somewhat strained
interview,--"who will be as good a wife to you as your mother has been
to me. Farewell! may God guard you!"

Twice in one day had the pompous little man been betrayed into an avowal
of honest sentiment. But he soon recovered. Once reëstablished on the
hearthrug, with his eyeglass properly adjusted, his hands tucked under
his coattails when they were not emphasizing some well turned phrase,
Prince Michael enjoyed himself hugely.

And then Alec clasped his mother in his arms. She was almost incoherent
with terror. Bid him remain she dare not; she lacked the force of
character that such a step demanded. She had given too many years to
this chimera of royalty now suddenly grown into a monster to be sated
only by the sacrifice of her son! But she mourned as if he was already
dead, and a lump rose in Alec's throat. He had always loved his mother;
his father had ever been remote, a dignified trifler, a poser. The three
held nothing in common. It could hardly be doubted that every good
quality of mind and body the boy possessed was a debt to the
brokenhearted woman now clinging to him in a very frenzy of lamentation.
Small wonder if his eyes were misty and his voice choked. Ah! if Joan
but knew of this sorrowing mother's plight, surely she would come to
her!

At last he tore himself away. Grasping that ridiculous parcel, he
hurriedly descended a back staircase. Owing to the paternal watchfulness
that the French Government exercises over its subjects, he was obliged
to pass the concièrge; but none paid heed to him. If it came to that,
all Paris would guffaw at the notion of dear Alec becoming a filibuster.

He hailed a passing cab. If he would catch his train, they must drive
furiously, which is nothing new in Paris. Climbing the Rue La Fayette,
he passed Count Julius Marulitch and Constantine Beliani coming the
other way in an open victoria. They were so deeply engaged in
conversation that they did not see him. Julius was talking and the Greek
listening. It flashed into Alec's mind that the presence in Paris of the
Greek on the very day of the Delgratz regicide offered a most remarkable
coincidence. Beliani was no stranger to him, since he and General
Stampoff, the one as Finance Minister and the other as Commander in
Chief, were exiled from Kosnovia after an abortive revolution ten years
ago.

But Beliani usually lived in Vienna, indeed, he was sometimes regarded
as an active agent in Austria's steady advance on Salonica,--whereas
dear old Paul Stampoff hated Austria, was a frequent visitor to the
Delgrado receptions, and it was largely to his constant urging and
tuition that Alec owed his familiarity with the Slav language. The
Greek, it was evident, heard of the murders at the earliest possible
moment; Julius too was singularly well informed, though his interest in
Kosnovian affairs had long seemed dormant; even the fiery Stampoff was
no laggard once the news was bruited. Alec went so far as to fix the
exact time at which Julius appeared in the Rue Boissière. He knew
something of the ways of newspapers, and was well aware that no private
person could hope to obtain such important intelligence before the
press. He himself had unwittingly heard the first public announcement of
the tragedy, and the three men had certainly lost no time in hurrying to
greet their new sovereign.

What a madly inconsequent jumble it all was! Little more than two hours
ago he was driving through the Bois with no other notion in his brain
than to seek a means of earning a livelihood; yet here he was at the
Gare de l'Est carrying a sword as a symbol of kingship. A sword, wrapped
in brown paper, tied with string! Suppose, by some lucky chance, Joan
met him now, would she sympathize, or laugh?

He found his father's valet waiting with his luggage near the ticket
office. The man gave him an envelop. It contained a passport, viséd by
the Turkish Embassy, and a few scribbled words:

     Note the name. It is the nearest to your initials B. could procure.
     I shall come to you on the train. Destroy this. S.

The name was that on the passport, "Alexandre George Delyanni;
nationality, Greek; business, carpet merchant; destination,
Constantinople."

Alec smiled. The humor of it was steeling him against the canker of
Joan's untimely disappearance. "I don't look much like a Greek," he said
to himself; "but the 'Alexandre' sounds well as an omen. I'm not so
sorry now. This business would tickle Joan to death."

So, on the whole, it was a resigned if not light-hearted adventurer who
disposed himself and his belongings in the Orient Express, after
experiencing the singular good luck of securing a section in the
sleeping car returned by a Viennese banker at the last moment. He went
about the business of buying his ticket and passing the barrier with a
careless ease that would have excited the envy of a Russian Terrorist.
Sharp eyes attend the departure of every international train from Paris;
but never a spy gave more than casual scrutiny to this broad shouldered
youth strolling down the platform, the latest passenger to arrive, and
the least flurried.

He neither saw nor looked for Stampoff. Having a minute to spare, he
obtained a newspaper, took a seat voucher for the first dinner, lighted
a cigarette, entered his reserved compartment, arranged his luggage, and
burnt General Stampoff's scrawl just as the train moved out of the
station.

Then he read an account of the Delgratz crime,--for it was only a crime,
a brutal and callous murder, not worthy to be dignified by the mantle of
political hate. The unhappy King and Queen of Kosnovia were dining in
company with the Queen's brother and the Minister of Ways and
Communications when the regiment on duty in the palace burst in on them.
King Theodore was shot down while endeavoring to protect the Queen. She
too fell riddled with bullets, and both corpses were flung into a
courtyard. The unhappy guests were wounded, and still remained prisoners
in the hands of the regicides, who vaunted that they had "saved" the
country, and meant to restore the ancient sovereignty.

Beliani's summary of subsequent events was accurate; but it struck Alec
at once that he had said nothing of the minister nor of Sergius
Vottisch, Queen Helena's brother, who was mainly instrumental in
defeating Beliani's half-forgotten revolt. Did he know of their
presence? How peculiar that he should utter no word of triumph
concerning Vottisch!

Alec threw aside the paper. He was sick at heart. He loathed the thought
that the first step toward his throne lay across the body of a woman.

"Nice guards, the noble Seventh Regiment!" he muttered. "Now, when I am
King----"

Then he realized that during the few minutes that had elapsed since the
train started, the whole aspect of the adventure had changed completely.
It was no longer a snatch of opera bouffe, a fantastic conceit
engendered in the brain of that elderly beau whom he had left in the Rue
Boissière, a bit of stage trifling happily typified by the property
sword. It had become real, grim, menacing. It reeked of blood. Its first
battle was there, recorded in the newspaper. He pictured those brutal
soldiers mauling the warm bodies, thrusting them through an open window
and proclaiming their loyalty--to him!

The train was rushing through an estate noted for its game, and he had
been one of a party of guns in its coverts last October. He remembered
shooting a pheasant of glorious plumage, and saying: "Ah! What a pity! I
ought to have spared him, if only on account of his coat of many
colors."

"When birds are flying fast, even you, Alec, have to shoot _passim_,"
said a witty Hebrew, and Delgrado did not appreciate the _mot_ until
some one told him that _passeem_ in Hebrew meant "patchwork," and that
Jacob's offense to Joseph's brethren lay in the gift of a Prince's robe
to his favorite son.

The quip came to mind now with sinister significance; he wished most
heartily he had missed that pheasant. It was quite a relief when dinner
was announced, and he made his way to the dining car, where a polyglot
gathering showed that although the Orient Express had not quitted Paris
fifteen minutes it had already crossed many frontiers. There were few
French or English on board, and not one American. A couple of Turks, a
Bulgarian, a sprinkling of Russians and Levantines, and a crowd of
Teutons, either German or Austrian, made up the company. Stampoff
remained invisible, and Alec shared a table with an Armenian, who
insisted on speaking execrable English, though he understood French far
better.

Then this newest of all Kings felt very lonely, and he began to
understand something of the isolation that would surround him in that
Black Castle of his daydream, where, if all went well with him, he
alone would be the "foreigner." A longing for companionship came upon
him. He wanted some one who would laugh and talk airy nonsense, some one
whose mind would not be running everlastingly in the political groove,
and an irresistible impulse urged him to ask for a telegraph form and
write:

     BEAUMANOIR, Villa Turquoise, Chantilly.
          Come and join in the revel. ALEC.

He gave the message to an attendant, bidding him despatch it from
Chalons. He reasoned that Beaumanoir would be puzzled, would call at the
Rue Boissière, see his father, and solve the mystery. In all likelihood,
Lord Adalbert, who cheerfully answered to the obvious nickname--would
accept the invitation, and by the time he reached Delgratz the
succession to the throne of Kosnovia would be in a fair way toward
settlement. Moreover, by depriving the Chantilly team of their crack
Number One, Alec would equalize matters for the Wanderers, and the love
of sport is ever the ruling passion in healthy and vigorous youth.

"By gad!" he said to himself, "I'm showing craft already. That is a
Machiavellian wire!"

It was, as it happened, a stroke worthy of the wily Florentine himself;
but neither he nor his latest pupil could possibly have estimated its
true bearing on events.

After dinner Stampoff found him. Delgrado was astounded at first.
Stampoff, shorn of his immense mustache, ceased to be a General. In
fact, the wizened, keen faced old man bore a striking resemblance to a
certain famous actor of the Comédie Française; but he was not seated in
Alec's compartment ten seconds with the door closed ere he showed that
the loss of his warrior aspect had in no way tamed his heart.

"Yes," he said, passing a lean hand over his blue-black upper lip, "it
was necessary to disguise myself. Ten years are not so long, and I am
known on the Danube. You see, we must get through to Delgratz and the
Schwarzburg. Once there, with three thousand bayonets behind us, we can
do things. Leave the fighting to me, your----"

He stopped, and glanced at a fat Turk lumbering along the corridor.

"Exactly, my dear old friend," said Alec. "Drop titles, please, until we
have a right to use them. Even then they can be left to gentlemen ushers
and court chamberlains. Alec and Paul sound better, anyhow. But you were
outlining a scheme. I go with you as far as Delgratz; but those bayonets
in the Schwarzburg will not be behind me, I hope. Some of them may come
within measurable distance of my manly chest; but even that is
improbable, for I have always noticed that vulgar assassins are
cowards."

Stampoff's bushy eyebrows had been spared, and they formed a hairy seam
now straight across eyes and nose. "You forget, perhaps you do not
know, that these men alone have actually declared for you--for a
Delgrado," he growled.

"And a pretty gang of cutthroats they must be! I read the details after
leaving Paris. That poor woman, Paul! She was pretty and vivacious, I
have been told. Just picture the scene in the dining hall. One woman,
three unarmed men, the King leaping up and endeavoring to shield
her--and the gallant Seventh firing volleys at them. Then, when the last
sob is uttered, the last groan stilled, husband and wife are pitched to
the dogs. Oh, it makes my blood boil! By the Lord! when I am King I
shall hang the whole crew!"

He spoke very quietly. Any one looking through the window in the upper
half of the door would have seen a young man seemingly telling an older
one something of ordinary import. But the words were crisp and hot. They
came like drops of molten steel from the furnace of his heart.

Stampoff's thin face grew swarthier. He bent forward, his hands on his
knees. "Will you tell me why you are going to Delgratz?" he asked with a
curious huskiness in his voice.

"To occupy a throne--or a tomb. In either event, I am only copying the
example of the vast majority of my revered ancestors."

"The throne is yours by right. Theodore has fallen almost precisely as
your grandfather fell. Ferdinand was shot, and escaped with his life
only because there was a struggle and a few faithful followers carried
him into safety."

"If I depended on the fealty of the Seventh Regiment, I should not
expect to find even the faithful few. Poor Theodore may have looked for
them; but they did not exist."

"Then we had better leave the train at Chalons and return to Paris."

"Certainly, if the butchers of the Schwarzburg are to form my cohort."

"God's bones! never have I been so mistaken in a man! Your father,
now,--one feared he might have lost his nerve,--but you, Alec! The devil
take it! I thought better of you. I suppose then, it will have to be
Marulitch."

"Julius! Is he a candidate--or a rival?"

Stampoff paused, irresolute. He was deeply troubled, and his fierce eyes
searched Delgrado's face. "I had real hope of you," he muttered. "You
would appeal to the women, and they are ever half the battle. Why are
you so squeamish? You needn't embrace the men of the Seventh. You can
use them, and kick them aside. That is the fate of ladders that lead to
thrones. I know it. I am old enough not to care."

"I am not thinking of ladders as yet, Paul. Sufficient for the day is
the foundation thereof, and I refuse to build my Kingdom on the broken
vows of traitors."

"Ha! Stupid words! The ravings of cheap philosophers! By your own
showing, I am a traitor."

"Yes, but an honest one. You fought fairly and were beaten. Were it
otherwise, Theodore would never have tried so often to tempt you to his
service."

The General flung himself back in the carriage and folded his arms. The
steel spring was relaxed. He was baffled, and the weariness of life had
suddenly enveloped him in its chilling fog. "Very well, then. We descend
at Chalons," he said, with a sigh that was a tribute to adverse fate.

"Having paid for your ticket, you may as well come on to Vienna," said
Alec with irritating composure.

"Curse Vienna! Why should I take that long journey for nothing?"

"To oblige me."

"You'll drive me crazy. How will it oblige you?"

"Because I am going to Delgratz, General, and there is a whole lot of
things I want to ask you."

Stampoff bounced up again. "Will you be so kind as to explain what you
mean?" he cried indignantly.

"Oh, yes. We are going to talk far into the night, and it is only fair
that you should know my intentions. Otherwise, the valuable counsel you
will give me might be misdirected, as it is, for instance, at the
present moment, when you are heatedly advising me to throw in my lot
with a set of rascals who, when I fail to satisfy their demands, would
turn and rend me just as they have rended Theodore. Be sure that their
object was selfish, Stampoff. Not one of these men has ever seen Prince
Michael or myself. Even their leaders must have been mere boys when
Ferdinand VII. was attacked--probably by their fathers. Well, I shall
have none of them. They and their like are the curse of Kosnovia. Who
will pay taxes to keep me in the state that becomes a King? Not they.
Who will benefit by good government and honest administration of the
laws? Assuredly not they, for they batten on corruption; they are the
maggots not the bees of industry. Over whom, then, shall I reign?

"I am young, Paul; but I have read and thought,--not very deeply,
perhaps, but I have looked at things in that strong, clear light of
Paris, which is heady at times, like its good wine, but which enables
men to view art and politics and social needs in their nakedness. And I
am half an American, too, which accounts for certain elements in my
composition that detract from French ideals. A Frenchman cannot
understand, Paul, why some of my excellent kith and kin across the
Atlantic should condemn studies of the nude. But somehow I have a
glimmering sense of the moral purpose that teaches us to avoid that
which is not wholly decent. So I am a blend of French realism and
American level headedness, and both sides of my nature warn me that a
King should trust his people. Sometimes the people are slow to learn
that vital fact. Well, they must be taught, and the first lesson in a
State like Kosnovia might well be given by trying those felons of the
Schwarzburg before a duly constituted court of law."

"Fine talk, Alec. Fine talk! You do not know our Serbs," yet Stampoff
was moved, and his Slavonic sympathies were touched.

"Well, 'A King should die standing,' said one poor monarch, who thought
he did know Frenchmen. I ask only for a few hours in my boots once I
reach Delgratz. I shall say things that will not be forgotten for a day
or two. Come, now, my old war-horse, join me in this new campaign! It
may well prove your last as it is my first; but we shall fall honorably,
you and I."

There were tears in Stampoff's eyes when Alec made an end. "Perhaps you
are right," he said. "I have always given my mind to the military
element. It seemed to me that the common folk require to be driven, not
led, into the path they should tread. I am growing old, Alec; yours is a
new creed to me. I never thought to hear it from a Delgrado, and it will
make a rare stir in more places than Kosnovia; but by Heaven it is worth
a trial!"

So Alec had won a convert, and that is the first essential of a
reformer. Long and earnestly did they discuss the men and manners of
Kosnovia and its chief city, and ever the Danube drew nearer; but not a
word did Alec say of his telegram to Beaumanoir until a man met him in
the Western Station at Vienna, wrung his hand, and rushed away again
with the words:

"Beaumanoir leaves Paris to-night. He understands. So do I. Good luck,
old chap! If you have to hit, hit hard and quickly."

Stampoff did not speak English. He was greatly distressed that Alec
should have been recognized the instant he alighted from the train,
though Paris was then twenty-two hours distant. "Who is that?" he asked
anxiously.

"A friend from the British Embassy."

"From an Embassy! Then we are lost."

"It seemed to me that I was found, rather."

"But if the Embassies know----"

"They are invariably the worst informed centers in any country. The
facts of which they profess total ignorance would fill many interesting
volumes. Have no fear, General. I said 'a friend.' He gave me a pleasant
message."

"Ah, from a woman, of course?"

"No. But----"

Delgrado wheeled round to face a tall burly man standing stiffly at his
side as though awaiting orders. Stampoff, who had been following the
vanishing figure of Beaumanoir's emissary with suspicious eyes, turned
and looked at the newcomer.

"Oh, that is Bosko," he said, "my servant--yours, too, for that matter.
You can trust Bosko with your life. Can't he, you dog?"

"_Oui, m'sieur!_" said Bosko.



CHAPTER IV

THE WHITE CITY


Alec was sound asleep when the Orient Express rumbled over the Danube
for the last time during its slow run to the Near East. He was aroused
by an official examining passports, which he was informed would be
restored in the railway station at Delgratz. He disliked the implied
subterfuge; but it could not be helped. Austria, gracious to travelers
within her bounds, excepts those who mean to cross her southeastern
frontier. There she frowns and inquires. If it was known that a Delgrado
was in the train, he would have been stopped for days, pestered by
officialdom; and possibly deported.

A curious element of safety was, however, revealed by newspapers
purchased at Budapest. The various factions in Delgratz had declared a
truce. The Delgrado partizans had telegraphed an invitation to Prince
Michael to come and occupy the throne, and the Prince, or some wiser
person, had sent a gracious reply stating that his matured decision
would reach Kosnovia in due course. The National Assembly was still
coquetting with the republican idea; but, in the same breath, avowed its
patriotic impartiality. In a word, Delgratz wanted peace. Toward that
end, the Seventh Regiment continued to occupy the Black Castle, the
remainder of the troops stood fast, and the citizens pulled down their
barricades.

Oddly enough, the Paris correspondent of "The Budapest Gazette" pointed
out that Prince Michael's son was playing polo in the Bois during the
afternoon of Tuesday. The journalist little dreamed that Alec was
reading his sarcastic comments on the Delgrado lack of initiative at
Budapest at midnight on Wednesday.

The train was about to cross the River Tave (Delgratz stands on the
junction of that stream and the Danube) when Stampoff appeared. The
Albanian servant accompanied him.

"Leave everything to Bosko," said the General. "We must display no
haste, and he will smooth the way through the customs."

"I suppose you don't want me to ask any questions?" laughed Alec.

"Better not. Do you still adhere to your program of last night?"

"Absolutely."

Stampoff took off his hat, pointed through the window, and said quietly,
"There, then, God willing, is your Majesty's future capital. I wish to
congratulate your Majesty on your first sight of it."

Beyond a level stretch of meadowland rose the spires and domes and
minarets of a white city. The sun, not long risen, gilded its graceful
contours and threw the rest of a wondrous picture into shadow so sharp
that the whole exquisite vista might have been an intaglio cut in the
sapphire of the sky. The Danube, a broad streak of silver, blended with
the blue Tave to frame a glimpse of fairyland. For one thrilling moment
Alec forgot its bloodstained history and looked only on the fair domain
spread before his eyes. Then the black girders and crude latticework of
a bridge shut out the entrancing spectacle, and he was conscious that
Stampoff had caught his hand and was pressing it to his lips.

The gallant old Serb meant well, for he was a patriot to the core; but
his impulsive action grated. Perhaps it was better so. Alec, bred in a
society that treated such demonstrations with scant respect, was
suddenly recalled to earth, and the business that lay before him seemed
to be more in keeping with the modern directness of the railway bridge
than with daydreams founded on a picturesque vision of Delgratz.

The city, too, lost its glamour when seen from those backdoor suburbs
that every railway in every land appears to regard as the only natural
avenue of approach to busy communities. The line turned sharply along
the right bank of the Tave and ran past tobacco factories, breweries,
powder mills, scattered hovels, and unkempt streets. Here was no sun,
but plenty of bare whitewash. Even Alec, accustomed to the singularly
ugly etchings of Paris viewed from its chief railways, was completely
disillusioned by these drab adumbrations of commerce and squalor. The
Tave was no longer blue, but dull brown with the mud of recent rain. Not
even the inhabitants were attractive. They were not garbed as Serbs, but
wore ungainly costumes that might have passed unnoticed in the Bowery.
He was irresistibly reminded of the stage, with its sharp contrasts
between the two sides of the footlights, and in the luggage net near his
head reposed that melodramatic sword, still wrapped in brown paper.

The train slowed, and Stampoff went into the corridor. He came back
instantly. "The station is guarded by troops," he muttered. "Some of the
officers may recognize me. Perhaps we ought to separate."

"No, no," said Alec. "Let us stick to the other passengers. I am the
real stranger here, and they can look at me as much as they like."

It was, indeed, easy to concede that Alexis III. was a man apart from
his people. Swarthy old Stampoff, Prince Michael Delgrado, the pink and
white Julius Marulitch, even the olive skinned, oval faced Beliani,
might have mingled with the throng on the platform and found each his
racial kith and kin; not so Alec. His stature, his carriage, his fair
complexion tanned brown with an open air life, picked him out among
these Balkan folk almost as distinctly as a Polar bear would show among
the denizens of an Indian jungle. Moreover, every man of importance
wore some sort of uniform, whereas Alec was quietly dressed in tweeds.

Thus, he drew many eyes, and evoked many a whispered comment; but never
a man or woman in that crowded terminus harbored the remotest notion
that he was a Delgrado. There were guesses in plenty, wherein he ranged
from an English newspaper correspondent to a Greek Prince, the latter
wild theory originating in the discovery of his name on the passport.
Stampoff was ignored, and all went well till Bosko, laden with
portmanteaus, led the way to the exit.

Alec, swayed by a desire to please his father, carried under his arm the
sword of Ferdinand VII. The customs officials at the barrier allowed the
party to pass; but a shrewd visaged officer standing just outside eyed
Alec's package.

"What have you there?" he asked, probably more anxious to exchange a
word with this distinguished looking stranger than really inquisitive.

"A sword," said Alec.

"And why are you carrying a sword?" said the other, who seemed hardly to
expect this prompt reply in the vernacular.

"It is a curiosity, a veritable antique."

"Ha! I must see it."

"Come with me to Monsieur Nesimir's house and I will show it to you."

The suspicious one became apologetic, since Monsieur Nesimir was
President of the National Assembly.

"I pray your pardon," he said. "Any friend of the President passes
unchallenged. But these are troublous times in Kosnovia, so you
understand----"

"Exactly. Brains are far more useful than swords in Delgratz to-day, and
this, at the best, is but a gilded toy."

Stampoff was already inside a closed carriage, and Bosko was holding the
door open for Alec, who gave the driver clear instructions before he
entered. The vehicle rattled off, and Stampoff swore bluntly.

"Gods! I thought there would be a row," he growled. "That fellow is
Captain Drakovitch, I remember him well; he is all nose."

"I shall appoint him sanitary inspector," said Alec, sniffing.

Stampoff laughed. Now that they were fairly committed to Alec's scheme,
he was in excellent spirits. "By the patriarch! you certainly believe in
yourself, and I am beginning to believe in you!" he vowed.

But his faith was rudely shaken when Alec insisted on sending his own
card to Nesimir. "That is a mad thing," he protested. "He will refuse to
receive you and hand you over to the guard."

"On the contrary, he will hasten to meet us. Curiosity is the most
potent of human attributes. Even Presidents yield to it. At this moment,
in all likelihood, he is struggling into a frock coat."

Alec was right. A portly person, wearing, indeed, a frock coat, a sash,
and peg top trousers, appeared in the doorway of the presidential
mansion. He also wore an expression of deep amazement. He glanced from
the tall smiling youth to the diminutive General, on whom his eyes dwelt
searchingly.

"Yes," said Stampoff abruptly, speaking in French, "I am Paul Stampoff,
shorn of his fleece. This is the King," and he nodded to Alec.

"The King!"

"Alexis III., grandson of Ferdinand VII., and son of Michael V."

Nesimir hastily ordered a servant to close the outer door. As it
happened, the President's military guard was stationed at a gate on the
other side of the main courtyard, and no one could be aware of the
visitor's identity, except the man who had taken Alec's card, while he,
probably, was unable to read Roman script.

"Your Excellency will doubtless permit our baggage to be placed in the
hall?" said Alec, using the most musical of all the Slavonic tongues
with fluency.

The President, in that state of trepidation best described by the homely
phrase, "You could have knocked him down with a feather," seemed to
collapse utterly when he heard the stranger talking like a native.

"Certainly, your--certainly. I don't understand, of course; but I shall
give directions..." he stuttered. "You have come by train,
from--er--from the west? You have not breakfasted? A cup of chocolate?
Ah, yes, a cup of chocolate. Then we can discuss matters. The Assembly
meets at ten, and I am very busy; but I can give you half an hour,
Monsieur----" he looked at the card in his hand,--"Monsieur----"

Then he gave it up. He simply dared not pronounce the name; so, with
hospitable flourish, he ushered the two up a broad staircase and into a
room.

While climbing the stairs he recovered sufficiently to tell the
doorkeeper that the gentlemen's portmanteaus were to be brought within
and no one admitted without specific permission. Once in the room he
closed the door, stood with his back to it, and gasped at Stampoff with
one word:

"Now!"

"As soon as you like. I am famished. I ate but little en route, because
I detest German cooking," said Stampoff, on whom Alec's methods were
taking effect.

"But----"

"Ah, you wonder why his Majesty should appear without ceremony? Well, he
quitted Paris on Tuesday night, an hour after Prince Michael had
abdicated in his favor."

"Abdicated!" wheezed the President.

"Our friend takes too much for granted," broke in Alec, smiling and
unembarrassed. "My father could not vacate a throne he did not occupy.
He merely resigned his claims in my favor. Kosnovia should be governed
by a constitutional King, and the power to choose him now rests solely
with the honorable house of which you are chief. If that is your view, I
share it to the uttermost. It is reported in the press that the men who
murdered King Theodore and Queen Helena have declared their allegiance
to the Delgrado line. My reply is that I refuse their nomination. If I
am elected King by the representatives of the people, I shall have much
pleasure in hanging every officer who took part in the infamy of the
Black Castle. But--it is an early hour for politics. You mentioned
breakfast, Monsieur le Président?"

Fat and asthmatic Sergius Nesimir was not the man to deal with a candid
adventurer of this type. It occurred to him that he ought to summon help
and clap the soi-disant King and his henchman into prison. But on what
charge? Could any royal pretender put forth more reasonable plea? And
Kosnovia is near enough to the East to render sacred the claims of
hospitality.

"One moment, I beg," he stammered. "Why has your--why have you come to
me? What am I to do? The Assembly----"

"The Assembly seems to favor a Republic," said Alec. "Be it so. There
are certain arguments against such a course which I would be glad of an
opportunity to place before members. If you introduce me, they will give
me a fair hearing. Let a vote be taken at once. If it is opposed to a
monarchy, I am ready to be conducted to either the railway station or
the scaffold, whichever the Assembly in its wisdom may deem best fitted
to national needs. If it is in my favor, I am King. What more is there
to be said?"

"What, indeed?" growled Stampoff. "Why so much talk? Let us eat!"

Poor Nesimir! He had the unhappy history of his country at his fingers'
ends, and never before had Delgrado or Obrenovitch striven for kingship
in this kid-glove fashion.

"Breakfast shall be served instantly," he said, trying vainly to imitate
the cool demeanor of his guests. "But--you will appreciate the
difficulties of my position. I must consult with the ministers."

"I hope I may call your Excellency a friend," said Alec, "and I shall be
ever ready to accept your Excellency's counsel; but on this exceptional
occasion I venture to advise you. Let none know I am here. In the
present disturbed condition of affairs there must be almost as many
hidden forces existing in Delgratz as there are men in the Cabinet. Why
permit them to fret and fume when you alone have power to control them?
I promise faithfully to abide by the decision of the Assembly. Should it
favor me, your position is consolidated; should it prove adverse to my
cause, you still remain the chief man in the State, since the world will
realize that it was to you, and you only, I submitted in the first
instance."

"By all the saints, that is well put!" cried Stampoff. "Now, Sergius,
my lamb, a really good omelet, something grilled, and a bottle of sound
Karlowitz--none of your Danube water for me!"

The President surrendered at discretion. Alec's appeal to his self
importance was irresistible. He was excited, elated, frightened; but
happily he was strong enough to perceive that a chance of obtaining
distinction was within his grasp, and he clutched at it, though with
palsied hands.

So it came to pass that when the hundred and fifty members of the
National Assembly gathered in the great hall of the convention, none
there knew why a tall, pleasant faced young man should be sitting in the
President's private room, and apparently not caring a jot who came or
went during the half-hour's lobbying and retailing of political gossip
that preceded the formal opening of the sitting.

But there was an awkward moment when Nesimir, pale and shaken, entered
the chamber through the folding doors at the back of the presidential
dais.

"Silence for his Excellency the President!" shouted a loud voiced usher,
and all men looked up in wonder when they discovered that the youthful
stranger was standing by the President's side. The session was to be a
secret one. Press and public were excluded. Who, then--

"Gentleman," said Sergius Nesimir, and he spoke with the slowness of ill
repressed agitation, "I have a momentous announcement to make. This
honorable house has almost committed itself to the republican form of
Government----"

 [Illustration: "Gentlemen, here stands Alexis Delgrado"
     Page 75]

"Definitely!" cried a voice.

"No, no!" this from a Senator.

The President lifted a hand. In other circumstances, the interruptions
would have provoked rival storms of agreement and dissent from the many
groups into which the Assembly was split up; but now there was an
electric feeling in the air that their trusted chief would not broach
this grave question so suddenly without good cause. And--who was his
companion? Why did he occupy the dais?

"I ask for silence," said Nesimir. "The fortunes of Kosnovia tremble in
the balance. You will be given ample time for discussion; but hear me
first. I have said that the republican idea has been mooted in all
seriousness. We, in common with the rest of humanity, have been
horror stricken by recent events in our beloved land. Our reigning
dynasty has been blotted out of existence. There is no heir of the
Obrenovitch line. Were we, the representatives of the people, to declare
in favor of a King, we should naturally turn to the other royal house of
our own blood. We should send for a Delgrado. Gentlemen, here stands
Alexis Delgrado----"

He could go no further. A yell of sheer amazement came from all parts of
the crowded chamber. Ministers, Senators, Representatives, joined in
that bewildered roar. Those who were sitting rose; those in the back
benches stood on the seats in order to gaze over the heads in front.
Men shouted and glared and turned to shout again at one another; but
through all the turmoil Alec faced them, smiling and imperturbable, and,
at what he judged to be the right moment--for that volcanic outburst
must be given time to exhaust itself--he placed his one hand on the
President's shoulder and with the other signaled his desire to be heard.

Again he placed implicit confidence in the all powerful element of
curiosity. He knew full well that these emotional Serbs could not hear
his name unmoved, while the extraordinary racial difference between
himself and every other man in the Assembly must have made a strong
appeal to their dramatic instincts. And again was he justified; for the
mere expression of his wish to address them was obeyed by an instant
hushing of the storm.

"My fellow countrymen," he began, "you whom I expect to count among my
friends ere this day is out----"

Another wave of sound ran through the hall. Men still wondered; but
their hearts were beating high, and a new note had come into their
voices. He was speaking their own language, speaking it as one to the
manner born, speaking it as no Austrian could ever speak it, since
harsh, dominant German can never reproduce the full Slavonic resonance.
Alec, but yesterday Joan's typical idler, had fathomed some uncharted
deep in the mysterious art of swaying his fellow men. He realized at
once that this rumble of astonishment was the very best thing that
could have happened. He waited just long enough for the sympathetic
murmur to merge into nods and whisperings, then he continued:

"It is true that I am here as a Delgrado. I come as a candidate, not a
claimant. It rests with you whether I shall remain among you as Alexis
III., King of Kosnovia, or go back to my father and tell him that our
people are anxious to try a new form of Government. Of course," and here
Alec beamed on them most affably, "there are other alternatives. You may
elect to put me in jail, or throw me into the Danube, or swing me from a
gibbet as a warning to all would-be monarchs and other malefactors. But
there is one thing you cannot do. You can never persuade me to wade to a
throne through the blood of innocent people! And that is why I am here,
and not in the company of the wretched conspirators now skulking behind
the walls of the Schwarzburg."

Then a hurricane of cheers made the windows rattle, and a deputy from
the Shumadia, "the heart of Kosnovia," a bigchested, deep voiced
forester, sent forth a trumpet shout that reached every ear:

"Hola! That's a King! Look at him!"

From that instant Alec was as surely King of Kosnovia as the German
Emperor is King of Prussia. Of course, he had to talk till he was
hoarse, and wring strong hands till he was weary, and Stampoff had to
make more than one gruff speech, and eloquent Senators and Deputies had
to proclaim the inviolate nature of the new constitution, and Alec had
to sign it amid a scene of riotous enthusiasm. But these things were the
aftermath of a harvest reaped by half a dozen sentences. The Shumadia
man's simple phrases became a formula. Men laughed and said:

"Hola! That's a King! Look at him!"

In time it reached the streets. The people took it up as a popular
catchword. It whirled through all Kosnovia. Those who had never seen
Alec, nor heard of him before they were told he was King, adopted it as
a token of their belief that the nation had at last obtained a ruler who
surpassed all other Kings.

But that was to come later. While Alec was listening to the plaudits
that proclaimed his triumph, Stampoff growled at him from behind the
half-closed door:

"Gods! You've done it! And without a blow! Never was Kingdom won so
easily. God bless your Majesty! May you live long and reign worthily!"

Good wishes these; but in them was the germ of an abiding canker. What
would Joan say? He had taken a sleeping car ticket from Paris and had
stepped into his patrimony with as little anxiety or delay as would
herald a royal succession in the oldest and most firmly established
monarchy in Europe. What of the goddess with the great gray eyes, clear
and piercing, who knew all the thoughts of men's hearts and the secrets
of their souls? What of her warning that she would drive her chosen ones
by strange paths through doubt and need and danger and battle? Which of
these had he encountered, beyond the vanished phantoms of idle hours
passed in the cozy comfort of the Orient Express? "Never was kingdom won
so easily!"

Well meant; but it rankled. That ominous line of Vergil's came to his
mind. _Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes_ (I fear the Greeks even bringing
gifts). Truly the Greeks were come speedily, carrying in full measure
the gifts of loyalty and dominion. Yet he feared them. A whiff of peril,
pitfalls to be leaped, some days or weeks of dire uncertainty, men to be
won, and factions placated, any or all of these might have appeased the
jealous gods. But this instant success would shock Olympus. It cried for
contrast by its very flight to the pinnacle.

None suspected this mood in the chosen King. He charmed these volatile
and romantic Serbs by his naturalness. He seemed to take it so
thoroughly for granted that he was the one man living who could rule
them according to their aspirations, that they adopted the notion
without reserve. The morning passed in a blaze of enthusiasm. Alec,
outwardly calm and hale fellow with all who came in contact with him,
was really in a state of waking trance. His brain throbbed with ideas,
words that he had never conned flowed from his lips. Thus, when asked to
sign the constitution, he wrote "Alexis, Rex," with a firm hand, and
then looked round on the circle of intent faces.

"Gentlemen," he said, "I hereby pledge myself to our land. When I am
dead, if my successor shows signs of faltering, make my skin into a
drumhead for the cause of Kosnovia!"

At the moment he really did not know that this was borrowed thunder, and
assuredly the Kosnovians did not care. Already his utterances were being
retailed with gusto. Before night, every adult inhabitant of Delgratz
was likening their marvelous King, fallen from the skies, to a drum that
should summon the Serbs to found the Empire of their dreams.

He was asked if he would not order the Seventh Regiment to evacuate the
Black Castle so that he might take up his quarters there.

"There is no hurry," he said. "The place needs cleaning."

A review of the troops stationed in other parts of the capital was
arranged for the afternoon in the beautiful park that crowns the
promontory formed by the two rivers, and it was suggested that he should
drive thither in the President's carriage.

"I would prefer to ride," said he. "Then the people and I can see one
another."

A number of horses were brought from the late King's stables and Alec
selected a white Arab stallion that seemed to have mettle and be up to
weight. Soldiers and civilians exchanged underlooks at the choice.
Selim was the last horse ridden by the ill fated Theodore, and, after
the manner of Arabs, he had stumbled on the level roadway and the royal
equestrian was thrown.

During the procession, while passing through the densely packed
Wassina-st., Selim stumbled again and was promptly pulled back almost on
his haunches. At that very instant a revolver was fired from the crowd
and a bullet flattened itself on the opposite wall. The would-be
assassin was seized instantly, a hundred hands were ready to tear him to
shreds, when the King's white horse suddenly pranced into the midst of
the press. Grasping the man by the neck, Alec drew him free by main
force.

"Kill him!" yelled the mob.

"No," cried Alec, "we will put him in the recruits' squad and teach him
how to shoot!"

Throughout a long day he displayed a whole hearted abandonment to the
joy of finding himself accepted by the people as their ruler that did
more than a year's session of the Assembly to endear him to them; but
the seal of national approval was conferred by his action next day, when
news came that Lord Adalbert Beaumanoir was a prisoner at Semlin!

Naturally, the telegraph wires had thrilled Europe during every hour
after ten o'clock on Thursday morning, but the thrills felt in Germany,
Russia, and Turkey were supplemented by agonized squirming on the part
of official Austria. That an upstart, a masquerader, a mountebank of a
King, should actually have traversed Austria from west to east, without
ever a soul cased in uniform knowing anything about him, was ill to
endure, and the minions of Kosnovia's truculent neighbor swore mighty
oaths that no bottle holder from Paris or elsewhere should be allowed to
follow. So Lord Adalbert Beaumanoir was watched from Passau to Maria
Theresiopel, and telegrams flew over the face of the land, and Alec's
British ally was hauled from the train at Semlin soon after dawn Friday.

Captain Drakovitch, anxious to atone for his prying of the previous day,
brought circumstantial details to his Majesty Alexis III., who was
breakfasting with Nesimir, Stampoff, and Ministers of State. There could
be no doubting Beaumanoir's identity, since his baggage was on the
train, and Drakovitch had made sure of his facts before hurrying to the
President's house.

"Has Austria any right to arrest a British subject merely because he
wishes to enter Kosnovia?" asked Alec, looking round at the assembled
gray-heads.

"None whatever," said Nesimir.

"It is an outrage," puffed the War Minister.

"She would not dare act in that way on any other frontier!" cried he of
the Interior.

"What, then, is to be done?" demanded the King.

"Make the most emphatic protest to Vienna," came the chorus.

"Through the usual diplomatic channels?"

"Yes--of course."

"But that means leaving my friend in prison for an indefinite period."

Eloquent shrugs expressed complete agreement.

"Has it been the habit of Kosnovia to accept tamely such treatment at
the hands of Austria?" inquired Alec, looking at the President.

"I fear so, your Majesty. We are small and feeble; she is mighty in size
and armament."

"So was Goliath, yet David slew him with a pebble," said Alec, rising.
"Come, Captain Drakovitch, you and I will call on the Austrian
Ambassador. Stampoff, will you kindly arrange that a regiment of cavalry
and six guns shall parade outside the station in half an hour's time?
You might also ask the railway people to provide the necessary
transport, though I hardly expect it will be needed. Still, we ought to
make a show, just for practice."

Several faces at the table blanched.

"What does your Majesty mean by these preparations?" asked Nesimir.

"Preparations--for what? Surely we can inspect our own troops and test
our own railway accommodation," laughed Alec. "As for the Austrian
Ambassador, I intend to make an emphatic protest through the usual
diplomatic channel. Isn't that what you all agreed to?"

He went out, followed by Drakovitch. In five minutes they were
clattering through the streets accompanied by a small escort, which
Alec would have dispensed with if it was not absolutely needed to clear
a passage when once Delgratz knew that the King was abroad.

Neither the Austrian nor Russian representative had recognized the new
régime as yet. Each was waiting to see how the other would act; so Baron
von Rothstein viewed with mixed feelings the arrival of his royal
visitor. But he met him with all ceremony, and began to say that
instructions might reach him from Vienna at any moment to pay an
official call.

"Quite correct, Herr Baron," said Alec cheerfully. "I am a novice at
this game; but I fully understand that you act for your Government and
not for yourself. That fact renders easy the favor I have to ask."

"Anything that lies in my power, your Majesty----"

"Oh, this is a simple matter. A friend of mine, Lord Adalbert
Beaumanoir, who was coming here from Paris to visit me, was arrested at
Semlin this morning. There is, or can be, no charge against him. Some of
your zealous agents have blundered, that is all. Now, I want you to go
to Semlin in a special train I will provide and bring his Lordship here
before----" Alec looked at his watch--"It is now nine--shall we say?--by
eleven o'clock sharp."

Von Rothstein was startled, and he showed it. "But this is the first I
have heard of it," he said.

"Exactly. That is why I came in person to tell you."

"I fear I cannot interfere, your Majesty."

"Is that so? Why, then, Herr Baron, are you Minister for Austria at
Delgratz?"

"I mean that this matter is not within my province."

"Surely it must be. I cannot allow my friends to be collared by Austrian
police for no reason whatsoever. This passport question concerns
Kosnovia, not Austria. The action of the Semlin authorities is one of
brigandage. It can be adjusted amicably by you, Herr von Rothstein. Do
you refuse?"

"I fear I cannot do what you desire, your Majesty."

"Ah! That is a pity! In that event, I must go to Semlin myself and
liberate Lord Adalbert."

"I don't quite understand----"

"Is my German so poor, then?" laughed Alec.

"I mean, of course----"

"You think I am bluffing. Do you know the word? It is American for a
pretense that is not backed by action. I intend nothing of the kind.
Either you or I must start for Semlin forthwith. If I go, I take with me
a bodyguard sufficiently strong to insure my friend's freedom. I am not
declaring war against Austria. If any jack in office in Kosnovia acts
like these Semlin policemen, and a Kosnovian official refuses to put
matters straight, by all means let Austria teach the offenders a sharp
lesson. She will have my complete approval, as I hope I have yours on
the present occasion."

"But, your Majesty, such action on your part does really amount to a
declaration of war!"

"Ridiculous! Austria seizes an inoffensive British gentleman merely
because he travels from Paris to Delgratz, I appeal to you, the Austrian
minister, to go and release him, and you refuse; yet you tell me I am
making war on your country if I rescue him. The notion is preposterous!
At any rate, it can be argued later. I have sufficient cavalry and guns
assembled near the station, and I hope to be in Semlin in twenty
minutes. Good morning, Baron."

"Your Majesty, I implore you to forego this rash enterprise."

"It is you or I for it!"

"Let me telegraph."

"Useless. That spells delay. You or I must go to Semlin--now! Which is
it to be?"

The Austrian diplomat, pallid and bewildered, yet had the wit to believe
that this quiet voiced young man meant every word he said. He reasoned
quickly that the freeing of a pestiferous Englishman at Semlin could
have no possible effect on Austria's subsequent action. She might please
herself whether or not the threatened invasion of her territory should
be deemed a cause of war, while to yield for the hour robbed this
extraordinary adventurer of the prestige that would accrue from his bold
act.

"I will go, your Majesty," said he, after a fateful pause.

"Good! Permit me to congratulate you on a wise decision," said Alec. "I
shall wait your return in patience until eleven."

"And then?"

"Oh, then--I follow you, of course."

Baron von Rothstein thought silence was best. He drove to the station,
and did not fail to note the military preparations. His special quitted
Delgratz at nine-twenty A.M. At ten-forty A.M. it came back and Alec met
him and Lord Adalbert Beaumanoir on the platform.

"Sorry you were held up, old chap," was the King's greeting. "Some of
these frontier police are fearful asses; but Herr von Rothstein rushed
off the instant he heard of your predicament, and here you are, only
five hours late after all."

"Wouldn't have missed it for a pony, dear boy," grinned Beaumanoir.
"There was a deuce of a shindy when three fat johnnies tried to pull me
out of my compartment. I told 'em I didn't give a tinker's continental
for their bally frontier, and then the band played. I slung one joker
through the window. Good job it was open, or he might have been
guillotined, eh, what?"

"No one was injured, I hope."

"Another fellow said I bent his ribs; but they sprang all right under
the vet's thumb. Tell me, why does our baronial friend look so vinegary?
He chattered like a magpie in the police bureau, or whatever it is
called, at Semlin."

"Lord Adalbert wishes me to explain that a disagreeable incident had
ended happily," said Alec to von Rothstein.

"I am not sure that it has ended, your Majesty," was the grim reply.

"Well, then, shall we say that it has taken a satisfactory turn? You
see, my dear Baron, I am quite a young King, and I shall commit many
blunders before I learn the usages of diplomacy. But I mean well, and
that goes a long way,--much farther than Semlin, even beyond Vienna."



CHAPTER V

FELIX SURMOUNTS A DIFFICULTY


Count Julius Marulitch and his friend Constantine Beliani, the one
savagely impatient, the other moody and preoccupied, sprawled listlessly
in Marulitch's flat in the Avenue Victor Hugo, and, though it was
evening, each was reading "The Matin." That is to say, each was
pretending to read; but their thoughts did not follow the printed words.
Alexis III. had reigned only ten days, yet the most enterprising of the
Paris newspapers was already making a feature of a column headed: "Our
dear Alec, day by day." It ought to be an interesting record to these
two men, yet it evidently was not one-tenth so humorous as "The Matin"
believed, since there was a deep frown on both faces.

At last Marulitch flung the paper aside with an angry snarl.

"Ah, bah!" he growled. "May the devil fly away with our dear Alec and
his doings day by day! A nice pair of fools we made of ourselves when we
pitchforked him into power!"

"Patience, my friend, patience!" said the Greek. "Everything comes to
him who waits, and Alec will fall far when his luck changes. It may be
to-morrow, or next week; but he must experience a reverse. He is like a
gambler at Monte Carlo who stakes maximums just because the table is
running favorably."

"Fish!" snorted Marulitch. "What else would a gambler do?"

"What indeed?" agreed Beliani, though a far less alert intelligence than
Marulitch's might have known that he was annoyed. The pink and white
Julius, whom his friends had nicknamed "le beau Comte," did not fail to
catch the contemptuous note of that purred answer; he sprang up from his
chair, ransacked a cupboard, and threw on the table a box of those
priceless cigarettes, the produce of a single southwesterly hillside at
Salonica, that are manufactured solely for the Sultan of Turkey.

"There, smoke, my Constantine," he laughed harshly. "Why should we
quarrel? We were idiots. Let us, then, admit it."

"Were we?"

"Can you deny it? We arranged the first move beautifully. With Theodore
out of the way----"

The Greek turned his head swiftly and looked at the door. Marulitch
lowered his voice.

"No need to refer to Theodore, you will say? How can one avoid it? His
death was the cornerstone of the edifice. If only that senile uncle of
mine had become King the path would be clear for the final coup before
the year was out. And now where are we? What purpose do we serve by self
delusion? Each day's newspaper bears witness to our folly. Alec carries
the Assembly by storm; Alec captures a would-be assassin; Alec flouts
Austria; Alec disbands the Seventh Regiment and hands its officers to
the police; Alec attends the funeral of Theodore and Helena, and takes
over their servants and debts; Alec tells the Sultan that he exists in
Europe only on sufferance; Alec draws a map of Kosnovia and decorates it
with railways; Alec bathes in the Danube at six, breakfasts at seven,
attends a christening at eight, a wedding at nine, a review at ten, a
memorial service in the cathedral at eleven, lunches at twelve, receives
provincial deputations at one, inaugurates the Delgratz Polo Club at two
and the Danubian Rowing Club at three,--Alec round the clock, and all
Europe agape to know what next he will be up to--and you and I here,
unknown, unrecorded,--you and I, the brains, the eyes, the organizers of
the whole affair! Oh, it makes me sick when I remember how I stood like
a stuck pig in old Delgrado's flat and let the son jump in and snatch
from the father's hands the scepter I had purchased so dearly!"

The Greek rose languidly, strolled to the door, and threw it open. A
page boy was in the lobby, and it was easy to see by his innocent face
that his presence there was inspired by no more sinister motive than to
deliver a newspaper.

Beliani took it, closed the door, listened a moment, and unfolded the
damp sheet. He glanced at its foreign news.

"'Le Soir' gives prominence to a rumor that King Alexis will marry a
Montenegrin Princess," he murmured composedly.

"Mirabel, of course?"

"She is unnamed."

"That's it. I know, I know! He will marry Mirabel. By Heaven! if he
does, I'll shoot him myself!"

"The trial of the regicides is fixed for June," went on Beliani, wholly
unmoved by Marulitch's vehemence. "Now, the vital question is, How far
can Stampoff be relied on?"

"How does our reliance on Stampoff concern Mirabel?"

"I am not thinking of Mirabel, but of Julius and Constantine. If
Stampoff tells our young Bayard everything, Delgratz is no place for you
and me, my veteran."

Marulitch, though trembling with passion, could not fail to see that the
Greek was remarkably nonchalant for one who had witnessed the utter
collapse of ten years of work and expenditure.

"Are we going there?" he managed to ask without a curse.

"Soon, quite soon, provided Stampoff keeps a still tongue."

"But why? To grace the coronation by our presence?"

"It may be. Remember, if you please, that we are Alec's best friends. We
gave him his chance. I offered to finance him; did finance Stampoff in
fact. We are unknown personally to the officers of the Seventh. That was
wise, Julius, far-seeing, on my part. Oh, yes, we must go to Delgratz.
Delgratz is the nerve center now."

"You are keeping something from me."

"On my honor, no. But you sneered at my parable of the successful
gambler, whereas I believe in it implicitly. I have seen that type of
fool backing the red, staking his six thousand francs on every coup, and
have watched a run of twelve, thirteen, seventeen, twenty-one; but the
smash came at last."

"What matter? A man who wins twenty times can well afford to lose once."

"I said a gambler, not a financier," smiled Beliani. "But let it pass. I
thought you told me there was a girl here in Paris----"

"So there is, a beauty too; but Alec has meanwhile become a King."

"A somewhat peculiar King. He has borrowed his regal notions from
America rather than Kosnovia, Julius. He would laugh at any claim of
divine right. One of these days you will find him chaffing the
Hohenzollerns, and that is dangerous jesting in the Balkans. If he loves
a girl in Paris, he will not marry your Mirabel. I fancy I have taken
his measure. If I am right, he is far too honest to occupy the throne of
Kosnovia."

"_Grand Dieu!_ the country is pining for honest government. Even you
will grant that."

"Even I, as you say; but I should be wrong. If I have an ax to grind, so
has the other fellow. Kosnovia is in the East, and the East loves
deceit. Alec has dazzled the people for a few days. Wait till he begins
to sweep the bureaus free of well paid sinecurists. Wait till he finds
out how the money is spent that the Assembly votes for railways,
education, forestry, and the like. Wait till he reduces the staff of the
army and the secretaries. I know Delgratz and Kosnovia, and he does not.
He will win the people, it is true; but he will alienate the men who can
twist the people this way and that to suit their own purposes. Before a
month is out he will be wrangling with the Assembly. See if I am not a
prophet. Oh, yes, Julius, you and I must go to Delgratz. No hurry; slow
but sure. I'll break the journey at Vienna. We must sound Stampoff too.
But before I go, I should like to be sure that the girl has gone there."

"The artist girl to Delgratz!"

Julius was bitter and skeptical; but he reposed such confidence in
Beliani's judgment that he choked his doubts. "Yes. Can it be managed?"

Le beau Comte leered, and the satyr grin was highly expressive. It
seemed to show the man's real nature. In repose his face was insipid;
now for an instant he resembled the god Pan.

"You called Alec a Bayard just now. Not a bad title for him. He has that
kind of repute among his friends. Perhaps the girl is built on the same
lines, and we don't want to send a pretty saint to Delgratz merely to
inspire him to fresh efforts."

The Greek inhaled a deep breath of the aromatic smoke. "You'll be an
average sort of King, Julius; but you are not a philosopher," said he
thoughtfully. "I tell you we are safer than ever if we can bring him and
the girl together. He will marry her, you short sighted one--marry her,
and thus alienate every Slav in the Balkans. I have turned this thing in
my mind constantly since I recovered from the first shock of his
achievement, and I am fairly certain of my ground. Mark you, Princess
Mirabel of Montenegro will be reported to-morrow as out of the running.
If that is so, you will begin to believe me and stop clawing your hair
and injuring your fine complexion by scowling."

Next morning's "Matin" announced that King Alexis was greatly annoyed by
the mischievous and utterly unfounded canard that bracketed his name
with that of a woman he had never seen. Count Julius read, and made a
hasty toilet. Beliani and he had laid their plans overnight, and he lost
no time in opening the new campaign.

It was a difficult and delicate task he had undertaken. Paris, big in
many respects, is small in its society, which, because of its well
marked limits, makes a noise in the world quite incommensurate with its
importance; whereas London, close neighbor and rival, contains a dozen
definite circles that seldom overlap. The woman Julius had seen with
Alec in the Louvre was not on Princess Michael's visiting list, of that
he had no manner of doubt. Therefore, from his point of view, the only
possible solution of their apparent friendship would prove to be
something underhanded and clandestine, an affair of secret meetings, and
letters signed in initials, and a tacit agreement to move unhindered in
different orbits.

Being of the nature of dogs and aboriginal trackers, Marulitch made
straight for the Louvre. There he had quitted the trail, and there must
he pick it up again. But the hunt demanded the utmost wariness. If he
startled the quarry, he might fail at the outset, and, supposing his
talking was successful, both he and Beliani must still beware of a
King's vengeance if their project miscarried.

Neither man had the slightest belief in Alec's innate nobility of
character. Beliani likened him to Bayard, it is true, and Marulitch had
scoffingly adopted the simile; but that was because each thought Bayard
not admirable, but a fool. The somber history of the Kosnovian monarchy,
a record of crass stupidity made lurid at times by a lightning gleam of
passion, justified the belief that Alexis would follow the path that led
Theodore, and Ferdinand, and Ivan, and Milosch to their ruin. Each of
these rulers began to reign under favorable auspices, yet each succumbed
to the siren's spell, and there was no reason at all, according to such
reckoning, why the handsome and impulsive Alexis should escape. That a
pretty Parisienne who was also an artist should fail to offer herself as
a willing bait did not enter at all into the calculation.

"Be suave, spend money, and keep in the background," said the Greek.

Julius entered the Grande Galerie prepared to apply these instructions
through the medium of his own subtle wit. At the outset, luck favored
him. Somehow, it is always easier to do evil than good, and the
longevity of evil is notorious, whereas the short lived existence of
good would horrify an insurance agent.

Joan was not present; but Felix Poluski was preparing a canvas for his
twenty-seventh copy of the famous Murillo. Two of his "Immaculate
Conceptions" were in private collections; one had been sold to a South
American millionaire as the Spanish artist's own duplicate of the
picture, though Poluski was unaware of the fraud; and twenty-three
adorned the high altars of various continental churches, where they
edified multitudes happily ignorant of the irreverent conditions under
which the cheery souled anarchist hunchback droned his snatches of song
and extracted from a few tubes of paint some glimpse of heaven, and rays
of sunlight, and hints of divine love and divine maternity.

The crooked little Pole's genius and character were alike unknown to
Count Julius. He saw only a quaintly artistic personage who might
possibly be acquainted with such a remarkable looking habitué of the
gallery as Joan. Instead, therefore, of appealing to one of the
officials, he approached Poluski, and the two exchanged greetings with
the politeness that Paris quickly teaches to those who dwell within her
gates.

"You work in this gallery most days, monsieur?" said Julius.

"But yes, monsieur," said Felix.

"About a fortnight ago, monsieur," explained Marulitch, "I happened to
be here at this hour, and I noticed a young lady copying one of the
pictures on the opposite wall. Can you tell me who she was?"

"Can you tell me which picture she was copying?" said Poluski.

"I am not sure; this one, I think," and Julius pointed to "The Fortune
Teller."

"Ah! Describe her, monsieur."

"She was tall, elegant, charming in manner and appearance."

Poluski appeared to reflect. "The vision sounds entrancing, monsieur,"
he said; "but that sort of girl doesn't usually earn her crusts by
daubing canvas in the Louvre at so much a square foot."

"Yet I saw her, without a doubt. She was not alone that morning. In
fact, a friend of mine was with her."

Poluski turned to his easel. He was in no mind to discuss Joan with this
inquiring dandy.

"That simplifies your search, monsieur," said he carelessly. "All that
is necessary is to go to your friend."

"I cannot. He is not in Paris."

"Where is he?"

"Far enough away to render it impossible that he should solve my dilemma
to-day. And the thing is urgent. I have a commission to offer, a good
one. If you help, you will be doing the young lady a turn--and yourself,
too, perhaps."

"Kindly explain, monsieur."

"I mean that I will gladly pay for any information."

"How much? Five, ten francs, a louis?"

The Pole's sarcasm was not to be mistaken. Julius was warned and drew
back hurriedly.

"I really beg your pardon," he said; "but I am so anxious to carry out
my undertaking that I have expressed myself awkwardly, and I see now
that you are misinterpreting my motives. Let me speak quite candidly. I
have no desire to meet the lady in person. An art connoisseur, who
admires her work, wishes to send her to a cathedral in a distant city to
copy a painting. He will pay well. He offers traveling expenses, hotel
bill, and five thousand francs. The picture is not a large one, and the
work easy, a Byzantine study of Saint Peter, I believe. If you tell me,
monsieur, that you can arrange the matter, I shall be pleased to leave
it entirely in your hands."

"Since when did Alec become a connoisseur?" demanded Poluski, grinning.

Marulitch was startled; but he smiled with a ready self possession that
did him credit. "It was in Monsieur Delgrado's company I saw the fair
unknown," he admitted; "but this affair does not rest with him. It is
genuine, absolutely."

"Nevertheless, this Byzantine Saint Peter hangs in Delgratz, I suppose?"

"I--I think so."

"Five thousand francs, you said, and expenses. Not bad. I'm a pretty
good hand myself. Will I do?"

The Pole was enjoying the stupid little plot; for it could wear no other
guise to him, and Count Julius was mortified by the knowledge that he
had blundered egregiously at the first step in the negotiation. What
would Beliani say? This wizened elf of a man had seen clear through
their precious scheme in an instant, and, worst of all, it had not
advanced an inch. Julius made a virtue of necessity, and placed all his
cards on the table.

"I want you to credit my statements," he said emphatically. "This
proposal is quite straightforward. My principal is prepared to pay half
the money down before the lady leaves Paris, and the balance when the
picture is delivered. Further, he will bear the expenses of any one who
accompanies her,--a relative, or a friend, such as yourself, for
instance. I don't figure in the matter at all. I am a mere go-between,
and if you think otherwise you are utterly mistaken."

Felix began to whistle softly between his teeth, and the action annoyed
Julius so greatly that he decided to try a new line.

"I seem to have amused you by my sincerity, monsieur!" he snapped. "Pray
forget that I have troubled you----"

"But why, my paragon? _Que diable!_ one does not spurn five thousand
francs like that! I hum or whistle when I am thinking, and just now I am
wondering how this business can be arranged. Who is your client?"

"Who is yours?" retorted Julius.

"She exists, at any rate."

"So does the other."

"Well, then, let us meet to-morrow----"

"But time is all important."

"There can't be such a mortal hurry, seeing that Saint Peter has hung so
long undisturbed in Delgratz," said Felix dryly. "Moreover, it will
clear the air if I tell you that the lady is not in Paris, so I cannot
possibly give you her answer before to-morrow morning."

"How can I be sure that she is the person actually intended for this
commission?"

"There won't be the least doubt about it when King Alexis III. sets eyes
on her."

Julius was certainly not himself that day. His pink face grew crimson
with amazement. "If you tell her that you will defeat my friend's object
in sending her to Delgratz!" he blurted out.

"Eh, what are you saying? What, then, becomes of that poor Saint Peter?"

"Exactly. She is going there to copy it, not to philander with Alec."

Poluski screwed his eyes up until he was peering at Julius's excited
features as if endeavoring to catch some transient color effect.
"Frankly, you puzzle me," he said after a pause; "but come again
to-morrow. And no tricks, no spying or that sort of thing! I am the
wrong man for it. If you doubt me, ask some one who has heard of Felix
Poluski. You see, Count Julius Marulitch, I am far more open than you. I
knew you all the time, and as to your motives, I can guess a good deal
that I don't actually know. Still, there is nothing positively dishonest
about a Byzantine Saint Peter. It is not art, but five thousand francs
sounds like business. Half the cash down, you said; anything by way of
preliminary expenses?"

"Meaning?"

"Say, one per cent., fifty francs. Otherwise, I must paint all day and
trust to the post--the least eloquent of ambassadors."

"Oh, as to that," and Julius produced a hundred-franc note from his
pocketbook.

The Pole accepted it gravely. "I go instantly, monsieur," he said. He
began to fold his easel and put away his brushes and colors. Once he
glanced up at the rapt Madonna.

"_Au 'voir, ma belle_," he murmured. "This affair of Saint Peter must
be arranged. It presses. They change Kings speedily in Delgratz
nowadays, and their taste in saints may follow suit. But, courage! I
shall return, and who knows what will come of this excursion into the
forgotten realm of Byzantium?"

Count Marulitch, of course, had not counted on one who was a complete
stranger not only recognizing him but stripping the pretense so
thoroughly of the artistic commission offered to Alec's fair companion
of that memorable morning. He must put the best face on his blunder when
discussing it with Beliani, and he promised himself a quite definite
understanding with Poluski ere another sou left his pocket.

Meanwhile, who was Poluski? That question, at least, could be answered
easily. One clue might lead to another. To-morrow, when they met, it
might be his turn to astonish the warped little Pole.

Felix, feeling that he had spoiled the Egyptians excellently well,
hobbled off to his favorite café. Early as the hour was, various cronies
were there already, sipping their morning refreshments; but he passed
them with a nod and made for the fat proprietress throned behind a high
desk. When she caught sight of him, a certain air of firmness seemed to
struggle with sympathy for possession of her bulging features, and she
hastily thumbed a small account book taken from beneath a pile of
waiter's dockets.

"How much, madame?" asked Felix, who had missed none of this.

"Twenty-seven seventy-five," she said severely.

"Can one make it thirty, _mignonne_?"

"Thirty! Tell me, then, how market bills are to be met when one is owed
these thirties?"

"Dear angel, Providence has decided that you shall deal with such
problems."

"Well, well, no more, not a centime beyond the thirty!"

"Monstrous, yet all heart!" murmured Felix. He struck an attitude, and
sang with exquisite feeling the opening bars of the Jewel Song from
"Faust." As applied to the earthly tabernacle of madame's generous soul,
the effect of that impassioned address was ludicrous. But Felix recked
little of that. He threw the hundred-franc note on the counter.

"There, _ma petite_, be rewarded for your trust," he cried. "Now give me
the railway timetable; for I have far to go ere I return, when you and I
shall crack a bottle of Clos Vosgeot with our dinner."

Madame, who had not betrayed the least embarrassment when she and her
café were apostrophized in Gounod's impassioned strains, was utterly
bewildered by Poluski's wealth. Not once in many years had he owned so
much at one time, since he always drew small sums on account of his
pictures and kept himself going hand-to-mouth fashion. But here was
Felix intent on the timetable and sweeping seventy-two francs
twenty-five centimes of change into his pocket without troubling to
count a coin.

"You have found a mad Englishman, I suppose?" tittered madame.

"Better, far better, _ma chérie_; I have met a man who would be a King!"
He hurried out, climbed into a passing omnibus, and descended at the
Gare de Lyon.

Joan was just leaving the pretty hotel at Barbizon, meaning to put in
some hours of work after a distracted morning, when Felix emerged from
the interior of a ramshackle cab that had carried him from Melun to the
edge of the forest. Now, a cab drive of several miles, plus a journey
from Paris, was a sufficiently rare event in Poluski's life to make Joan
stare. His unexpected appearance chimed so oddly with her own disturbed
thoughts that she paled.

"Felix," she cried, "have you brought ill news?"

"Of whom, _chère mademoiselle_?" he demanded.

"Of--of any one?"

"Alec still reigns, if that is what you mean."

"But he has sent you?"

"What, do I look like an envoy?" He laughed. "Well, well, _ma belle_,
there is some truth in that. I come in behalf of one before whom even
Kings must bow; I represent Saint Peter! But even an apostolic
dynamitard must eat. I am starving, having sacrificed my luncheon to my
love of you. Commend me, then, to some deft handed waiter, and let
hunger and curiosity be sated at the same time."

Joan knew that Poluski would choose his own way of explaining his
presence. The hour for luncheon was long past; but she hurried to the
empty dining room and was able to secure some soup and a cold chicken.
Felix eyed the bird distrustfully.

"Although I am here in behalf of Saint Peter, there is no sense in
asking me to chew the wretched fowl that proclaimed his downfall," he
muttered.

"Oh, Felix dear, please do tell me what has happened!" said Joan,
clasping her hands in real distress. "I received a letter from Alec this
morning. It was sent to me from my lodgings, and, what between that and
the extraordinary things in the newspapers, I think I am bewitched. Now
I am sure that you too have heard from him. Is it a telegram?"

"Yes," he said, "a message sent without wires; it came by one of those
underground currents that convulse an unconscious world, sometimes
agonizing mountains, at others perplexing a simple maid like yourself.
You see, Joan, all things conspire to draw you to Delgratz."

"I am not going!" she vowed, thereby giving Poluski the exact
information he needed; for his nimble brain was beginning to see the
connection between Alec's letter and Count Julius Marulitch's intense
desire to avail himself of Joan's skill as a copyist.

"You are, my dear," he said, dropping his bantering tone and looking her
straight in the eyes.

"How can such an absurdity be dreamed of?" she demanded breathlessly.

"Because it is a dream that will come true. Listen, now, and don't be
afraid, for these gray old trees of Barbizon have heard madder
whisperings than that you should become a Queen. It is in the natural
order of things that I, who gave my best years to devising the ruin of
Kings, should be chosen in my dotage to help in fixing a King firmly on
his throne. It is some sport of the gods, I suppose, a superhuman jest,
perhaps the touch of farce that makes tragedy more vivid, since even
that colossal Shakespeare of yours thought fit to lighten Hamlet by
introducing a comic gravedigger. Be that as it may, Joan, you are Alec's
Queen, and, as he cannot come for you it follows that you must go to
him. Shall I tell you why? You are necessary to him. It is decreed, and
you cannot shirk your lot. He knows it, and he has written to bid you
come. His enemies know it; but there is a kind of knowledge that leads
its votaries blindfold to the pit, and Alec's enemies are blindly
plotting now to send you to Delgratz and thus compass his ruin."

"Felix! What are you saying?"

"The truth, the simple truth. Not a whiff of metaphor or extravagance
about that statement, Joan. This morning a man came to me in the Louvre.
He was seeking you. He wants to pay you five thousand francs for a copy
of some blazoned daub that hangs in the cathedral at Delgratz. He will
pay double, four times, the money if only you will consent to go there.
Why? Because he believes that Alec is infatuated about you, and that
the mere hint of marriage with one who is not a Slav princess will
shatter the throne of Kosnovia about the ears of its present occupant.
My anxious visitor is mistaken, of course. He is trying to do good that
evil may come of it; but while there is justice in Heaven any such
perversion of an eternal principle is foredoomed to failure.

"But just think of that man coming to me, Felix Poluski, who has an ear
for every sob that rises from the unhappy people who dwell in the
borderland between Teuton and Tartar! Isn't that the cream of comedy?
When I make everything clear to you, when I show you how and by whom the
killing of Theodore and his wife was engineered, you will begin to
understand the fantastic trick that Fate played when she sent her
emissary to the hunchback artist in the Louvre. But it is a long story,
and it will beguile the journey across Austria, while there are many
things you must attend to ere you leave Paris in the Orient Express
to-morrow night."

"Felix, it is impossible!"

"Ah! Then you don't love our Alec."

"I--I have not heard a word from his lips--well, hardly a syllable----"

"Not in the letter?"

"That is different. Felix, I can trust you. Perhaps, under other
conditions, I might marry Alec; but now I cannot."

"Why?"

"Because he is a King."

"The best of reasons, if he was bred in a palace. But he has lived long
enough to become a man first. Frankly, Joan, I like Alec, and I think he
ought to be given a chance. At any rate, I don't see why you are afraid
of him."

"I am not. Indeed, I am not!" Joan's voice was tremulous. She was on the
verge of tears; for the little Pole's persistence was breaking down the
barrier that she had striven to erect against her lover's pleading. Alec
had not said much in his letter; but what he did say was wholly to the
point.

"Come to me, Joan," he wrote. "Don't wait. Don't stop and worry about
what the world will say, since it will surely be something bitter and
untrue. The people here are all right, and I think they are beginning to
like me; but I can see quite plainly that they will not be content until
I am married, and hints are being thrown out already that there are
several eligible young ladies in neighboring States. But if these
Kosnovians take me they must take you too, and it will be far easier for
me when they have seen you.

"Now, no hesitation, no doubts, no weighing of pros and cons. Just set
your teeth and toss your head up, and tell Pauline to sling your
belongings into your boxes, and before you start send me one word in a
telegram. I am horribly busy, of course (for details see daily papers),
and this must be the most extraordinary love letter ever written; but
what does that matter when you and I understand each other? It was you
who sent me here. Don't forget that, dear teller of fortunes, and I want
you to be standing by my side when the storm breaks that must surely be
brewing for me after an incredible success."

There was more in the same vein. Alexis the King seemed to differ in no
essential from the Alec Delgrado who used to wait for her every day in
the neighborhood of the Pont Neuf. Dare she risk it? The question had
tortured her ever since the early morning. It was not that the prospect
of being a Queen was dazzling or even dismaying in itself; she really
dreaded the result of such a marriage on the fortunes of the man she
loved.

But against that self sacrificing attitude she was forced to admit the
plea of Alec's own bewildering lack of conventionality. If half the
stories in the newspapers were true, he was the most original minded
monarch that ever reigned. She was quite sure that his answer to any
evasive reply on her part would be a public announcement of the fact
that his promised bride was a young lady in Paris, Joan Vernon by name.
And that would be worse almost than going quietly to Delgratz and being
married there.

What was she to do? She found Felix Poluski's gray eyes looking at her
steadfastly. In this dilemma he was her only trusted counselor, and he
had already advised her to yield.

"If I even knew his relatives," she faltered. "His parents live in
Paris. We have never met. How can I say to his mother, 'Your son wants
me to marry him. What do you think of me?' She, a Princess, would scoff
at the idea."

"Alec is well aware of that; hence he has written direct to you, and
said nothing to any other person. Let me assure you that if Prince
Michael Delgrado had gone to Delgratz he would have died a sudden and
violent death. Prince Michael knew it, and declined the distinction.
Believe me, too, Alec has the very best of reasons for consulting no one
in his choice of a wife. Now, Joan, be brave! When all is said and done,
it should be far more pleasant to marry a King than fling a bomb at him,
and I have met several young ladies almost as pretty as you who were
ready enough to adopt the latter alternative. At any rate you will take
no harm by crossing the Danube. It is not the Rubicon, you know, and you
have Saint Peter to lean on in case of difficulty."

So Felix did not return to Paris alone, and when he met Count Julius
Marulitch next morning in the Louvre he was able to announce that Miss
Joan Vernon had accepted the commission to copy the Delgratz Saint Peter
and was ready to start for Kosnovia by the night mail.



CHAPTER VI

JOAN GOES INTO SOCIETY


Joan did not telegraph to Alec. She destroyed each of half a dozen
attempts, and ended by taking refuge in silence. It was impossible to
say what she had to say in the bald language of a telegram. Merely to
announce her departure from Paris would put her in the false position of
having accepted Alec's proposal apparently without reserve, which was
exactly what she meant not to do, and any other explanation of the
journey would bewilder him.

Her friend Léontine, housemaid at the Chope de la Sorbonne, did not fail
to tell her of Alec's call the day she left Paris for Barbizon. There
was no mistaking Léontine's description, which was impressionist to a
degree. It was evident, then, that he not only possessed her address, as
shown by the letter, but knew of her absence. So she reasoned that if he
did not hear from her within forty-eight hours he would assume that she
was still away from home. By that time she would be in Delgratz, and,
although she felt some uneasiness at the prospect, she was brave enough
not to shirk meeting him.

They were not children that they should be afraid of speaking their
thoughts, nor lovesick romanticists, apt to be swayed wholly by
sentiment, and she could trust Alec to see the folly of rushing into a
union that might imperil his career. In the depths of her heart she
confessed herself proud and happy at the prospect of becoming his wife;
but she would never consent to a marriage that was not commended by
prudence. Better, far better, they should part forever than that the
lapse of a few months should prove how irretrievably she had ruined him.

This might be sound commonsense, but it was not love, yet all this, and
more, Joan said to Felix Poluski, and the little man had nodded his head
with grins of approval. Meanwhile, he sang and was busy.

Count Julius, posted now in the Pole's mottled history, had demanded
absolute anonymity before he carried the negotiations for the picture
any further. Felix gave the pledge readily, since Joan could not be in
Delgratz a day ere she suspected the truth. At any rate, Marulitch was
satisfied; he introduced Felix to a well-known dealer in the Rue St.
Honoré, and thenceforth disappeared from the transaction. Joan herself
entered into the necessary business arrangements, about which there was
nothing hidden or contraband. The terms proposed were liberal,
considering her poor status in the art world; but they were quite
straightforward. She was given return tickets to Delgratz for herself
and her maid; Felix was similarly provided for; five hundred dollars was
paid in advance, and a written guaranty was handed to her that a
similar sum, together with hotel expenses, would be forthcoming in
exchange for a copy of the Byzantine Saint Peter.

Of course, reviewing matters calmly in the train, she hardly expected
that the second portion of the contract would be fulfilled. She knew
quite well that the conspirators hoped to turn her presence in the
Kosnovian capital to their own account, and when their scheme was balked
they would devise some means of wriggling out of the bargain. But she
laughed at the notion that she, an unknown student, should have suddenly
become a pawn in the game of empire. There was an element of daring,
almost of peril, in the adventure that fascinated her. It savored of
those outlandish incidents recorded in novels of a sensational type,
wherein fur coated, sallow faced, cigarette smoking scoundrels plotted
the destruction of dynasties, and used fair maidens as decoys for
susceptible Kings. Certainly, Felix Poluski, judged by his past, was no
bad prototype of a character in that class of fiction; regarded in his
present guise, as he sat opposite her in the dining car of the Orient
Express, he looked the most harmless desperado that ever preyed on a
quivering world.

His face seemed to be smaller and more wrinkled than usual. From Joan's
superior height his hump was accentuated till it showed above the top of
his head, and the girl was conscious, though she resolutely closed her
eyes to the fact, that the admiring glances with which she was favored
by some of her fellow passengers were somewhat modified by the humorous
incongruity of Poluski's appearance.

At first, they tacitly avoided any reference to Alec or Delgratz. Their
talk dealt with art and artists, and Joan had a good deal to say about
the delights of painting in the open air.

Felix blinked at her sagely. "Behold, then, the beginning of the end!"
he cackled.

"The end of what?" she asked, with some kindling of suspicion, since her
queer little friend's tricks of conversation were not new to her.

"Of your career as an artist. Barbizon is fatal to true emotion. It
induces a fine sense of the beauty of sunsets, of diffused light in
sylvan solitudes, of blues that are greens and browns that are reds. In
a word, the study of nature inclines one toward truth, whereas art is
essentially a gracious lie. That is why the Greeks were the greatest
artists: because they were most pleasing liars. They understood the
crassness of humanity. Long before Browning wrote _Fra Lippo Lippi_ they
realized that

               "We're made so that we love
          First when we see them painted, things we have passed
          Perhaps a hundred times, nor cared to see;
          And so they are better painted--better to us,
          Which is the same thing."

Joan laughed, and the cheery sound of her mirth seemed to startle the
staid folk in the car.

At a neighboring table a middle aged couple were dining, the woman
dignified and matronly, the man small, slight, with a curiously bloated
aspect which, on analysis, seemed to arise from puffy cheeks and thick,
sensual lips. He said something that caused his companion to turn and
look at Joan; for the woman is yet unborn who will hear another woman
described as pretty and not want to decide for herself how far the
statement is justified.

So the eyes of the two met, and Joan saw a worn, kindly face, endowed
with a quiet charm of expression and delicacy of contour that offered a
marked contrast to the man's unprepossessing features. Both women were
too well bred to stare, and Joan instantly brought her wits to bear on
Poluski's quip; but that fleeting glimpse had thrilled her with subtle
recognition of something grasped yet elusive, of a knowledge that
trembled on the lip of discovery, like a half remembered word murmuring
in the brain but unable to make itself heard.

"Do you ever say what you really mean, Felix?" she asked.

"Far too often, my belle. That is why I am only a copyist.

          "I am a painter who cannot paint;
          In my life, a devil rather than saint.

"Believe me, we artists err ridiculously when we depart from the Greek
standard. Your Whistler never achieved fame until he stopped reproducing
bits of nature and devoted his superb talent to caricature."

"Caricature! Whistler!" she repeated.

"Name of a good little gray man! what else? Not portraits, surely? Wise
that he was, he left those to the snapshot photographer; for even the
camera can be given the artistic kink by the toucher-up. Have you
forgotten, then, the rage of a stolid Englishman when he saw his wife as
Whistler painted her? Oh, yes, art lies outrageously and lives long,
like other fables."

"But Whistler might have been bluntly accurate, a thing that is not
always pleasing. For instance," and here her voice sank a little, "it
might not be altogether gratifying to my pride if some one was to
analyze mercilessly the precise reasons of my present journey."

"_Tiens!_ Let us do it. It will serve to pass the time."

She laughed and blushed. "Wait a little. We have many hours before us."

"You will never have a more appreciative audience, if only you could
make your voice heard above this din."

"What are you driving at? Please tell me."

"You have seen the two people sitting over there?" and he twisted
eyebrows and mouth awry, with a whimsical leer of caution.

"Yes; what of them?"

"Do you know them?"

"No."

"Not even the lady?"

"She reminds me of some one--why do you ask?"

"I am surprised at you, Joan. Those charming eyes of yours should be
keener. True, there is nothing feminine about Alec, and he has not
suffered, like his mother. Still, there is a resemblance."

"Felix, are you in earnest?"

"Absolutely. I, at least, have not the Greek temperament. Our friends
across the gangway are none other than Prince and Princess Michael
Delgrado. You will discover no prophecy of Alec in his father; but he is
his mother's own son, despite her weak chin and air of resignation."

Joan was dismayed, utterly astonished; the color ebbed from her cheeks.
"Are they going to Delgratz?" she almost whispered.

"I suppose so. It is one of the oddest things about our lives how they
run in grooves. Just now all the tiny furrows of our separate existences
are converging on the Danube. We are like ships foredoomed to collision,
that hurry remorselessly from the ends of the earth to the preordained
crash."

"Oh, Felix, if you knew of this why did you bring me here?"

"Who am I to resist when the gods beckon? I love you, Joan, and I hate
Kings; but it is decreed that you shall be a Queen, so I fold my arms
and bow my head like the meekest of mortals."

"I shall quit the train at the next stopping place."

"But why? If Alec and you are to wed, it is only fit and proper that
his parents should grace the ceremony."

"You harp on marriage when there may be no marriage. If Alec was not a
King, it might be different; but the world will scoff when it hears that
his chosen bride came to him from lodgings in the Place de la Sorbonne.
What will Princess Delgrado think, now that she has seen me here,
rushing off to Delgratz the instant I was summoned? Felix, I must return
to Paris. Happily, I have some two thousand francs due within a week,
and I can then refund the cost of our tickets, and perhaps the railway
people will allow something for the incompleted journey."

"Calm yourself, _ma petite!_ You count like the proprietress of my
favorite café! And to what purpose? It would be a pity to act in that
foolish way. There is no compulsion on you to marry Alec, and the
Byzantine Saint Peter still hangs in the cathedral. Let any one so much
as hint that you are throwing yourself at Alec's head, and I shall have
the hinter dynamited. No, no, my Joan, we may yield to higher powers;
but we do not abandon our pilgrimage because it is shared by an old
scamp of a father whose sole anxiety is to fleece his son. Come, now,
finish your dinner in peace, and let me explain to you why it is that
Alexis III. and not Michael V. reigns in Delgratz. You don't glean many
facts about monarchs from newspapers. If I brought you to a certain
wineshop in the Rue Taitbout any evening after dinner you would hear
more truth about royalty in half an hour than you will read in half a
year."

Joan, conscious of a telltale pallor, was leaning forward with an elbow
on the table and shielding her face with widespread fingers propped
against cheek and forehead. In the noise and flurry of the train it was
easy to tune the voice to such a note that it must be inaudible to those
at the adjacent tables; but Poluski seemed to be careless whether or not
he was overheard, and the girl fancied that Princess Delgrado had caught
the words "Alexis," "Michael," "Delgratz." Certainly the Princess turned
again and looked at her, while she did not fail to glance swiftly at the
misshapen figure visible only in profile.

"Not so loud, Felix," murmured Joan. "Come to my compartment when you
have smoked a cigarette. By that time I shall have recovered my wits,
and I may be able to decide what to do for the best."

"Wrong again!" he laughed. "Obey your heart, not your brain,
_mignonne_." (He bent nearer, and his extraordinarily bright gray eyes
peered up into hers.) "That is how Alec won his throne. He is all heart.
Those who paved the way for him were all brain. They plotted, and
contrived, and spun their web with the murderous zeal of a spider; but,
poof! in buzzes bluebottle Alec, and where are the schemers? Ah, my
angel, if you knew everything you would be cheery as I and marry your
King with a light conscience."

The two persons who were the unwitting cause of Joan's sudden misgivings
rose and quitted the dining car. No one seemed to be aware of their
identity. Even the brown-liveried attendants did not give them any more
attention than was bestowed on the other passengers, and the girl
realized that the parents of a King, even such a newly fledged King as
Alec, did not usually travel with this pronounced lack of state.

"Are you quite sure they are the Prince and Princess?" she asked,
scanning Poluski's wrinkled face to learn if he had not been playing
some sorry jest.

"Quite sure," said he.

"But----"

"You wonder why they condescend to mix with the common horde? Learn
then, my Joan, that a French booking clerk is a skeptic who can be
convinced only by the sight of money. Consider the number of brokendown
royalties in Paris, and picture, if you can, the scowl of disbelief that
would cloud the official features of the Gare de l'Est if Prince Michael
asked for a special train to Delgratz; booked it on the nod, so to
speak. It could not be done, Joan, not if one substituted 'Archangel'
for 'Prince.' As it is, the senior Delgrado has probably touched a
friend for the money to buy the tickets."

"Yet their names would be recognized."

Felix called an attendant. "The lady and gentleman who sat at the
opposite table were the Count and Countess Polina?"

"I cannot say, monsieur. Shall I inquire?"

"No need, thank you. To be precise, since you demand it," went on
Poluski when the man had gone, "I asked who they were the moment we left
Paris. I saw them on the platform, and the absence of any display showed
that they were traveling incognito. I doubt very much if Alec knows of
their journey. Can you guess why I think that?"

Joan shook her head wearily. "I am living in a land of dreams," she
sighed. "I do not understand the why or wherefore of anything?"

"Listen, then, and you will see that your dreamland is a prosaic place,
after all. There is a man in Paris who receives letters daily from
Kosnovia, and they tell of events that are not printed for the
multitude. Last night, when I was certain we should go to Delgratz, I
sought him and heard the latest news. Your Alec means to economize. He
has promulgated the absurd theory that the people's taxes should be
spent for the people's benefit, and he says that no King is worth more
than five thousand pounds a year, while many of his contemporaries would
be dear at the price. He has also set up this ridiculous maximum as a
standard, and intends to reduce the official salary list to about half
its present dimensions.

"This fantasy has reached his father's ears, and the old gentleman is
hurrying to Delgratz to check the madness ere it is too late. It is a
simple bit of arithmetic: if a King, who works like a horse, is to
receive only five thousand a year, what is the annual value of his
father, who does nothing but lounge about the boulevards? No wonder old
Michael is off hotfoot to the White City!"

Despite her perplexities, Joan had to laugh, and Felix bent nearer to
clinch his argument.

"You and I must stand by Alec, my dear. I too am breathing a new
atmosphere. I fought against Kings because they were tyrants; but I am
ready to fight for one who is a deliverer. What do you fear, you? The
world? Has the world ever done anything for you that its opinion should
be considered? It will fawn or snarl as it thinks best fitted to its own
ends; but help or pity? Never! Its votaries in Delgratz will strive to
rend Alec when they realize that their interests are threatened. We must
be there, you and I, you to aid him in winning the fickle mob, and I to
watch those secret burrowings more dangerous to thrones than open
revolt. It is a sacred mission, my Joan! They who named you were wiser
than they knew. You were christened a King's helpmate, while I, Felix
Poluski, am fated to be the most amazing product of modern
civilization,--an anarchist devoted to a monarchy.

"It came on me yesterday morning in the Louvre. I saw my principles
crucified for the good of humanity. Through the eyes of the Virgin I
looked into a heaven of achievement, and I care not what the means so
long as good results. One honest King is worth a million
revolutionaries, and God, who made Alec a King, also made him honest."

Excited, exuberant, bubbling over with that very emotionalism at which
he had scoffed a few minutes earlier, Felix leaned back in his chair and
sang a quatrain in his singularly sweet and penetrating tenor.

Instantly every head was turned and necks were craned. A waiter, serving
coffee, was so electrified that he poured no small quantity into the lap
of an indignant German. Joan, too wrathful for mere words, dared not
rush away instantly to her compartment, though she would have given a
good deal at that moment to be safe in its kindly obscurity. And the
worst thing was that she saw the coffeepot incident, and was forced to
laugh till the tears came.

Cries of "Bravo!" "Again!" mingled with the iron-clamped syllables of
Teutonic protest, and she distinctly heard a well bred English voice
say:

"Foreign music hall artists! I told you so, though the girl looks an
American. But, by gad! can't that humpbacked johnny sing!"

"Felix, how could you?" she managed to gasp at last.

"I'm sorry. I forgot we were not in Paris. But there are some here who
appreciate good music. If you don't mind, I'll give them Béranger's
'Adieu to Mary Stuart.' You remember, it goes this way--"

Joan fled, making play with her handkerchief. The fast speeding train
threw her from side to side of the corridor during a hurried transit;
but the exquisite lines followed her clearly.

Felix sang like a robin till the mood exhausted itself. Then, deaf to
enthusiastic plaudits and cries for "More!" he lit a long thin cigar and
smoked furiously. Passing Joan's berth later, he knocked.

"Who is it?" she asked.

"I, the Humming Bee."

"Leave me to-night, Felix. I must think."

"Better sleep. Thinking creates wrinkles. Look on me as a horrible
example."

He went away, bassooning some lively melody, but grinning the while, and
if his thoughts took shape they would run:

"The struggle has ended ere it began, sweet maid. You are in love; but
have not yet waked up to that astonishing fact. Now, why did the good
God give me a big heart and a small head and a twisted spine? Why not
have made me either a man or an imp?"

Joan could not face strangers in the dining car after Poluski's strange
outburst. She remained in her own cramped quarters all next day, ate
some meals there as best she could, and kept Felix at arm's length so
far as confidence or counsel was concerned. On the platform at Vienna,
where the train was made up afresh, she encountered Princess Delgrado.
To her consternation, the older woman stopped and spoke.

"I am sorry I missed the delightful little concert your friend provided
in the dining car last night," she said in French, and her voice had
that touch of condescension with which a society leader knows how to
dilute her friendliness when addressing a singer or musician. "My
husband and I retired early, to our great loss, I hear. Are you
traveling beyond Vienna? If so, and you give us another musical this
evening----"

"There is some mistake," faltered Joan, unconsciously answering in
English. "People who do not know Monsieur Poluski often take him for an
operatic artiste. He is a painter. He sings only to amuse himself, and
seldom waits to consider whether the time and place are well chosen."

"But, gracious me!" cried the Princess, amazed to find that Joan spoke
English as to the manner born. "Some one said you were Polish. I doubted
my eyes when I looked at you; but your companion--well, he might be
anything."

"Both he and I earn our bread by painting pictures," said Joan. "Indeed,
we are now bound for Delgratz to carry out a commission."

"Delgratz! How extraordinary! I too am going there. It is so disturbed
at present that it is the last place in the world I should have
suspected of artistic longings. May I ask who has sent for you?"

Luckily, in the bustle and semiobscurity of the station, Princess
Delgrado did not pay much heed to the furious blushing of the pretty
girl who had aroused her interest. It was impossible to regard one whom
she now believed to be an American like herself as being in any way
concerned with the intrigues that centered in the capital of Kosnovia,
and she attributed Joan's confusion to the pardonable error that arose
from the talk Prince Michael brought from the smoking car.

But what was Joan to answer? She could not blurt out to Alec's mother
the contents of that exceedingly plainspoken epistle now reposing in her
pocket. For one mad instant she wondered what would happen if she said:

"I am being sent to Delgratz by people who wish to drive Alec out of the
kingdom, and I am really considering whether or not I ought to marry
him."

Then she lifted her head valiantly, with just that wood-nymph flinging
back of rebellious hair that Alec was thinking of while riding to his
Castle of Care after a long day in the saddle.

"There is nothing unusual in my being chosen to copy a picture," she
said. "Art connoisseurs care little for politics. To them a new Giotto
is vastly more important than a new King, and I am told that both are to
be found in Delgratz nowadays."

Prince Michael strolled up. He was pleased that his wife had made the
acquaintance of the charming unknown, whom he had looked for in vain
during the day.

"Ah," he said, with polite hat flourish, "I feared we had lost the
pleasant company of which I heard----"

"You were misinformed," broke in his wife hastily in English. "This
young lady is visiting Delgratz for art purposes. The gentleman who sang
last night is the celebrated painter, Monsieur--Monsieur----"

"Felix Poluski," said Joan.

Prince Michael started as though a scorpion had found a crack in his
patent boots.

"Poluski--Felix Poluski!" he cried. "I know that name; but he was fond
of using strange colors on his palette if I remember rightly."

Felix, owing to his small stature, was compelled to dodge among the
crowd on the platform like a child. He appeared now unexpectedly, and
Michael's exclamation was not lost on him.

"Excellent, Monseigneur!" he said. "You always had a turn for epigram. I
am glad to find that you have not forgotten the brave days of old when
you and I used to spout treason together, you because you hungered after
a dynasty, and I because I preferred dynamite. Odd thing, both words
mean power, strength, sovereignty; the difference lies only in the
method of application. But that was in our hot youth, Michael----"

"Imbecile!" hissed the Prince, his red face blanching, as once before
when a man spoke of the perils that hedge a throne in the Balkans. "This
is Vienna. I shall be recognized!"

Felix snapped his fingers. "They don't care that for you,
Monseigneur--never did! You could have come and gone as you pleased any
time during these thirty years. If any one is feared here, it is I. But,
my veteran, why this display of wrath? You know me well enough. Didn't
you see me last night?"

"No--that is, I did not recollect. Your face was hidden."

"Ah, you had something better to look at. Well, who goes to Delgratz?
Get aboard, all!"

During this brief but illuminating conversation the Princess and Joan
could do nothing else but gaze from one man to the other in mute
surprise, and Joan was grieved beyond measure that Felix should treat
Alec's father with such scant courtesy. Even while they were making for
the steps of the sleeping cars, she managed to whisper tremulously to
the Princess:

"Please don't be angry with Monsieur Poluski. His brusk manner often
gets him into trouble. Forgive me for saying it, but your son knows him
well, and is very fond of him, and I am sure Felix would do anything
that lay in his power to help--to help King Alexis III."

"My son! Do you also know him?"

"Yes."

"Have you met him in Paris?"

"Yes."

"But I have never seen you at the Rue Boissière."

"No. We met at Rudin's, and sometimes in the Louvre."

"And does he know that you are coming to Delgratz?"

"No. I assure you----"

The Princess hesitated. It was not in her kind heart to think evil of
this singularly frank looking and attractive girl. "Will you tell me
your name?" she said, turning with one foot on the step; for they were
about to enter separate carriages.

"Joan Vernon."

"I suppose it is idle to ask, but you are not married?"

"No, nor likely to be for a very long time."

"Aboard!" cried a guard, marveling that women could find so much to say
at the very last moment.

"Well," said the Princess, "I hope to see you at dinner. If not, in
Delgratz."

Joan took good care that no one except her maid and an attendant saw her
again that evening. She felt bruised and buffeted as though she had been
carried among rocks by some irresistible current. Even her mind refused
to act. The why and the wherefore of events were dim and not to be
grasped. Over and over again she regretted the impulse that led her to
take this journey. Felix, as friend and artistic tutor, was invaluable;
but in the guise of mentor for a young woman who had her own way to make
in the world, and nothing more to depend on than her artistic faculties
and a small income from a trust fund, he was a distinct failure. What
would Alec think of it all? And what would Alec's mother say when her
son told her that Joan Vernon was the woman he meant to marry?

So Joan grew miserable, and developed a headache, and wept a little over
perplexities that were very real though she could not define them. And
Felix dined alone, and smoked in dumb reverie, and when Prince Michael,
warmed with wine and cheered by the knowledge that a wearisome journey
was drawing to a close, unbent so far as to ask him to sing, the little
man shook his head.

"You'll hear me singing in Delgratz, Monseigneur," he said. "I shall
have something to think about then, and I sing to think, just as you
live to eat. At present, there isn't a note in the box. Now, if madame
can spare you, just sit down there, and you and I will talk of old
times. For instance, poor Amélie Constant--she died the other day----"

"Ah, bah!" growled Michael. "That is not interesting. Old times of that
sort generally mean times one would rather forget. _Au 'voir_, M'sieur
Poluski. We shall meet across the Danube. If your principles permit,
come and see me at court."

"My principles carry me into strange company, Monseigneur," said Felix
gravely.



CHAPTER VII

JOAN BECOMES THE VICTIM OF CIRCUMSTANCES


On arriving at Delgratz, Joan still avoided her distinguished traveling
companions. Indeed, no one paid any heed to her, since Prince Michael's
vanity could not resist the temptation of making himself known, and when
the word went round that the King's father was in the station, there was
such a press around him and the Princess that ordinary passengers were
of little account.

Monseigneur was flattered by the excitement caused by his unexpected
appearance, and he momentarily regretted the lack of display that
resulted from his decision to travel incognito. It would have been so
much more effective if he had been greeted by the King and a glittering
staff the moment he descended from the train. It was undignified, too,
to pass through the streets of the capital in a disheveled hired
vehicle, when a royal carriage, surrounded by a cavalry escort, might
have brought him to the palace in style. It was somewhat late in the
day, however, to rectify the mistake now. He could not hang round the
station while a messenger went to his son, and if he meant to effect a
surprise he had succeeded admirably.

Leaving a valet and maid to bring the luggage, which an obsequious
customs officer cleared at once, he ushered his wife into a ramshackle
victoria and told the man to drive to the Schwarzburg.

Every Serb is a born gossip; but a policeman had whispered the names of
the eminent pair, and awe kept the driver's tongue from wagging, else
Prince Michael would have received a greater shock than the welcoming
bump of a singularly bad pavement. Luckily the Black Castle lay no great
distance from the railway, since Delgratz was but a small place when the
palace was built, and the town had long ago closed around it on every
hand.

During the short drive Michael tried to be cheery, though he had slept
little during two nights. "These old streets have really changed very
little," he said. "When I was a boy I remember thinking how magnificent
they were. What an eye opener it must have been for Alec when he
realized that he had given up Paris--for this!" and he waved a
deprecating hand toward the unkempt houses, yellow washed and dingy; for
the White City, though white when seen from a distance, turns out to be
an unhealthy looking saffron at close quarters. The Princess cared
nothing for the squalor of the town. She was thinking of her son.

"I wish we had told Alec we were coming, Michael," she said. "Now that
we are here, the reasons you urged for secrecy seem to be less
convincing than ever."

"Alec would have telegraphed his prompt advice to remain where we were."

"Perhaps----"

"Perhaps you will allow me to decide what is best to be done, Marie. Our
affairs had reached a crisis. So long as there was a chance of my
becoming King I was able to finance myself. Now that Alec is firmly
established, and filling empty heads with all this nonsense as to
retrenchment and economical administration, every creditor I had in the
world is pestering me. You cannot realize the annoyance to which I have
been subjected during the last fortnight. Life was becoming intolerable,
just because Alec was talking galimatias to a number of irresponsible
journalists."

"Why not write and tell him our troubles? He would have helped us, I am
sure. And that which you call rubbish seems to have caught the ear of
all Europe. Even 'The Journal des Débats' published a most eulogistic
article about him last week."

"Poof!" snorted Monseigneur. "Those Paris rags pander to republicanism.
Every word, every act, of an impetuous youngster like Alec is twisted
into an argument against the older monarchies. Give an eye to the mean
looking building on the right. That is the Chamber of Deputies. Alec
made the speech there that won him a throne. Who would have believed
it? Just a few words, and he became King!"

Something in Prince Michael's tone caused his wife to look at him
sharply. "You are not growing envious, Michael?" she asked.

"No; but I was a fool."

"Because I shall keep you to our compact," she said, with a firmness of
manner that surprised the pompous little man by her side. He had been
answered in that way so seldom during their married life that the
novelty was displeasing.

"Ah, bah! what are you saying?" he cried. He stifled the next words on
his lips; for the horse passed under an arch, and not even the studied
repose of a princely boulevardier could conceal his new amazement.

An industrial army was busy in and around the famous residence of the
Kings of Kosnovia. They were tearing it to pieces. The roof was off, one
wing was wholly dismantled, and the beautiful gardens were strewn with
débris.

"In the name of Providence, what is going on?" demanded Monseigneur of
the driver.

"It is the King's order, your Highness," said the man, glorying in the
fact that the muzzle was off--by request. "The castle is to be
demolished, and a new National Assembly built on the site."

"Our ancient house pulled down and made a sty for those hogs! The King
must be mad!"

"We esteem him highly in Delgratz," said the man stoutly. "He thinks
more of the people than of palaces, and they say that he means to
convert some of the gold lace into white bread."

The bewildered and infuriated Michael now remembered that the few
officers encountered in the railway station or the streets seemed to be
far less gaudily attired than in former years. In a passing thought he
attributed the alteration to the wearing of undress uniform during the
early hours; but the cab driver's words seemed to hint at some fresh
wave of reform. His bulging eyes continued to glare at the ruined
palace; but native caution warned him against being too outspoken in the
presence of one of the lower order.

"When was this work begun?" he asked.

"Three days ago, your Highness. The King decided that the banqueting
hall should be destroyed as quickly as possible. He says it taints the
air. As for the Assembly, it must wait. Money is not so plentiful."

"What is it, Michael?" cried the Princess, aware that something
unforeseen had happened; but unable to grasp its significance, owing to
her ignorance of the language.

Monseigneur, who had stood up in the carriage, subsided again. He raised
both hands in a gesture of bewilderment. "Alexis III. has signalized the
first month of his reign by destroying the historic home of our
race--that is all, madame!" he muttered bitterly.

"But why are we remaining here? Where does Alec live? He must inhabit a
house of some sort. Tell the man to drive there at once!"

The Prince affected not to hear. "What could Stampoff be thinking of to
permit this outrage?" he murmured. "Why was not I consulted? Idiot that
I am, and coward too! I see now the mistake I made. Can it be rectified?
Is it too late?"

A second carriage, laden with luggage, drove in through the gateway. The
valet and a French maid gazed in discreet wonder at their master and
mistress seated disconsolately in front of a tumbledown building.

"Michael, I insist that you give the driver directions!" cried his wife
vehemently. "We cannot remain here. The least shred of commonsense
should warn you that we are making ourselves ridiculous."

"Ah, yes, one must act," agreed the Prince. He glanced up at the
enthusiastic supporter of the new régime.

"We have traveled here from Paris, and his Majesty's recent letters have
missed us," he said, with a perceptible return of the grand air that had
served him in good stead for many years. "Take us to his Majesty's
present residence. The error is mine. I should have told you that in the
first instance."

"The King is living in the President's house, Excellency. It is not far;
but you will not find his Majesty there this morning. At four o'clock
he rode to Grotzka with the mad Englishman----"

"Ha! and who may that be?"

"An English milord, who laughs always, even when his Majesty and he are
trying to break their necks at a game they play on horseback, hitting a
white ball with long sticks. I have seen them. They make the young
officers play it, and there are three in hospital already. This is hot
weather for such an infernal amusement!"

Prince Michael nodded. Like every other person watching affairs on the
Danube, he had read of Lord Adalbert Beaumanoir's adventure with the
Austrian authorities,--indeed, Europe had almost expected a declaration
of war over the incident,--but he did not know that Beaumanoir was still
an inhabitant of Delgratz.

"To Monsieur Nesimir's!" he said sullenly, and left it to the Princess
to give instructions to the servants to follow, though the poor woman
did not yet know whither she was being taken. She was very angry with
her husband, and she blamed herself for not having telegraphed to her
son before leaving Paris. But she had yielded to Michael Delgrado during
so many years that it was difficult to abandon the habit now; yet she
promised herself a full explanation with Alec when they met, and that
must be soon, since here she was in Delgratz, where, judging by the
newspapers, the King was in evidence every hour of the day.

The President's house was distant only a stone's throw, and, though
obviously mystified, stout Nesimir met his unexpected guests cordially.
He was disconsolate because of the King's probable absence till late in
the afternoon.

"What a pity his Majesty chose to-day for a visit to the artillery
camp!" he cried. "But I shall send a courier; he can return by noon. How
is it nothing was said as to your Highnesses' visit. I dined with the
King last night----"

"We wished to surprise his Majesty," explained Prince Michael. "You know
how outspoken he is, and how easily these things get into the newspaper;
so we started from Paris without a word to a soul. Send no courier after
him, I beg. A rest of a few hours will be most acceptable to the
Princess and myself. Madame is fatigued after a long journey, while I
would ask nothing better than an armchair, a cup of coffee, a cigarette,
and a chat; that is, if you can spare the time, Monsieur le Président."

Nesimir would be charmed to comply with Monseigneur's desires in every
respect. Really, the elder Delgrado seemed to be even more approachable
than his son; for the President was unable to fathom many of the social
views propounded by Alexis III. This unheralded advent of the King's
parents, too, betokened some secret move. He was sure of that, and,
being a man to whom political intrigue was the breath of life, he saw
that a gossip with Prince Michael might convey information of much
possible value in the near future. So the Princess Delgrado was ushered
to a room by Madame Nesimir with all possible ceremony, and the two men
established themselves on a cool veranda.

By this time, Joan and Felix were seated at breakfast in the hotel. Joan
had wisely left the bargaining with the landlord to her companion, and
he, knowing something of Serbian ways, which reck little of politeness
when curiosity can be sated, chose a sitting room on the first floor
with three bedrooms adjoining. The sitting room was a huge place, big
enough to serve as a studio if necessary. Three large windows commanded
a view of the main street, and the solid oak door opened into the
corridor behind, which also gave access to the bedrooms.

Poluski's only motive in selecting this particular suite was to secure
the maximum of privacy. Joan's appearance was far too striking that she
should be subjected to the scrutiny of every lounger in the restaurant
beneath. In this primitive community she would probably receive several
offers of marriage the first time she sat at table in the public dining
room.

It was he, too, who advised her never to go out unless she was deeply
veiled. Joan laughed at the reason--but followed his counsel. During
their first stroll in the open air she said she felt like a Mohammedan
woman; yet she soon realized that a double motor veil not only shielded
her from impertinent eyes but kept her face free from dust and insects.

Naturally, they made straight for the cathedral and examined the quaint
picture that had provided an excuse for their visit to the Near East.
They were much impressed. They gazed at its brilliant coloring and stiff
pose for fully a minute. Then Joan broke a silence that was becoming
irksome.

"If it is really a Giotto," she whispered, "it was painted before he
broke away from the Byzantine tradition."

"Yes," murmured Poluski, "here we have both Giotto and Saint Peter at
their worst."

"Felix, how can I copy that?"

"Impossible, my belle. You must improvise, using it as a theme. When all
is said and done, you know far more than Giotto about Saint Peter. Holy
blue! if you bring that back to Paris as a veritable likeness of the
Chief Apostle you will be placed on the Index Expurgatorius. Moreover,
it would not be fair to him, after all these years."

"It needed only this to prove how farcical is the whole scheme. I am
beginning to dread the idea of meeting Alec. He will laugh at me."

"That will do him good. I am told he is becoming most serious."

"Told--by whom? Surely you have not sent any message?"

"Not a word. I leave that to you--or Princess Delgrado."

"How snappy you are! It was not my fault that the Princess spoke to me.
She would never have known I was on the train if you hadn't sung."

"Ah, by the way, we ought to hear some decent Gregorian music in this
old place. See, where they have put the choir, nearly under the dome.
Yes, we must attend a service. The bass should roll like thunder up
yonder----"

"Felix, who told you about Alec?"

"A waiter in the hotel, a waiter rejoicing in the noble name of John
Sobieski, a Pole, therefore, like myself. I said to him 'What of the
King?' He answered, 'Everything that is good, if one listens to the
people; but the officers who come here to drink and play cards do not
like him.' I explained that I wished to know the King's whereabouts, and
he said that if I was anxious to see the gracious youth I should have a
splendid opportunity at four o'clock this afternoon, as his Majesty will
pass the hotel at that hour on his way to the University, where he has
promised to attend a prize giving."

"At four o'clock! What shall we do meanwhile?" asked Joan innocently.

Felix winked brazenly at the picture. "Delgratz is a picturesque city,"
he said. "Let us inspect it."

"You do not think Alec will learn of our presence and visit us before
going to the University?"

"Very improbable. He is out in the country, watching artillery at field
exercise. Of course, he knows nothing about artillery; but Kings have to
pretend a good deal. Now, if I were a young lady who had been traveling
for a day and two nights, especially if I had slept badly during the
second night, I should stroll about the principal streets till I was
tired, eat a light luncheon, sleep for an hour afterward, dress myself
in some muslin confection, and be ready to dine with the King at
seven-thirty or thereabouts."

"I shall do nothing of the kind!" cried Joan, blushing behind her motor
veil.

"Very well. Behold in me your slave of the lamp. What shall we do?"

"I don't object to looking at the shops and the people for a little
while," she admitted, and this time Felix did not wink at the picture,
but contented himself with an expressive raising of his bushy eyebrows.

The program he mapped out was adhered to faithfully. Joan was really
tired, and the midday heat of Delgratz was not only novel but highly
disagreeable. She retired to her room at one o'clock, and Felix heard
her telling her maid to call her at three.

The elderly Frenchwoman whom Joan employed as a compendium of all the
domestic virtues was scandalized by the pestering she had already
undergone at the hands of the hotel employees. They wanted to know
everything about her mistress as soon as they were told that she was not
Poluski's wife, and the staid Pauline was at her wit's end to parry the
questions showered on her in bad French. Felix advised her not to
understand when spoken to, and relieved her manifest distress by the
statement that the hotel would see the last of them in a day or two.

Then, anxious himself to be rid of Pauline, he strolled out into Fürst
Michaelstrasse, entered the hotel's public restaurant by another door,
and sat there, musing and alone.

Thus far, Joan and he had passed through the simple vicissitudes that
might beset any other strangers in the capital of Kosnovia. Though the
little man expected developments when Alec heard of Joan's presence, he
certainly did not look for squalls forthwith; yet he had not been
smoking and humming and sipping a cup of excellent coffee more than a
minute before he became aware that the sunlit street was curiously
alive.

The hottest hours of a hot day might well have driven the citizens of
Delgratz indoors; but some powerful inducement was drawing loiterers to
Fürst Michaelstrasse. It was evident that the attraction, whatsoever it
might be, was not supplied by the thoroughfare itself. Men lounged along
the pavements or gathered in groups, and Poluski noted that few women
were present. Soon a regiment of soldiers marched up, formed into two
ranks, and lined the street on both sides.

Felix betook himself to the door, where his compatriot was dusting
marble topped tables with an apron that, under other conditions, would
have soiled them.

"Does the King arrive earlier than four o'clock?" he asked.

John Sobieski looked around furtively before he answered. "No," said he
in a low tone, "the crowd is gathering to see the regicides. Their trial
ended to-day, and they are being taken to the Old Fort to await
sentence."

"Found guilty?"

"I should think so, indeed, monsieur! They gloried in their crime. They
claim that they cleared the way for Alexis III. by removing Ferdinand.
Some people say the King cannot really be severe on them, though it was
he who brought them to justice."

"Have they many sympathizers?"

The waiter, a pallid creature, flicked a table loudly to cover his
reply. "Some of our customers talk big; but it is a strange thing that
the authorities allow the men of the disbanded Seventh Regiment to
remain in Delgratz. There are hundreds of them in the street at this
moment."

"It reminds one of Warsaw."

A sudden moisture glistened in John Sobieski's eyes. "Ah, Warsaw!" he
muttered. "Shall I ever see my beautiful city again? But it is different
here, monsieur. Even though they quarrel among themselves, they have at
least got rid of their conquerors."

A quickening of interest on the part of the mob, a general craning of
necks, and a sharp command to the soldiers showed that the criminals
were en route from the law courts. A squad of cavalry trotted into
sight, followed by eight closed carriages. An armed policeman sat near
every driver, and another stood on the step outside each door. Mounted
soldiers in single file surrounded the dismal procession, and a second
strong detachment guarded the rear.

It was a doleful spectacle, and Felix was puzzled by the absence of
anything in the nature of a popular demonstration. He had been led to
believe that Delgratz abhorred these murders committed in the name of
progress, and he naturally expected an emotional people to betray their
feelings. He listened in vain for a yell of execration. A queer murmur
ran through the crowd, that was all, a murmur that was ominous, almost
sinister. He scanned the faces of the crowd, trying to pierce their
stolid aspect. Some of the bystanders obviously belonged to the mutinous
regiment; but he looked in vain for any sign of anger or regret.

Skilled conspirator that he was, Poluski seemed rather to discern a deep
laid purpose behind their unnatural phlegm, yet his suspicions died away
when the street began to empty as soon as the prisoners' vehicles and
the escort had clattered past. The foot regiment marched off, and within
ten minutes Felix was back in his nook, smoking and coffee drinking, and
thanking the chance that left Joan unconscious of this grim episode,
since her bedroom windows looked out on the garden in rear of the hotel.

He sat there quietly, sternly repressing his musical instincts when he
caught himself humming some favorite melody; nor would he have budged
until Alec appeared had not his keen eyes noted another curious
movement in the street. About half-past three several men strolled past
the café, men whom he distinctly remembered having seen in the earlier
crowd. In twos and threes they came, and he fancied that the complete
disregard each set paid the others was rather overdone.

At any rate, he ordered a fresh supply of coffee and sought
enlightenment from Sobieski. "Just peep at some of those fellows in the
street and tell me if they are not soldiers of the Seventh Regiment," he
said.

The waiter obeyed. He determined the point quickly. "I recognize a few,
monsieur," he muttered, "and I believe there are scores of them. I wish
they would patronize some other street. Our patrons will not care to mix
with such rascals."

Poluski rose wearily; for his energetic soul was housed in a frail body,
and the long journey from Paris had exhausted him.

"I have read in the newspapers that King Alexis dispenses with a
bodyguard?" he said, lighting a fresh cigar.

"He hates ceremony, that young man," was the ready answer. "At first the
people mobbed him. Now he rides through Delgratz like a courier,
sometimes alone, at others with a friend or two, and perhaps an
orderly."

Felix laughed. "He is a fine fellow," said he. "Do the King a good turn,
John, and you will be able to buy a café in Warsaw one of these days."

"Me, monsieur! How can a poor waiter hope to serve a King?"

"_Que diable!_ You never know your luck. Life is a lottery, and some day
you may draw the great prize."

Felix sauntered into the street and took a keen interest in its
architecture. In front of the hotel and down a slight gradient to the
right it was a wide and straight thoroughfare; but to the left and
uphill it narrowed rapidly and took a sharp left turn. In the angle
stood a popular restaurant, and the rooms on the first and second
stories were full of customers. No one, apparently, was looking out; but
small parties of men sat near each open window, and they were not
playing cards or dominoes, though the greater part of the male
inhabitants of Delgratz seem to do little else when not eating or
sleeping. Moreover, an empty bullock cart was halted in front of the
ground floor entrance.

"There's thunder in the air," said Poluski to himself; but he continued
to admire the irregular outlines of Fürst Michaelstrasse. Thus, he could
not fail to notice that the upper rooms of three cafés exactly similar
to that at the corner were untenanted, while there was a disposition on
the part of the late Seventh Regiment to group itself either at the
turning or a good deal lower down the street, perhaps a hundred yards
beyond the hotel.

"Yes," said he, eying the glittering expanse of unclouded blue overhead,
"a storm is certainly brewing. I can feel it in my bones. It reminds me
of the afternoon we removed the Governor of Silesia. He was fused by a
thunderbolt, from just such a summer sky. Obviously, what he lacked was
a lightning conductor. Now, the question is, even if he had owned one,
whereabouts would he have put it?"

The reply was given by the appearance of two men on horseback advancing
at a fast trot up the easy slope of the hill. They were notable because
they wore the ordinary costume adopted by riders in the Bois or the Row,
and in Delgratz, where rank was marked by uniform, this fact conferred
distinction. A few yards behind them cantered a couple of soldiers.

"You are ten minutes before time, my dear Alec," murmured Felix. "Joan
will never forgive me if she is still asleep; but what is one to do?
_Saperlotte!_ One must act."

A hasty glance over his shoulder showed that the gentry in the corner
café were stirred by some common impulse that led them to the windows,
while the bullock cart was now drawn awkwardly across the narrow way. As
the horsemen came near, the loungers in the lower part of the street
displayed a singularly unanimous desire to close in and follow them.
There were hundreds of townspeople gathered on the pavements, and not a
few vehicles occupied the roadway; so these concerted movements were not
discernible to any one who was not a past master in the revolutionary
art like Poluski, and to him only because his suspicions were already
active.

The King and Beaumanoir were coming on at such a pace that Felix, owing
to his low stature, would be quite invisible to them if he stood among
the crowd now hovering on the curb; so he pushed boldly out into the
middle of the street, took off his hat with a flourish, and sang
lustily:

"O, Alec! _O, mon roi!_"

The thunderbolt that removed the Governor of Silesia, had it struck the
paving stones in front of the King's horse, could hardly have startled
Alec more than the sight of Felix, standing there, bare headed and
grinning, and chanting an improvised version of a famous song at the top
of his voice.

"You, Felix!" he cried. "You here?"

"It is far more to the point that Joan is there," said Poluski, with
expressive pantomime.

"In the hotel?"

"Yes, up the stairs, first door on the right, across the landing. You
have a few minutes to spare. Go quickly!"

Alec required no second bidding. Leaping from the saddle, he threw the
reins to one of the orderlies. "Give me a few seconds, Berty," he cried
to Beaumanoir, and before the onlookers could grasp the motive of this
sudden halt, he had vanished through the doorway.

"You come, too; you are wanted," said Felix, addressing Beaumanoir in
English.

"Sure?" asked his Lordship, gazing at the quaint figure with some degree
of astonishment.

"Yes, it is a matter of life or death. Come!"

Beaumanoir dismounted leisurely. "Who's going to die?" he demanded,
drawing the reins over his charger's head ere he handed them to the
second soldier.

Felix quivered, yet he realized that the Englishman's cool demeanor was
wholly in accord with the plan outlined in his own alert brain.

"Everybody of any consequence in this bally menagerie if you don't hurry
up," said Felix.

The use of British slang at that crisis was a touch of real genius. It
appealed to Beaumanoir. "Gad! it's a treat to hear you talk," he
grinned; but he thrust through the gapers in his turn.

Felix rushed into the restaurant and clutched Sobieski. "Here's your
chance!" he growled in Polish. "The King's life is in danger. Run to the
President and tell him to despatch a strong body of troops on whom he
can rely. If he refuses to listen, say that Felix Poluski sent you, and
bid him ask Prince Michael what that signifies. Remember the
names--Poluski, Michael--now run! Delay, and your throat will be cut!"

John Sobieski was trained to obey. He made off without a word. Felix
entered the hotel by a side door. He darted up the stairs, breathless
and almost spent. He was in time to see Beaumanoir open the door of the
sitting room and close it again hastily.

"Oh, dash it all!" began his Lordship; for Alec, not to be denied, had
just clasped Joan in his arms.

"In, in! Not a second to lose! Barricade the door!" gasped Felix.

"But, man alive, where is the fire?"

"In, I tell you! _Sacré nom!_ Act first and talk afterward!"

Felix himself flung wide the door, and Alec, at this second
interruption, was compelled to free the scarlet faced Joan from his
eager embrace.

"Too bad!" he laughed. "You promised me a minute, Felix!"

Beaumanoir came in, diffident for once in his life, since none knew so
well as he how dear to his friend was the blushing and embarrassed girl
whom he now met for the first time.

"Sorry, old chap," he said; "but this other johnny will have it that
somebody is thirsting for your gore."

Poluski, all trembling with excitement, slammed and locked the door and
pointed to a heavy sideboard. "Drag it here!" he shrieked in a high
falsetto. "The street is crammed with men belonging to the Seventh
Regiment, and they have a short way with Kings they don't like. The
instant they see how they have been tricked they will be after you like
a pack of wolves. I have sent a messenger for help. I dared not use one
of your orderlies, because that would have given the game away. While
the men sit their horses out there the mutineers may believe you will
soon reappear. Nevertheless, block the doorway with all the furniture.
We must gain ten minutes at least, or it may be twenty."

 [Illustration: Beaumanoir and Felix fortified the position
    Page 155]

Joan was the first to credit him. She ran to the window. "Oh, Alec, it
is true!" she cried. "I was watching the crowd before you came, and it
looks quite different now. Hundreds of men have gathered, and they are
armed with knives and pistols. Something has made them angry, and the
two soldiers are becoming alarmed. Oh, my dear, my dear! misfortune and
I have come to you hand in hand!"

"It seems to me that you and Felix have saved my life," said Alec
quietly. "Now, Beaumanoir, you and I must fortify the position. Joan,
stand with your back to the wall between the windows. Felix, watch the
houses opposite, and don't let the enemy take us in flank without
warning. Thank goodness for an oak sideboard and a heavy table! Are you
ready, Berty? Heave away, then! We shall occupy a box in the front row
when Stampoff arrives with his hussars! By Jove! what a day! Twelve
hours in that scorching sun and Joan waiting here all the time! Well,
wonders will never cease! I wish we had one of those live shells we were
experimenting with this morning. It would come in handy when the first
panel gives way."



CHAPTER VIII

SHOWING HOW THE KING KEPT HIS APPOINTMENT


Joan's eyes could not leave Alec. She followed each movement of his
lithe, strongly knit frame as he and Beaumanoir hauled the heavy pieces
of furniture into position behind the door. She was not fully alive as
yet to the real menace of the gesticulating mob surging in the street
beneath, and her thoughts ran riot in the newly discovered paradise of
being loved and in love.

For Alec had asked no questions, listened to no explanations. When he
entered the room, he found her, half turned from the window, conscious
that he was near, though trying to persuade her throbbing heart that
Felix would not depart from an implied promise by sending him to her
without warning. She strove to utter some words of greeting. Before she
could speak, Alec's arms were around her, and he was kissing her lips,
her forehead, her hair. She saw him as through a mist. Her first
fleeting impression was that he had become older, sterner, more
commanding. Kingship had set its seal on him. A short month of power had
stamped lines on his face that would never vanish. But that sense of
imperiousness was quickly dispelled by the enchantment of her presence.

Somehow, almost without spoken word, he brought the thrilling conviction
that he was hungering for her. The light in his eyes, the overwhelming
ardor of his embrace, the magnetic force that leaped the intervening
space while yet they were separated by half the length of the
room,--these things bewildered, charmed, subdued her wholly, and she
kindled under them ere her brain could summon to aid the feeblest of
remonstrances.

She abandoned the nebulous idea of protest when she found that she in
turn was clinging to him, giving kiss for kiss with a delirious
intensity that refused to be denied. Nevertheless, the sheer joy of her
emotions frightened her, and she was endeavoring to subdue its too
sensuous expression when Beaumanoir opened the door, to close it again
hurriedly. She recovered her faculties slowly. She was still quivering
under the stress of that moment of ineffable delight, and her brown eyes
sparkled with the glow of a soul on fire, and she was brought back to
earth only by the knowledge that Felix, standing at his post near a
window, was on the verge of collapse.

The sideboard contained a flask of brandy, which Pauline had insisted on
stowing in a dressing bag in case of illness. Joan, glad of the pretext
to do some commonplace thing, thankful for the mere utterance of
commonplace words, called for help.

"Please remove the table for an instant," she cried. "Felix is ill, and
I want to get at some cognac that is in the cellarette."

"Ill! He was lively enough in the street a minute ago, singing like a
thrush," said Alec cheerily, though he did not fail to pull the table
clear of the cupboard. "What is it, my Humming Bee?" he demanded,
turning to Poluski. "Is it a surfeit of excitement, or late hours, or
what?"

"I am yielding to the unusual, my King," crackled the Pole's voice
thinly. "During three whole days I have done naught but think, and that
would incommode an elephant, leave alone a rat like me."

"Rat, indeed! When we are all out of this trap, Felix, you must tell me
what caused your alarming exercise of brain power. Already you have
bothered me to guess how you fathomed the pretty scheme you are now
upsetting."

"There, dear Felix, drink that, and you will soon feel strong again,"
put in Joan.

"Ha, dear Felix, am I? I expected to be called anything but that after
breaking my word so disgracefully!"

"You are forgiven," said she with a tender smile at Alec.

Beaumanoir, discreetly peeping through the window over Poluski's
shoulder, saw something that perplexed him.

"I say, Alec," he exclaimed, "I thought you told me that Stampoff's man
Bosko was a thoroughly reliable sort of chap."

"I have always found him so."

"Well, just at present he looks jolly like a deserter. He is making a
speech to the mob and tearing off his uniform obligato. The other joker
is scared to death."

"Bosko making a speech! Why, he never says anything but '_Oui,
monsieur_,' or '_Non, monsieur_,' which is all the French he knows.
Well, this is a day of wonders, anyhow."

Neglecting the precautions he had insisted on a minute earlier, Alec
himself went to the window and drew Joan with him. There were two other
windows in the room; but the four clustered in the one deep recess, for
the thick walls of this old building were meant to defy extremes of heat
and cold. By this time one of the two orderlies had dismounted and was
stamping on his smart cavalry jacket and plumed shako, thus announcing
by eloquent pantomime, that he was discarding forever the livery of a
tyrant.

The mob in the street was now swollen to unrecognizable dimensions, and
Alec's charger, which Bosko was holding, resented the uproar by lashing
out viciously with his heels. A man who had narrowly escaped being
kicked drew a revolver, fired, and the spirited Arab fell with a bullet
in its brain. The dastardly act was cheered; for the Seventh Regiment
remembered that this same white horse had stumbled and thrown King
Theodore on the day of his murder.

"Oh, the coward, the hateful coward!" wailed Joan, and two of the men
muttered expressions of opinion that must be passed over in silence.

But Felix happened to be watching Bosko, and noted the black rage that
convulsed his face when the Arab dropped dead at his feet. The
Albanian's feelings mastered him only for an instant.

He began at once to harangue the crowd again, evidently offering to lead
his own horse out of harm's way, and loudly bidding his frightened
comrade to do likewise.

A path was being cleared when some one looked up at the window, and a
fierce yell proclaimed the King's presence. Bosko was forgotten. Sight
of their quarry had frenzied the pack.

"Down everyone!" cried Alec, bending double and dragging Joan with him.

Several panes of glass were starred with little round holes, mortar fell
from the ceiling, and the crackle of shots below showed that revolvers
were popular in Delgratz. But Felix had seen enough to set his shrewd
wits working.

"That man of yours--is Bosko his name?--is no fool," said he, when they
had crept from the glass strewn area into the shelter of the stout wall.
"He is gulling your beloved subjects, Alec. He realizes that trouble is
brewing, and he means to steal off and bring help. Fortunately, my brave
Sobieski will be at the President's house by this time, and your guards
may arrive before those cutthroats in the street decide to storm the
hotel."

"Sobieski--who is he?" asked Alec.

"A waiter in the restaurant. I have pledged you to buy him a café in
Warsaw if the troops come speedily."

"Make it a brewery, Alec," said Beaumanoir; "these bounders mean
business."

A constant fusillade of bullets was now tearing the windows to atoms,
and shattering the ceiling on the other side of the room. Lord Adalbert
was justified in offering liberal terms for relief.

The King, standing with one arm thrown round Joan's shoulders, felt the
tremors she strove vainly to repress. "Don't be afraid, sweetheart. They
cannot reach us here," he said. "I have one unknown protector, it seems,
and I feel sure that Felix is right about Bosko. The only drawback is
that our friendly waiter may find some difficulty in persuading the
officers on duty at Monsieur Nesimir's house that we are in danger. We
must risk that."

"Oh, to safeguard against delay, I told him to ask for the Prince," said
Felix.

"What Prince?"

"Your father, of course. Ha! Name of a good little gray man! You don't
know that Prince Michael and your mother are in Delgratz."

"Mark cock!" cried Beaumanoir, as a bullet flew breast high across the
room and imbedded itself in the inner wall. The heroes of the Seventh
Regiment were firing from the upper floors of the houses opposite.

Alec did not seem to heed. The look of blank amazement on his face
proved that he had ridden straight from the review ground to the
university, whereas a call at the President's house would have
enlightened him.

"It is true, dear," whispered Joan. "They came with us from Paris; in
the same train, that is. We all arrived at Delgratz this morning. Your
mother spoke to me on the platform at Vienna."

He smiled with something of the old careless humor of Paris days. "I
suppose everything is for the best," he said. "Nothing surprises me now,
not even this," and he nodded cheerfully toward the landing and stairs,
whence a rush of footsteps and clamor of voices were audible.

The handle of the door was wrenched violently, and shots were fired into
the lock and at the panels; but the wood was seasoned and stanch, and
nothing short of a rifle would drive a bullet through. The door creaked
and strained under the pressure of the mutineers' shoulders. Had it not
been reinforced by the solid sideboard and equally heavy table, it must
have given way. As it was, no four men in Delgratz could hope to force
an entrance, and no more than four could attack it simultaneously.

It was noteworthy that no one called on the King to come out. These
hirelings, enraged against a ruler who had brought to the Danube a new
evangel of justice and uprightness, of honest government and clean
handed service to the State, made no pretense of requesting a hearing
for their grievances. They had planned to shoot him in cold blood while
he and his three companions were momentarily delayed by the barrier of
the bullock cart in front of the corner café. Balked of this easy means
of attaining their end, they were still sure of success. But their cries
and curses were intended only for self encouragement. Not even the
bloodstained Seventh Regiment had the effrontery to ask their victim to
admit them.

There was a momentary quieting of their wild beast fury when the door
resisted their utmost efforts. Joan tried to persuade her tortured mind
that the conspiracy had failed.

"They will not dare to remain," she whispered. "They know that
assistance may arrive at any moment. Listen, they are going now!"

"Are you gentlemen armed?" asked Felix, grimly.

"Yes, with riding whips," said Alec. "For my part, I have refused to
carry any more dangerous weapon; though it is true that I entered
Delgratz with a sword in my hand," he added, remembering with a twinge
his imagining of Joan's ready laugh when she heard of Prince Michael's
brown paper parcel.

"Pity you don't possess a revolver apiece. They would prove useful when
the panels are broken, which will happen just as soon as these high
spirited politicians on the landing secure axes," went on Felix
remorselessly.

He wanted Joan to realize the certain fate that awaited her once the
door gave way. Concealment was useless, and he hoped she would faint
before the end came.

"What price the leg of a chair?" asked Beaumanoir.

The Pole bent his gleaming gray eyes on the Briton with a curious
underlook of inquiry. "No, no. We can do better than that. You would be
shot before you could strike a blow. Joan, please crawl past the window
and stand upright in the corner close to the wall. You follow, Alec. I
go next, and this young gentleman, who must be Lord Adalbert Beaumanoir,
since he has all the outward signs of the British aristocracy, will
place himself near the door. If he does exactly what I tell him, we
still have a fighting chance."

The change of position advised by Poluski rendered them safe from their
assailants' bullets until the door was actually off its hinges and the
furniture thrust aside. In the last resort, Alec meant to show himself
at a window and offer a fair target to the men in the houses across the
street. When he fell the shooting from that quarter would cease. Then,
acting on his precise instructions, Beaumanoir and Felix must lift Joan
through another window and allow her to drop to the pavement. It was not
far. She might escape uninjured, and there was a possibility that the
mob would spare a woman who was an utter stranger, one in no way mixed
up in Kosnovian affairs.

Time enough to take this final step when their defense was forced, and
that would be soon. In all likelihood, he had not much more than a
minute to live, and he devoted that minute to Joan.

"Sweetheart," he murmured tenderly, "you saw the beginning of my career
as a King, and it seems that you are fated to see its end. Have you
forgotten what Pallas Athene said to Perseus? It is not so long ago,
that morning in the Louvre. But why did you run away from Paris? Why
have you not written? If you knew how I hoped for a word from you! My
heart told me you loved me; but even one's heart likes to be assured
that it is not mistaken."

He was looking into her eyes. The fantasy seized her that he was able to
read her secret soul, and she swept aside any thought of concealment.
"Alec," she said, "tell me truly, are we in danger of death?"

"I am," he replied simply. It was better so, he thought.

"Then I thank God that I am here to die with you."

He dared not hint that she might escape. "We still have a remote
chance," he went on. "Let us talk of ourselves, not of death."

"But I don't want to die, Alec," she whispered brokenly. "I want to
live, dear. I want to live and be your wife. Oh, Alec, let us ask Heaven
for one year of happiness, one short year----" She choked, and the
tears so bravely repressed hitherto dimmed her glorious eyes. Her
piteous appeal increased the torment of his impotence. His face grew
marble white beneath the bronze, and he bent in mute agony over her
bowed head.

Felix, crouching behind Beaumanoir, assured himself that the King and
his chosen lady were momentarily deaf to all else than the one supreme
fact that each loved the other. He sighed, and touched the stalwart
Beaumanoir's shoulder, which he was just able to reach with uplifted
hand.

"Drop on your knees," he said. "I want to tell you something."

"You think it is high time I said my prayers--eh, what?"

Yet the younger man obeyed, since there was a calm authority in the
pinched and wrinkled face raised to his that seemed to despise the
uproar of the mob. Felix was singularly unmoved by the bestial din. He
evidently cared naught for the continuous shooting from street and
houses, or the renewed outburst on the stairs that welcomed the arrival
of axes and sledge hammers rifled from a neighboring shop.

"Pay heed to what I am going to say," he muttered, bringing his mouth
close to Beaumanoir's ear, "I don't wish Joan or the King to know what
we are doing. They will be wise after the event, not before, which is
often the better part of wisdom. Have you a steady hand? Will you flinch
if I ask you to destroy every man on the other side of that door?"

Beaumanoir twisted his head round and grinned. "If asking will do the
trick, try me!" said he.

Felix took from an inner pocket of his coat a gunmetal cigarcase. He
pressed a spring, and the lid flew open. Inside were four cigar shaped
cylinders, each studded with a number of tiny knobs. He withdrew a
cylinder, and from a small cup in its base obtained six percussion caps,
which he proceeded to adjust on the iron nipples.

"My own patent!" he exclaimed, with an air of pride that was grotesque
under the conditions. "Each cigar is a bomb, warranted to clear any
ordinary room of its occupants. It does not discriminate. It will
dismember the most exalted personages."

"By gad!" ejaculated Beaumanoir, shrinking away slightly.

Felix pressed closer in his enthusiasm. "The point carrying the
detonators is loaded with lead. If properly handled, it is sure to fly
with that end in front. You take it between your thumb and second
finger, thus, and poise it by placing the tip of the first finger behind
it, thus; but you must throw hard, and wait until the upper part of the
door is smashed, and you can fling it clear, or three ounces of dynamite
will explode in front of your nose, with disastrous effect. I will have
a second bomb ready if the first one fails; but it will not."

"By gad!" said Beaumanoir again, gazing at the deadly contrivance as if
fascinated by it. He could retreat no farther, being jammed against the
sideboard.

"Do you understand?" demanded Felix coolly.

"Perfectly. Is it--er--Russian or Spanish?"

"Neither. I call it the International. Are you ready?"

A thunderous blow shook the door. Another and another fell on lock and
hinges.

"Felix!" said Alec, turning from Joan and stooping over the hunchback.

"Don't bother me, I am busy," growled the Pole.

"But we must act. We are done for now, and Joan must be saved. I mean to
draw the enemy's fire. When I am hit, you and Beaumanoir must take Joan
to the third window over there--take her by force if necessary----"

"My good Alec, at present you are a King without power. Please don't
talk nonsense. Keep in your corner, pacify Joan, and leave the rest to
me."

"Felix," and Alec's tone grew curt and sharp, "this is no time for jest!
Look, you madman, the door is splitting! Is Joan to die, then, to please
your whim? Either attend to me or stand aside!"

Poluski groaned. He was such an amalgam of contrarieties that he hated
the notion of explaining to a monarch the subtle means he had devised
for ridding the world of its unpopular rulers. Where Alec was concerned,
the bomb ought to remain a trade secret, so to speak. He would not have
trusted even Beaumanoir with its properties had he not known that his
own nerve would fail at the critical moment. For that was Felix
Poluski's weakness. He could not use his diabolical invention--an
anarchist in theory, in practice he would not harm a fly.

"I think just as much of Joan as you!" he blazed back at the pallid man
whose next step promised to lead to the grave. "I am King here, not you!
Keep yourself and Joan out of harm's way, and don't interfere! Stand
flat against the wall, both of you! Back, I say! There is the first
axhead! Now you, who were born a lord, be ready to lord it over these
groundlings!"

He whirled round on Beaumanoir, and Alec saw in his friend's hand some
object, what he could not guess, while Felix carried a similar article
in reserve, as it were. The little man's earnestness was so convincing
that the King could not choose but believe that some scheme that offered
salvation was in train. But it might fail! The door might be forced
before his own desperate alternative could be adopted, and the
consequences to Joan of failure were too horrible to be risked. A panel
shivered into splinters and the muzzles of two revolvers frowned through
the aperture.

"Wait!" bellowed Poluski; for Beaumanoir's hand was raised.

Lord Adalbert did more than wait. With the quickness born of many a
hard won victory on the polo ground, his free left hand flew out and
grasped the wrist behind one of the pistols. He pulled fiercely and
irresistibly. An arm appeared, and a yell of pain signalized a
dislocated shoulder.

The weapon exploded harmlessly and fell to the floor. A living stop gap
now plugged the first hole made by the ax wielders, while the writhing
body of their comrade interfered with further operations.

Beaumanoir gave an extra wrench, and his victim howled most dolorously.
He slipped the bomb into his coat pocket.

"Pick up that revolver, Alec," he cried. "If it is still loaded it will
help us to hold the fort."

The King rushed forward, and butted against Beaumanoir in his haste.
Felix, whose skin was always sallow, became livid; but nothing happened,
and he snatched the bomb from its dangerous resting place. Then he burst
into a paroxysm of hysterical laughter which drowned for an instant a
new hubbub in the street.

Alec, hastily examining his prize, found that three chambers were
loaded. He was about to search for a crack in the door through which he
could fire at least one telling shot, when his ear caught the prancing
of horses on the paving stones.

Joan, thoroughly enlightened now as to their common peril, had behaved
with admirable coolness since Alec implored her not to stir from the
corner between door and window. She was sure they would all be killed,
and her lips moved in fervent prayer that death might be merciful in its
haste; but she was not afraid; that storm of tears had been succeeded by
a spiritual exaltation that rescued her from any ignoble panic. Yet her
senses were strained to a tension far more exhausting than the display
of emotion natural to one plunged without warning into the most horrible
of the many horrors of civil war, and she had heard, long before the
others, the onrush of cavalry and the stampede of the mob.

So, when her eyes met Alec's, and she saw that questioning look in his
face, she smiled at him with a radiant confidence that was astounding at
such a moment.

"Heaven has been good to us, dear," she said. "Your soldiers are here.
Your enemies are running away. Listen! they are fighting now on the
stairs. The unhappy men who raved for our lives will lose their own. Can
nothing be done to save them?"

He ran to the window. Those leaden blasts that had swept the room from
the first floors of the opposite houses had ceased, and not one
potvaliant marksman of them all was to be seen; but the street was full
of hussars, and directly beneath, mounted on an excited horse, Stampoff
was giving furious orders which evidently demanded an energetic storming
of the hotel entrance.

Alec threw open the window and leaned out. "Just in time, old friend!"
he cried.

Stampoff heard him and looked up. "God's bones!" he roared. "Here is
the King safe and sound. At them, my children! Dig them out with your
sabers! Don't leave a man alive!"

"Stop!" shouted Alec. "No more slaughter! I forbid it!"

Stampoff wheeled round on his charger and addressed the press of
soldiers who had been unable to take any part in the street clearing,
since the mob broke and fled when the first rank of plumed caps and
flashing swords became visible.

"You hear, my children," he vociferated. "Don't harm anybody who does
not resist. The King's commands must be obeyed."

Joan, of course, could only guess what was being said; but she could not
fail to recognize the sounds of conflict on the stairs. Men are
strangely akin to tigers when they see red, and the tiger's roar when he
pounces on a victim differs greatly from his own death scream. Alec,
powerless to move Stampoff, who believed, rightly, as it transpired,
that the ringleaders were foremost in the attack, turned to Beaumanoir.

"Release that fellow," he said. "If I am able to make my voice heard
through the racket, I can put an end to this butchery."

Beaumanoir let go the arm, and a body fell on the other side of the
door.

"You are too late, I hope," he said quietly. "My prisoner took the knock
just before you spoke. I felt it run through him. He shook like a pony
under the spur. And you're wrong, you know. This gang must be cleared
out." He peered through the broken panel. "It's all over," he added. "No
flowers, by request."

Felix was peering up at them with his bright crafty eyes. "Queer thing!"
he growled. "In my first honest fight I have been on the side of
tyranny. If you young gentlemen will be good enough to remove the
barricade and give orders to have the passage cleared, I can go back to
the cup of coffee I left in the restaurant. Meanwhile, Joan must be
taken to her room. She is going to faint, and the Lord only knows what
has become of her maid!"

Alec was at Joan's side before Felix had made an end. "You will not
break down now, sweetheart," he cried. "All danger is over, and, with
God's help, you will never witness such a scene in Delgratz again!"

"I feel tired," she sighed. "I know quite well I am safe, Alec. Somehow,
I hardly thought you and I should die to-day. We have things to do in
the world, you and I; but those horrid men frightened me by their
shrieks. It must be awful to pass into the unknown--like that!"

She sighed again. To her strained vision Alec suddenly assumed the
aspect of Henri Quatre's gilded statue on the Pont Neuf. It did not seem
to be in the least remarkable that the statue should leap from his horse
and take her in his arms. She was absolutely happy and content. She
felt she could rest there awhile in safety.

So, when the door was opened, the King experienced no difficulty in
carrying Joan through a scene of bloodshed that would certainly never
have been blotted from her mind had she remained conscious. Stampoff's
commands had been obeyed, and the place reeked of the shambles; but the
girl was happily as heedless of its nightmare horrors as the thirty-one
men who lay there dead or dying.

Alec bore her out into the street. The sight of him was greeted by a
sustained cheer from the troops and the loyal citizens who were now
threatening a riot of curiosity and alarm, since the news had gone round
that the King was being done to death by a rebellious soldiery in the
Fürst Michaelstrasse, and Delgratz was hurrying to the rescue.

Joan, revived a little by the fresh air and bewildered by the shouting
throng that pressed around the King, opened her eyes. "Where am I?" she
whispered, delightfully ignorant of the fact that she was nestling in
Alec's arms under the gaze of many hundreds of his subjects.

"I am sending you to my mother, dear," he replied. "Felix and your maid
will be here in a moment, and they will take you to her in a carriage.
You cannot remain at the hotel, and you will be well cared for in
Monsieur Nesimir's house."

"Are you coming, Alec?" she asked, scanning his face like a timid child.

"Soon, quite soon."

"Then I am content," she said, and the cloud descended again for a brief
space.

Pauline, unfortunately, happened to be in the kitchen when the fray
began. She was nearly incoherent with fright; but Felix managed to
reassure her, and piloted her skilfully out of the hotel by an exit that
concealed the gruesome staircase.

The glittering escort of soldiers surrounding the carriage pressed into
the King's service served to complete the illusion insisted on by
Poluski, and Pauline rejoined her mistress, firm in the conviction that
the tumult was an outlandish Serbian method of merrymaking.

Alec, having seen the carriage started on its short journey, approached
Stampoff and wrung his hand. "It was a near thing, General," he said.
"Five minutes later and we should have been in another world."

He spoke in French, and Beaumanoir heard him.

"Not a bit of it," said he. "That anarchist johnny carries about with
him the finest assortment of bombs.--By the way, where is the bally
thing? I'll swear I put it in my pocket when I grabbed that joker
through the door."

His hurried search was not rewarded, and Alec, scarcely understanding
him, asked Stampoff who had given the alarm.

"Bosko, of course. He came tearing up to the War Office like a madman.
Had any other brought the same message I really should not have
believed it."

"Then you heard nothing of a waiter from this hotel, a waiter named
Sobieski?"

"Nothing, your Majesty. Bosko was undoubtedly the first to arrive with
the news, and all was quiet at the President's as I rode past. I noted
that especially. By the way, Prince Michael is here; came this morning,
I am told. The Princess accompanied him. Does your Majesty intend going
to them at once? I have already sent an orderly to announce your
safety."

Alec looked at his watch. "Five minutes past four," he said. "No,
General, I am due at the university. I like to be punctual; but this
slight delay was unavoidable. I shall see you at dinner to-night, and I
suppose you will clear the city of these idiots of the Seventh Regiment
before sunset. By the way, a word before we part. You saw the lady whom
I brought from the hotel and placed in the carriage?"

"Saw her, your Majesty? Judas! Thirty years ago I should have striven to
rescue her myself."

"It was she who rescued me, General, she and the little humpbacked man.
Exactly how they managed it I do not know as yet; but to-night you shall
hear the whole story. At present, it is enough that you should be told
the one really important fact. She is my promised wife."

With a smile and a farewell hand-wave, Alec mounted a troop horse and
rode away with Beaumanoir in the direction of the university.

Stampoff looked after him with an expression of utmost dismay on his
weatherbeaten face. "Gods!" he muttered. "A wife, and a pretty foreigner
too, that is a bird of another color! What will Prince and Princess
Delgrado say now, I wonder? What will Kosnovia say, when it is in every
man's mind that you should marry a Serb? And what mad prank of fortune
sent her here to-day? By thunder! I thought things were quieting down in
Delgratz; but I was wrong--they are just beginning to wake up!"



CHAPTER IX

MUTTERINGS OF STORM


Before Joan's carriage had traveled a hundred yards it was halted by a
loud command. An officer, galloping at the head of a detachment of
cavalry, sought news of the King, and an escorted vehicle coming from
the upper end of Fürst Michaelstrasse promised developments. Joan was
startled back into consciousness by the sudden stoppage. The excited
babble going on without was incomprehensible and therefore alarming, nor
did the polite assurances of the officer, as he bent in the saddle and
peered in at the window while he aired his best French, serve to still
this fresh tumult in her veins.

"What is he saying?" she asked Felix, turning her frightened eyes from
the urbane personage on horseback to Poluski's intent face.

"He was sent to rescue the King," was the explanation. "He says the
bodyguard received warning less than two minutes ago."

"Tell him the King is safe now."

"Oh, he knows that already. What puzzled him is the fact that the troops
at the War Ministry, which lies beyond the President's house, should
have reached there before him."

"What does it matter, since help came in time? Please bid the coachman
go on. I--I would like to be the first to let Princess Delgrado know
that her son has escaped from those horrid men. Who were they? Why
should they want to kill Alec?"

Felix did not obey her bequest instantly. He exchanged some hasty words
with the strange officer, who chanced to be Drakovitch, and answered
Joan's questions only when the cab resumed its journey. "Have you
forgotten the part played by the Seventh Regiment in the recent history
of Delgratz?" he cried.

"I remember something about them. Alec disbanded them. Oh--they were the
soldiers who revolted and murdered the late King and Queen."

"Exactly. Do women ever read the newspapers intelligently, I wonder? You
state a most remarkable fact, considering that this is Delgratz and your
future capital, as coolly as if it had happened in Kamchatka."

"But still I do not understand why they should turn against Alec. I have
at least sufficient intelligence to recall the avowed object of their
crime,--the restoration of the Delgrado line."

Felix smiled. If Joan was able to defend herself, she was certainly
making a rapid recovery. "That is a mere hazy recollection of their
afterthought. Of all despotisms, save me from a military one, and
soldiers who slay Kings are the worst of despots. If there were no
Kings, there would be few soldiers, Joan. Put that valuable truism away
among the other wise saws that govern your life. You will appreciate its
truth, and the even greater truth of its converse, when you are a Queen.
But soldiers are stupid creatures, obviously so, since killing is no
argument, or the word philosopher would mean a man armed with a
bludgeon. If they do away with a tyrant and elect his successor, they
are apt to acquire the habit. Soldiers are meant to obey, not to rule,
and these Kosnovian Kingmakers were not patriots but cutthroats."

Joan buried her face in her hands. The thought came unbidden that in
some inexplicable way she shared with the infamous Seventh Regiment a
large measure of responsibility for Alec's dangerous kingship.

"Mademoiselle is ill. Why trouble her with your silly chatter?" demanded
Pauline angrily.

"Eh, what the deuce? My name isn't Balaam," retorted Felix.

"Nor am I a donkey, monsieur. If it wasn't for you, miladi would now be
happy in her little apartment in the Place de la Sorbonne. I keep my
ears open, me!"

"I said nothing about your ears, Madame Pauline," tittered Felix.

The Frenchwoman's homely features reddened, and a vitriolic reply was
only half averted by the lurching of the carriage through a gateway.
Joan looked out, and her eyes were moist.

"I possess two good friends in Delgratz, and I hope they will not
quarrel on my account," she said, with a piteous smile that silenced the
woman. Poluski's mouth twisted.

"We are not quarreling, my belle," he cried. "Pauline thinks I brought
you here, whereas your presence is clearly an act of Providence. Being a
modest person, I naturally protested."

If Joan was not utterly bewildered by the whirligig of events, and more
than ever unnerved now at the near prospect of meeting Prince and
Princess Delgrado in the perhaps unwelcome guise of their son's
affianced wife, she would certainly have discovered that Felix was
saying the first thing that came uppermost in his mind. The outcome must
have been a quick mental review of the day's incidents in order to hit
upon the special item he was trying to conceal, though it is probable
that no girl of Joan's candid nature would ever guess the suspicion
rapidly maturing to a settled belief in the Pole's acute brain.

For Captain Drakovitch, the officer who led the bodyguard in their
belated ride to the King's aid, had told him that a waiter, John
Sobieski by name, had arrived breathless at the President's house many
minutes before the actual alarm was given. Sobieski had sobbed out some
incoherent words about the King, and the Seventh Regiment; but Prince
Michael, who was in the courtyard, snapped up the man immediately,
bidding him hold his tongue, and hurrying him inside the building. Once
there, Sobieski became more confused than ever. Prince Michael obviously
regarded him as a crazy rumor-monger until Nesimir appeared. The latter,
by reason of his local knowledge, instantly appreciated the true
significance of an attack on the King in a crowded thoroughfare by a
gang whom Sobieski was sure he had identified correctly.

Nevertheless, precious time had been consumed by the elder Delgrado's
interference. The President acted with promptitude; but the outcome was
clear. If it had not been for Bosko, the King must have fallen.

"Gods!" vowed Drakovitch in his emphatic story to Felix, "there were we
lounging about smoking cigarettes while his Majesty was in a fair way to
be cut in pieces! A nice state of affairs! If some one had not warned
Stampoff, we might have been too late!"

"Better not mention it in public," was Poluski's advice. "The mere
notion of the resultant disaster would make Prince Michael seriously
ill. Moreover, such things grow in the telling, and the story will be
traced back to you."

The other had agreed, and Felix followed his own counsel by withholding
from Joan all knowledge of the unpleasant mischance that had nearly cost
the lives of the King and his companions in the besieged hotel. But his
thoughts were busy, and, when he found Sobieski detained in the
entrance hall, he consigned Joan and her maid to the care of a servant,
briefly explaining that they were to be taken to Princess Delgrado, and
forthwith questioned his fellow countryman.

Sobieski was quaking with fear. The scornful disbelief expressed by
Prince Michael had discomfited him at the beginning, and now he was
practically under arrest until his connection with the outrage was
investigated officially. One of Stampoff's messengers had already
announced the King's safety, or by this time Sobieski must have become
the lunatic Prince Michael took him to be.

"What then, my friend, they did not credit your tale, I hear?" said
Felix genially, and the sound of his voice drove some of the misery from
the waiter's pallid cheeks.

"It was my fault, monsieur. I ran so fast that I lost my breath and the
gentleman could not understand me."

"Ah, is that it? Did you speak Polish?"

"No, no, monsieur. I always speak Serbian here."

"And what did you say?"

"Just what you told me to say,--that the King was in danger and that the
President was to send troops instantly to the Fürst Michaelstrasse. Then
the old gentleman, he whom they call Prince Michael, came up and said he
did not believe a word of it."

"Mon Dieu! He understood you, it appears?"

"Perhaps not, monsieur. I made a hash of it, especially when I told him
Monsieur Poluski sent me."

"Sure you mentioned that?"

"Quite sure, monsieur. It was then he ordered me inside the house. The
mention of your name seemed to annoy him. For a little while he could
say nothing but 'Poluski, Poluski! Is he in it?' I swore you had nothing
to do with the plot, monsieur, but had acted throughout as the King's
friend; then he stormed at me again, and called me a blockhead for
coming to the palace with such a mad story. He asked me what I thought
would have been the consequence if the Princess heard me, and I said I
knew nothing about any Princess; I was only quite sure the King would be
slain if some one did not hasten to his rescue."

"But some one had more sense, some one listened?" said Felix dryly.

"Ah, yes. When the President came down the stairs, Prince Michael went
to meet him, laughing all the time at my romancing, as he called it. But
I shouted out, being quite desperate then, and Monsieur Nesimir heard
me. Of course, by that time, I was in such a state that my knees shook.
I was certain the King would be found dead, and perhaps you, monsieur,
and then would there be no one to prove that I was not mixed up in the
affair, so people would think I ran to the palace in order to save my
own skin. I nearly dropped with fear, feeling that so many minutes were
being lost, and that made me more nervous than ever when I was
answering Monsieur Nesimir's questions."

Poluski's worn face exhibited no more emotion than if he was a graven
image, but his voice was sympathetic. "At any rate, everything has ended
happily, friend John," said he. "The King is alive, you did your duty,
and you will find him not unmindful of your services. By whose order are
you detained here?"

The excited waiter began to snivel. "I don't know, monsieur. Pray
intercede for me and have me set at liberty, or I shall lose my
situation if it gets about that I have been arrested. My patron will
have nothing to do with politics. He says his business is to sell beer
and coffee, and all parties are equally fond of his goods."

Felix, who was already being eyed askance by the presidential hangers-on
in the entrance lobby, returned to the courtyard and appealed to the
officer in charge of the escort. A brief conversation with an official
elicited the fact that Sobieski awaited Prince Michael's commands.

"Then bring Prince Michael here," said Poluski.

"Monsieur!" An astounded flunky could say no more; but this impudent
hunchback was in no wise abashed.

"Exactly, Monsieur Felix Poluski wishes to see his Excellency at once.
Tell him that, and it will suffice."

The lackey was forced to yield, and, much to his surprise, Prince
Michael did not hesitate an instant in obeying that imperative summons.
An expression of annoyance flitted across his florid features when he
found Poluski standing near the trembling waiter; but he tackled the
situation with nonchalance.

"Have you been here long, Felix?" he inquired. "No one told me you had
arrived. Your young lady friend has been taken to the Princess--at her
own request, I am given to understand. Dreadful business, this
unforeseen attack on my son, isn't it? I must confess that I didn't
credit a word of it when this poor fellow rushed in with his broken
tale. Ah, by the way, I gave some orders in my alarm that may have been
misinterpreted." He dug a hand into a pocket; but withdrew it, empty.

"His Majesty will see to it that you are suitably rewarded," he said to
Sobieski. "Meanwhile, you have my hearty thanks, and I regret that any
hasty words of mine should have caused you inconvenience. You can go at
once, of course."

Sobieski made off, well pleased that his stormy career in the whirlpool
of state affairs was ended. But Felix shook hands with him and said
quietly:

"I will not forget."

Prince Michael seized Poluski's arm with a fine assumption of dignified
cordiality. "So it was really you who sent that stammering youth with
such an astounding message? Come, then. Tell me all about it. Was Alec
actually in peril?"

He drew Felix up the stairs, out of earshot of the servants and
orderlies in the wide hall. Felix sniffed.

"Odd thing," he grinned. "You are a Prince and I am an anarchist, yet
both of us need a nip of brandy when we are disturbed. But I have the
better of you in one respect, my dear Michael. My hand doesn't shake.
Now, yours----"

The clasp on his arm loosened, lost some of its friendliness, and Prince
Delgrado stood for an instant on the stairs.

"I tried to show a calm front before the others; but the predicament my
son was in found the weak place in my armor," he said.

"My case exactly," said Felix. "Joan diagnosed the symptoms, and dosed
me with cognac. You, I imagine, were your own physician."

"Ah, since you mention the lady, who is she?"

"Joan? A female divinity, one of the few charming women left in the
world."

"Admirable! One can associate those qualities with residence in Paris;
but in Delgratz, Felix, one finds them unusual--shall I say out of
place?"

"If I were you, Monseigneur, I would learn to regard her in a totally
different light. Joan ought to be at home here, because she is your
prospective daughter in law."

Michael Delgrado could govern his nervous system with some measure of
success when words were the only weapons that threatened. He did not
flinch now; but threw open the door of the nearest room on the upper
floor. It chanced to be the apartment in which President Nesimir had
received Alec and Stampoff on that memorable morning, barely a month
ago, when the young King came to Delgratz to claim his patrimony.
Neither man was aware of the coincidence that led Michael to slam the
door, place his back against it, and gurgle a question:

"Are you jesting, Felix?"

"Quarter of an hour ago I was on the point of being introduced to a grim
personage who would have squeezed the last joke out of me," said
Poluski. "His name was Death, Pallida Mors, who steps with even stride
from the huts of the poor to the palace of the King, and he gave me such
a fright that I shall be in no mood all day for any display of humor.
Why, man, don't you realize that I have been under this roof fully five
minutes without experiencing the slightest desire to sing?"

"But, Felix, do be in earnest for once. What is this you tell me? How
can Alexis III. marry this woman, this adventuress?"

Poluski's big gray eyes narrowed into slits, and the hump on his
shoulders became more pronounced as his head drooped forward a little;
but his smooth tones did not falter, and his uneasy hearer thought he
found a note of friendly commiseration in them.

"A hard word, Michael, hard and unjust. Joan is no adventuress," he
said. "We old birds are too ready to condemn a young and pretty woman
who falls in love with a King; but in the present instance criticism is
disarmed, since Joan was in love with Alec when he had no more worldly
wealth than the endowment of your princely name, and when his chance of
becoming King of Kosnovia was as remote as--what shall I say?--well, as
your own."

Michael came away from the door and stood looking out at the window. It
afforded a partial view of the courtyard and the fairly wide street
beyond the gate. "I know, of course, that your ideas and mine on these
subjects differ very greatly," he said after a pause, and with a
perceptible return to his grandiose manner; "but as you say rightly,
both of us are old enough to realize that a reigning King can marry none
but a Princess of some royal house. Again, the King of Kosnovia must
marry a Serb. There you have two fixed principles, so to speak, each of
which renders it impossible for a lady who rejoices apparently in no
other name than Joan----"

"Joan Vernon," put in Felix, producing a cigarcase, an exact replica of
that containing the bombs, and selecting one of the long thin cigars he
favored.

"Ah, certainly. The Princess spoke to her in Vienna, and ascertained her
name then. Well, Miss Joan Vernon cannot, by the very nature of things,
become Queen of Kosnovia. It is not that I disapprove of the notion,
Felix; it is simply impossible."

Poluski struck a match and began to smoke furiously. Delgrado probably
expected him to say something; but he waited in vain, since Felix seemed
to be far more perturbed by the suspected existence of a hole in the
outer wrapping of the cigar, and futile efforts to close it with the tip
of a finger, than by the princely hinting at a morganatic marriage.

Perforce, Prince Michael resumed the discussion. "I am stating the facts
calmly and without prejudice," he said. "I assume that you are not
misleading me or that some sort of lovers' vows exists between these
young people?"

He paused again. Poluski was triumphant. He had found the hole, applied
the surgical method of a tourniquet by pressure, and the cigar was
drawing perfectly.

"Having said so much, Felix, you might be sufficiently communicative in
other respects," growled Delgrado, turning angrily from the window.

"_Parbleu!_ I left you to do the talking, Monseigneur. This devil of a
cigar has been bored by a weevil, and was broken winded till I stopped
the leak. You were saying?"

"That Alec Delgrado might have married your young friend; but King
Alexis III. cannot."

"He will," said Felix, grinning complacently.

"If he does, it will cost him his throne."

"Poof! For a man of the world, Michael, you utter opinions that are
singularly inept. I think you were driving just now at the accepted
theory of royal alliances? If it holds good for Alec, it affects you,
his father. You didn't marry a Princess, but happily secured a good,
honest American lady, sufficiently endowed with good, honest American
dollars to keep you in luxury throughout your useless life. If there is
some law which says that Alec cannot make Joan a Queen, the same law
would prevent him from being a King. But it doesn't. King he is, and
King he will remain as long as it pleases God to keep him in good health
and save him from the miserable rascals who tried to assassinate him
to-day--and their like. What you want, Michael, is a friend who is not
afraid to warn you. Now, for the hour, kindly regard me as filling that
useful capacity. After twenty-five years of extravagance you have
managed, I suppose, to exhaust your excellent wife's fortune. You came
to Delgratz this morning for the express purpose of drawing fresh
supplies from the Kosnovian treasury. Well, you haven't met your son
yet; but when you suggest that he should begin to impoverish his people
to maintain you in idle pomp in Paris, I fancy you will find him
adamant. That is not his theory of governing. If it was, he would
neither marry Joan nor be alive at this moment, since Heaven saw fit to
intrust me with the control of both his bride and his life.

"One thing more I have to say, Michael, and then I have finished, unless
you press me too hardly. Let us suppose Alec had fallen in to-day's
attempt. Whom do you think would succeed him? Michael V. Not for five
minutes! You know now, and I have known all along, that the real
instigator of the May outbreak was Julius Marulitch and his Greek bear
leader, Constantine Beliani. You were inspired, Michael, when you
resigned your claims in favor of your son. Those two meant to put you
forward as their puppet and shove you to the wall as soon as the
Delgrado line was restored and they were able to pull the strings here
in safety. They never dreamed that Alec, the careless, happy-go-lucky
boy, the polo player and haunter of studios, would prove a stumbling
block in the path of royal progress. You were a mere pawn, Michael. They
counted on pushing you out of the way as easily as if you were a baby in
a perambulator. What was true a month ago is more true now. Go down on
your knees and thank Heaven that it saw fit to preserve your son's life
this afternoon; for his life alone stands between you and the abyss!

"Now, I have spoken, and--name of a good little gray man!--you don't
seem to like the hearing. But do not forget what I have said, Michael. I
have poured forth a stream of golden words. It will be well for you if
you are never called on to apply other test to their value than your own
judgment; for as sure as the day dawns that you dream of reigning in
Delgratz, so surely will you dig your own grave with a shovel lent by
the devil."

Poluski ceased, and apparently expected no answer. He, too, went to a
window and gazed out at the sunlit vista of graveled courtyard and
yellow buildings.

Already there were long patches of shade; for the day was closing. A
foot regiment marched past the palace gates, and Prince Michael might
have remembered that in Delgratz a sentry with a loaded rifle guards
each street after sunset. But his bloated face was curiously haggard,
and his prominent eyes looked at the soldiers with the unconscious
aspect of a man whose castle in Spain had suddenly proved itself the
most deceptive of mirages. Perhaps, for a brief space, he saw himself as
Felix saw him, and a species of horror may have fallen on him at the
mere conceit that another man was able to peep into his heart and
surprise there the foul notion that had seized him when John Sobieski
brought the tidings of his son's desperate plight.

Be that as it may, Prince Michael Delgrado offered no reply to the
decrepit, poverty stricken artist who had dared to unmask him in such
exceedingly plain terms. Not a word passed between them during many
minutes. The shuffling tramp and dust of the regiment died away, and the
thoroughfare beyond the gates had resumed its normal condition when a
new animation was given to the courtyard by a loud order and the hurried
assembly of the guard.

"Good!" said Felix contentedly. "Here comes the King! Your Excellency
will now receive confirmation of some of my statements. As for the rest,
if I am proved right in some respects, it will be a first rate idea to
accept the remainder without proof."

Delgrado shot a baleful glance at the hunchback; but ignored his
comment. "If it is not indiscreet of a parent to betray some interest in
a son's prospective happiness, may I venture again to inquire who Miss
Joan Vernon is?"

"I think I answered you."

"In general terms. Feminine divinity and charm should be the
characteristics of all brides; but these delectable beings do not enter
the world fully formed, like Venus Aphrodite newly risen from the sea of
Cyprus."

"Oh, to me it suffices that she exists, and is Joan. I have known her a
whole year, during her student life in Paris, in fact. Your simile was
well chosen, Monseigneur. Aphrodite came with the spring, and so came
Joan."

"And before Paris?"

"The New England section of America, I believe. Her mother died when
Joan was a child; her father was in the navy and was drowned."

"An artist, you say?"

"Artistic would be the better description. She is too rich ever to paint
well."

"Rich!"

"As artists go. She has an income of two hundred pounds a year."

"Ah, bah!"

"Don't be so contemptuous of five thousand francs. They go a long
way--with care. I believe that my dear Joan spends all her money on
dress, and keeps soup in the pot by copying pictures. But she will make
a lovely Queen. _Saperlotte!_ I must paint her in purple and ermine."

Yielding to the spell of the vision thus conjured up, Felix forgot his
racked nerves and sang lustily a stanza from "Masaniello." Prince
Michael flung out of the room to meet his son; but the strains followed
him down the stairs.

Yet Poluski was thinking while he sang, and the burden of his thought
was that this anxious father had asked him no word as to the scene in
that bullet swept room, nor the means whereby Alec and his friends were
snatched from death.

Very different was the meeting between Joan and Princess Delgrado. The
panic stricken mother, scarce crediting the assurance given her by the
President's family that there were no grounds for the disquieting rumors
that arose from Sobieski's appeal for help, was in an agony of dread
when the first undoubted version of the true occurrence was brought by
Stampoff's courier.

The arrival of Joan, of one who had actually been in her son's company
until the danger was passed, though helping to dispel her terror,
aroused a consuming desire to learn exactly what had happened. Joan, of
course, could only describe the siege and their state of suspense until
the soldiers cleared the street of the would-be assassins. As to the
motive of the outrage or the manner in which it reached its sudden
crisis, she had no more knowledge than the Princess, and a quite natural
question occurred to the older woman when Joan told how Felix Poluski
had startled the King and herself by his warning cry.

"My son had gone to visit you, then?" she said, not without a shadow of
resentment at the fact that he had discovered this girl's whereabouts
readily enough, though seemingly there was none to tell him that his
father and mother were in the city and longing to see him.

Joan flushed at the words; but her answer carried conviction. "I do not
yet understand just how or when Felix discovered that the King's life
was threatened," she said; "but there can be no doubt it was a ruse on
his part to distract the attention of the mob when he told his Majesty
that I was in the hotel.--I chanced to be looking out--and I was very
angry with Felix when I saw that he had stopped the King and was
evidently informing him of my presence."

"Then my son did not know you were in Delgratz?"

"He had no notion I was any nearer than Paris."

"What an amazing chapter of accidents that you should be in Delgratz
to-day, and, under Providence, become the means of saving Alec's life;
for it is quite clear to me now that had he gone a few yards farther he
would have been shot down without mercy!"

Joan colored even more deeply. Her pride demanded that she should no
longer sail under a false flag, yet it was a seeming breach of maidenly
reserve that she should announce her own betrothal. It would have come
easier if she could claim more consideration from this kind faced,
pleasant voiced woman than was warranted by the casual acquaintance of a
railway journey. But Alec had sent her to his mother, and Joan's nature
would not permit her to carry on the deception, though it might be
capable of the most plausible explanation afterward.

"I feel I ought to tell you," she said, and the blood suddenly ebbed
away from her face to her throbbing heart. "Alec and I were friends in
Paris. We were fond of each other; but gave not much heed to it, since I
was poor and he told me he had his way to make in the world. He wrote to
me a few days ago, asking me to marry him. I did not know what to say,
when chance threw in my way a commission to copy a picture in this very
city. Put in such words, it all sounds very mad and unconvincing; but it
is true, and it is equally true that I should never have acknowledged
to-day that I returned his love if--if I did not think--for a few awful
minutes--that we should both be killed. And--and--I wanted to die in his
arms!"

Joan began to cry, and Princess Delgrado cried too, and it was in tears
that King Alexis III. found them when he had returned Prince Michael's
stately greeting and was told that the young American lady who had come
from the shattered hotel was in his mother's room.



CHAPTER X

WHEREIN THE SHADOWS DEEPEN


Joan was standing on the first floor veranda of the President's house
early next morning, when her errant thoughts were brought back to earth
from wonderland by a stir and clatter of hoofs in the courtyard. She
knew, because Alec had told her the previous evening, that he was bound
for an experimental farm certain local magnates had established in the
rich alluvial plain that forms the right bank of the Danube some few
miles from the capital city.

"At present our country exports pigs and little else," he had said. "I
mean to change all that. Austria shuts and bolts her doors by hostile
tariffs; but Turkey is open to trade with all the world, and who so
favorably situated as we, once the barriers of race prejudice are broken
down? So, behold in me a patron of agriculture and its allied arts!"

"The Turk is our hereditary enemy," snarled Prince Michael, who was much
annoyed by the poor quality of the wine at the royal repast. "Fancy me
drinking Carlowitz at my age!" he had growled to Stampoff when he
discovered that champagne was not supplied, by the King's order.

"My dear Dad, I am trying hard to erase that word 'hereditary' from the
Serbian language," laughed Alec. "It opposes me at every turn; it mocks
at my best efforts; it swathes me like the bandages of a mummy,--and I
am growing weary of its restraint. This is a question of self interest,
too. Perhaps, if I can persuade our good Kosnovians to adopt some more
up-to-date fetish, they may drop the hereditary habit of carving their
chosen rulers into mincemeat whenever a change of Government seems good
to them."

"The King of Kosnovia should never forget that the time may come when he
will be crowned Emperor at Constantinople," said Prince Michael with a
regal flourish of his plump hand.

"Precisely. The ceremony should provide a picturesque spectacle for the
cinematograph. Meanwhile, I want to enter the enemy's territory, and at
present my skirmishers are pigs which are difficult to drive. We need
stronger forces, such as hardware, agricultural implements, horses,
cereals, even textile manufactures."

"In sending your pigs, I hope you also get rid of your bores, Alec," put
in Felix, and Nesimir, who knew no English, wondered why so many of his
guests laughed.

As for the elder Delgrado, he sulked until the President produced a
bottle of imperial tokay, a luxury which the stout Sergius explained
away by the statement that his house had never before been honored by so
distinguished and brilliant a company.

So Joan was prepared for her lover's departure from Delgratz soon after
daybreak. The heat of the noon hours was so excessive that early rising
became more of a necessity than a virtue; hence her appearance on the
veranda.

Alec had definitely promised his mother before retiring to rest that he
would not dispense with an escort until the city was thoroughly quieted
down after the day's excitement. The troopers paraded at six o'clock,
and he did not keep them waiting a minute. Joan, delighting in the
military display, watched him mount and ride off with that half-maternal
solicitude which is the true expression of a woman's love. She hoped he
would look up ere he quitted the courtyard--and she must have
telegraphed her wish; for Alec at once turned in the saddle, almost as
though some one had told him she was there.

He waved a hand in gay greeting, and it would appear that a whim seized
him at the sight of her, since he gave some instructions to an aid de
camp, who came clanking back to the porch, dismounted, and entered the
building.

Soon the officer was bowing low to Joan. "The King presents his
compliments, Excellency," he said in careful French, "and wishes to know
if you will accompany him for an hour's ride before sunset."

 [Illustration: Joan laughed at Alec's masterful methods
    Page 199]

"Please convey my regrets to his Majesty; but I do not possess a riding
habit," said Joan.

"The King told me to say that if your Excellency offers no objection, a
habit will be brought to the palace at four o'clock."

Joan laughed whole heartedly; for Alec's masterful methods came as a
distinct surprise. Yet, despite her independent spirit, she rejoiced in
his dominance.

"Tell his Majesty that I have the utmost confidence in his judgment,"
she said, and her face was still rippling with merriment at the hidden
meaning Alec would surely extract from her message when Lord Adalbert
Beaumanoir joined her.

"Ah, that is better, Miss Vernon," he cried. "Glad to find you in good
spirits,--'Hail, smiling morn,' and that sort of thing, eh, what?"

"Why are you deserting Alec--the King--to-day?" she asked. "I thought
you two were inseparable. And please enlighten me, Lord Adalbert, as to
the correct way of alluding to royalty. Alec is every inch a King, of
course; but I find my tongue tripping every time I use his title."

Beaumanoir seemed to weigh the point. "You are experiencing the same
difficulty as the sailor who acted as billiard marker in the naval mess
at Portsmouth," he said. "One evening the Prince of Wales came in to
play pool, and Jack whispered to the mess president, 'Beg pardon, sir,
but am I to call 'im Yer R'yal 'Ighness or Spot Yaller?'"

Joan shrieked at that, and the sound of her mirth brought Princess
Delgrado to them.

"You are cheerful this morning, Joan," she said.

Her ready use of the girl's Christian name would have told Felix, if he
had been present, that Alec's mother did not by any means share her
husband's views as to the impossibility of a marriage between her son
and this bright faced American. At any rate, Joan's cheeks glowed, and
there was more than convention in the kiss the two women exchanged, each
moved, as it were, by a spontaneous liking for the other.

"It is impossible to be other than cheerful in Lord Adalbert's company,"
said Joan. "Even yesterday, when bullets were showering in through the
windows of that wretched hotel, he made game of them."

"So I did,--shouted 'Mark cock' when the first low one flew across. By
gad! that's rather clever of you, Miss Vernon," he grinned.

"I don't know how either of you can find it in your heart to jest about
that dreadful adventure," said the Princess. "I lay awake for hours last
night thinking of what might have happened if that man Bosko had not
managed to get away and warn General Stampoff."

"By the way, what became of the waiter Felix sent here from the hotel?"
mused Joan aloud. "I forgot to ask him. Surely the man came and spoke to
some one?"

"Oh, yes, Prince Michael met him and questioned him. Then Monsieur
Nesimir took him in hand; but long before either of them could make up
their minds that he was speaking the truth Bosko was clear of the mob
and Stampoff was bringing his hussars from the War Ministry."

The Princess spoke hurriedly, and the younger people were quick to
perceive a slight restraint in her words. It was quite natural. A
mother, weighing the actions of others in a matter touching the safety
of her son, would hardly make allowance for the incredulity such a
messenger as Sobieski would inspire, and Beaumanoir tactfully led the
talk to a less serious topic.

"You charged me, a little while ago, Miss Vernon, with deserting our
sovereign lord the King, whereas the exact opposite is true," he said.
"I am here on duty. 'Berty,' said my liege, 'stop at home to-day and
amuse my mother and Joan,' his very words. Am I amusing you? No! Then I
must go and find that funny little Pole and beseech him to tell us his
best before breakfast story. Gad! He has some rippin' after dinner ones.
He had us all roaring last night, and the funniest thing was to hear him
spinning the same yarn in the local lingo, so that Nesimir and the other
Serbs could share in the festivities. Prince Michael and Alec had the
pull of me there, because they could laugh twice. By the way, Princess,
Monsieur Poluski was well acquainted with your husband a good many years
ago. They first met in New York, it seems. Poluski coolly informed us
that he was obliged to leave Warsaw about that time because he had
invented a new explosive specially adapted for removing crowned heads.
Fancy him saying that when a real live King was sitting next to him."

"Alec is very fond of Felix," said Joan. "He knows quite well that our
friend talks about things he has never done and never means to do. Why,
Felix is the most tender hearted man living. His generosity is
proverbial, and he would give away the last franc in his pocket if a
starving woman begged of him. His anarchist notions are all nonsense. He
has cared little about political affairs during the last ten years, and
his only real happiness now is to paint the portrait of a pretty woman
and sing at his work. If it was not for the belief that he is mixed up
with dynamitards and other weird creatures, he would be one of the best
known artists in Paris."

Beaumanoir called to mind the quiet confidence in Poluski's voice when
describing the potency of that curious cigar-shaped bomb which so
narrowly escaped being hurled at the mutineers during the fight.

"There is a lot more in Poluski's make-up than one would give him credit
for at a glance," said he.

"I understand he was really a firebrand in his youth," remarked the
Princess. "My husband and he disagreed so strongly at one period that
their acquaintance ceased during many years. Indeed, I met him yesterday
practically for the first time."

She sighed. Joan realized that Princess Delgrado was perplexed to find
her son with so many new interests in life, interests of which she had
no cognizance. He might have dwelt in some city a thousand miles removed
from Paris, for all she knew of his associates or habits, and this one
fact was eloquent of the gulf that yawned between his home and his
pursuits.

After breakfast, Joan insisted on beginning work in the Cathedral. Felix
and Beaumanoir accompanied her there in a closed carriage, and the cool
interior of the heavy, ugly structure was not ungrateful in the midday
heat.

At four o'clock Joan was ready to don a riding-habit that fitted
marvelously well considering that the maker had never set eyes on the
wearer till he brought the costume to the palace. At five she and Alec
and Beaumanoir went for a ride on the outskirts of the town. The men
took her to a very fine turfed avenue that wound through three miles of
woodland. At the close of a glorious canter a turn in the path revealed
a rather pretty chateau situated on a gentle slope of lawns and gardens
rising from the northern shore of a large lake.

"Do you like it?" asked Alec.

"It is a perfectly charming place," she said enthusiastically.

"I am glad you think so," said he. "It is called the New Konak, in
contradistinction to the old one, the Schwarzburg. It will be our summer
residence. I propose to occupy it as soon as it is properly furnished."

He spoke lightly; but a quiet glance conveyed far more than the words.
This, then, was their destined nest, their very own house, and for their
first ramble he had brought her there. Its seclusion gave a sense of
secure peace that was absent from the President's gloomy palace. The
lovely park and its belt of forest shut out the noise and glare of the
streets. Joan sat on her horse and surveyed the scene with glistening
eyes. Her future home lay there, and the belief thrilled her strangely.
If she could have peered into the future, how much more deeply would she
have been stirred; for if ever she was fated to be happy in the
companionship of the gallant youth by her side, assuredly that happiness
was not so near or so easily attained as it seemed to be in that sylvan
hour.

Beaumanoir broke in on her reverie in his usual happy-go-lucky style.
"Not a bad looking crib, is it, Miss Joan?" said he. "I have promised
Alec to remain in Delgratz until you are all settled down in it, nice
and comfy. Then I wend my lonely way back to Paris. By Jove! I shall be
something of a hero there--shine with reflected glory--eh, what?"

"I can't spare you for many a day yet, Berty," said Alec. "You can
hardly realize how good he has been, Joan," he continued. "I had a
fearfully hard time during the first week. More than once I wanted to
cut and run; but he kept me to it, chaffing me out of the dumps when
everything seemed to be going wrong."

Beaumanoir winked brazenly at her. "He talks that way now," he grinned.
"It's the kingly habit, I understand. Alec has got it down to a fine
point. Make every fellow believe that he is It, and there you are, you
know."

There was some substratum of sense in Beaumanoir's chaffing. Alec was
taking his kingship very seriously, and Joan was hard pressed to bridge
the gulf that lay between Paris and Delgratz.

At first she found it almost impossible to realize that Alec had been in
harness little more than a month. His talk was replete with local
knowledge; he seemed to understand the people and their ways so
thoroughly. He was versed even in the peculiarities of their methods of
tillage, was able to explain distinctions of costume and racial
appearance, and might have spent his life in studying all their customs
and folklore.

Fortunately, Joan herself was gifted with quick perception and a
retentive memory. After a few days' residence in the White City she
began to assimilate the rills of information that trickled in upon her
from so many sources, and the feeling of bewildered surprise with which
she regarded her lover's attainments during the first hours of real
intimacy was soon replaced by an active sympathy and fuller
understanding. She was helped in this by the King's mother, since there
could be no doubt that Princess Delgrado took her absolutely to her
heart.

Prince Michael, who was completely eclipsed not only by his son's
extraordinary versatility in all public affairs but by lack of that
opulent setting for his peculiar qualities which Paris alone could
supply, seemed to accept the inevitable. He tolerated Joan, openly
praised her beauty, and became resigned in a more or less patronizing
way to the minor distractions of local life.

Felix and Joan gave up their mornings to art. The Pole discovered some
quaint old frescoes in the cathedral which attracted him by their
remarkable freedom of design and simplicity of color. He valiantly
essayed their reproduction; but Joan suspected in her deepest heart that
Poluski's sudden conversion to Byzantine ideals was due far more to the
fact that the lofty dome of the building produced musical effects of the
most gratifying nature than to any real appreciation of the quaint
contours and glaring tints of a series of wall pictures that set forth
some long forgotten Bulgar artist's conception of the life and history
of John the Baptist.

There was naturally a good deal of inquiry and speculation as to the
identity of the unknown connoisseur who had commissioned Joan to copy
the Saint Peter. Felix resolutely declined to satisfy any one's
questioning on that topic. He had given his word, he said, not to betray
the confidence reposed in him; but he allayed Alec's professed jealousy
by declaring that to the best of his knowledge the man who had sent
Joan on this mysterious quest had never even seen her. Still, it was
impossible to avoid a certain amount of interested speculation among
members of the small circle which was aware of the reason that lay
behind Joan's visit to Delgratz. Both Alec and Joan believed that Count
Julius Marulitch was in some way responsible, and their chief difficulty
was to analyze the motive of such unlooked-for generosity on his part.

The slight mystery underlying the incident was not cleared up until
Beliani reached the capital two or three days after Julius himself. The
latter cleared the air by expressing his unbounded amazement at finding
his cousin engaged to a young American woman of whose existence he had
not even heard before he was introduced to her. Under the conditions it
seemed to savor of the ridiculous to ask if he was the hidden agent in
the matter of the picture. But Beliani was candor itself; not for a
moment did he endeavor to conceal his responsibility. When Alec welcomed
him on the evening of his arrival, he drew the King aside and said, with
all the friendliness of one apparently devoted to the Kosnovian cause:

"I am glad to see that my little scheme has worked well. Of course you
guessed who it was that despatched Miss Vernon from Paris?"

"No," said Alec, scanning the Greek's smiling yet subtle face with those
frank eyes of his that had so quickly learned the secret of looking
beneath the veneer of men's words to discover their motives. "No, I
never associated you with her appearance here. What inspired you to it?
I may say at once that I regard it as the most friendly act you could
possibly have performed so far as I am concerned; but I know you well
enough to be a little dubious."

Beliani smiled and spread wide his hands with the deprecatory gesture of
the Levantine. Long years of residence in the capitals of Europe had not
wholly effaced the servile mannerisms of the Eastern money-lender.

"That is because you know I am a Greek, your Majesty," he said. "It is
the misfortune of my countrymen that we are seldom given credit for
disinterested motives. Well, I will be honest, quite frank in this, for
the excellent reason that if I was to endeavor to hoodwink you I think I
should fail. I make it my business to know everything--I repeat,
everything--about Kosnovian affairs, and when the rumor reached Paris
that you were to marry a Montenegrin Princess----"

Alec laughed so cheerily that Prince Michael, who happened to be in the
room, turned and looked at the two, wondering what Beliani could have
said that so amused his son.

"My dear fellow," he broke in, "I have never set eyes on the lady. My
time has been far too occupied in learning my business to permit of
visits to neighboring States. Moreover, as it happened, I had chosen my
wife some days before I hit upon a career."

"Exactly, your Majesty. I knew that also."

"But how could you know?"

"I mean that I learned it afterward. An art student of the type of Miss
Vernon, and a young gentleman so popular in Parisian society as Alexis
Delgrado, could not meet day after day in the Louvre to conduct a class
composed solely of two members without exciting a certain amount of
comment."

"But that doesn't explain why you should have decided upon the
extraordinary step of sending her to Delgratz."

"No, it shows only how readily I availed myself of existing
circumstances. You see, sitting there in Paris and reading of your
phenomenal progress, I pictured to myself the isolation, the lack of
sympathetic companionship, that you must be suffering here despite all
the brave fireworks of your achievements. We Greeks are poets and
philosophers as well as financiers, and I gratified those higher
instincts of my race by rendering possible a visit to Delgratz of the
lady whom you had chosen as a bride, while at the same time I hope to do
myself a good turn in winning your favor; for I have money at stake on
your success. Please do not forget that, your Majesty. I supported the
Delgrado cause when it was at the lowest ebb of failure, and I naturally
look forward now to recoup myself."

"All this is new to me," said Alec, "new and somewhat puzzling. In what
way are you bound up with the fortunes of my house, Monsieur Beliani?"

The Greek shrugged his shoulders expressively. "There are so many ways
in which interest in a fallen monarchy can be kept alive," he said.
"Monseigneur your father is well acquainted with the turns and twists of
events ever since he was driven forth from Kosnovia as a young man. For
many years I remained here, working steadily and hopefully in his
behalf, and you yourself are aware that when you were a boy of fourteen,
Stampoff and I escaped death only by the skin of our teeth because of an
abortive attempt to place your father on the throne."

"Of course," said Alec thoughtfully, "you must be repaid with interest
the sums you have expended in our behalf; but I warn you that a new era
of economy has been established here. My father and I have already
agreed to differ on that point. He seemed to think that the chief
business of a King was to exploit his subjects, whereas my theory is
that the King should set an example of quiet living and industry. Don't
forget that I have seen some of my brother potentates stranded in Paris,
mostly because they were so ready to gratify their own appetites at the
expense of their people. I need hardly tell you, Beliani, that Kosnovia
is a poverty stricken State. We have suffered from three generations of
self seeking and rapacious rulers. That is all ended. I mean to render
my people happy and contented. It shall be the one care of my life to
make them so, and if it is the will of Providence that a Delgrado
should reign in the next generation, my legacy to him will be, not
millions of pounds invested in foreign securities, but a nation strong,
self contained, and prosperous."

Beliani listened with a rapt attention. "I agree most fully with every
word that has fallen from your lips," he said; "but your Majesty cannot
achieve these splendid aims single handed. You must be surrounded by
able men; you need officials of ripe experience in every department.
Now, the first consideration of a small State like this, hemmed in as it
is by powerful Kingdoms which the least change in the political
barometer may convert into active enemies, is a strong and progressive
system of finance. I am vain enough to think that you may find my
services useful in that direction. There is no man in Delgratz who has
had my training, and so assured am I of the success that will attend
your Majesty's reign that I purposely delayed my arrival here so that I
might not come empty handed. I passed a week in Vienna, working and
thinking twenty hours out of each twenty-four. I felt my way cautiously
with the leading financial houses there. Of course, I could not say
much, because I was unauthorized; but I have obtained guarantees that
will command the certain issue of a loan sufficient to give a start to
some, at least, of the many projects you have already foreshadowed in
your public speeches. Without a shadow of doubt I declare that as soon
as I am able to open negotiations with your approval, a loan of several
millions will be at your service."

Though the Greek was putting forward an obvious bait, it was evident
that the King was astonished by his outspoken declaration. "Do I
understand that you are applying for the post of Minister of Finance?"
he said in his straightforward way.

"Yes, your Majesty," replied Beliani.

"You appreciate, of course, that I occupy a somewhat peculiar position
here," said Alec. "I am a constitutional monarch backed by a
constitution that is little more than a name. This country really
demands an autocracy, whereas I have sworn to govern only by the will of
the people. In those circumstances I do not feel myself at liberty to
appoint or dismiss Ministers at my own sweet will. I assure you that I
am grateful for the offer of help you bring; but I cannot give you the
appointment you seek until, in the first place, I have consulted my
council and obtained its sanction."

Beliani bowed. "I will leave the matter entirely in your Majesty's
hands," he said, and by no sign did his well governed face betray his
satisfaction; for, with the King on his side, the astute Greek well knew
that he could pull the strings of the puppets in the Assembly to suit
his own ends.

"May I venture to suggest to your Majesty," he went on, "that there is
one thing that demands immediate attention? Your position cannot be
regarded as assured until you have received the recognition of the
chief European States. Has Austria made any move in that direction? Have
you been approached by Russia? One of those two will take the
initiative, and the others will follow."

"So far," said Alec, smiling, "I have been favored with a telegram from
the German Emperor, which his chargé d'affaires tried to explain away
next day. It was followed by a protest from Turkey on account of an
alleged disrespectful remark of mine about her position in the cosmogony
of Europe, and I have drawn a polite refusal from Austria to modify
passport regulations, which, by the way, I suggested should be
altogether done away with. Other Kings and Principalities have left me
severely alone."

"But it would be a grave error to drop the passport system," said
Beliani earnestly. "It is most important that your Majesty's police
should be acquainted with the identity of all strangers; otherwise you
would never know what secret agents of your enemies you might be
harboring here."

"I trouble my head very little about the secret agents of enemies that
do not exist," said Alec lightly. "You are probably thinking of the
revolt of the Seventh Regiment; but that is a domestic quarrel, a local
phase of the war waged by all criminals against representatives of law
and order. To be sure, I shall devote every effort to keeping Kosnovia
free of external troubles; yet passports are useless there. I find that
a stupid dream of a Slav Empire has drugged the best intellects of
Kosnovia for half a century. That sort of political hashish must cease
to control our actions. It has served only to cripple our commercial
expansion, and I have declined resolutely to countenance its continuance
either in public or private. Let us first develop the land we own.
Believe me, Monsieur Beliani, if our people are worthy of extending
their sway, no power on earth can stop them; but they must first learn
to till the field with implements other than swords or bayonets, which
are quite out of date, either as plows or as reaping-hooks."

Prince Michael, watching them furtively, and wondering much what topic
was engaging them so deeply, could no longer restrain his impatience. He
joined them, saying with his jaunty, self confident air: "What new
surprise are you two plotting? You ought to make a rare
combination,--Alec with his democratic pose of taking the wide world
into his confidence, and you, Beliani, burrowing underground like a mole
whose existence is suspected only when one sees the outcome of his
labors."

"Just what I was suggesting to his Majesty," laughed Beliani, cursing
Prince Michael under his breath for interfering at that moment. "I will
say, though, from what I have managed to glean of his projects, that the
humble rôle you have been good enough to assign to me will be utterly
out of place in his nobler schemes. Nevertheless, I hope to make myself
useful."

"Something to do with money, of course?" guffawed the Prince.

"It is the only commodity I really understand," was the suave answer.

"That is why you refused me a loan a fortnight ago in Paris, I suppose?"

"A loan!" interposed Alec. "Were you hard up, father?"

"I have been telling you so without avail ever since I arrived in
Delgratz," said the Prince bruskly.

"Ah, you have been asking me to impose on an empty exchequer an annual
payment that Kosnovia certainly cannot afford; but I certainly was not
under the impression that you had found it necessary to apply to
Monsieur Beliani for help. Why should such a step be necessary? I have
always understood----"

"Oh, we need not discuss the thing now," said Prince Michael
offhandedly; for he dreaded a too close inquiry into his wife's
financial resources in the presence of the Greek. Princess Delgrado was
reputedly a rich woman, and her husband had explained his shortness of
cash during recent years by the convenient theory of monetary tightness
in America, whence, it was well understood, her income was derived.

"Have you seen your mother recently?" he went on, striving to appear at
his ease. "I was looking for her half an hour ago. Some letters that
reached me from Paris to-day ought to be answered by to-night's post,
and I wish to consult her before dealing with them."

"Joan will know where she is, I expect," said Alec; but, seeing that
Prince Michael did not avail himself of Joan's presence to seek the
desired information, he strolled over to the corner of the room where
Joan was chatting with Beaumanoir and one of the Serbian officers
attached to the royal suite.

"Do you know where my mother is?" he asked.

"Yes," she said. "General Stampoff took her for a drive nearly an hour
ago. I offered to go with them; but the General explained that his
victoria would hold only two."

"Stampoff driving with my mother!" cried Alec with a laugh, "I must look
into this. Stampoff is no lady's man as a rule. Now, what in the world
does he want my mother to do for him?"

Certainly there must have been some quality in the air of Delgratz that
produced strange happenings. Stampoff could scarcely speak civilly to a
woman, ever since a faithless member of the fair sex brought about his
downfall in Delgratz a decade earlier. Small wonder, then, that Alec
should express surprise at such display of gallantry on his part!

And, indeed, the unprecedented action of the gruff old Serbian General
in taking Princess Delgrado for a drive that evening was destined to
have consequences not to be foreseen by any person, least of all the
young couple whose contemplated marriage was then in the mouths of all
men. It was the first step in the new march of events. Stampoff meant
to prove to the King's mother that her son would be ruined in the eyes
of his people if he married a foreigner, ruined instantly and
irretrievably, no matter how gracious and pleasing Joan might seem to be
in their eyes, and, true to his military caste, he wasted no time in
making the Princess aware of his motive in seeking this tête-à-tête
conversation.

"I think I am right in assuming that you approve of the young American
lady as your son's wife," said he when the carriage was clear of the
paved streets and bowling smoothly along the south bank of the Danube on
the only good driving road outside the city.

"The notion startled me at first," confessed the Princess; "but the more
I see of Joan the more I like her. Alec and she are devoted to each
other, and I am sure she will be popular, for she is the type of woman
who will take her position as Queen seriously."

"She is admirable in every respect," interrupted Stampoff; "but she
suffers from one defect that outweighs all her virtues,--she is not a
Serb."

"Nor am I," said the Princess quickly; "yet no one seems to find fault
with the King on that ground."

"One cannot judge the conditions that hold good to-day by those which
existed twenty-five years ago," said Stampoff gravely. "When Prince
Michael married you, madame, he was an exile; but Alexis is the
reigning King, and he will offend his people mortally if he brings in a
foreigner to share his throne."

Princess Delgrado was bewildered by this sudden attack. She turned and
scanned the old man's impressive features with feverish anxiety. "What
do you mean?" she asked quickly. "Are you trying to enlist my aid in a
campaign against my son's chosen wife? If so, you will fail, General. I
am weary to death of political intrigues and the never ceasing tactics
of wirepullers. I have been surrounded by them all my life, and I
thanked Providence in my heart when I saw that my son began his reign by
sweeping aside the whole network of lies and artifice. He has not
imposed himself on his people. He is here by their own free will, and if
they are ready to accept him so thoroughly they will surely not think of
interfering in such a personal matter as his marriage."

"But they are thinking of it," said Stampoff doggedly. "That is why you
are here now with me. I felt that I must warn you of the trouble ahead.
Alec, I admit, would be an ideal King in an ideal State; but he has
failed absolutely to appreciate the racial prejudices that exist here.
They are the growth of centuries; they cannot be uprooted merely because
a King is in love with an eminently desirable young woman. Among the ten
millions of our people, Princess, there are hardly ten thousand who have
any settled notions of government, whether good or bad, and those ten
thousand think they have a prior right to control the destinies of the
remainder of the nation. With the exception of a few of the younger
officers, there is not a man among the governing class who doesn't
harbor more or less resentment against your son. He is putting down with
a ruthless hand the petty corruption on which they thrived, and at the
same time reducing their recognized salaries. In season and out of
season he preaches the duties of good citizenship, but these men have
too long been considering self to yield without a struggle the positions
attained under a less scrupulous régime.

"I speak of what I know when I tell you that, placid and contented as
Delgratz looks, it is really a seething volcano of hate and discontent.
Repressed for the hour, kept in check, perhaps, by the undoubted loyalty
of the masses, it is ready to spout devastating fire and ashes at the
least provocation, and that will be found in a marriage which seems to
shut out all hope of realizing the long looked-for joining of Montenegro
and Kosnovia. I have a bitter acquaintance with our history, madame, and
am persuaded that if Alec is to remain King he must abandon forever this
notion of marrying an alien. The Greek church would oppose it tooth and
nail, and the people would soon follow the lead of their Popes. This
young lady's appearance in Delgratz has come at a singularly inopportune
moment. She was brought here by some one hostile to your son. If she
came in obedience to Alec's wishes, he is his own worst enemy."

The distressed Princess could hardly falter a question in response to
Stampoff's vehement outburst. "Why do you tell me these things?" she
said brokenly. "I--I dare not interfere, even though I approved of what
you say, which I do not."

"Some one must act, and speedily too, or the resultant mischief cannot
be undone. I appeal to you because you are a woman, and we men are prone
to bungle in these matters."

"But what do you want of me?" wailed the tortured Princess. "Michael
protested against the marriage----"

"I am thinking of Alec's welfare now," said Stampoff gruffly. "You are
his mother, and you and I can save him. In a word, that girl must go,
to-night if possible, to-morrow without fail. The talk of marriage must
be dropped, and revived only when a Serb is the prospective bride."

"You say she must go. What does that imply? It is not in my power to
send her away, even if I would."

"It is, Princess," was the grim answer. "If she loves Alec, she will
save him by leaving him. I am told women do these things occasionally.
Perhaps she is one of the self sacrificing sort. At any rate, she must
be given the chance, and by you. She must go away, and, in going, tell
the King she will never marry him. It is hard. Both will suffer; but, in
the long run Alec will come to see that by no other means can he retain
his Kingdom."



CHAPTER XI

JOAN DECIDES


An odd element of fatality seemed to attach itself to the Byzantine
Saint Peter in the cathedral of Delgratz. Joan nearly lost her life
within a few hours of the time when first she saw that remarkable work
of art, and it was ordained that one of the last clear memories of the
checkered life in Kosnovia should be its round staring eyes, its stiffly
modeled right hand, uplifted, it might be, in reproof or exhortation,
the ornate pastoral staff, and the emblem of the crossed keys that
labeled the artist's intent to portray the chief apostle. Poor Joan had
already conceived a violent dislike of the reputed Giotto. It was no
longing to complete her work that drove her, at the end, to the solemn
cathedral, but the compelling need of confiding in Felix. For it had
come to this: she must fly from Delgratz at once and forever.

It chanced that morning that Alec had taken a holiday. He appeared
unexpectedly at breakfast and sat by Joan's side, and his lover's eyes
had detected a pallor, a certain strained and wistful tension of the
lips, signs of mental storm and stress that she hoped would not be
noticeable.

"Sweetheart," he whispered in quick alarm, "you are not well. You are
feeling this wretched climate. I am minded to throw sentiment aside and
send my mother and you to the New Konak to-day."

"I am quite well," she said, with a forced composure that she felt did
not deceive him. It was necessary to invent some explanation, and she
continued hurriedly, "I did not sleep soundly last night. Some wandering
night bird flew in through my open window and startled me with its
frantic efforts to escape from the room. That is all. After a little
rest I shall be myself again."

"That gloomy old cathedral is not a healthy place, I am inclined to
think," he said, scanning her face again with the anxious gaze of one
who could not endure even a momentary eclipse of its bright vivacity.
"You go there too often, and now that we know from whom your commission
was received it is straining a point of etiquette to continue your work.
It will relieve any scruples you may have on that head if I tell you
that I paid Monsieur Beliani yesterday every farthing of the money
advanced to you by his agent in Paris."

"I am glad of that," she said simply. "I did not like the idea of being
indebted to him. Though he is a very clever man, I regard him as a good
deal of a rogue."

Alec was not to be switched off personal issues because Joan expressed
her opinions in this matter of fact manner. "I am quite sure you are
ill, or at any rate run down," he persisted. "What you need is a change
of air. I think I can allow myself a few hours' respite from affairs of
state to-day. What say you if the two of us drive to our country house
this morning and find out for ourselves the progress made by the
workmen? I seem to remember that the contractor named a date, not far
distant now, when the place would be habitable."

"There is nothing in the world that I should like better," said Joan.

Again Alec detected a strange undercurrent of emotion in her voice; but
he attributed it to the lack of sleep she had complained of, and with
his customary tact forbore from pressing her for any further
explanation.

They took their drive, and to all outward semblance Joan enjoyed it
thoroughly. Her drooping spirits revived long before the last straggling
houses of Delgratz were left behind. She exhibited the keenest interest
in the house and gardens. Although their inspection did not end until
the sun was high in the heavens, she insisted upon entering every room
and traversing many of the paths in the spacious grounds. She talked,
too, with a fluency that in any other woman would have aroused a
suspicion of effort; but Alec was too glad that the marked depression of
the morning had passed to give heed to her half-hysterical mood. He
entered with zest into her eager scrutiny of their future home, sought
her advice on every little detail, and grew enthusiastic himself at the
prospect of a speedy removal from the barnlike presidential palace to
that leafy paradise. He remembered afterward how Joan's eyes dwelt
longingly on an Italian garden that had always attracted her; but it was
impossible that he should read the farewell in them.

They returned to the city in time for luncheon; then the King had to
hurry away to try and overtake the day's engagements.

His parting words were an injunction to Joan that she should not go out
again during the hot hours, but endeavor to obtain the rest of which she
had been deprived during the night.

"Good-by, dear," she said. "You may feel quite certain that when next we
meet I shall be a different person altogether to the pallid creature
whom you met at breakfast this morning."

Alec was still conscious of some strange detachment in her words. His
earlier feeling that she was acting a part came back with renewed force;
but he again attributed it to the reaction that comes to highly strung
natures after a surfeit of excitement in the midst of a new and
difficult environment.

He kissed her tenderly, and Joan seemed to be on the verge of tears. He
was puzzled; but thought it best to refrain from comment. "Poor girl!"
he said to himself. "She feels it hard to be surrounded by people who
are all strangers, and mostly shut off by the barrier of language."

But he was in no sense alarmed. He left the palace convinced that a few
hours of repose would bring back the color to her cheeks and the natural
buoyancy to her manner. Then he meant to chaff her about her distracted
air; for Joan was no neurotic subject, and she herself would be the
first to laugh at the nervous fit of the morning.

Poluski, hard at work at his frescoes since an early hour, and
grudgingly snatching a hasty meal at midday, was surprised when Joan
came to him after the King's departure and told him that she meant to
finish her picture that afternoon. He made no comment, however, indeed
he was glad of her company, and the two drove away together in the
capacious closed carriage that brought them to and fro between cathedral
and palace. During their working hours, they refused to be hampered by
the presence of servants. An old Greek, who acted as caretaker, took
charge of canvases, easels, paintboxes, and other utensils of the
painter's craft, and he came out gleefully from his lodge as soon as
their vehicle rumbled under the deep arch of the outer porch.

Usually, Joan had a word and a smile for him, though the extent of her
Greek conversation was a phrase or two learned from Felix; but to-day
she hardly seemed to see him, and lost not a moment in settling down to
work. She had not much to do; in fact, so far as Felix took note of her
action, after adjusting the canvas and mixing some colors on the
palette, she sat idle for a long time, and even then occupied herself
with an unnecessary deepening of tints in the picture, which already
displayed an amazing resemblance to its stilted and highly colored
prototype.

At last she spoke, and Felix, perched on a platform above her head, was
almost startled by the sorrow laden cadence of her voice.

"I did not really come here to-day to paint," she said. "The picture is
finished; my work in Delgratz is ended. You and Pauline are the only two
people in the world whom I can trust, and I have brought you here,
Felix, to tell you that I am leaving Delgratz to-night."

The hunchback slid down from the little scaffolding he had constructed
to enable him to survey the large area covered by the frescoes. "I
suppose I have understood what you said," he cried. "It is impossible to
focus one's thoughts properly on the spoken word when a huge dome adds
vibrations of its own, and I admit that I am invariably irritated myself
when I state a remarkable fact with the utmost plainness and people
pretend to be either deaf or dull of comprehension."

That was Poluski's way. He never would take one seriously; but Joan
merely sighed and bent her head.

"You say you are leaving Delgratz to-night! May one ask why?" he went
on, dropping his bantering manner at once.

"No," she said.

Felix bassooned a few deep notes between his lips. "You have some good
reason for telling me that, I presume?" he muttered, uttering the first
words that occurred to his perplexed brain.

"Yes, the very best of reasons, or at least the most convincing. I
cannot remain here unless I marry Alec, and as I have absolutely
determined not to marry him, it follows that I must go."

"Ah, you are willing to give some sort of reason, then," he said. "At
present I am muddled. One grasps that unless you marry Alec you must go;
but why not marry Alec? It sounds like a proposition of Euclid with the
main clauses omitted."

"I am sorry, Felix, but I cannot explain myself further. You came to
Delgratz with me; will you return with me to Paris? If not, will you at
least promise to help me to get away and keep secret the fact that I am
going?"

Felix grew round eyed with amazement; but he managed to control his
tongue. "You are asking a good deal, dear," he said. "Do you know what
you are doing? Do you realize what your action will mean to Alec? What
has happened? Some lover's tiff. That is unlike you, Joan. If you run
off in this fashion, you will be trying most deliberately to break poor
Alec's heart."

Joan uttered a queer little choking sob, yet recovered her self control
with a rapidity that disconcerted Felix far more than she imagined at
the moment.

"He will suffer, I know," she murmured, "and it does not console me to
feel that in the end I shall suffer far more; but I am going, Felix,
whatsoever the cost, no matter whose heart may be broken. Heaven help
me! I must go, and I look to you for assistance. Oh, my friend, my
friend! I have only you in all the world. Do not desert me in my need!"

She had never before seen Felix really angry; but even in the extremity
of her distress she could not fail to note a strange glitter in the gray
eyes now fixed on her in a fiery underlook. The little man was deeply
moved; for once in his life he did not care how much he showed his
resentment.

"_Saperlotte!_" he growled. "What has come to you? Is it you who speak,
or the devil? You are possessed of a fiend, Joan, a fiend that is
tempting you to do this wrong!"

Joan rose, pale faced and resolute. Despite the flood of rage and
despair that surged in Poluski's quivering frame, she reminded him of a
glimpse he caught of her in that last desperate moment when the door of
the hotel was battered open by the insurgents and her mind was already
fixed on death as a blessed relief from the horror of life.

"I only ask you to believe in my unalterable purpose," she said with a
calmness that stupefied him. "If no other means presents itself, I
should wander out of the palace in the darkness and endeavor to reach
Austria by the ferry across the Danube. I believe there are difficulties
for the stranger if one goes that way; but again I throw myself on your
mercy, Felix, and appeal to you for guidance and help. This is my worst
hour. If you fail me now, I shall indeed be wretched."

Felix leaned against an upright of the scaffolding and passed a
trembling hand over his forehead. "Forgive me, Joan, if I have spoken
harshly!" he muttered in the dubious voice of a man who hardly knows
what he is saying.

"There is nothing to forgive. It is I, rather, who should seek
forgiveness from you for imposing this cruel test of friendship. But
what can I do, Felix? I am a woman and alone, and, when I think of what
lies before me, I am afraid."

With a great effort he steadied himself. Placing both hands on the
girl's shoulders, he turned her face to the light that fell from a small
rose window in a side aisle. In silence he looked at her, seeking to
wring the secret of this madness from her steadfast eyes.

"_Ma belle_," he cried suddenly, "I am beginning to believe that you are
in earnest."

"No matter how many years it may please God to leave me on earth, I
shall never be more resolved on anything than on my departure from
Delgratz to-night."

"You place trust in me, you say in one breath, yet you deny it in
another. Tell me then, Joan, what is the obstacle that has arisen to
prevent you from marrying Alec? It all hinges on that. Who has been
lying to you?"

She could not continue to meet his accusing eyes. It seemed to her that
if he urged her more her heart would burst. Yielding to the impulse of
the hunted animal, she wrenched herself free and turned to run
somewhere, anywhere, so that she might avoid his merciless inquisition.
A harsh laugh fell on her ears, and nothing more effective to put a stop
to her flight could have been devised.

"Name of a name!" he roared, "shall we not take our pictures? If we are
false to all else, let us at least be true to our harmless daubs!"

The taunt was undeserved and glanced unheeded from the shield of the
girl's utter misery. Perhaps because that was so, the Pole's next words
were tender and soothing.

"Come, then, my Joan," he growled, "never shall it be said against me
that I deserted a comrade in distress. I hoped to see you happily
wedded. It was my fantasy that Alec and you would inaugurate a new line
of monarchs and thus bring about the social revolution from an
unexpected quarter. But I was mistaken. Holy blue! never was man so led
astray since Eve strolled into the wrong orchard and brought Adam with
her!"

By this time he had caught her. He held her arm, and began to stroke one
of her hands softly as if she had shown symptoms of falling in a faint.
"We will go, _mignonne_," he soothed her, "you and I, and none here
shall know till we have crossed the frontier. Not even then will they
guess what has become of us, unless you find it in your heart to leave
some little word for Alec. You will do that? You will save him from
despair, from the torture of doubt----"

"Oh, Felix, spare me!" she sobbed convulsively.

"But one must look squarely at the facts, _mignonne_. If you run away
and give no sign, it can only be supposed that you have met with some
evil fate. There are others than Alec who will think that disaster has
befallen you, and they will have uneasy souls, and Alec will look into
their guilty faces with the eyes of a wrathful lover, which at such
times can be superhuman, terrible, heart piercing. There is no knowing
whose blood will stain his hands then; for he will accept from no one
but yourself the assurance that you have left him of your own free
will."

"That, at least, is true," she said wearily. "I shall write a letter
which must be given to him when I am gone."

"_Grand Dieu!_ what a resolute will is yours, Joan! Have you counted the
cost? Leave Alec out of it; but do you think his hog of a father, his
easily swayed mother, Stampoff, the short sighted and patriotic, or that
scheming Greek and his puppet Marulitch, will gain the ends for which,
between them, they have contrived your flight? Do you know Alec so
little as to believe that he will leave the field clear to that crew?
Why, dear heart, he will sweep them aside like an angry god! They have
bewitched your brain with some tale of the evil that will accrue to the
King if he weds the woman he loves. If that is all, it is a fiction fit
only to frighten a child. Hear me, Joan! You are not helping Alec by
tearing yourself away from Delgratz; but condemning to the deepest hell
not him alone but some millions of people who have done no wrong. They
gave their honest affections to this boy, because he strikes their
imagination as a King sent straight from Heaven. It is a vile plot, dear
heart, to drive Alec from Kosnovia. How can you, of all women, lend
yourself to it?"

Felix could not guess how his words lacerated the unhappy girl's soul;
but she did not falter in her purpose, and again endeavored to rush from
the church. Poluski uttered a queer click with his tongue. It testified
that he had done his uttermost and failed.

"Be it so, then!" he muttered. "Help me to pack up these masterpieces. I
can plan and scheme with any man living; but I cannot cope with heavy
parcels of holiness."

Joan, distraught though she was, felt that he had given way. Without
another word she assisted in packing the carriage with their canvases
and other belongings. The old Greek caretaker hobbled after them when he
saw that they were going without depositing their paraphernalia in the
lodge as usual.

"You will come back some day and copy another picture, I hope,
Excellency," he cried, doffing his cap to Joan.

She opened her purse, since she did not understand what the old man was
saying.

"No, no, Excellency," he protested. "The King himself told me you were
not to be pestered by beggars. I have threatened to crack the skulls of
one or two who persisted in annoying you, and it would ill become me to
take a reward for doing what the King ordered."

"He will not accept anything," said Felix. "I may not tell you what else
he said, since he only put my arguments in simpler words."

He shot a quick look at her, hoping to find some slight sign of
weakening; but her marble face wore the expression of one who has
suffered so greatly that the capacity for suffering is exhausted. From
that instant Felix urged her no more. He obeyed her without question or
protest, contriving matters so that when she quitted the palace, deeply
veiled, to walk to the station, the soldiers on guard imagined she was a
serving maid going into the town.

Pauline, though prepared to be faithful at any hazard, wept when she was
told that she must stay in Delgratz and face the storm that would rage
when she delivered into the King's own hand the letter Joan intrusted to
her care. But even Pauline herself realized that if her mistress was to
escape from Delgratz unnoticed, she, the maid, must remain there till
the following day. By that time there would be no reason why Joan's maid
should not leave openly for the west, and the Frenchwoman was only too
thankful at the prospect of a speedy exit from "this city of brigands"
to protest too strenuously against the rôle thrust upon her by Felix.

As events unrolled themselves, the two travelers encountered no
difficulty in leaving Delgratz. It will be remembered that Beliani's
foresight had provided them with return tickets to Paris, and this
circumstance aided them greatly. In those closely guarded lands where
keen eyed scrutineers keep watch and ward over a frontier, the
production of the return half of a ticket issued in the same city as a
passport at once lulls any doubt that might arise otherwise.

Moreover, Joan and Felix occupied separate carriages, and the Belgrade
officials, concerned only with the examination of tickets, gave no heed
to them, though one man seemed to recognize Felix and grinned in a
friendly way. Passport formalities did not trouble them till the train
had crossed the Tave River and was already in Austrian territory. The
frontier officers could not possibly know them. Their papers were in
order, and received only a passing glance. Even Joan, adrift in a sea of
trouble, saw that it was a far easier matter to leave the Balkan area
than to enter it.

They arranged to meet in the dining saloon, when all necessity for
further precaution would have disappeared. Felix was astounded at the
self possession Joan now displayed. She was pale but quite calm. Her
eyes were clear and showed no traces of grief. Even her very manner was
reverting to that good humored tone of frank camaraderie that the
unavoidable ceremoniousness of the last fortnight had kept in
subjection. Felix was secretly amazed at these things; but in the depths
of his own complex nature were hidden away, wholly unknown to the little
hunchback himself, certain feminine characteristics which enabled him
dimly to understand that the woman who suffers most is she who has the
strength and the courage to carry her head most proudly before the
storm.

"Well," said he when the mail train had left Semlin far behind and they
were speeding northward through the night to Budapest,--"well, Joan, now
that the severance is complete, do you still refuse me your confidence?"

Her luminous eyes dwelt on his with a sad smile. She had closed the
gates of her paradise, and there was to be no faint hearted looking
backward.

"No," she said, "I have attained my end. It is due to you, my friend,
that I should tell you why I have abandoned the only man I shall ever
love. It lay with me to choose between his success or failure; perhaps
there rested on my frail shoulders the more dreadful issues of life and
death. If I had married Alec, I should have pulled him down to ruin,
even to the grave. What else would you have me do but save him, no
matter what the cost to myself?"

He propped his chin on his hands and surveyed her quizzically. Felix,
despite his protests, was not enamoured of Delgratz, and his mercurial
temperament rejoiced in the near approach of his beloved Paris.

"All this sounds heroic and therefore unconvincing," he said. "I do not
want to condemn your motives before I know them, Joan; but I hope you
will allow me to criticize false sentiment," he added, seeing the
expression of pain that for an instant mastered her stoicism and threw
its dull shadow across her face.

"Say what pleases you, Felix," she replied gently. "I shall not suffer
more than I have already endured. I think I am benumbed now; but at
least I am sure that I have acted right. There were influences at work
in Delgratz of which even you had no cognizance. Popular as Alec seemed
to be, every prejudice of the Serb was arrayed against him. He appealed
to the imagination of the people as a brave and gallant figure; but he
is and will ever remain a foreigner among them. They are a race apart,
and Alec is not of them, and it would have been a fatal error to give
them as a Queen another foreigner like himself.

"Alone, he will win his way. In the course of years he cannot fail to
identify himself more and more with their interests; he will--some
day--marry a Princess of the blood to which he belongs. That will help
Kosnovia to forget that he was neither born nor bred in the country, and
the presence of a Serbian consort will tend to consolidate his reign. It
would have been quite different if he and I were married within a few
weeks. Those who are opposed to him--and they are far more numerous than
you may guess at this moment--would have been given a most powerful
argument by the refusal of the Greek archimandrite to perform the
ceremony. You see, Alec himself is not a member of the national church,
nor am I, and a drawback that may be overlooked when a Slav Princess
becomes Queen of Kosnovia would have been a fatal thing for me."

Poluski could not but admire Joan's splendid detachment in speaking of
Alec's hypothetical wife. His thin lips creased in a satirical grin. "Is
that it," said he, "the everlasting religious difficulty? No, my belle,
tell that to the marines, or, at any rate, to some guileless person not
versed in Kosnovian history! There never yet was bloodstained conqueror
or evil living Prince in that unhappy city of Delgratz who failed to
obtain the sanction of orthodoxy for his worst deeds, whether in
beheading a rival or divorcing a wife."

Joan hesitated. She was obviously choosing her words; but the burden
laid upon her was too great for the hour to prevent her from adopting a
subterfuge that would surely be detected by her shrewd companion. "I do
not wish to lay too much stress upon that particular phase of the
matter," she said at last. "It was only one of many. In itself it might
have been surmounted; but when the church, a large section of the army,
and nearly all the higher officials of the State are ready to combine
against Alec's uncompromising sincerity of purpose, it was asking too
much of me knowingly to provide the special excuse for his downfall."

There was silence for a little while, and Poluski's keen gray eyes still
dwelt searchingly on the girl's sorrow laden though resigned features.
She did not flinch from the scrutiny, and there was a certain sadness in
the Pole's next comment.

"What you say, _ma petite_, sounds very like the dry-as-dust utterances
of some podgy Minister of State; they are far from being the words of a
woman who loves, and so they are not yours."

"Perhaps you are right, Felix," she said wearily. "Perhaps, had I told
Alec these things, he might have silenced my doubts and persuaded me to
dare everything for his sake."

"Yet, knowing this, you are here!" he cried, his conscience stinging him
at the memory of that forsaken King mourning his lost bride.

"Yes, and no consideration would induce me to return."

"Ah, then there is something that you have not yet told me."

"Yes, and it can never be told, Felix. Be content, my friend, with that
assurance. There is nothing that can happen which has the power to
change my decision. Heaven help me, I can never marry Alec!"

"The true cause must remain a secret!"

"Yes."

"A woman's secret?"

"Yes, my secret."

His eyes sparkled. He bent nearer and sank his voice to a deep whisper,
for there were others in the carriage, and that which he had to say must
reach her ears only.

"Not yours, Joan. Oh, no! Not yours. Another woman's. Ha! Blind that I
was--now I have it! So that is why you are running away. They threatened
to drag Alec headlong from the throne unless you agreed. My poor girl,
you might have told me sooner. The knowledge has been here, lurking in
the back of my head for years; but I never gave a thought to it. Why
should I? Who would have dreamed of such a tragicomedy? Joan, to-day in
the cathedral I could have bound you with ropes if that would have
served to keep you in Delgratz; but now I kiss the hem of your dress. My
poor girl, my own dear Joan, how you must have suffered! Yet I envy
you--I do, on my soul! Life becomes ennobled by actions such as yours.
And Alec must never know what you have done for him. That is both the
grandeur and the pathos of it. Joan, my precious, your namesake was
burnt on the pyre for a King's cause, yet her deed would rank no higher
than yours if the world might be allowed to judge between you. But do
not dream that your romance is ended. _Saperlotte!_ Old Dame Nature is a
better dramatist than that. If she has contrived so much for you in a
little month, what can she not accomplish in a year?"

And, in a perfect frenzy of excitement, he threw himself back in his
chair and amazed another group of cosmopolitan diners by singing.

But this time Joan did not care who stared or whispered. She sat there,
a beautiful statue, sorely stricken, and not daring to believe that the
hour of blessedness promised in Poluski's song would be vouchsafed after
many years of pain.



CHAPTER XII

THE STORM BREAKS


The King reached his temporary residence hot and tired after an
exhausting day. It chanced that at a meeting of the Ministry, which he
attended late in the afternoon, the question of Beliani's appointment as
Minister of Finance came up for settlement. It was not determined
without some bickering, and an undercurrent of dislike if not of
positive hatred of the man quickly made itself apparent.

The Serb and the Greek differ in most essentials. The one is by habit
and training a good soldier, a proverbial idler, an easygoing optimist
endowed with genial temper and a happy-go-lucky nature, capable indeed
of extremes, yet mostly inclined to the tolerant indifference that
leaves things as they are; the other, whose martial qualities have
vanished in the melting pot of time, has developed the defensive traits
that come to the aid of all races who can no longer maintain their cause
in the tented field. The Greek is the usurer of the East. He wins his
way by using his subtle wits, and the less adroit people on whom he
preys soon learn to regard him with distrust that often culminates in
personal violence in those half-civilized communities where law and
order are not maintained with a heavy hand.

The Kosnovian Ministry, of course, consisted of men of a much higher
type than the rude peasantry that made up the bulk of the nation. But at
heart they were anti-Greek, and some among them retained lively memories
of Beliani's methods when he was in power a decade earlier. No one
disputed his ability, yet none, save the King, had a good word for him.
It was recognized, however, that under the new dominion his
opportunities for peculation at the expense of the public would be few
and far between.

Alexis III. had already made his influence felt in each department of
State. He was ready to listen to every man's grievances, and to adjust
them if possible; he held the scales evenly between the bureaucracy and
the people. The official element knew full well that it had nothing to
fear from the King's anger if a disputed action could be justified,
while those traders and others who had occasion to deal with any of the
great departments were beginning to understand that they need not dread
the vengeance of an executive against whose exactions they had cause to
complain.

After some discussion, therefore, a guarded sanction was given to
Beliani's appointment. It was probable that each man in the Council had
already been approached in the Greek's behalf, and that the protests
uttered were rather by way of safety valves in view of possible
criticism in the future than intended to exclude this dreaded candidate
from office.

The matter might have ended there for the moment had not the President
of the Assembly given a somewhat maladroit twist to the discussion when
the King mentioned Beliani's efforts with regard to an Austrian loan.

"That, at least, we should oppose most bitterly," said Nesimir. "We of
the Balkans should never accept favors from the hand of Austria. Our
true ally is Russia, and any outside aid received by Kosnovia should
come from Russia alone."

Alec had learned the value of patience with mediocrities such as Sergius
Nesimir. He never argued with them. He contented himself with pointing
out the facts, and left the rest to time; for he had soon discovered
that the weak man talks himself into agreement with the strong one.

"I would remind you that in this matter we are merely entering into an
ordinary business arrangement," he said. "I have heard of no concessions
attached to the loan. We are merely going into the money market like any
other borrower, and will undertake to pay such reasonable interest as
the lenders deem compatible with the security we offer."

"I think your Majesty will find that Austria will impose her own terms,"
persisted the President.

"Why do you harp on Austria in this connection?" asked the King.
"Monsieur Beliani spoke of Viennese bankers. They are not Austria. This
loan is not so much a matter of State as of sound finance."

"I hope your Majesty is right in that assumption," was the stubborn
answer; "but I have reason to believe that, under certain contingencies,
not only would Russia assist us in this respect, but she would at once
take steps toward recognizing your Majesty's accession to the throne."

"Contingencies!" cried Alec, forced for the nonce to maintain the
discussion. "What are they? What is the difference between your
suspected Austrian terms and your Russian contingencies?"

"In the first place, your Majesty, Russia is anxious to consolidate the
good feeling that exists among the Slav nations by following a settled
policy in the matter of railway communication. Your Majesty's own
projects favor the Russian proposals, whereas Austria will surely
stipulate that any money of hers expended on railways shall be devoted
to her rival plans. In the second----"

The President paused and looked round among his colleagues as though to
seek their encouragement. He knew he was about to utter words of daring
significance, and his nerve failed. An appreciative murmur ran through
the room. It seemed to give the stout President a degree of confidence.

"Well?" said the King, who noted the glance and the hum of approval, and
wondered what lay behind it all.

"The really vital question before us to-day is your Majesty's
marriage," exclaimed the other, paling somewhat, now that the fateful
topic was broached.

"I agree with you," said Alec, smiling. "Its importance to myself is
self evident; but I fail utterly to see how the appearance of a Queen in
Delgratz will affect our political relations with our neighbors. I do
not propose to borrow money from Austria to pay for my wife's wedding
presents."

Nesimir was long in answering. He seemed to be waiting for some other
member of the Council to take part in the discussion; but each man sat
silent and embarrassed, and it was incumbent on their leader to declare
himself anew.

"It is far from my thoughts to wish to give any offense to your Majesty;
but I am constrained to tell you," he said, "that there is a growing
sentiment among all classes of your subjects that when you look for a
consort you should seek her among our kith and kin."

"Am I to understand, then, that the lady whom I am about to marry has
not found favor among you?"

Alec spoke quietly; but there was a ring of steel in his voice that
might have warned a bolder man than the President. His stern glance
traveled round the Council table; but he saw only downcast and somber
faces. One thing was abundantly clear,--this attack on Joan was
premeditated. He wondered who had contrived it.

"It is not that the lady does not command our favor," declared the
spokesman, very pale now and drumming nervously with his fingers on the
edge of a blotting pad. "Those of us who have met her are charmed with
her manners and appearance, and our only regret is that Providence did
not ordain that her birthplace should be on the right side of the
Danube."

"Oddly enough, I was born in New York," interrupted Alec, with a touch
of sarcasm that was not lost on his hearers.

"Your Majesty was born a Delgrado," said the President, "and if Miss
Joan Vernon could claim even the remotest family connection with one of
the leading houses of Kosnovia, Montenegro, or even Bulgaria, every man
here would hail your Majesty's choice in a chorus of approval."

"Since when has the supposed drawback of my intended wife's nationality
come into such prominence?" demanded the King sharply.

"Since it became known that your Majesty meant to marry a lady whose
avowed object in coming to Delgratz was to follow her occupation as an
artist."

Stampoff's harsh accents broke in roughly on a discussion which had
hitherto been marked by polite deference on the part of its originator.

"What! are you too against me, General?" cried Alec, wheeling round and
meeting the fierce eyes of the old patriot who sat glaring at him across
the Council table.

"Yes, in that matter," was the uncompromising answer. "We feel that our
King must be one of ourselves, and he can never be that if his wife
differs from us in race, in language, in religion, in everything that
knits a ruler to his subjects."

Alec arose with a good natured laugh. "Monsieur Nesimir spoke of
contingencies," he said, "and the word seems to imply that counter
proposals to those of Monsieur Beliani have already been put forward.
Has the Russian Ambassador been conducting negotiations with my
Ministers without my knowledge--behind my back, as it were?"

"There is no taint of Muscovite intrigue about my attitude!" exclaimed
Stampoff with a vehemence that showed how deeply he was moved. "I have
given the best years of my life to my country, and I am too old now to
be forced to act against my principles. Every man in this room is a
Slav, and we Slavs must pull together or we are lost. I, at any rate, am
not afraid to register an emphatic protest against my King's marriage
with a lady, no matter how estimable personally, whose presence in
Delgratz as our Queen would be a national calamity. If I speak strongly,
it is because I feel so strongly in this matter. The rulers of States
such as ours cannot afford to be swayed by sentiment. When your Majesty
weds, you ought to choose your wife among the Princesses of Montenegro.
Had I the slightest inkling of any other design on your part, I should
have stipulated this before we left Paris."

"Ah," said Alec thoughtfully, "it is too late now, General, to talk of
stipulations that were not made. And, indeed, one might reasonably ask
who empowered you to make them?"

"God's bones! who should speak for Kosnovia if not I?"

"Your patriotism has never been questioned, General," said Alec with a
friendly smile; but Stampoff was not to be placated, being of the fiery
type of reformer who refuses to listen to any opinion that runs counter
to his own.

He too rose and faced the Council. "What has palsied your tongues?" he
cried. "You were all ready enough to declare your convictions before the
King arrived. He is here now. Tell him, then, do you approve of his
proposed marriage--yes or no!"

Heads were shaken. A few cried "No." Alec saw clearly that he could not
count on the support of one among those present. He did not shirk the
issue. He determined that it should be dealt with at once if possible.
If not, he had already decided on his own line of action.

"I am sorry that in such a matter, affecting, as it does, the whole of
my future life," he said, "I should be so completely at variance with
what is evidently the common view of my trusted friends in this Council;
but I cannot forget that, for good or ill, I am King of Kosnovia, while
you may rest assured, gentlemen, that no consideration you can urge will
prevent me from marrying the lady of my choice. Of course, it is
conceivable that my kingship and my marriage may clash. In that event I
shall take the consequences of my action; I must even justify myself to
the Assembly, if need be. It is well that the President should have made
me acquainted with the views you all hold with such apparent unanimity.
It is also well that you should be aware of my decision. Very often,
when men think they have reached absolute disagreement, a way opens
itself unexpectedly whereby the difficulties vanish. In this instance,
certainly, it is hard to see how any solution of our dispute can be
attained that shall satisfy both you and me.

"I shall marry Miss Vernon, probably within a fortnight. I shall marry
her, gentlemen, even though it costs me my throne; but I would remind
you that we in this room are not Kosnovia. Let us keep our heads and
guard our tempers. If an appeal is to be made to the nation, let it be
by votes rather than by swords. I have never deviated from my fixed
principle that I would sooner pass the remainder of my life poor and
unknown than obtain an hour's extension of my rule by spilling the blood
of an unoffending people. But I ask from you the same concession that I
am willing to make myself. Until deposed, I retain the privilege of a
King. Is this matter to be regarded as a test of ministerial confidence?
Do all you gentlemen resign your portfolios?"

The President, agitated and stuttering, sprang to his feet. "For my
part," he declared, "I expressed my views in an informal manner."

"Yes, yes," agreed several voices. The turn given to the discussion by
Alec was quite unforeseen and far from their liking.

"It has ever been your Majesty's wish that we should state our opinions
fully and freely," continued the agitated Nesimir. "I, for one, was only
anxious to make known to you the sentiments that obtain currency in my
own circle. I may be wrong. Delgratz is not Kosnovia----"

"Rubbish!" shouted Stampoff, hammering the table with a clenched fist.
"That which has been said here to-day will be heard openly in the
streets of the capital to-night. To-morrow it will be preached far and
wide throughout the confines of the country by every man who has its
welfare at heart. This marriage must not take place, I say! I came here
from exile with the King and was prepared to give my life to establish
him on the throne. I am prepared now to offer the same poor sacrifice if
it will save my beloved land from a catastrophe--and this proposed
mesalliance is nothing less!"

A curious thrill convulsed the Council. Every Serb there was stirred by
the General's bold avowal; but Alec stilled the rising storm by a calm
announcement:

"I suggest that we defer this discussion till to-morrow morning," he
said. "It has found me unprepared, and, if I am not very much mistaken,
many of the gentlemen here did not anticipate that the question would be
raised to-day in its present acute form."

It was evident that the majority of ministers favored the adoption of
the King's proposal; but Stampoff scowled at them angrily and drowned
their timorous agreement by his resentful cry:

"God's bones! Why wait till to-morrow?"

Then, indeed, Alec was stung beyond endurance. "Perhaps, in the
circumstances, General," he said, "it would be advisable that you should
absent yourself from to-morrow's Council."

"Not while I am Minister for War!" came the fiery response.

"That is for you to decide," said the King.

"Then I decide now! I resign!"

"Excellent! By that means you salve your conscience; whereas I hope
still to retain the friendship of Kosnovia's most faithful son by
refusing to accept your resignation."

A shout of applause drowned Stampoff's vehement protest, and Alec seized
the opportunity to hurry from the Council chamber. He did not try to
conceal from himself the serious nature of this unexpected crisis,
though he was far from acknowledging that the people at large attached
such significance to his wife's nationality as Stampoff and the others
professed to believe. Puzzle his wits as he might, and did, he failed
utterly to account for Stampoff's uncompromising tone. The old Serb and
he were the best of friends. He had taken no single step without first
consulting the man who had been his political tutor since his boyhood.
Even when he ran counter to Stampoff's advice, he had always listened to
it eagerly, and he invariably took the utmost pains to show why he had
adopted another course.

Till that day there had never been the shadow of a breach between them.
How, then, was the War Minister's irreconcilable attitude to be
explained? Was Cousin Julius pulling the strings in some unrecognized
manner? Was Beliani a party to the scheme? These questions must be
answered, and speedily. Meanwhile, by hook or by crook, he must keep all
knowledge of the dispute from Joan's ears until after the wedding.

In the palace courtyard a man standing near the gates tried to pass the
sentries when the King arrived. He was instantly collared. Undersized,
poorly clad, and poverty stricken in appearance, he was hustled
unmercifully by a stalwart Albanian policeman until Alec's attention was
drawn to the scuffle.

A white despairing face became visible for a moment, and a choking voice
cried, "Save me, your Majesty! I am John Sobieski!"

"Sobieski!" thought Alec, ordering his carriage to stop and alighting
quickly. "That is the Polish hotel waiter of whom Felix spoke to me some
few days ago. He said the man had done his best to bring assistance; but
his efforts were frustrated by some stupid blunder here, and he thought
something ought to be done for him. I promised to attend to it; but the
thing slipped my mind."

By this time he had reached the policeman, who, assisted by a soldier,
was dragging the protesting waiter to the guardroom.

"Release that man!" he said.

The man saluted, and the trembling Sobieski fell on his knees on the
pavement.

"Oh, get up," said the King, who felt a special aversion to such a
display of abasement. "Recover your wits, man, and tell me what you
want!"

"I ask protection, your Majesty," murmured the desperate Sobieski. "My
life is in danger. I came here to see Monsieur Poluski; but they told me
he was not at home. I have been turned out of my situation; so I have
nowhere to go. If I am found wandering in the streets to-night, I shall
be killed."

"At any rate, you seem to be thoroughly frightened," cried Alec with a
reassuring smile. "Take charge of him," he said to the pandur, "and have
him sent to my bureau in five minutes!"

The bureau in question was that apartment on the first floor overlooking
the courtyard, in which Alec had preferred his claim to the throne of
Kosnovia to the perplexed President of the embryo Republic. It was
there, too, that Felix Poluski had spoken those plain words to Prince
Michael Delgrado, and its situation was so convenient for the King's
daily comings and goings that he had utilized it temporarily as an
office and private audience chamber.

At the top of the stairs he happened to catch sight of Pauline, Joan's
staid looking maid. Though he obtained only a casual glimpse of her, he
fancied that she was distressed about something, and it occurred to him
after he was in the room and the door was closed that perhaps she wished
to give him a message. Bosko, the taciturn Albanian whom he had now
definitely appointed as his confidential attendant, was standing near
the table with a bundle of documents that demanded the King's signature.

Realizing that the Frenchwoman would meet Bosko in a minute or two when
he went out with the signed papers, and could then make known her wish
to speak to the King if such was her intention, Alec bent over the table
and began to peruse several departmental decrees hurriedly. He made it a
rule never to append his name to any State paper without mastering its
contents, and one of the palace guards brought in Sobieski before Alec
had concluded his self imposed task. As it happened, the various items
were mere formalities, and when he wrote "Alexis R." for the last time,
Bosko and the soldier left the room, and the frightened little Pole
found himself alone with the King.

"Now," said Alec kindly, "tell me what you want and why you are so
afraid?"

Sobieski at once plunged into a rambling statement. He spoke the
Kosnovian language with the fluent inaccuracy of his class; but Alec's
alert ears had no difficulty in following his meaning. His story was
that several customers of the café had denounced him to the proprietor
as a spy in the King's service, while some of them went so far as to
charge him with responsibility for the deaths of those thirty-one
heroes of the Seventh Regiment whose bodies had been found on the stairs
and first floor landing of the hotel. His master had no option but to
discharge him, and Sobieski felt that he had good reason to fear that
his life was in danger. Alec pooh-poohed the notion; but the timid
little waiter was so woebegone that the King pitied him.

"Tell me exactly what you did on the day of the revolt," he said. "You
came here, I understand. How was it that no one listened to you?"

"Oh, they did, your Majesty," protested Sobieski. "Your Majesty's own
father brought me into the hall and kept me there nearly five minutes.
He did not believe a word I said, and was very angry with me for
bringing such an alarming story to the palace. At last, by good fortune,
Monsieur Nesimir appeared; but even then I should have been taken away
in custody if Monsieur Poluski had not caused me to be released."

Despite its sinister significance, Alec could not choose but credit this
amazing statement. He wondered why Felix had not told him the facts in
detail afterward; but he knew that the hunchback's mind worked in
strange grooves, and it was probable that his silence was dictated by
some powerful motive. In any event, the incident was an unpleasant
reminder of certain nebulous doubts that he had striven to crush, and it
was better that this scared rabbit of a man should not remain in
Delgratz and become the victim of some vendetta which might bring the
whole odd story into prominence.

"You want to leave the city, I take it?" said he after a thoughtful
pause, in which he took a slow turn up and down the room.

"I dare not remain here any longer, your Majesty. I came to-night to ask
Monsieur Poluski to be good enough to give me money to take me to
Warsaw."

"I think," said Alec, smiling, "he promised you, in my name, the
wherewithal to buy a café."

"I fear I did not earn my reward, your Majesty," stuttered the other.

"Are cafés dear in Warsaw?" said the King, unlocking a drawer and
producing roubles to the equivalent of five hundred dollars. "Here, this
sum should give you a fresh start in life. All I ask in return is that
you shall keep a still tongue about your recent share in local events."

Poor Sobieski's gratitude grew incoherent, especially when the King
handed him over to the care of the attendant who had brought him to the
bureau, with instructions that he was to be taken to the railway station
and safeguarded there till the departure of the next train that crossed
the frontier.

By that time the dinner hour was long past. Alec was disinclined for a
heavy meal; so he went to his private suite, where he changed his
clothes, contenting himself with some sandwiches, which he ate in a
hurry and washed down with a glass of red wine.

Coming down stairs about an hour later, he passed the smoking-room. The
door was open, and he saw that the men had already ended dinner. He was
about to enter the music salon, to which his mother and Joan usually
retired with the President's wife and daughter, when he met Pauline for
the second time, and the Frenchwoman now approached him with the same
marked nervousness in her demeanor that he had noticed when he saw her
standing in the lobby.

"May I have a word with your Majesty in private?" she asked.

He was surprised; but again he believed she was probably bringing a
message from Joan. He threw open the door of his office. "Come in here,"
he said. "What is it?"

She held out a letter, and he saw that her hand shook. "Mademoiselle
asked me to give you this, your Majesty," she said. "I was to take care
that you were alone when you received it."

"Something important then," he said with a laugh.

Crossing the room to the table on which stood the lamp by whose light he
had scribbled "Alexis R." on the papers intrusted to Bosko, he opened
the envelop, which bore in Joan's handwriting the simple superscription,
"Alec," and began to read:

     MY DEAR ONE:--When Pauline gives you this, I shall have left you
     forever. I am going from Delgratz, and I shall never see you again.
     I cannot marry you--but oh, my dear, my dear, I shall love you all
     my life! Try and forget me. I am acting for the best. Do not write
     to Paris or endeavor to find me. If it is God's will, we shall
     never meet again. I can scarcely see what I am writing for my
     tears. So good-by, my Alec! Be brave! Forgive me, and, in the years
     to come, try to forget our few days of happiness together.

          Yours ever,

               JOAN.

He stood there stricken, almost paralyzed with the suddenness of the
blow, wondering dumbly why Joan's hand should have inflicted it. The
frightened Frenchwoman dared not speak or move. She watched him with
that impersonal fear so readily aroused in one of her class by the
terrifying spectacle of a strong man in his agony. At last he moved
listlessly, as though his limbs had just been released from the rack. He
held the letter under the lamp again and read it a second time, word for
word. He seemed to be forcing himself to accept it as truth. This young
King, so valiant, so resourceful, so prompt in action and judgment,
could devise no plan, no means of rescue from the abyss. After an
interval that neither the man nor the woman could measure, he turned his
strained, staring eyes on the shrinking Pauline.

"Have I ever done you any harm?" he said in the low voice of utmost
despair.

"Me, monsieur?" she gasped. "You harm me? No, indeed, I was only too
proud to think my dear mistress should have won such a husband."

"Then you will answer my questions truly," he went on, his eyes
devouring the woman's homely features as though he would fain seek some
comfort therein.

"Oh yes, indeed, monsieur. Ask me anything. It is not that I have much
to tell. Mademoiselle said, 'Give this letter to the King himself. Let
it touch no other hand.' That is all, monsieur. She was weeping when she
wrote it. Monsieur Poluski told me what to do to-morrow about my own
journey. See, here are my tickets."

"Poluski!" said Alec, and the words came dully. "Has he too betrayed
me?"

"He has gone with my mistress," sobbed Pauline. "It is not that they
have betrayed you, monsieur; for mademoiselle looked like to die, and I
have never seen any one more disturbed than Monsieur Poluski. He raved
like a maniac when I asked him for one word of explanation."

"But what does it mean, woman? Do you understand what has happened? My
promised wife has fled, bidding me not to dream of seeing her again, and
with her has gone one of the few men alive in whom I had confidence.
What is that but betrayal?"

"I do not profess to understand the ways of courts, monsieur," said
Pauline, gathering a little courage, since the King appealed to her as a
fellow mortal. "But in your case I do not think I should blame
Mademoiselle Joan. She did not go because she had ceased to love you,
monsieur. Sometimes a woman can love a man so well that she will leave
him if she thinks it is for his good."

A light broke in on the darkness. Was Joan the victim of some deadly
intrigue such as had sullied too often the records of the Kosnovian
monarchy? How strange it was that he should come from that eventful
meeting of the Cabinet and receive within the hour Joan's pathetic
message of farewell! He stood and thought deeply again for many minutes,
striving to conquer his laboring heart and throbbing brain, exerting
manfully all his splendid resources of mind and body. Then he turned to
the trembling Frenchwoman and said with almost uncanny gentleness:

"You have done what your mistress asked, Pauline. Come to me to-morrow
before you go, and I will reward you for your faithful service. Leave me
now; but tell none what has happened. I must have time to think, and it
would help me if no other person in this house but you shares with me
the knowledge of mademoiselle's departure."

Pauline went out, glad of her dismissal, yet sobbing with sympathy. Alec
began to pace the length of the long dimly lighted room. Back and forth
he went, thinking, knitting his brows in fierce effort to subdue his
stunned faculties. By degrees the sad significance of Joan's words and
actions during their visit that morning to the New Konak began to
establish itself. He saw now that she was bidding farewell to her dream
of happiness, deliberately torturing herself with a burden of memories.
Even their parting kiss must have given her a twinge of direst agony;
for the one thing he would never believe of Joan was that she had
sacrificed him to some feminine whim, made him the sport of a woman's
caprice.

She had been driven from him! By whom? He must discover that, and he
gloated with almost insensate rage at the thought of strangling with his
hands the wretch who had done this callous deed. Physical passion
mastered him again, and it was not until he realized the folly of merely
dreaming of vengeance that he forced himself anew into a semblance of
calm. He knew that a man blinded with rage could not deal sanely with
this problem of love and statecraft. At first he thought of questioning
individually each person who, by the remotest chance, might be
responsible for Joan's flight. But not only did his impatient heart
spurn that slower method of inquisition; but he realized that he was
more likely to discover the truth by gathering instantly in one room all
those persons whose self interest pointed to his undoing. Somehow,
Sobieski's disjointed narrative aroused a dreadful suspicion that was
not to be quelled.

He summoned an attendant. "Ask Prince and Princess Delgrado to come
here," he said. "Send to General Stampoff and tell him that the King
urgently desires his presence. I believe that Monsieur Beliani and Count
Julius Marulitch are in the smoking-room with Monsieur Nesimir. Ask
those three gentlemen also to join me."

The attendant saluted and withdrew. Alec examined the door to make sure
that the key was in the lock. Hardly conscious of his own purpose, he
looked about for a weapon. In the place of honor, above the fireplace,
hung the sword given him by his father in the Rue Boissière. It evoked
bitter memories, and he swung on his heel with a curse, going to the
window and staring out into the night. His brain seethed with strange
imaginings, and his breast was on fire. The sight of that ridiculous
sword lying in its sheath of velvet and gold seemed to reveal the
hollowness of life, its mock tragedies, its real agony of tears. All at
once the impulse seized him to look at the bright steel. With a savage
laugh he sprang back across the room and took down the sword. The blade
leaped forth at his clutch, and he kissed it in a frenzy.

"You weep, my Joan," he cried. "I know that you weep; but your tempter's
lying heart shall shed drop for drop!"



CHAPTER XIII

WHEREIN A REASON IS GIVEN FOR JOAN'S FLIGHT


A knock sounded on the door. "Their Excellencies the Prince and Princess
Delgrado," announced Bosko, whose jaws underwent strange contortions at
being compelled to utter so many syllables consecutively.

Alec thrust the sword into its scabbard. He did not put the weapon in
its accustomed place; but hid it behind a fold of one of the heavy
curtains that shrouded the windows.

"On the arrival of the others whom I have summoned you can usher them in
without warning," he said to Bosko. "As soon as General Stampoff comes
let no other person enter, and remain near the door until I call you."

"_Oui, monsieur_," said Bosko. King or no King, he was faithful to his
scanty stock of French.

Prince Michael had dined well, having induced his host to depart from
the King's injunctions as to the wine supplied at meals. His puffed face
shone redly. It looked so gross and fat, perched on such a slender
frame, that he resembled one of those diminutive yet monstrous
caricatures of humanity seen on the pantomime stage.

"What is the trouble now, Alec?" he asked, glancing quickly round the
spacious ill lighted apartment. "Your man came to me most mysteriously.
His manner suggested treasons, spoils, and stratagems. I met your mother
on the stairs. She too, it seems, is in demand."

Alec looked at the strange little creature whom he called father, and
from the Prince's gargoyle head his gaze dwelt on his mother. She had
uttered no word. Her eyes met his furtively for a second and then
dropped. She was disturbed, obviously alarmed, and, with a curiously
detached feeling of surprise, he guessed that she knew of Joan's
departure. Well, he would bide his time until all possible conspirators
were present. Then, by fair means or foul, he would wring the truth from
them.

"I want to consult my mother and you as to a certain matter," he said,
answering Prince Michael with apparent nonchalance. "I shall not detain
you very long. Beliani, Julius, and Monsieur Nesimir are in the
building, and then we only await Stampoff--with whom, by the way, I
almost succeeded in quarreling to-day."

"A quarrel with Stampoff!" exclaimed the elder Delgrado, preening his
chest and sticking out his chin in the exaggerated manner that warned
those who knew him best of the imminent expression of a weighty opinion.
"That will never do. Stampoff is the backbone of your administration.
Were it not for our dear Paul, nothing would have been heard of a
Delgrado in Kosnovia during the last quarter of a century. My dear boy,
he has kept us alive politically. On no account can you afford to
quarrel with Stampoff!"

Michael's big head wagged wisely; for champagne invariably made him
talkative. Nesimir entered; with him came Count Julius and the Greek.

"Nice thing his Majesty has just told me!" cried Prince Michael, with
owl-like gravity. "He says that Stampoff and he have disagreed. What has
gone wrong? Have you heard of this most unfortunate estrangement,
Monsieur Nesimir?"

The President, of course, assumed that some allusion had been made
already to the scene in the Council chamber.

"A serious position has undoubtedly arisen," he said blandly. "His
Majesty did not see his way clear to adopt certain recommendations put
forward by his Ministers to-day,--by myself, I may say, acting on behalf
of my colleagues," and he coughed deferentially,--"and General Stampoff
took an active part in the debate. He set forth his views with--er--what
I considered to be--er--unnecessary vehemence. But there," and a
flourish of his hand indicated the nebulous nature of the dispute,
"nothing was said that cannot be mended. His Majesty himself had the
tact to adjourn the discussion till to-morrow, and I have little doubt
that we shall all be prepared to consider the matter then like
reasonable men."

"But what was it about?" broke in the Prince testily. "Was it with
reference to Monsieur Beliani? I understood that his appointment to the
Ministry of Finance was agreed to unanimously."

Beliani coughed, with the modesty of a man who might not discuss his own
merits. The President hesitated before he answered this direct question.
He cast a doubtful glance on the King, who had turned to the window
again and seemed to give little heed to the conversation. But Alec
wheeled round. He had heard every word, and, oddly enough in his own
estimation, was already drawing conclusions that were not wholly
unfavorable to Prince Michael.

"I have sent for Stampoff," he said, exercising amazing self control in
concealing his fierce desire to have done with subterfuge, "and my
message was couched in such terms that he will hardly refuse to honor us
with his presence. Meanwhile, let me rescue you, Monsieur Nesimir, from
the embarrassment of explaining away the difficulty you yourself brought
about at to-day's meeting of the Cabinet. Monsieur Beliani had no rival;
no one doubted his ability as a financier.

"The dispute arose in connection with my forthcoming marriage. It was
suggested that I should contract an alliance with a Princess of some
reigning house in the Balkans. The obvious corollary of that view was
that Miss Joan Vernon could not be regarded as a suitable bride for the
King of Kosnovia. I declined to accept the recommendation put forward by
Monsieur Nesimir,--to whom, by the way, I attribute the utmost good
faith,--and Stampoff, whose patriotic ardor halts at nothing,
practically threatened me with the loss of my Kingdom as the penalty of
disobedience. I said that I was quite willing to leave the whole matter
to the arbitrament of the people. If they decide against my choice of a
wife, it follows that there will be a vacancy in the Delgrado
succession."

Princess Delgrado uttered a sigh that was almost a groan. She sank into
the chair that her son had offered her when she entered the room, but
rose to her feet again in manifest anxiety when her husband thrust
himself in front of Alec.

"Are we to credit," he broke in furiously, "that you have actually
placed your marriage with this girl before every tie of family and
patrimony?"

"That is hardly a fair statement of the facts," said Alec coldly, though
it cost him a violent effort to sustain this unnatural calm when he was
aflame with desire to ascertain Joan's motive; "but it will serve. At
any rate, we can defer discussion of that point for the present. We are
gathered here to deal with quite another phase of the dispute, and, with
your permission, I shall leave any further explanation until General
Stampoff has arrived."

Although his utterance was measured and seemingly devoid of any excess
of feeling, three, at least, of those in the room were not deceived by
his attitude. Princess Delgrado seemed to be profoundly disquieted,
while Beliani and Marulitch strove, not altogether with success, to
carry themselves with the indifference that cloaks uneasiness. Alec
turned again to the window and looked out.

A carriage drove into the courtyard and, though its occupant was
invisible, he guessed rightly that Stampoff had not failed him. Some low
conversation went on behind his back, and, although he was now
marshaling his forces for the impending struggle, he became aware that
the President was giving in greater detail an account of the afternoon's
proceedings. But he listened only for the opening of the door. From that
instant war should be declared, ruthless war on each and every person
present who had reft him of his promised bride.

Stampoff entered. His keen old eyes instantly took in the significance
of the gathering; but he saluted the King in silence, bowed to Princess
Delgrado, and stood stockstill, not a yard from the door, in the
attitude of one who awaits an order, or, it might be, a denunciation.

Alec approached, and the others, including Stampoff himself, thought
that he meant to make some private communication to the newcomer before
beginning a debate in which all might share. But he walked past
Stampoff, locked the door, and put the key in his pocket.

 [Illustration: Stampoff saluted the King in silence
    Page 268]

"Now," he said, "I am free to explain why we seven are gathered here
to-night. Joan Vernon, who was to have become my wife within a few days,
left Delgratz two hours ago by the mail train for Paris. She was
accompanied by Felix Poluski, and the only reason for this clandestine
journey is contained in a few lines of farewell addressed to me by the
lady herself. In that letter she speaks of a barrier that renders
impossible a marriage between her and me. I want to know what that
barrier is and who erected it, and I shall discover both those things
here and now, if I have to tear the knowledge from the heart of each man
present!"

"A strange threat, Alec," panted Prince Michael, whose prominent eyes
were bulging in semi-intoxication, though indeed he seemed suddenly to
have realized the tremendous import of the King's statement,--"a strange
threat to be uttered before your mother!"

"My mother loved Joan," came the impassioned cry. "She took her to her
heart from the first hour, and she will bear with me now in my agony.
Yet it may be that even my mother has deceived me. I cannot tell. Some
of you here know, perhaps all; but I vow to Heaven I shall not flinch
from my resolve to extract the truth, no matter with whom the
responsibility rests!"

Princess Delgrado, trembling and ghastly pale, tottered to the chair
again and gripped its back to prevent herself from falling. Under less
strained conditions, it must have seemed bizarre in a company of men
for whom polite attentions to the opposite sex were a fixed convention,
that she should seek such support when her husband was standing by her
side; but in that startled gathering small heed was given to aught else
than the King's thrilling statement.

Though aware of his mother's distress, Alec did not move from the
position he had taken up, facing all of them, and with that hidden sword
within easy reach. Ever a dutiful and devoted son, he continued now to
glower at the half-fainting woman as though she alone held the key of
the mystery that resulted in Joan's disappearance. His impassioned eyes
sought to peer into her very soul, and his nostrils quivered with the
frenzied eagerness of one who awaited an answer to the implied question.
In some indefinable way he had already begun to suspect the truth; for
when the poor woman made no reply, though more than once her terror
laden eyes met his in mute appeal, he whirled round on Marulitch.

"Perhaps this is an occasion when it is a woman's privilege to remain
silent," he said bitterly. "So I begin with you, Julius. Save myself,
you are the youngest here, and it would be fitting that you and I should
determine this business. I warn you there will be no half measures! My
life, at least, goes into the scale, and I care not who else adjusts the
balance."

The pink and white tints had long fled from the Parisian dandy's
complexion. In the dim light he looked livid, and his forehead bore
bright beads of perspiration. But even Alec's fiery eyes discerned that
he was not only afraid, but bewildered, and his voice cracked with
excitement when he spoke.

"I declare by everything I hold sacred that I had no hand in this
affair!" he said shrilly. "It is natural perhaps that you should suspect
me, since I seem to have most to gain by any ill that befalls you; but,
even in your anger, Alec, you should be just. No matter how fierce your
emotions, you ought to realize that Miss Vernon's departure from
Delgratz retards rather than helps any possible scheming on my part to
succeed you on the throne."

"Now you, Beliani!" said Alec, striving to penetrate the mask that
covered the one impassive face in the room. "It was you who contrived
that my promised wife should come here from Paris. I can see your
purpose now. At to-day's meeting of the Cabinet, while I was urging your
advancement to power and dignity in the State, your hand was revealed in
the opposition manifested to my marriage. Your cunning brain conceived
the notion that I would not abandon the woman I loved for the sake of
fifty Kingdoms. You read my mind aright; but, if it was you who brought
about her flight, for what devilish reason did you depart from the
subtle plot that might well have achieved your ends by means which you,
at least, would consider fair?"

The Greek spread wide his hands in that characteristic gesture of his.
As it happened, for once in his life he could afford to be sincere. "I
can only assure your Majesty in the plainest possible terms," he said,
"that until I heard the news from your own lips, I had no knowledge
whatsoever of Miss Vernon's journey. Were I asked outside that locked
door to state to the best of my belief where she might be found, I
should have said that the slight illness of which she complained this
morning had probably confined her to her room."

For an instant Alec scowled at the President; but Sergius Nesimir's
vacuous features so obviously revealed his condition of speechless
surprise and distress that there remained only Stampoff, Prince
Michael--and his mother.

Adhering rigidly to his scheme of narrowing the field of inquiry by
putting the same straight question to each individual in turn, Alec next
appealed to the man who had helped him to gain a throne.

"Paul," he said, "you who were my friend and have become my enemy, you,
at least, will speak the truth. Tell me, then, who has done this thing!"

Stampoff strode forward. He feared no one, this determined advocate of
his country's cause, and he alone knew the real menace of the impending
tornado. "Your mother ought not to be here, Alec," he muttered. "A
little more of this and she will faint. Look at her! Have you no pity in
your heart? This is no place for a woman. Unlock the door and let her be
taken away!"

Alec moistened his dry lips with his tongue. He felt that he was finally
touching sure ground in the morass through which he was floundering.
"She and all of you must remain!" was his grim reply. "Answer my
question! Was it you who drove Joan from Delgratz?"

"I counseled it," said Stampoff, folding his arms defiantly, and
apparently careless whether or not the King sprang at his throat the
next instant.

"Ah! At last! Thank God for one man who is honest, though he seems to
have acted like a fiend! To whom did you counsel it? To Joan herself?"

"No."

"Tell me, then, to whom?"

"I refuse."

"Stampoff, I shall draw a confession from you even though you die under
my hands."

"I have faced death many times for the King of Kosnovia," said the harsh
Serbian voice, "and I shall not shrink from it now, whether at the hands
of the King or his foes. Send your mother away; then, perhaps, I may
tell you what you want to know. The thing is done, and I, for one, shall
not shirk the consequences."

"My mother again! Must she be spared though you have sacrificed her
son?"

With a quick movement that sent tremors through Julius and the Greek,
since he was compelled to pass close to both, he strode to the quaking
Princess and caught her almost roughly by the shoulder.

"I feared this from the outset," he cried. "Did Stampoff make you the
agent of his hellish work? Joan would trust you. Speak to me, mother!
Was it you who wrought this evil?"

Her head was bent low, and she gasped something that sounded like an
excuse. Alec recoiled from her in sudden horror. His hands were pressed
feverishly to his forehead, and a hoarse cry of anguish came from his
panting breast.

"I think I shall go mad!" he almost sobbed. "My own mother enter into
this league against me! My mother----Oh, it cannot be! Stampoff, you, I
know, would not scruple to sacrifice my dearest hopes to further your
designs. Could you find none but my mother to aid you?"

He reeled as under a blow from an unseen hand, and at that unfortunate
moment Prince Michael Delgrado thought fit to assert his authority.

"This ridiculous scene has gone far enough," he cried. "I was not aware
that your pretty artist had quitted Delgratz; but it is quite evident
that her departure is the best thing that could possibly happen for the
good of the Kingdom. If Stampoff advised it, and your mother saw fit to
point out to the girl the danger she was bringing to you and the
monarchy, such action on their part has my complete approval."

Alec gazed blankly at the pompous little man. It needed but Prince
Michael's outburst to stamp the whole episode with the seal of ineffable
meanness and double dealing. He recalled the cowardice displayed by the
Prince when Stampoff urged him to seize the vacant throne, and his gorge
rose at the thought that Joan had been driven from his arms in order
that this pygmy might secure the annual pittance that would supply his
lusts in Paris. At that moment Alec was Berserk with impotent rage. His
mother's complicity in the banishing of Joan denied him a victim on whom
to wreak his wrath.

But there still remained a vengeance, dire and far reaching, which would
teach a bitter lesson to those who had entered into so unworthy a
conspiracy.

Leaping to the curtain which concealed the sword, he snatched it up and
smashed it across his knee. "See, then, how I treat the symbol of my
monarchy," he cried with a terrible laugh. "I shall soon demonstrate to
you what a pricked balloon is this Kingship of which you prate. I
believe that you, my own father, are ready to supplant me, I know that
Julius, my cousin, is straining every nerve to procure my downfall; but
you shall learn how a man who despises the pinchbeck honors of a throne
can defeat your petty malice and miserable scheming. Monsieur Nesimir, I
proclaim Kosnovia a Republic from this hour! Here and now I abdicate!
Summon a meeting of the Assembly to-morrow, and I shall give its members
the best of reasons why the State will prosper more under the people's
rule than under that of either of the men who are so anxious to succeed
me."

"Abdicate! Republic! What monstrous folly!" cried Prince Michael, his
plethoric face convulsed with anger at this unexpected counterstroke.

"I am saying that which, with God's help, I shall perform!" cried Alec,
despair falling from him like a discarded garment as he realized what
his project would mean to Joan and himself.

"You may abdicate, of course, if you choose," came the scornful retort;
"but you have no power to break the Delgrado line."

"My power will be put to the test to-morrow," said Alec. "I am not
afraid to measure my strength against the pitiful cowards who struck at
me through a woman's love."

"Pay no heed to him, Monsieur Nesimir!" piped Prince Michael, whose
voice rose to a thin falsetto. "He is beside himself. If he chooses to
vacate the throne, it reverts to me."

"A Republic in Kosnovia!" snarled Stampoff. "That, indeed, will mark the
beginning of the end for the Slav race. A single year would wipe us out
of existence. What say you, Beliani, and you, Marulitch? Why are you
dumb? Was it for this that we have striven through so many years? Shall
our country be wrecked now because a hot headed youth puts his vows to a
woman before every consideration of national welfare?"

"The notion is preposterous!" growled Julius, gaining courage from
Stampoff's bold denunciation; but Beliani tried to temporize.

"We are far too excited to deal with this vexed affair to-night," he
said. "The King is naturally aggrieved by a trying experience, and is
hardly in a fit state of mind to consider the grave issues raised by
his words. Let us forget what we have just heard. To-morrow we shall all
be calmer and saner."

"Monsieur Nesimir," said Alec sternly, fixing the hapless President with
his masterful eye, "while I remain King you must obey my orders. See to
it that notices are despatched to-night to the members of the National
Assembly summoning a special meeting for an early hour to-morrow."

"Monsieur Nesimir will do nothing of the kind!" shrieked the infuriated
Prince Michael. "I forbid it!"

"And I command it," cried Alec. "If he refuses, I shall take other steps
to insure my wishes being fulfilled."

"Then I will tell you why your Joan has gone!" bellowed the Prince. "No,
Marie, I will not be restrained!" he shouted to his wife, who had rushed
to him in a very frenzy of alarm. She clutched at his shoulder; but he
shook himself free brutally.

"It is full time you knew what I have done for you," he hissed
venomously at Alec. "Stampoff and your mother and I, alone of those in
this room, are aware of the fraud that has been perpetrated on the
people of this country. You are not King of Kosnovia. You are not my
son. Your father was a Colorado gold miner to whom your mother was
married before I met her, and who died before you were born. For the
sake of his widow's money I gave her my name, and was fool enough to
fall in with her whim of pride that you should be brought up as a Prince
Delgrado. I suppose Stampoff urged your mother to reveal the facts to
that chit of a girl who has addled your brain, and she, fortunately, had
sense enough to see that you can not continue to occupy the throne five
seconds after it becomes known that you are a mere alien, that your name
is Alexander Talbot, and that I, Michael Delgrado, who married a
foreigner in order that I might live, and permitted an American child to
be reared as a lawful Prince of my house, am the lawful King."

The little man strutted up and down the room in a fume of indignation,
and evidently felt fully justified in his own esteem. Ever selfish and
vain, he fancied that he had been the victim of a cruel fate, and he
read the sheer bewilderment in Alec's face as a tribute to the master
stroke he had just delivered.

But his self conceit wilted under the contemptuous scorn of his wife's
gaze, which he chanced to meet when his posturing ceased.

Alec looked to his mother for some confirmation or denial of the
astounding statement blurted forth by her husband. But she had no eyes
for her son then. The wrongs and sufferings of a lifetime were welling
up from her heart to her lips. The agonized suspense of the last few
minutes had given way to the frenzy of a woman outraged in her deepest
sentiments.

She relinquished the chair to which she had been clinging, and faced the
diminutive Prince with a quiet dignity that overawed him.

"So that is how you keep your oath, Michael!" she said. "When I forgave
your infidelities, when I pandered to your extravagance, when I allowed
you to fritter away the wealth bequeathed to me by a man whose fine
nature was so far removed from yours that I have often wondered why God
created two such opposite types of humanity, time and again you vowed
that the idle folly of my youth would never be revealed by you. Twice
you swore it on your knees when I was stung beyond endurance by your
baseness. No, Michael," and her voice rose almost to a scream when her
husband tried to silence her with a curse, "you shall hear the truth
now, if I have to ask my son as a last favor to his unhappy mother to
still that foul tongue of yours by force!"

For an instant, she made a wild appeal to Alec. "Your father was an
honorable man," she cried. "For his sake, if not for mine, since I have
forfeited all claim to your love, compel this man to be silent!"

The belief was slowly establishing itself in her son's mind that the
incredible thing he was hearing was actually true. Nevertheless, he was
temporarily bereft of the poise and balance of judgment that might have
enabled him to adjust the warring elements in his bewildered brain. It
was a new and horrible experience to be asked by his mother to use
physical violence against the man he had been taught to regard as his
father.

He had never respected Michael Delgrado,--he could acknowledge that now
without the twinge of conscience that had always accompanied the
unpleasing thought in the past,--yet, despite the gulf already yawning
wide between them, his soul revolted against the notion of laying a hand
on him in anger.

But he did stoop over the spluttering little Prince and said sternly,
"You must not interrupt my mother again! You must not, I tell you!"

Such was the chilling emphasis of his words that Delgrado's loud
objurgations died away in his throat, and the distraught Princess, with
one last look of unutterable contempt at her royal spouse, faced the
other occupants of the room.

"I did harm to none by my innocent deception," she pleaded. "I was very
young when I married Alec's father, who was nearly twenty years older
than I. We were not rich, and we were compelled to live in a rude mining
camp, where my husband owned some claims that seemed to be of little
value. But from the day of our wedding our fortunes began to improve,
and, in the year before my son was born, money poured in on us. That
small collection of wooden shanties has now become a great city. The
land my husband owned is worth ten thousand times its original value;
but, unfortunately, when wealth came, I grew dissatisfied with my
surroundings. I wanted to travel, to mix in society, to become one of
the fashionable throng that flocks to Paris and London and the Riviera
in their seasons. My husband refused to desert the State in which his
interests were bound up.

"We quarreled--it was all my fault--and then one day he was killed in a
mine accident, and I, scarce knowing what I was doing, fled to New York
for distraction from my grief and self condemnation. My son was born
there, and in that same year I met Prince Michael Delgrado in a friend's
house. To me in those days a Prince was a wonderful creature. He quickly
saw that I was a prize worth capturing, and not many months elapsed
before we were married. I had all the foolish vanity of a young woman,
unused to the world, who was entitled to call herself a Princess, and it
seemed to my flighty mind that the fact of my son bearing a different
name to my own would always advertise my plebeian origin; for I was
quite a woman of the people, the daughter of a storekeeper in Pueblo. I
cast aside my old and tried acquaintances, placed my affairs in
trustworthy hands, and, when we set up an establishment in Paris, my
infant son came to be known as a Prince of the Delgrado family.

"Once such a blunder is made it is not easily rectified; but during many
a sad hour have I regretted it, for Michael Delgrado did not scruple to
use it as a threat whenever I resented his ill conduct. At first a
trivial thing, in time it became a millstone round my neck. As Alec grew
up, it became more and more difficult to announce that he was not Prince
Alexis Delgrado, but a simple commoner, Alexander Talbot by name.

"There, then, you have the measure of my transgression. It was the
knowledge of the truth that drove that dear girl, Joan Vernon, from
Delgratz this evening, because General Stampoff would not scruple to
reveal the imposture if he failed to secure the King's adherence to his
projects."

"God's bones!" broke in Stampoff. "I made him King, though I was aware
from the day of your wedding that he was not Michael's son. King he is,
and King he will remain if he agrees to my terms."

"Go on with your story, mother," said Alec softly. "I think I am
beginning to understand now."

"What more need I say?" wailed the Princess in a sudden access of grief.
"I have squandered your love, Alec, I have ruined my own life, I have
devoted all these wretched years to a man who is the worst sort of
blackmailer,--a husband who trades on his wife's weakness."

She turned on Prince Michael with a last cry. "I am done with you now
forever!" she sobbed. "I have borne with you for my son's sake; but now
you and I must dwell apart, for my very soul loathes you!"

She sank into a chair in a passion of tears, and Alec bent over her. He
spoke no word to her; but his hand rested gently around her neck while
his eyes traveled from Michael's gray-green face to Julius Marulitch's
white one.

"I think we have all heard sufficient of the Delgrado history to render
unnecessary any further comment on my decision to relinquish an honor
that, it would appear, I had no right to accept," he said. "I have
gained my end, though by a strange path. Will you please leave me with
my mother?"

The one man present who felt completely out of his depth in this sea of
discord took it upon himself to cry pathetically:

"The door is locked, your--your Majesty!"

"Ah, forgive me, Monsieur Nesimir," said Alec, with a friendly smile. "I
had forgotten that. And, now that I come to think of it, I still have
something to say; but we need not detain my mother to hear an
uninteresting conversation. Pardon me one moment, while I attend to
her."



CHAPTER XIV

THE BROKEN TREATY


Alec unlocked the door. The laconic Bosko returned his all sufficing
"_Oui, monsieur_," to the request that he would bring Mademoiselle
Joan's French maid to Princess Delgrado, since it was in Alec's mind
that Pauline might be discreet.

Prince Michael, Beliani, Marulitch, and Nesimir had already formed
themselves into a whispering group. Stampoff was seated apart, morose
and thoughtful. The old man's elbows rested on his knees and his chin
was propped between his bony fists. Princess Delgrado had flung herself
forward on the table. Her face was hidden by her outstretched arms. This
attitude of abandonment, the clenched hands, the convulsive heaving of
her shoulders, were eloquent of tempest tossed emotions. She looked so
forlorn that her son was tempted to return to her side without delay;
but instead he walked quietly toward the four men clustered in the
center of the room. They started apart and faced him nervously. It
seemed that even yet they feared lest some uncontrolled gust of anger
might lead Alec to fling himself blindly upon them. Had they but known
it, he despised them too greatly to think of mauling them.

"Gentlemen," he said, "I have one small request to make. Give me your
word of honor--I will take it for what it is worth--that to-night's
happenings shall remain unknown to the outer world, and that there will
be no interference with my mother or myself before we leave Delgratz."

Prince Michael, who had recovered some of his jauntiness, looked at Alec
with the crafty eye of a cowed hyena; but he said coolly, "There is
nothing to be gained by publishing our blunders to all the world."

"Have I your promise?" insisted Alec.

"Yes."

"And yours?" he said to Marulitch.

"Of course I agree," came the ready answer. "I, like Prince Michael,
feel that it would be folly----"

"Prince Michael!" snarled the royal Delgrado. "You must learn to school
your tongue, Julius! From this moment I am King of Kosnovia. Let there
be no manner of doubt about that!"

Alec might not have heard the blusterer. His calm glance fell on
Beliani. "And what say you?" he asked.

"I agree most fully and unreservedly," murmured the Greek, conveying,
with a deep bow, his respectful regret that such an assurance should be
necessary. The greatly perturbed President had already quitted the room;
so Alec turned to Stampoff. His manner was quite friendly. Well he knew
that this fiery soul was not to be judged by the Delgrado standard.

"I will not inflict on you, my trusty comrade," he said, "the indignity
of a demand that I felt was imperative in the case of some others
present. Let us shake hands and think rather of what we have gone
through together when I was King and you were my most loyal supporter,
than of the poor climax to my brief reign that reveals me as an
impostor."

Those keen eyes were raised in a half-formed resolution. "Is it too
late, Alec?" he growled sullenly.

"For what?"

Alec's smile of surprise was the only bit of affectation he had indulged
in that night. The fantasy flitting through Stampoff's brain was not
hidden from him; but he wanted to dismiss it lightly.

"God's bones! Need you ask? Say but the word, and you will be more
firmly established on the throne than ever. Trust me to find means to
still those babbling tongues!" and Stampoff flung out an arm in the
direction of the uncle and nephew, each manifestly anxious to hurry
away, yet each so distrustful of the other that he dared not go.

"Paul, you are incorrigible," said Alec. "You ought to have been a
marshal under Napoleon, who would have had no scruples. No, you will not
see civil war in the streets of Delgratz as to whether a Delgrado or an
American adventurer shall reign in Kosnovia. Yet, I thank you for the
thought. It shows that you, at least, do not rate me poorly, and it is
not in my heart to be vexed with you, though I owe this night's
amazement to your striving."

"Be just, Alec!" whispered the Serb hoarsely. "Condemn me if you will;
but be just! While Michael Delgrado lived, your reign would never have
been secure. I knew that all along. You will go away now and marry the
girl of your choice, and soon the memories of this downtrodden country
will be dim in your soul; but think what would have happened to you, to
your wife, and perhaps to your children, if Michael one day blurted out
the truth in some fit of drunken rage, or if Beliani and that other
white faced hound obtained evidence of your birth. That is why I was
resolved to force you, if possible, to wed a Serbian Princess. Your
marriage to a woman of our own race would have borne down opposition.
And now what will happen? The future is black. Michael is unworthy to be
a King; Marulitch, at the best, is a poor-spirited wretch; and after
them there is no Delgrado."

"Well, I am sorry, too, in a way," said Alec. "I was beginning to love
these Kosnovian folk, and I think I could have made something of them.
Good-by, Paul. If we never meet again, at least we part good friends."

Stampoff rose and silently wrung Alec's hand. He walked straight out of
the room with bent head and slow uncertain steps. For the hour his
fierce spirit was chastened. He had done that which he thought would
make for good, and it had turned out ill. His single minded scheming had
gone awry. Another man in his position might have sought to curry favor
with the new régime, whether of Michael or Julius; but Stampoff was not
of that mettle; he wanted Alec to be King, because he believed in him,
and now the edifice for which he had labored so ardently had tumbled in
pieces about his ears.

Pauline came, and Alec went to his mother. He took her tenderly in his
arms.

"Come, dear!" he said. "Joan's maid will help you to reach your room.
Our train leaves at midnight, and Bosko and Pauline will give your maid
any help she needs in collecting your belongings."

The Princess raised her grief stricken face to his, and it wrung his
heart anew to see how that night of misery had aged her.

"Oh, my son, my son!" she murmured. "Will you ever forgive me?"

He kissed her with a hearty and reassuring hug. "Forgive you, mother!"
he cried. "It is not I, but you, who have suffered through all these
years. Have no fear for the future! Joan and I will make you happy."

"But she, Alec! What will she say when she learns the wrong I have done
you?"

"What! Afraid of Joan?" cried he cheerfully. "Why, you dear old mother,
Joan is taking all the blame on her own shoulders. You will find she
agrees with me that you are the one to be pitied. You made a mistake
for which you have paid very dearly; but in no possible way can it
affect the remainder of our lives. There now, cheer up and prepare for
your journey!"

The Princess left the room leaning on Pauline's arm, nor, in passing,
did she bestow a glance on her husband. Prince Michael indulged in an
ostentatious shrug, and might have said something had not Alec's gaze
dwelt on him steadily. It is to be presumed that, not for the first
time, discretion conquered Michael's valor.

"A word with you, Beliani," said Alec, going to the table and unlocking
the drawer from which he had taken the money given to Sobieski. "You are
now in charge of the State's finances, I presume. I have here a sum,
roughly speaking, of one thousand pounds. To some extent, it is my own
money; but the greater part consists of instalments of the salary of
five thousand dollars a year I allowed myself as King. Do you think I
have earned it?"

The Greek could only mutter a surprised, "Yes. Who would deny your right
to a far larger amount?"

"Having your sanction, then, I take it," said Alec coolly. "Here too is
my passport, issued in Paris, for which I believe I am indebted to you.
It will now come in handy. May I ask in whose charge I leave the books
and papers on this table? Some of them may be of use to the State."

"I am afraid I cannot answer that question," muttered the Greek, with a
stealthy glance in the direction of the rival candidates.

"Well, settle it among yourselves," said Alec dryly. "Now I must be
off."

Without another word he passed from the room that had witnessed his
triumph and his fall. Yet his face was remarkably cheerful when he asked
an attendant if Lord Adalbert Beaumanoir's whereabouts was known. The
quiet elation in his manner led the man to believe that some specially
pleasing news had transpired during the conclave in the royal bureau.

It appeared that his Excellency, the English milord, had gone to the
music hall in the Königstrasse with a friend.

"Then send some one to say that he is wanted here at once," said Alec.

"Yes, your Majesty."

"Your Majesty!" How incongruous the two words sounded now in Alec's
ears! By a trick of memory his thoughts flew back to the Montmartre
review wherein the stage prototypes of the Parisian band of exiled
monarchs addressed each other by high sounding titles and incidentally
sought to borrow five-franc pieces.

"If I possessed some literary skill, I could write a review that would
set the world talking," he mused, smiling to himself as he ascended the
stairs to his own suite.

"What is the matter, old chap?" demanded Beaumanoir, strolling into his
friend's dressing room a few minutes later. Lord Adalbert never hurried
unless he was on horseback. He was in evening dress, and an opera hat
was set rakishly on the back of his head. He was smoking, his hands were
thrust into his pockets, and the mere sight of him served again to
remind Alec of the larger world in whose daily round Kosnovia and its
troubles filled so insignificant a part.

In an oddly jubilant mood, Alec took a pencil and wrote in large
characters on Beaumanoir's immaculate shirt front, "Paris--with care."

His chum read. "The answer is?" he asked.

"We are leaving Delgratz to-night, Berty. That is all."

"You don't say!" He glanced down at the label. "Is this the address?"

"Yes."

Beaumanoir screwed his cigar firmly into the corner of his mouth. "I am
pretty rapid myself, Alec," he grinned; "but you are too sudden
altogether. Tell me just what you mean, there's a dear fellow."

"I take it you don't want to remain here without me, Berty," said Alec
cheerily, "and I am off. I chucked up my job half an hour ago. Joan and
Felix started by the mail train that left here at half-past five. We
follow at midnight. My mother goes with us. As Bosko is giving her maid
a hand in the packing, I must look after my own traps. Nesimir's
servants would talk, which is just what I want to avoid. The two days
in the train will give you plenty of time to learn the harrowing
details. I have a pretty story for you; but it must wait. I am not
cracked, nor sprung, nor trying to be funny; so you need not look at me
in that way. I am out of business as a King, for good and all, and the
sooner I cross the frontier, the better it will be for my health."

"Honor bright, Alec?"

"Every syllable. Now, get a hustle on!"

There was a tap at the door, and a servant entered with a note for the
King. It was from Constantine Beliani, and written in French.

     Prince Michael and Count Julius Marulitch have decided that, in the
     interests of the State, you ought to make a formal abdication of
     the throne, appointing the former as your successor, with special
     remainder to Count Julius.

     I agree with them that this offers the best way out of an
     unfortunate situation, and I would respectfully point out the
     urgency that is attached to the proposal if you still contemplate
     leaving Delgratz to-night.

Alec bent his brows over this curt missive, which was not couched
precisely in the suave words that might be expected from the Greek. Read
between the lines, its meaning was significant. Michael and his nephew,
hungering for the spoils, had patched up a truce. They were already
contemplating another military pronunciamento, and Beliani, having made
his own terms, was lending his influence.

If their demands were refused, Alec might find himself a prisoner, and
the country would be plunged into a revolution. Under different
conditions, he would gladly have measured his wits and his popularity
against the triumvirate. A call to arms would win him the support of the
great majority of the troops and of nearly all the younger officers. But
a fight for a throne to which he had no claim was not to be thought of;
yet he was adamant in his resolve not to advance the schemes of these
rogues by any written statement.

He handed the note to Beaumanoir with a quiet laugh. "There you have the
story in a nutshell," he said. "A few minutes ago I became aware that I
am not Prince Michael's son. Although I strove to act fairly, my worthy
stepfather is not content. He thinks to force my hand, because he fears
the republican idea; but I may best him yet.

"Where is Monsieur Nesimir?" he said to the servant, to whom the English
conversation was a sealed book.

"In his apartments, I believe, your Majesty."

"Have instructions been given for mounted orderlies to be in readiness?"

"I heard his Excellency Prince Michael say something of the sort to the
officer of the guard, your Majesty."

The random shot had told. Alec felt that he was spinning a coin with
fortune.

"That is right," he said coolly. "Give my compliments to Monsieur
Beliani, and ask him to oblige me by coming here for a moment; Prince
Michael and Count Marulitch, too. Tell all three that I am ready to
attend at once to the matter mentioned in Monsieur Beliani's note."

The servant disappeared. Beaumanoir, who, of course, did not understand
the instructions given to the man, was fumigating Beliani's letter with
rapid puffs of smoke, and incidentally scratching the back of his right
ear.

"Rum go this, Alec!" he began.

"Not a word now. You'll stand by me, Berty, I know. Go to my mother's
suite and tell Bosko I want him instantly. Bid him bring a brace of
revolvers, and see that they are loaded. Come here yourself with some
ropes, leather straps, anything that will serve to truss a man securely,
as soon as you are sure that Michael, Julius, and the Greek are safely
in the room."

Beaumanoir scented a row. Lest any words of his might stop it, he
vanished. He must have hurried, too, since Bosko had joined his master
before Beliani's messenger reached the anxious conspirators with Alec's
answer. There was no need to ask if the Albanian had brought the
weapons. They were tucked ostentatiously in his belt. Alec looked him
squarely in the eyes.

"I think I can depend on you, Bosko," said he.

"_Oui, monsieur._"

"Understand, then, that I am no longer King of Kosnovia. I am not Prince
Michael's son. I mean to leave Delgratz to-night, and there is a plot
on foot to prevent my departure except on terms to which I shall not
agree. Will you help me to defeat it?"

"_Oui, monsieur._"

"Within the next minute I shall probably have visitors. They may show
fight, though I doubt it, I want you to place those two pistols among
the clothes in that portmanteau, and be busy, apparently, in arranging
its contents. When I close the door, you must spring up and cover them
with both revolvers. Do not shoot without my command; but make it clear
by your manner that their lives are at your mercy. Will you do this?"

"_Oui, monsieur_," said Bosko.

"Here they are, then. Be ready!"

The door was ajar, and footsteps sounded on the stairs. Some one
knocked.

"Come in," said Alec cordially.

Beliani was the first to enter. He pushed the door wide open to assure
himself that he was not walking into a trap. He saw Bosko on his knees,
rummaging in a trunk, and Alec standing in the middle of the room,
lighting a cigarette.

"Come in," said Alec again. "My departure is rather hurried, as you
know, and I have not a minute to spare. Have you brought the necessary
documents?"

"It is a simple matter," said the Greek, advancing confidently. "Half a
sheet of notepaper with your signature and our indorsement as witnesses
will suffice."

Prince Michael and Julius, reassured by Alec's manner, and thanking the
propitious stars that had rendered unnecessary the dangerous step they
were contemplating, entered the room with as businesslike an air as they
could assume at a crisis so fraught with import to their own future.

"We ought to be alone," said Beliani in English, with a wary glance at
Bosko.

"Oh, for goodness' sake don't disturb my man! I have so little time and
so much to do! Tell me exactly what you want me to sign," and he strode
to the door and closed it behind Marulitch.

The eyes of the three were on him and not on the harmless looking
attendant. During those few seconds they were completely deceived.

Prince Michael, finding the path so easy, took the lead. "Just a formal
renunciation of the crown," he said. "Give as your reason, if you
choose, your inability to fall in with the expressed desire of the
Cabinet that you should marry a Serbian lady. It is essential that you
should name me----"

The door opened and Lord Adalbert Beaumanoir came in leisurely. He
carried an assortment of straps, rifled from leather trunks and
hatboxes. He saw the three men facing Alec, and behind them Bosko's
leveled revolvers.

"Not a bally rope to be had, dear boy; but here's leather enough to go
round," he grinned. "By gad! what a tableau! I suppose you mean to gag
'em and then tie 'em back to back, eh, what?"

Alec picked up a chair. "Yes," he said. "Begin with his Excellency
Prince Michael."

Julius Marulitch's right hand sought the pocket of the dinner jacket he
was wearing.

"No, Julius," said Alec pleasantly, "move an inch and you are a dead
man. Bosko has my orders, and he will obey them. You may look at him if
you doubt my word."

Marulitch's well poised head had never before turned so quickly; but he
shrank from a wicked looking muzzle pointed straight between his eyes.
In such circumstances, the caliber of a revolver seems to become
magnified to absurdly large proportions, and behind the fearsome weapon
Bosko's immovable face was that of an automaton.

Beliani's olive complexion assumed a sickly green tint for the second
time that evening. "I was right," he muttered; "but you would not
listen."

"It is a common delusion of the thief that an honest man has no brains,"
said Alec coolly. "Now, Beaumanoir, get busy. Time is flying, and we
have little more than an hour to spare."

Prince Michael, never noted for his courage, began to whimper some words
of expostulation; but Beaumanoir's strong hands soon silenced him with
an improvised gag, for the effeminate little rascal realized that his
jaw might be broken if he resisted the stuffing of a towel into his
mouth. In a few minutes the three were seated on the floor, securely
bound, and unable to utter more than a gurgling cry, which would
certainly not be heard by any one passing along the outer corridor.

Alec's cheerful explanation of his action must have been particularly
galling. "You will remain here until such time as Stampoff decides that
you may safely be set at liberty," he said. "Not you, but he, must
provide for the future good government in Kosnovia."

"Thanks, Beaumanoir," he added, turning from the discomfited trio with a
carelessness that showed they gave him no further concern. "Better be
off now and get ready. Bosko, mount guard outside the door! Allow no one
to enter on any pretext whatsoever!"

 [Illustration: In a few minutes the three were securely bound
    Page 298]

Then he busied himself about the room, followed by vengeful eyes. He had
brought little into Kosnovia, and he took little away. The extraordinary
simplicity of his life had rendered unnecessary the usual trappings of a
King. He had worn no uniform save the plainest of field service
garments. He possessed no State attire. His clothes were mostly those
which came from Paris, and it amused him now to change rapidly into the
very suit in which he had entered Delgratz, an unknown claimant of the
Kosnovian throne. Bundling his trunks out into the corridor, he closed
and locked the door, and the click of the moving bolt must have sent a
tremor through the stiff limbs of the three worthies who lay huddled
together inside.

Bidding Bosko hurry over his own preparations, he descended to the
courtyard. A number of troopers, standing by their horses' heads, sprang
to attention when he appeared.

"You can dismiss your men," he said to the officer in charge. "They will
not be needed to-night."

Then he told an attendant to order a couple of carriages for half-past
eleven. In the reception room he wrote a hasty note to Stampoff:

     MY DEAR PAUL:--The legitimate King of Kosnovia and his heir
     apparent, not contented with the arrangement entered into in your
     presence, planned with Beliani a _coup d'état_. I defeated it. You
     will find all three in my bedroom, the key of which I inclose. They
     are alive and well, and will stop there until it pleases you to
     release them. Perhaps you would like to consult with Sergius
     Nesimir, who by the time you receive this may have recovered the
     composure so rudely disturbed to-night. At any rate, the next move
     rests with you. Farewell and good luck.

          Yours,
               ALEC.

Outside his mother's apartments he came upon Prince Michael's valet in
whispered consultation with Pauline and Princess Delgrado's maid. In the
rush of events he had forgotten the two domestics from the Rue
Boissière.

"His Excellency will not need your services to-night," he said to the
man, "and it will meet his wishes in every respect if nothing is said to
the other servants as to the departure of the Princess for Paris."

"Precisely, your Majesty," smirked the Frenchman.

"You, of course," he went on, addressing the maid, "will accompany your
mistress."

"Yes, your Majesty," she said, quite reassured by Alec's matter of fact
manner.

A glance at Pauline's honest face showed that nothing had been said of
the curious scene witnessed in the bureau. To a certain extent, Joan's
humble friend shared his confidence, and it was evident that she had not
betrayed it.

The departure of such a large party probably created some speculation
among the palace servants; but Nesimir did not put in an appearance, and
no one dared to question the King's movements. Alec had purposely
allowed the barest time for the drive to the station. The midnight
train, not being an important express, carried few passengers, mostly
traders returning to neighboring towns in Austria after conducting the
day's business in Delgratz. The King and his companions, of course, were
recognized; but again it was not to be expected that any official would
trouble them with inquiries.

Having secured a compartment for his mother and Beaumanoir, Alec made
for the station master's office, meaning to obtain a messenger who might
be trusted to deliver Stampoff's letter, and he happened to notice a
policeman standing near a carriage door.

A white face peered out through the window. It was Sobieski. The King
and the waiter were quitting Delgratz by the same train!

Alec laughed, and the policeman saluted. "When the train has gone," said
Alec, "I want you to deliver this letter to General Stampoff."

"Yes, your Majesty," replied the man.

"It is important, remember. Here are ten rubles, and ask General
Stampoff, with my compliments, for the like amount. Take no denial from
his servants. If he is in bed, he must be awaked. Say that I sent you,
and there should be no difficulty."

Precisely at midnight the train started. Quickly gathering speed, it ran
through the tumbledown suburbs of the city and rumbled across the iron
bridge that spans the Tave River. In twenty minutes it was at Semlin,
and Austrian officials were examining passports. It was almost ludicrous
to find that they gave Alec and his mother a perfunctory glance; but
Lord Adalbert Beaumanoir excited their lively suspicion. One man, in
particular, mounted guard outside the carriage, and did not budge till
the train moved on again.

"That chap remembers me," said Beaumanoir. "Did you notice how he
glared? He was the johnny I slung through the window."

At an early hour in the morning Joan was peering disconsolately through
the window of a railway carriage at the life and bustle of Budapest
station. Felix had gone to purchase some newspapers, and the girl was
absorbed in gray thought when an official thrust head and shoulders into
the compartment and asked if the Fräulein Vernon, passenger from
Delgratz to Paris, was within.

"Yes," gasped Joan, all the slight color flying from her cheeks and
leaving her wan indeed.

"Here is a telegram for you, fräulein," said the man politely, and his
civil tone, at least, assured her that she was not to be dragged from
the train and subjected to some mysterious inquisition by Austrian
police. "Sent care of the station master," he explained, "and we were
urgently requested to find you. Kindly sign this receipt."

She scribbled her name on a form, and the man carefully compared it with
the superscription on the telegram.

"Yes, that is right," he said, and at last the agitated girl was free to
open this message from the skies. It was written in German, probably to
insure accurate transmission, and it read:

     My mother and I, together with Beaumanoir, left Delgratz seven
     hours later than you. Pauline accompanies us. We are returning to
     Paris after having settled affairs satisfactorily in Kosnovia.
     Please await our arrival in Budapest, and accept the statement
     without any qualification that there is no reason whatever why you
     should not do this.

          ALEC.

The amazing words were still dancing before her eyes when Felix came
running along the platform. He too had been identified by an official,
and in his hand was another telegraphic slip.

"We need have no secrets between us now, my belle," he cried excitedly.
"You guess what has happened."

"Alec has left Delgratz--he and his mother--Oh, Felix! if he really sent
this telegram, why did he not explain things?"

"The explanation would be rather ticklish, when you come to think of
it," said Felix dryly. "The Austrian Government might take too keen an
interest in it. Don't you understand, girl? He has wrung the truth from
some one. He is no longer a King, but a very devoted lover. Come, we can
pass the day pleasantly in Budapest. There is nothing else to be done.
No sense in running away merely for the fun of the thing. If Alec is not
a King, there is no immediate probability of your becoming a Queen. You
will be plain Mrs. Somebody or other. Now I wonder what in the world his
new name is. The son of an American father would hardly be called
Alexis. Horrible thought! You may have to learn to love him all over
again as Chauncey, or Hiram, or Phineas. Tell me, mignonne, could you
take him back to your heart as Phineas?"

Joan rose and stepped out on the platform. Poluski's chaffing outburst
failed in its intent, though, to his great relief, she did not break
down as he feared. "Perhaps he will not want me now, Felix," she said,
and her eyes were shining.

"Oh, fiddlesticks!" cried the hunchback. "Why did he telegraph from the
first wayside station after leaving Semlin? Alec not want you! At this
moment he is more proud that he is a free born American than if a
miracle almost beyond the powers of Heaven had made him a Delgrado."

Felix, cynic that he was, was secretly delighted when Joan discovered
after breakfast that a blouse which caught her eye in one of the
Budapest shops was much more suitable for traveling than that which she
happened to be wearing. It was also significant that the dust which had
gathered in her hair during the long journey from Delgratz required a
visit to a coiffeur. These straws showed how the wind blew, he fancied.

And it was good to see the way Joan's face kindled when Alec clasped her
in his arms. They said little then. The why and the wherefore of events
they left to another hour; but when Joan extricated herself from her
lover's embrace she turned to Princess Delgrado. The two women exchanged
an affectionate kiss; each looked at the other through a mist of tears.
Words were not needed. They understood, and that sufficed.

In a calmer moment Alec told Joan what had happened. He laid special
stress on the fact that his mother was quite determined to renounce her
title and revert to the name she bore during her first marriage.

"I never realized the tenth part of her suffering in Paris," he said,
"though I knew far more about Prince Michael's conduct than he guessed.
We must make it our business, Joan, to bring some brightness into her
declining years. I have been planning our future all day in the train.
Shall I become the fortune teller this time?"

"Yes," she murmured, "and perhaps I may forget that I have cost you a
Kingdom."

He laughed gayly, just as he used to laugh on those bright May mornings
when he waited on the Pont Neuf in the hope that he might be permitted
to escort her to the Louvre.

"Never dream that I shall bring that up against you, dear heart," he
said. "Delgratz ought to advertise itself as a sure cure for ambition. I
liked the people; but I hated the job, and Kosnovia is already becoming
a myth in my mind. I am rejoicing in my new name, Alexander Talbot. I
hope you like it. My mother tells me that my father was one of the
strong men of the West. I am called after him, it seems, and although my
own name sounds strange to me I like the purposeful ring in it."

Joan laughed merrily. "Felix was teasing me this morning by suggesting
that you might have been christened Phineas," she said.

"The wretch! And what if I was?"

She looked at him with a delightful shyness. "No matter what name you
bore, you would always be my Alec," she whispered.

They were leaning over the balcony of an open air restaurant at the
moment; so Alec perforce contented himself with clasping her hand.

"And now for my scheme, little girl," he said. "We will get married at
once, of course."

She made no reply; but he felt the thrill that ran through her veins.

"Then," he went on, so gravely that she raised her eyes to his, seeking
to catch his slightest shade of meaning; for her heart was still
troubled by the fear that she had wrought him evil, "I will take you to
America, my home. There is surely a nest for us out there. I have never
understood it before; but often, as a boy, I felt the call of the West.
It was natural, I suppose. We had many American friends in Paris, and my
blood tingled when they spoke of the great rivers, the prairies, the
ocean lakes, the giant mountain ranges, and the far flung plains of that
wondrous continent which they describe with a reverent humor as God's
own country. I feel that I shall win a place for myself in the land of
my birth, and my poor mother is aching to go back there again."

He paused, and perhaps he hardly realized why Joan sighed with
happiness; for she could believe, at last, that he had never a pang for
his lost kingship.

 [Illustration: He felt the thrill that ran through her veins
    Page 306]

"It is my home, too, Alec," she cooed. "I was born in Vermont. We are
going home together."

"Yes, dear, no more partings. We shall not be wealthy, Joan. It seems
that the miserable little humbug whom I have regarded as my father has
wasted the whole of my mother's fortune by his extravagance. The only
scrap left is a small farm near Denver, and even that would have been
sold had not the crisis in Delgratz offered a wider scope for Michael's
plundering instincts. It is a strange thing, sweetheart, but on the day
we parted in Paris--the day the news came of the murder of Theodore and
his wife--Prince Michael quarreled with my mother because she refused to
sanction the sale of that last shred of her inheritance. In order to
vent his spite, he had actually decided to tell me the secret of my
birth in the very hour that Julius Marulitch announced the disappearance
of the Obrenovitch dynasty."

"And the goddess sent you east instead of west," she said softly.

"Yes, my trial has been short and sharp; but she must have found me
worthy, since she has given me--you."

They reached Paris next evening; but by that time the newspapers were
hot on the scent of the missing King. So far as could be judged from the
reports telegraphed by French correspondents in Delgratz, Stampoff had
remained true to his dream of a monarchy. For lack of a better, Michael
was King. Some one, Beliani probably, had issued a statement that the
infatuation of Alexis III. for a pretty Parisian artist had led him to
abdicate, and as soon as it was discovered that the Delgrado flat in the
Rue Boissière was again occupied by Alec and his mother, they were
besieged by reporters anxious to glean details of a royal romance.

They decided, therefore, to leave Paris for London, where, under the
name of Talbot, they might hope to escape such unwelcome attentions. It
was no easy matter to shake off the horde of eager pressmen; but they
succeeded at last, and when Alec and Joan were quietly married in a West
End church, no one, except the officiating minister, had the least
knowledge of their identity.

After a brief honeymoon in Devon they rejoined Mrs. Talbot, and the
three sailed from Southampton, whither came Felix and Beaumanoir to bid
them farewell. Bosko and Pauline were on the same ship. The taciturn
Serb had positively refused to leave his master, though Alec pointed out
that his fallen fortunes hardly warranted him in retaining a valet,
while Pauline, whom recent circumstances had thrown a good deal in
Bosko's company, declared that Paris no longer had any attractions for
her. Without consulting any one the two got married, and astounded Mrs.
Talbot one fine morning by announcing the fact.

At the last moment Joan almost persuaded Felix to go with her and her
husband; but he tore himself away.

"I peeped into the Grande Galerie the other morning," he said, with a
real sob in his voice, "and my poor Madonna looked so lonely! There was
no one with her; just a few painted angels and a couple of gaping
tourists. I must go back. Some day you will come to the Louvre, and you
will find me there, _le pauvre_ Bourdon, still singing and painting."

He began to hum furiously. When the gangway was lowered, and the great
ship sidled slowly but relentlessly away from the quay, he struck the
tremendous opening note of "Ernani."

Beaumanoir grabbed him by the collar. "Shut up, you idiot!" he said, not
smiling at all, for he loved Alec. "This is England. If you sing here, a
bobby will run you in. An', anyhow, blank it! why do you want to sing?
This isn't a smoking concert. It's more like a bally funeral!"



CHAPTER XV

THE ENVOY


In the autumn of the following year, Joan was seated one day in the
garden of her pretty suburban house at Denver. Not far away glittered a
silvery lake; beyond a densely wooded plain rose the blue amphitheater
of the Rocky Mountains; the distant clang of a gong told of street cars
and the busy life of one of America's most thriving and picturesque
cities.

She was somewhat more fragile than when she crossed the Pont Neuf on
that fine morning in May eighteen months ago; but she looked and felt
supremely happy, for Alec would soon be home from his office, where
already he was proving that the qualities which made him a good King
were now in a fair way toward establishing his position as a leading
citizen of his native State. By her side in a dainty cot reposed another
Alec, whose age might not yet be measured by many weeks, but whose size
and lustiness proclaimed him--in his own special circle, at any
rate--the most remarkable baby that ever "occurred" in Colorado.

Mrs. Talbot, Senior, tired of reading, was now dozing peacefully in an
easy chair on the other side of the cot. The day had been warm; but the
evening air brought with it the crisp touch of autumn, and Joan was
about to summon Pauline, who--with honorable mention of the unchanging
Bosko--had solved for the young couple the most perplexing problem of
American life,--when the click of the garden gate caught her ear and she
heard her husband's firm step. He stooped and kissed her.

"I hope you have passed the whole day in the garden, sweetheart," he
said.

"Yes," she replied, "I was just going to send baby indoors. Will you
tell Pauline it is time he was in bed; but do not disturb your mother.
She's asleep."

"Baby can wait one minute," he said. "He looks quite contented where he
is. There is news from Delgratz," he added in a lower voice. "King
Michael is dead."

An expression of real sympathy swept across Joan's beautiful face. "I am
sorry to hear that," she said. Then, with the innate desire of every
high-minded woman to find good where there seems to be naught but evil,
she added, "Perhaps, when he reached the throne, he may have mended his
ways and striven to be a better man. Did he die suddenly?"

"Yes," and a curious inflection in Alec's voice caused his wife to
glance anxiously toward the sleeping woman.

"Was there a tragedy?" she whispered.

"Something of the sort. The details are hardly known yet, and the
telegrams published in our Denver newspapers are not quite explicit.
There is an allusion to a disturbance in a local theater, during which
the heir apparent, Count Julius Marulitch, was fatally stabbed."

"Oh!" gasped Joan.

"It would seem that this incident took place several days ago, but
escaped notice in the American press at the time. Attention is drawn to
it now by the fact that King Michael was found dead in his apartments at
an early hour yesterday morning, and it is rumored that he was
poisoned."

"How dreadful!" she gasped. "It will shock your mother terribly when she
hears of it."

"It is an odd feature of the affair," went on Alec, "that the telegram
describes the King as residing in the New Konak. I suppose he passed the
summer months there, and had not yet returned to Delgratz. Delightful as
the place was, I am glad now we never lived there, Joan."

She rose and caught him by the arm. "Alec," she murmured, "Heaven was
very good to us in sending us away from that Inferno! You never regret
those days, do you? You never think, deep down in your heart, that if it
had not been for me you would still be a King?"

He laughed so cheerfully that the sound of his mirth woke both his
mother and the baby.

"What is it?" asked Mrs. Talbot, scanning the faces of her son and his
wife with a whole world of affection in her kindly eyes.

"Well, nothing to laugh about, mother," said he, "since I was just
telling Joan that the end has come for some one in Kosnovia; but----"

"Is Michael dead?" interrupted his mother, paling a little.

"Yes, mother, he is."

She bent her head in brief reverie, and when she looked up again she
seemed to be gazing at the smiling landscape. But they knew better. Her
thoughts had flown many a mile from Colorado.

"May Heaven be more merciful to him than he was to me!" she said at
last, and that was her requiem for the man to whom she had given her
best days. She forgave him; but she could not find it in her heart to
regret his loss.

When the New York papers reached Denver, the small household--whose
interest in the affairs of far off Kosnovia was little dreamed of by
their neighbors--gleaned fuller details of the tragedy that had again
overwhelmed the Delgrados. Many times did the conversation turn to the
tiny Kingdom with which their own lives had been so intimately bound up.
So far as the American press was concerned, the topic was soon
forgotten; but Alec, having obtained a Budapest journal, found that
Stampoff, Beliani, and Sergius Nesimir were taking steps to form a
Republic.

"Sometimes," said Alec during their talk that evening, "it is the
expected that happens."

"I suppose," said Joan musingly, "that the unlucky little Principality
ought to prosper under a popular Government--unless----" She paused, and
her husband was quick to interpret her thought.

"Unless they obtain the right sort of King," he cried.

"Perhaps that is impossible since you are here, dear," she said softly.

"Is that bee still buzzing in your bonnet?" he laughed. "I agree with
you, Joan; it was a pity I let go so promptly."

She lifted her startled eyes to his. "Oh, Alec!" she cried, "you don't
mean it!"

"I do, sweetheart," he said with a marked seriousness that puzzled her.
"It was sheer selfishness that drove me from Kosnovia. I honestly
believe I should have cracked up under the weight of empire; but just
fancy what a wonderful Queen you would have made!"

"Oh, don't be stupid," she cried. "You almost frightened me."

Alec's mother put in a gentle word. "If ever either of you is tempted to
regret the loss of a throne, you ought to devote half an hour to reading
the history of Kosnovia," she said. "You are happy, and that is what you
would never have been in the Balkans. A curse rests on that unlucky
land. Never a Delgrado or Obrenovitch has reigned a decade in peace and
security. It was a red letter day for Alec when you brought him away
from Delgratz, my dear," she continued, with a fond pressure of her hand
on Joan's brown hair. "None of us knew it at the time; but there are
events in life that, like certain short and sharp diseases, leave us all
the better when they have passed, though their severity may try us
cruelly at the time."

The Indian summer day was drawing to a close, and Bosko entered to close
the windows and pull down the blinds. The sight of him moved Alec to
speak in that sonorous Serbian tongue which was already foreign to his
own ears.

"Do you like America, Bosko?" he said.

The imperturbable one almost started; for it was long since he had heard
any words in his own language.

"_Oui, monsieur_," he said.

"And would you go back to Delgratz if you had the opportunity?"

"_Non, monsieur._" For a wonder, he broke into an explanation. "I can go
out here without expecting to be fired at from some hedge or ditch
around the next corner, monsieur. You did not know those rascals as I
knew them. They nearly got you once; but they tried a dozen times, and
would have succeeded too, if Stampoff had not been too sharp for them."

"Good gracious, Bosko!" said his master. "This is news, indeed. Why was
I not told?"

"There was no need, monsieur. Each time we discovered a plot we put
every man in jail who might be suspected of the least connection with
it. Moreover, had you heard of these things you would have interfered."

"Then, in the name of goodness, why didn't my protectors find out about
the attack made by the Seventh Regiment? Surely there were enough
concerned in that to supply at least one spy?"

Bosko hesitated. He glanced surreptitiously at Alec's mother. "Things
went wrong that day, monsieur," he said. "Information that ought to have
reached the General was withheld."

And Alec left it at that; for the man who might reasonably be suspected
of offsetting Stampoff's vigilance was dead, and no good purpose could
be served by adding one more to his mother's host of bitter memories.

A bell sounded, and Bosko went to the front door. He returned, his
stolid features exhibiting the closest approach to excitement that they
were capable of. Evidently he meant to announce a visitor; but before he
could open his mouth a high and singularly musical voice came from the
entrance hall in the exquisite opening bars of the "Salve Dimora."

With one amazed cry of "Felix!" Joan and Alec rushed to the door. Yes,
there stood Felix, thinner, more wizened, more shrunken, than when last
they saw him on the quay at Southampton. Joan, impulsive as ever,
welcomed him with a hearty kiss.

"You dear creature!" she said. "Why did you not tell us you were in
America?"

"An envoy always delivers his message in person, my belle. I am here on
affairs of state. The telegraph is but a crude herald, and I was
forbidden to write."

Alec dragged him into the room. "Business first, Felix," he said. "That
is the motto of strenuous America. Now, what is it?"

"Beliani came to me in Paris," said the hunchback, affecting the weighty
delivery of one charged with matters of imperial import. "He brought
with him letters from Stampoff and Nesimir, which I shall deliver. He
also intrusted me with a copy of a unanimous resolution of the Kosnovian
Assembly, passed in secret session."

Joan's face suddenly paled, Mrs. Talbot's hands clenched the arms of the
chair in which she was sitting, and the two women exchanged glances.
None of this escaped Alec, who was seemingly unmoved.

"Behold in me, then," continued Poluski, "the Ambassador of Kosnovia.
Delgratz wants again to see its Alexis, who is invited to reoccupy the
throne on his own terms,--wife, infant, mother, Bosko, Pauline, even
myself and the domestic cat, all are welcome. There are no restrictions.
At a word from the King even the Assembly itself will dissolve."

Somehow, Poluski's manner conveyed that this was no elaborate jest, and
Joan's lips trembled pitifully when, after one look at the youthful
Alec, who was lying on a cushion and saying "Coo-coo" to a rattle, she
awaited her husband's reply. He too looked at her in silence, and even
Joan became dematerialized for one fateful moment. In his mind's eye he
saw the sunlit domes and minarets of the White City. The blue Danube
sparkled as of yore beneath its ancient walls. Through the peaceful air
of that quiet Denver suburb he caught the sound of cheering crowds, the
crashing of bells, the booming of cannon, that would welcome his return.

But he thought, too, of the fret and fume of Kingship, of the brave men
and gracious women who had occupied an unstable throne and were now
crumbling to dust in the vaults of that gloomy cathedral. He smiled
tenderly at his wife, and his hand stole out to meet hers.

"I refuse, Felix!" he said quietly.

Poluski's piercing gray eyes peered at him under the shaggy eyebrows.
"Is that final?"

"Absolutely final!"

Felix broke into a hearty laugh. "I warned Beliani," he chuckled. "No
one could have written to me as Joan has done and yet want to return to
that whited sepulcher down there in the Balkans. Well, here are my
credentials," and he threw a bundle of papers on the table. "I have done
what I was asked to do, and thus earned my passage money; and now, when
I have kissed the baby and shaken hands all round, I will bring in my
wedding present."

A minute later he danced out into the hall and returned with a huge
roll of canvas. "I unpacked it at the station," he said; "so it is ready
for inspection," and he spread out on the table a replica of the famous
Murillo. "There," he cried, "since Joan would not come to the Louvre, I
am bringing the Louvre's chief treasure to her. As it is the last, so is
it the best of my copies. My hand was losing its cunning, I felt myself
growing old, so I prayed to that sweet Madonna to give me one last
flicker of the immortal fire ere it left me a dry cinder. Well, she
listened, I think. _Ave Maria!_ the great Spaniard himself would rub his
eyes if he could see this. Now, I shall go back contented, and dream of
the days that are gone."

His voice broke. He was gazing at Joan, at the glory of maternity in her
face.

"You are not going back, Felix," said Alec. "Kosnovia has now lost both
its King and its Ambassador. You are here, and here you shall stay."

"Yes, dear Felix," whispered Joan, "we have found our Kingdom. Our court
is small; but there is always room in it for you."

So Denver heard wild snatches of song, and listened, and marveled, and a
baby cultivated a strange taste in lullabies, and Pallas Athene forgot
that one of her chosen sons dwelt in Colorado, or, if she remembered,
her heart was softened and she forbore.

     THE END



TRANSCRIBER'S NOTES:

1. Minor changes have been made to correct typesetters errors and
omissions, and to regularize usage of hyphens and other punctuation.





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