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Title: Sophy of Kravonia - A Novel
Author: Hope, Anthony, 1863-1933
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 "Sophy of Kravonia - A Novel" ***

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                             SOPHY OF KRAVONIA

                                  A Novel

                              BY ANTHONY HOPE

    AUTHOR OF "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA," "THE INTRUSIONS OF PEGGY," ETC.

    NEW YORK AND LONDON
    HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS
    MCMVI

    Copyright, 1905, by ANTHONY HOPE HAWKINS.

    _All rights reserved._

    Published October, 1906.



    CONTENTS


    INTRODUCTION                                                     v


    PART I

    MORPINGHAM

        I. ENOCH GROUCH'S DAUGHTER                                   3

       II. THE COOK AND THE CATECHISM                               10

      III. BEAUTIFUL JULIA--AND MY LORD                             19

       IV. FATE'S WAY--OR LADY MEG'S                                29

        V. THE VISION OF "SOMETHING BRIGHT"                         40


    PART II

    PARIS

        I. PHAROS, MANTIS, AND CO.                                  45

       II. THE LORD OF YOUTH                                        55

      III. THE NOTE--AND NO REASONS                                 64

       IV. THE PICTURE AND THE STAR                                 72


    PART III

    KRAVONIA

        I. THE NAME-DAY OF THE KING                                 79

       II. AT THE GOLDEN LION                                       90

      III. THE VIRGIN WITH THE LAMP                                101

       IV. THE MESSAGE OF THE NIGHT                                110

        V. A QUESTION OF MEMORY                                    118

       VI. "IMPOSSIBLE" OR "IMMEDIATE"?                            129

      VII. THE BARONESS GOES TO COURT                              139

     VIII. MONSEIGNEUR'S UNIFORM                                   149

       IX. COUNTESS ELLENBURG PRAYS                                159

        X. THE SOUND OF A TRUMPET                                  169

       XI. M. ZERKOVITCH'S BEDROOM FIRE                            180

      XII. JOYFUL OF HEART                                         193

     XIII. A DELICATE DUTY                                         203

      XIV. HIS MAJESTY DIES--TO-MORROW!                            216

       XV. A JOB FOR CAPTAIN HERCULES                              225

      XVI. A FRENCHMAN AND A MATTRESS                              235

     XVII. INGENIOUS COLONEL STAFNITZ                              246

    XVIII. TO THE FAITHFUL CITY                                    258

      XIX. THE SILVER RING                                         267

       XX. THEY HAVE COLDS IN SLAVNA                               280

      XXI. ON SATURDAY AT MIKLEVNI!                                292

     XXII. JEALOUS OF DEATH                                        303

    XXIII. A WOMAN AND A GHOST                                     313

     XXIV. TRUE TO HER LOVE                                        325



INTRODUCTION


The following narrative falls naturally into three divisions,
corresponding to distinct and clearly marked periods of Sophy's life. Of
the first and second--her childhood at Morpingham and her sojourn in
Paris--the records are fragmentary, and tradition does little to
supplement them. As regards Morpingham, the loss is small. The annals of
a little maid-servant may be left in vagueness without much loss. Enough
remains to show both the manner of child Sophy was and how it fell out
that she spread her wings and left the Essex village far behind her. It
is a different affair when we come to the French period. The years spent
in and near Paris, in the care and under the roof of Lady Margaret
Duddington, were of crucial moment in Sophy's development. They changed
her from what she had been and made her what she was to be. Without
Paris, Kravonia, still extraordinary, would have been impossible.

Yet the surviving history of Paris and the life there is scanty. Only a
sketch is possible. A record existed--and a fairly full one--in the
Julia Robins correspondence; that we know from Miss Robins herself. But
the letters written from Paris by Sophy to her lifelong friend have,
with some few exceptions, perished. Miss Robins accounts for this--and
in view of her careful preservation of later correspondence, her apology
must be accepted--by the fact that during these years--from 1866 to
1870--she was constantly travelling from town to town and from lodging
to lodging, as a member of various theatrical companies; this nomadic
existence did not promote the careful and methodical storage of her
letters. It may, of course, be added that no such obvious interest
attached to these records as gathered round Sophy's doings after she had
exchanged Paris and the Rue de Grenelle for Slavna and the Castle of
Praslok.

When this migration has been effected, the historian is on much firmer
ground; he is even embarrassed sometimes by the abundance of material of
varying value. Apart from public records and general memory (both
carefully consulted on the spot), the two main sources flow from Sophy's
own hand. They are the Robins correspondence and the diary. Nearly to
the end the letters are very constant, very full, very instructive; but
they are composed with an obvious view to the tastes and interests of
their recipient, and by no means always devote most space to what now
seems of greatest interest. In one point, however, Miss Robins's tastes
prove of real service. This lady, who rose to a respectable, if not a
high, position as a Shakespearian actress, was much devoted to the study
of costume, and Sophy, aware of this hobby, never omits to tell her with
minute care what she herself wore on every occasion, what the other
ladies wore, and what were the uniforms, military or civil, in which the
men were arrayed. Trivial, perhaps, yet of great value in picturing the
scenes!

In her letters Sophy is also copious in depicting places, houses, and
landscapes--matters on which the diary is naturally not so full. So
that, in spite of their great faults, the letters form a valuable
supplement to the diary. Yet what faults--nay, what crimes! Sophy had
learned to talk French perfectly and to write it fairly well. She had
not learned to write English well or even decently; the letters are, in
fact, a charnel-house of murdered grammar and broken-backed sentences.
Still there emerge from it all a shrewdness and a rural vigor and
raciness which show that the child of the little Essex farm-house
survived in the writer.

But for this Kravonian period--the great period--the diary is the thing.
Yet it is one of the most unconscientious diaries ever written. It is
full of gaps; it is often posted up very unpunctually; it is sometimes
exasperatingly obscure--there may be some intention in that; she could
not tell into what hands it might fall. But it covers most of the
ground; it begins almost with Sophy's arrival in Slavna, and the last
entry records her discovery of Lord Dunstanbury's presence in Kravonia.
It is written for the most part in French, and she wrote French, as has
been said, decently--nay, even forcibly, though not with elegance; yet
she frequently relapses into English--often of a very colloquial order:
this happens mostly under the influence of anger or some other strong
emotion. And she is dramatic--that must be allowed to her. She
concentrates her attention on what she conceives (nor is her instinct
far out) to be her great scenes; she gives (or purports to give) a
verbatim report of critical conversations, and it is only just to say
that she allows her interlocutors fair play. She has candor--and that,
working with the dramatic sense in her, forbids her to warp the scene.
In the earlier parts of the story she shows keen appreciation of its
lighter aspects; as times grow graver, her records, too, change in mood,
working up to the tense excitement, the keen struggle, the burning
emotions of her last days in Kravonia. Yet even then she always finds
time for a laugh and a touch of gayety.

When Sophy herself ceases to be our guide, Lord Dunstanbury's notes
become the main authority. They are supplemented by the recollection of
Mr. Basil Williamson, now practising his profession of surgery in
Australia; and this narrative is also indebted to Colonel Markart,
sometime secretary to General Stenovics, for much important information
which, as emanating from the enemy's camp, was not accessible to Sophy
or her informants. The contributions of other actors in the drama, too
numerous to mention here, will be easily identified in their place in
the story.

A word seems desirable on one other subject, and no mean one; for it is
certain that Sophy's physical gifts were a powerful ally to her
ambition, her strong will, and her courage; it is certain, too, that she
did not shrink from making the most of this reinforcement to her powers.
All the authorities named above--not excepting Sophy herself--have
plenty to say on the topic, and from their descriptions a portrait of
her may be attempted. Of actual pictures one only exists--in the
possession of the present Lord Dunstanbury, who succeeded his
father--Sophy's Earl--a few years ago. It is a pastel, drawn just before
she left Paris--and, to be frank, it is something of a disappointment;
the taste of the 'sixties is betrayed in a simper which sits on the lips
but is alien to the character of them. Still the outline and the color
are there.

Her hair was very dark, long, and thick; her nose straight and fine, her
lips firm and a trifle full. Her complexion was ordinarily very pale,
and she did not flush save under considerable agitation of mind or
exertion of body. She was above the middle height, finely formed, and
slender. It was sometimes, indeed, objected that her shape was too
masculine--the shoulders a trifle too square and the hips too small for
a woman. These are, after all, matters of taste; she would not have been
thought amiss in ancient Athens. All witnesses agree in describing her
charm as lying largely in movement, in vivacity, in a sense of
suppressed force trying to break out, or (as Mr. Williamson puts it) of
"tremendous driving power."

The personality seems to stand out fairly distinct from these
descriptions, and we need the less regret that a second picture, known
to have been painted soon after her arrival in Kravonia, has perished
either through carelessness or (more probably) by deliberate
destruction; there were many in Kravonia not too anxious that even a
counterfeit presentment of the famous "Red Star" and its wearer should
survive. It would carry its memories and its reproach.

"The Red Star!" The name appears first in a letter of the Paris
period--one of the few which are in existence. Its invention is
attributed by Sophy to her friend the Marquis de Savres (of whom we
shall hear again). He himself used it often. But of the thing we hear
very early--and go on hearing from time to time. Sophy at first calls it
"my mark," but she speedily adopts Monsieur le Marquis's more poetical
term, and by that description it is known throughout her subsequent
career. The polite artist of the 'sixties shirked it altogether by
giving a half-profile view of his subject, thus not showing the left
cheek where the "star" was situated.

It was, in fact, a small birth-mark, placed just below the cheek-bone,
almost round, yet with a slightly indented outline. No doubt a lover
(and M. de Savres was one) found warrant enough for his phrase. At
ordinary times it was a very pale red in color, but (unlike the rest of
her face) it was very rapidly sensitive to any change of mood or temper;
in moments of excitement the shade deepened greatly, and (as Colonel
Markart says in his hyperbolic strain) "it glowed like angry Venus."
Without going quite that length, we are bound to allow that it was, at
these moments, a conspicuous and striking mark, and such it clearly
appeared to the eyes of all who saw it. "La dame à l'étoile rouge," says
the Marquis. "The Red-starred Witch," said the less courteous and more
hostile citizens and soldiers of Kravonia. Sophy herself appears proud
of it, though she feigns to consider it a blemish. Very probably it was
one of those peculiarities which become so closely associated and
identified with the personality to which they belong as at once to
heighten the love of friends and to attract an increased dislike or
hatred from those already disposed or committed to enmity. At any rate,
for good or evil, it is as "Red Star" that the name of Sophy lives
to-day in the cities and mountains of Kravonia.

So much in preface; now to the story. Little historical importance can
be claimed for it. But amateurs of the picturesque, if yet there be such
in this business-like world, may care to follow Sophy from Morpingham to
Paris, to share her flight from the doomed city, to be with her in the
Street of the Fountain, at venerable Praslok, on Volseni's crumbling
wall, by the banks of the swift-flowing Krath at dawn of day--to taste
something of the spirit that filled, to feel something of the love that
moved, the heart of Sophy Grouch of Morpingham, in the county of Essex.
Still, sometimes Romance beckons back her ancient votaries.



SOPHY OF KRAVONIA



PART I

MORPINGHAM



I

ENOCH GROUCH'S DAUGHTER


Grouch! That is the name--and in the interest of euphony it is
impossible not to regret the fact. Some say it should be spelled
"Groutch," which would not at all mend matters, though it makes the
pronunciation clear beyond doubt--the word must rhyme with "crouch" and
"couch." Well might Lady Meg Duddington swear it was the ugliest name
she had ever heard in her life! Sophy was not of a very different
opinion, as will be shown by-and-by. She was Grouch on both
sides--unmixed and unredeemed. For Enoch Grouch married his uncle's
daughter Sally, and begat, as his first child, Sophy. Two other children
were born to him, but they died in early infancy. Mrs. Grouch did not
long survive the death of her little ones; she was herself laid in
Morpingham church-yard when Sophy was no more than five years old. The
child was left to the sole care of her father, a man who had married
late for his class--indeed, late for any class--and was already well on
in middle age. He held a very small farm, lying about half a mile behind
the church. Probably he made a hard living of it, for the only servant
in his household was a slip of a girl of fifteen, who had, presumably,
both to cook and scrub for him and to look after the infant Sophy.
Nothing is remembered of him in Morpingham. Perhaps there was nothing to
remember--nothing that marked him off from thousands like him; perhaps
the story of his death, which lives in the village traditions, blotted
out the inconspicuous record of his laborious life.

Morpingham lies within twenty-five miles of London, but for all that it
is a sequestered and primitive village. It contained, at this time at
least, but three houses with pretensions to gentility--the Hall, the
Rectory, and a smaller house across the village street, facing the
Rectory. At the end of the street stood the Hall in its grounds. This
was a handsome, red-brick house, set in a spacious garden. Along one
side of the garden there ran a deep ditch, and on the other side of the
ditch, between it and a large meadow, was a path which led to the
church. Thus the church stood behind the Hall grounds; and again, as has
been said, beyond the church was Enoch Grouch's modest farm, held of Mr.
Brownlow, the owner of the Hall. The church path was the favorite resort
of the villagers, and deservedly, for it was shaded and beautified by a
fine double row of old elms, forming a stately avenue to the humble
little house of worship.

On an autumn evening in the year 1855 Enoch Grouch was returning from
the village, where he had been to buy tobacco. His little girl was with
him. It was wild weather. A gale had been blowing for full twenty-four
hours, and in the previous night a mighty bough had been snapped from
one of the great elms and had fallen with a crash. It lay now right
across the path. As they went to the village, her father had indulged
Sophy with a ride on the bough, and she begged a renewal of the treat on
their homeward journey. The farmer was a kind man--more kind than wise,
as it proved, on this occasion. He set the child astraddle on the thick
end of the bough, then went to the other end, which was much slenderer.
Probably his object was to try to shake the bough and please his small
tyrant with the imitation of a see-saw. The fallen bough suggested no
danger to his slow-moving mind. He leaned down towards the bough with
out-stretched hands--Sophy, no doubt, watching his doings with excited
interest--while the wind raged and revelled among the great branches
over their heads. Enoch tried to move the bough, but failed; in order to
make another effort, he fell on his knees and bent his back over it.

At this moment there came a loud crash--heard in the Rectory grounds and
in the dining-room at Woodbine Cottage, the small house opposite.

"There's another tree gone!" cried Basil Williamson, the Rector's second
son, who was giving his retriever an evening run.

He raced through the Rectory gate, across the road, and into the avenue.

A second later the garden gate of Woodbine Cottage opened, and Julia,
the ten-years-old daughter of a widow named Robins who lived there, came
out at full speed. Seeing Basil just ahead of her, she called out: "Did
you hear?"

He knew her voice--they were playmates--and answered without looking
back: "Yes. Isn't it fun? Keep outside the trees--keep well in the
meadow!"

"Stuff!" she shouted, laughing. "They don't fall every minute, silly!"

Running as they exchanged these words, they soon came to where the
bough--or, rather, the two boughs--had fallen. A tragic sight met their
eyes. The second bough had caught the unlucky farmer just on the nape of
his neck, and had driven him down, face forward, onto the first. He lay
with his neck close pinned between the two, and his arms spread out over
the undermost. His face was bad to look at; he was quite dead, and
apparently death must have been instantaneous. Sobered and appalled, the
boy and girl stood looking from the terrible sight to each other's
faces.

"Is he dead?" Julia whispered.

"I expect so," the boy answered. Neither of them had seen death before.

The next moment he raised his voice and shouted: "Help, help!" then laid
hold of the upper bough and strove with all his might to raise it. The
girl gave a shriller cry for assistance and then lent a hand to his
efforts. But between them they could not move the great log.

Up to now neither of them had perceived Sophy.

Next on the scene was Mr. Brownlow, the master of the Hall. He had been
in his greenhouse and heard the crash of the bough. Of that he took no
heed--nothing could be done save heave a sigh over the damage to his
cherished elms. But when the cries for help reached his ears, with
praiseworthy promptitude he rushed out straight across his lawn, and
(though he was elderly and stout) dropped into the ditch, clambered out
of it, and came where the dead man and the children were. As he passed
the drawing-room windows, he called out to his wife: "Somebody's hurt,
I'm afraid"; and she, after a moment's conference with the butler,
followed her husband, but, not being able to manage the ditch, went
round by the road and up the avenue, the servant coming with her. When
these two arrived, the Squire's help had availed to release the farmer
from the deadly grip of the two boughs, and he lay now on his back on
the path.

"He's dead, poor fellow," said Mr. Brownlow.

"It's Enoch Grouch!" said the butler, giving a shudder as he looked at
the farmer's face. Julia Robins sobbed, and the boy Basil looked up at
the Squire's face with grave eyes.

"I'll get a hurdle, sir," said the butler. His master nodded, and he ran
off.

Something moved on the path--about a yard from the thick end of the
lower bough.

"Look there!" cried Julia Robins. A little wail followed. With an
exclamation, Mrs. Brownlow darted to the spot. The child lay there with
a cut on her forehead. Apparently the impact of the second bough had
caused the end of the first to fly upward; Sophy had been jerked from
her seat into the air, and had fallen back on the path, striking her
head on a stone. Mrs. Brownlow picked her up, wiped the blood from her
brow, and saw that the injury was slight. Sophy began to cry softly, and
Mrs. Brownlow soothed her.

"It's his little girl," said Julia Robins. "The little girl with the
mark on her cheek, please, Mrs. Brownlow."

"Poor little thing! Poor little thing!" Mrs. Brownlow murmured; she knew
that death had robbed the child of her only relative and protector.

The butler now came back with a hurdle and two men, and Enoch Grouch's
body was taken into the saddle-room at the Hall. Mrs. Brownlow followed
the procession, Sophy still in her arms. At the end of the avenue she
spoke to the boy and girl:

"Go home, Basil; tell your father, and ask him to come to the Hall.
Good-night, Julia. Tell your mother--and don't cry any more. The poor
man is with God, and I sha'n't let this mite come to harm." She was a
childless woman, with a motherly heart, and as she spoke she kissed
Sophy's wounded forehead. Then she went into the Hall grounds, and the
boy and girl were left together in the road. Basil shook his fist at the
avenue of elms--his favorite playground.

"Hang those beastly trees!" he cried. "I'd cut them all down if I was
Mr. Brownlow."

"I must go and tell mother," said Julia. "And you'd better go, too."

"Yes," he assented, but lingered for a moment, still looking at the
trees as though reluctantly fascinated by them.

"Mother always said something would happen to that little girl," said
Julia, with a grave and important look in her eyes.

"Why?" the boy asked, brusquely.

"Because of that mark--that mark she's got on her cheek."

"What rot!" he said, but he looked at his companion uneasily. The event
of the evening had stirred the superstitious fears seldom hard to stir
in children.

"People don't have those marks for nothing--so mother says." Other
people, no wiser, said the same thing later.

"Rot!" Basil muttered again. "Oh, well, I must go."

She glanced at him timidly. "Just come as far as our door with me. I'm
afraid."

"Afraid!" He smiled scornfully. "All right!"

He walked with her to the door of Woodbine Cottage, and waited till it
closed behind her, performing the escort with a bold and lordly air.
Left alone in the fast-darkening night, with nobody in sight, with no
sound save the ceaseless voice of the angry wind essaying new mischief
in the tops of the elm-trees, he stood for a moment listening fearfully.
Then he laid his sturdy legs to the ground and fled for home, looking
neither to right nor left till he reached the hospitable light of his
father's study. The lad had been brave in face of the visible horror;
fear struck him in the moment of Julia's talk about the mark on the
child's cheek. Scornful and furious at himself, yet he was mysteriously
afraid.



II

THE COOK AND THE CATECHISM


Sophy Grouch had gone to lay a bunch of flowers on her father's grave.
From the first Mrs. Brownlow had taught her this pious rite, and Mrs.
Brownlow's deputy, the gardener's wife (in whose cottage Sophy lived),
had seen to its punctual performance every week. Things went by law and
rule at the Hall, for the Squire was a man of active mind and ample
leisure. His household code was a marvel of intricacy and minuteness.
Sophy's coming and staying had developed a multitude of new clauses,
under whose benevolent yet strict operation her youthful mind had been
trained in the way in which Mr. Brownlow was of opinion that it should
go.

Sophy's face, then, wore a grave and responsible air as she returned
with steps of decorous slowness from the sacred precincts. Yet the outer
manner was automatic--the result of seven years' practice. Within, her
mind was busy: the day was one of mark in her life; she had been told
her destined future, and was wondering how she would like it.

Her approach was perceived by a tall and pretty girl who lay in the
meadow-grass (and munched a blade of it) which bordered the path under
the elm-trees.

"What a demure little witch she looks!" laughed Julia Robins, who was
much in the mood for laughter that day, greeting with responsive gleam
of the eyes the sunlight which fell in speckles of radiance through the
leaves above. It was a summer day, and summer was in her heart, too; yet
not for the common cause with young maidens; it was no nonsense about
love-making--lofty ambition was in the case to-day.

"Sophy Grouch! Sophy Grouch!" she cried, in a high, merry voice.

Sophy raised her eyes, but her steps did not quicken. With the same
measured paces of her lanky, lean, little legs, she came up to where
Julia lay.

"Why don't you say just 'Sophy'?" she asked. "I'm the only Sophy in the
village."

"Sophy Grouch! Sophy Grouch!" Julia repeated, teasingly.

The mark on Sophy's left cheek grew redder. Julia laughed mockingly.
Sophy looked down on her, still very grave.

"You do look pretty to-day," she observed--"and happy."

"Yes, yes! So I tease you, don't I? But I like to see you hang out your
danger-signal."

She held out her arms to the little girl. Sophy came and kissed her,
then sat down beside her.

"Forgive?"

"Yes," said Sophy. "Do you think it's a very awful name?"

"Oh, you'll change it some day," smiled Julia, speaking more truth than
she knew. "Listen! Mother's consented, consented, consented! I'm to go
and live with Uncle Edward in London--London, Sophy!--and learn
elocution--"

"Learn what?"

"E-lo-cu-tion--which means how to talk so that people can hear you ever
so far off--"

"To shout?"

"No. Don't be stupid. To--to be heard plainly without shouting. To be
heard in a theatre! Did you ever see a theatre?"

"No. Only a circus. I haven't seen much."

"And then--the stage! I'm to be an actress! Fancy mother consenting at
last! An actress instead of a governess! Isn't it glorious?" She paused
a moment, then added, with a self-conscious laugh: "Basil's awfully
angry, though."

"Why should he be angry?" asked Sophy. Her own anger was gone; she was
plucking daisies and sticking them here and there in her friend's golden
hair. They were great friends, this pair, and Sophy was very proud of
the friendship. Julia was grown up, the beauty of the village, and--a
lady! Now Sophy was by no means any one of these things.

"Oh, you wouldn't understand," laughed Julia, with a blush.

"Does he want to keep company with you--and won't you do it?"

"Only servants keep company, Sophy."

"Oh!" said Sophy, obviously making a mental note of the information.

"But he's very silly about it. I've just said 'Good-bye,' to him--you
know he goes up to Cambridge to-morrow?--and he did say a lot of silly
things." She suddenly caught hold of Sophy and kissed her half a dozen
times. "It's a wonderful thing that's happened. I'm so tremendously
happy!" She set her little friend free with a last kiss and a playful
pinch.

Neither caress nor pinch disturbed Sophy's composure. She sat down on
the grass.

"Something's happened to me, too, to-day," she announced.

"Has it, Tots? What is it?" asked Julia, smiling indulgently; the great
events in other lives are thus sufficiently acknowledged.

"I've left school, and I'm going to leave Mrs. James's and go and live
at the Hall, and be taught to help cook; and when I'm grown up I'm going
to be cook." She spoke slowly and weightily, her eyes fixed on Julia's
face.

"Well, I call it a shame!" cried Julia, in generous indignation. "Oh, of
course it would be all right if they'd treated you properly--I mean, as
if they'd meant that from the beginning. But they haven't. You've lived
with Mrs. James, I know; but you've been in and out of the Hall all the
time, having tea in the drawing-room, and fruit at dessert, and--and so
on. And you look like a little lady, and talk like one--almost. I think
it's a shame not to give you a better chance. Cook!"

"Don't you think it might be rather nice to be a cook--a good cook?"

"No, I don't," answered the budding Mrs. Siddons, decisively.

"People always talk a great deal about the cook," pleaded Sophy. "Mr.
and Mrs. Brownlow are always talking about the cook--and the Rector
talks about his cook, too--not always very kindly, though."

"No, it's a shame--and I don't believe it'll happen."

"Yes, it will. Mrs. Brownlow settled it to-day."

"There are other people in the world besides Mrs. Brownlow."

Sophy was not exactly surprised at this dictum, but evidently it gave
her thought. Her long-delayed "Yes" showed that as plainly as her "Oh"
had, a little while before, marked her appreciation of the social
limits of "keeping company." "But she can settle it all the same," she
persisted.

"For the time she can," Julia admitted. "Oh, I wonder what'll be my
first part, Tots!" She threw her pretty head back on the grass, closing
her eyes; a smile of radiant anticipation hovered about her lips. The
little girl rose and stood looking at her friend--the friend of whom she
was so proud.

"You'll look very, very pretty," she said, with sober gravity.

Julia's smile broadened, but her lips remained shut. Sophy looked at her
for a moment longer, and, without formal farewell, resumed her progress
down the avenue. It was hard on tea-time, and Mrs. James was a stickler
for punctuality.

Yet Sophy's march was interrupted once more. A tall young man sat
swinging his legs on the gate that led from the avenue into the road.
The sturdy boy who had run home in terror on the night Enoch Grouch died
had grown into a tall, good-looking young fellow; he was clad in what is
nowadays called a "blazer" and check-trousers, and smoked a large
meerschaum pipe. His expression was gloomy; the gate was shut--and he
was on the top of it. Sophy approached him with some signs of
nervousness. When he saw her, he glared at her moodily.

"You can't come through," he said, firmly.

"Please, Mr. Basil, I must, I shall be late for tea."

"I won't let you through. There!"

Sophy looked despairful. "May I climb over?"

"No," said Basil, firmly; but a smile began to twitch about his lips.

Quick now, as ever, to see the joint in a man's armor, Sophy smiled too.

"If you'd let me through, I'd give you a kiss," she said, offering the
only thing she had to give in all the world.

"You would, would you? But I hate kisses. In fact, I hate girls all
round--big and little."

"You don't hate Julia, do you?"

"Yes, worst of all."

"Oh!" said Sophy--once more the recording, registering "Oh!"--because
Julia had given quite another impression, and Sophy sought to reconcile
these opposites.

The young man jumped down from the gate, with a healthy laugh at himself
and at her, caught her up in his arms, and gave her a smacking kiss.

"That's toll," he said. "Now you can go through, missy."

"Thank you, Mr. Basil. It's not very hard to get through, is it?"

He set her down with a laugh, a laugh with a note of surprise in it; her
last words had sounded odd from a child. But Sophy's eyes were quite
grave; she was probably recording the practical value of a kiss.

"You shall tell me whether you think the same about that in a few years'
time," he said, laughing again.

"When I'm grown up?" she asked, with a slow, puzzled smile.

"Perhaps," said he, assuming gravity anew.

"And cook?" she asked, with a curiously interrogative air--anxious
apparently to see what he, in his turn, would think of her destiny.

"Cook? You're going to be a cook?"

"The cook," she amended. "The cook at the Hall."

"I'll come and eat your dinners." He laughed, yet looked a trifle
compassionate. Sophy's quick eyes tracked his feelings.

"You don't think it's nice to be a cook, either?" she asked.

"Oh yes, splendid! The cook's a sort of queen," said he.

"The cook a sort of queen? Is she?" Sophy's eyes were profoundly
thoughtful.

"And I should be very proud to kiss a queen--a sort of queen. Because I
shall be only a poor sawbones."

"Sawbones?"

"A surgeon--a doctor, you know--with a red lamp, like Dr. Seaton at
Brentwood."

She looked at him for a moment. "Are you really going away?" she asked,
abruptly.

"Yes, for a bit--to-morrow."

Sophy's manner expanded into a calm graciousness. "I'm very sorry," she
said.

"Thank you."

"You amuse me."

"The deuce I do!" laughed Basil Williamson.

She raised her eyes slowly to his. "You'll be friends, anyhow, won't
you?"

"To cook or queen," he said--and heartiness shone through his raillery.

Sophy nodded her head gravely, sealing the bargain. A bargain it was.

"Now I must go and have tea, and then say my catechism," said she.

The young fellow--his thoughts were sad--wanted the child to linger.

"Learning your catechism? Where have you got to?"

"I've got to say my 'Duty towards my Neighbor' to Mrs. James after tea."

"Your 'Duty towards your Neighbor'--that's rather difficult, isn't it?"

"It's very long," said Sophy, resignedly.

"Do you know it?"

"I think so. Oh, Mr. Basil, would you mind hearing me? Because if I can
say it to you, I can say it to her, you know."

"All right, fire away."

A sudden doubt smote Sophy. "But do you know it yourself?" she asked.

"Yes, rather, I know it."

She would not take his word. "Then you say the first half, and I'll say
the second."

He humored her--it was hard not to--she looked so small and seemed so
capable. He began--and tripped for a moment over "'To love, honor, and
succor my father and mother.'" The child had no chance there. But
Sophy's eyes were calm. He ended, "'teachers, spiritual pastors, and
masters.' Now go on," he said.

"'To order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters; to hurt nobody
by word nor deed; to be true and just in all my dealing; to bear no
malice nor hatred in my heart; to keep my hands from picking and
stealing, and my tongue from evil-speaking, lying, and slandering; to
keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity [the young man
smiled for an instant--that sounded pathetic]; not to covet nor desire
other men's goods, but to learn and labor truly to get mine own living
and to do my duty in that state of life unto which it has pleased God to
call me.'"

"Wrong!" said Basil. "Go down two!"

"Wrong?" she cried, indignantly disbelieving.

"Wrong!"

"It's not! That's what Mrs. James taught me."

"Perhaps--it's not in the prayer-book. Go and look."

"You tell me first!"

"'And to do my duty in that state of life unto which it shall please God
to call me.'" His eyes were set on her with an amused interest.

She stood silent for a moment. "Sure?" she asked then.

"Positive," said he.

"Oh!" said Sophy, for the third time. She stood there a moment longer.
Then she smiled at him. "I shall go and look. Good-bye."

Basil broke into a laugh. "Good-bye, missy," he said. "You'll find I'm
right."

"If I do, I'll tell you," she answered him, generously, as she turned
away.

His smile lasted while he watched her. When she was gone his grievance
revived, his gloom returned. He trudged home with never a glance back at
the avenue where Julia was. Yet even now the thought of the child
crossed his mind; that funny mark of hers had turned redder when he
corrected her rendering of the catechism.

Sophy walked into Mrs. James's kitchen. "Please may I read through my
'Duty' before I say it?" she asked.

Permission accorded with some surprise--for hitherto the teaching had
been by word of mouth--she got the prayer-book down from its shelf and
conned her lesson. After tea she repeated it correctly. Mrs. James
noticed no difference.



III

BEAUTIFUL JULIA--AND MY LORD


"It seemed somehow impossible, me going to be cook there all my days."
So writes Sophy at a later date in regard to her life at Morpingham
Hall. To many of us in our youth it has seemed impossible that we should
pass all our days in the humdrum occupations and the mediocre positions
in which we have in fact spent them. Young ambitions are chronicled only
when they have been fulfilled--unless where a born autobiographer makes
fame out of his failures. But Sophy had a double portion of original
restlessness--this much the records of Morpingham years, scanty as they
are, render plain. Circumstances made much play with her, but she was
never merely the sport of chance or of circumstances. She was always
waiting, even always expecting, ready to take her chance, with arm
out-stretched to seize Occasion by the forelock. She co-operated eagerly
with Fate and made herself a partner with Opportunity, and she was quick
to blame the other members of the firm for any lack of activity or
forwardness. "You can't catch the train unless you're at the
station--and take care your watch isn't slow," she writes somewhere in
the diary. The moral of the reflection is as obvious as its form; it is
obvious, too, that a traveller so scrupulous to be in time would suffer
proportionate annoyance if the train were late.

The immediate result of this disposition of hers was unhappy, and it is
not hard to sympathize with the feelings of the Brownlows. Their
benevolence was ample, but it was not unconscious; their benefits, which
were very great, appeared to them exhaustive, not only above what Sophy
might expect, but also beyond what she could imagine. They had picked
her up from the road-side and set her on the way to that sort of kingdom
with the prospect of which Basil Williamson had tried to console her.
The Squire was an estimable man, but one of small mind; he moved among
the little--the contented lord of a pin-point of the earth. Mrs.
Brownlow was a profoundly pious woman, to whom content was a high duty,
to be won by the performance of other duties. If the Squire detected in
the girl signs of ingratitude to himself, his wife laid equal blame on a
rebellion against Heaven. Sophy knew--if not then, yet on looking
back--what they felt; her references to them are charged with a remorse
whose playful expression (obstinately touched with scorn as it is) does
not hide its sincerity. She soon perceived, anyhow, that she was getting
a bad character; she, the cook _in posse_, was at open war with Mrs.
Smilker, the cook _in esse_; though, to be sure, "Smilker" might have
done something to reconcile her to "Grouch!"

Mrs. Brownlow naturally ranged herself on the side of constituted
authority, of the superior rank in the domestic hierarchy. Moreover, it
is likely that Mrs. Smilker was right in nine cases out of ten, at all
events; Sophy recognized that probability in after-life; none the less,
she allows herself more than once to speak of "that beast of a Smilker."
Mere rectitude as such never appealed to her; that comes out in another
rather instructive comment, which she makes on Mrs. Brownlow herself,
"Me being what I was, and she what she was, though I was grateful to
her, and always shall be, I couldn't love her; and what hit me hardest
was that she didn't wonder at it, and, in my opinion, wasn't very sorry
either--not in her heart, you know. Me not loving her made what she was
doing for me all the finer, you see."

Perhaps these flashes of insight should not be turned on our
benefactors, but the extract serves to show another side of Sophy--one
which in fairness to her must not be ignored. Not only was restlessness
unsatisfied, and young ambitions starved; the emotions were not fed
either, or at least were presented with a diet too homely for Sophy's
taste. For the greater part of this time she had no friends outside the
Hall to turn to. Julia Robins was pursuing her training in London, and,
later, her profession in the country. Basil Williamson, who "amused"
her, was at Cambridge, and afterwards at his hospital; a glimpse of him
she may have caught now and then, but they had no further talk. Very
probably he sought no opportunity; Sophy had passed from the infants'
school to the scullery; she had grown from a child into a big girl. If
prudent Basil kept these transformations in view, none can blame him--he
was the son of the Rector of the parish. So, when bidden to the Hall, he
ate the potatoes Sophy had peeled, but recked no more of the hand that
peeled them. In the main the child was, no doubt, a solitary creature.

So much is what scientific men and historians call "reconstruction"--a
hazardous process--at least when you are dealing with human beings. It
has been kept within the strict limits of legitimate inference, and
accordingly yields meagre results. The return of Julia Robins enables us
to put many more of the stones--or bones, or whatever they may be
called--in their appropriate places.

It is the summer of 1865--and Julia is very gorgeous. Three years had
passed over her head; her training had been completed a twelvemonth
before, and she had been on her first tour. She had come home "to
rest"--and to look out for a new engagement. She wore a blue hat with a
white feather, a blue skirt, and a red "Garibaldi" shirt; her fair hair
was dressed in the latest fashion. The sensation she made in Morpingham
needs no record. But her head was not turned; nobody was ever less of a
snob than Julia Robins, no friendship ever more independent of the ups
and downs of life, on one side or the other, than that which united her
and Sophy Grouch. She opened communications with the Hall scullery
immediately. And--"Sophy was as much of a darling as ever"--is her
warm-hearted verdict.

The Hall was not accessible to Julia, nor Woodbine Lodge to Mrs.
Brownlow's little cook-girl. But the Squire's coachman had been at the
station when Julia's train came in: her arrival would be known in the
Hall kitchen, if not up-stairs. On the morrow she went into the avenue
of old elms about twelve o'clock, conjecturing that her friend might
have a few free moments about that hour--an oasis between the labors of
the morning and the claims of luncheon. Standing there under the trees
in all her finery--not very expensive finery, no doubt, yet fresh and
indisputably gay--she called her old mocking challenge--"Sophy Grouch!
Sophy Grouch!"

Sophy was watching. Her head rose from the other side of the ditch. She
was down in a moment, up again, and in her friend's arms. "It's like a
puff of fresh air," she whispered, as she kissed her, and then, drawing
away, looked her over. Sophy was tall beyond her years, and her head was
nearly on a level with Julia's. She was in her short print gown, with
her kitchen apron on; her sleeves rolled up, her face red from the fire,
her hands too, no doubt, red from washing vegetables and dishes. "She
looked like Cinderella in the first act of a pantomime," is Miss
Robins's professional comment--colored, perhaps, also by subsequent
events.

"You're beautiful!" cried Sophy. "Oh, that shirt--I love red!" And so on
for some time, no doubt. "Tell me about it; tell me everything about
it," she urged. "It's the next best thing, you know."

Miss Robins recounted her adventures: they would not seem very dazzling
at this distance. Sophy heard them with ardent eyes; they availed to
color the mark on her cheek to a rosy tint. "That's being alive," she
said, with a deep-drawn sigh.

Julia patted her hand consolingly. "But I'm twenty!" she reminded her
friend. "Think how young you are!"

"Young or old's much the same in the kitchen," Sophy grumbled.

Linking arms, they walked up the avenue. The Rector was approaching from
the church. Sophy tried to draw her arm away. Julia held it tight. The
Rector came up, lifted his hat--and, maybe, his brows. But he stopped
and said a few pleasant words to Julia. He had never pretended to
approve of this stage career, but Julia had now passed beyond his
jurisdiction. He was courteous to her as to any lady. Official position
betrayed itself only as he was taking leave--and only in regard to Sophy
Grouch.

"Ah, you keep up old friendships," he said--with a rather forced
approval. "Please don't unsettle the little one's mind, though. She has
to work--haven't you, Sophy? Good-bye, Miss Robins."

Sophy's mark was ruddy indeed as the Rector went on his blameless way,
and Julia was squeezing her friend's arm very hard. But Sophy said
nothing, except to murmur--just once--"The little one!" Julia smiled at
the tone.

They turned and walked back towards the road. Now silence reigned; Julia
was understanding, pitying, wondering whether a little reasonable
remonstrance would be accepted by her fiery and very unreasonable little
friend; scullery-maids must not arraign social institutions nor quarrel
with the way of the world. But she decided to say nothing--the mark
still glowed. It was to glow more before that day was out.

They came near to the gates. Julia felt a sudden pressure on her arm.

"Look!" whispered Sophy, her eyes lighting up again in interest.

A young man rode up the approach to the Hall lodge. His mare was a
beauty; he sat her well. He was perfectly dressed for the exercise. His
features were clear-cut and handsome. There was as fine an air of
breeding about him as about the splendid Newfoundland dog which ran
behind him.

Julia looked as she was bidden. "He's handsome," she said. "Why--" she
laughed low--"I believe I know who it is--I think I've seen him
somewhere."

"Have you?" Sophy's question was breathless.

"Yes, I know! When we were at York! He was one of the officers there; he
was in a box. Sophy, it's the Earl of Dunstanbury!"

Sophy did not speak. She looked. The young man--he could be hardly more
than twenty--came on. Sophy suddenly hid behind her friend ("To save my
pride, not her own," generous Julia explains--Sophy herself advances no
such excuse), but she could see. She saw the rider's eye rest on Julia;
did it rest in recognition? It almost seemed so; yet there was doubt.
Julia blushed, but she forbore from smiling or from seeking to rouse his
memory. Yet she was proud if he remembered her face from across the
footlights. The young man, too--being but a young man--blushed a little
as he gave the pretty girl by the gate such a glance as discreetly told
her that he was of the same mind as herself about her looks. These
silent interchanges of opinion on such matters are pleasant diversions
as one plods the highway.

He was gone. Julia sighed in satisfied vanity. Sophy awoke to stern
realities.

"Gracious!" she cried. "He must have come to lunch! They'll want a
salad! You'll be here to-morrow--do!" And she was off, up the drive, and
round to her own regions at the back of the house.

"I believe his Lordship did remember my face," thought Julia as she
wandered back to Woodbine Cottage.

But Sophy washed lettuces in her scullery--which, save for its base
purposes, was a pleasant, airy apartment, looking out on a path that ran
between yew hedges and led round from the lawn to the offices of the
house. Diligently she washed, as Mrs. Smilker had taught her (whether
rightly or not is nothing to the purpose here), but how many miles away
was her mind? So far away from lettuces that it seemed in no way strange
to look up and see Lord Dunstanbury and his dog on the path outside the
window at which she had been performing her task. He began hastily:

"Oh, I say, I've been seeing my mare get her feed, and--er--do you think
you could be so good as to find a bone and some water for Lorenzo?"

"Lorenzo?" she said.

"My dog, you know." He pointed to the handsome beast, which wagged an
expectant tail.

"Why do you call him that?"

Dunstanbury smiled. "Because he's magnificent. I dare say you never
heard of Lorenzo the Magnificent?"

"No. Who was he?"

"A Duke--Duke of Florence--in Italy." He had begun to watch her face,
and seemed not impatient for the bone.

"Florence? Italy?" The lettuce dropped from her hands; she wiped her
hands slowly on her apron.

"Do you think you could get me one?"

"Yes, I'll get it."

She went to the back of the room and chose a bone.

"Will this do?" she asked, holding it out through the window.

"Too much meat."

"Oh!" She went and got another. "This one all right?"

"Capital! Do you mind if I stay and see him eat it?"

"No."

"Here, Lorenzo! And thank the lady!"

Lorenzo directed three sharp barks at Sophy and fell to. Sophy filled
and brought out a bowl of water. Lord Dunstanbury had lighted a cigar.
But he was watching Sophy. A new light broke on him suddenly.

"I say, were you the other girl behind the gate?"

"I didn't mean you to see me."

"I only caught a glimpse of you. I remember your friend, though."

"She remembered you, too."

"I don't know her name, though."

"Julia Robins."

"Ah, yes--is it? He's about polished off that bone, hasn't he? Is
she--er--a great friend of yours?"

His manner was perhaps a little at fault; the slightest note of chaff
had crept into it; and the slightest was enough to put Sophy's quills
up.

"Why not?" she asked.

"Why not? Every reason why she should be," he answered with his lips.
His eyes answered more, but he refrained his tongue. He was scrupulously
a gentleman--more so perhaps than, had sexes and places been reversed,
Sophy herself would have been. But his eyes told her. "Only," he went
on, "if so, why did you hide?"

That bit of chaff did not anger Sophy. But it went home to a different
purpose--far deeper, far truer home than the young man had meant. Not
the mark only reddened--even the cheeks flushed. She said no word. With
a fling-out of her arms--a gesture strangely, prophetically foreign as
it seemed to him in after-days--she exhibited herself--the print frock,
the soiled apron, the bare arms, red hands, the ugly knot of her hair,
the scrap of cap she wore. For a moment her lips quivered, while the
mark--the Red Star of future days and future fame--grew redder still.

The only sound was of Lorenzo's worrying the last tough scrap of bone.
The lad, gentleman as he was, was good flesh and blood, too--and the
blood was moving. He felt a little tightness in his throat; he was new
to it. New, too, was Sophy Grouch to what his eyes said to her, but she
took it with head erect and a glance steadily levelled at his.

"Yes," he said. "But I shouldn't have looked at any of that--and I
shouldn't have looked at her either."

Brightly the mark glowed; subtly the eyes glowed. There was silence
again.

Almost a start marked Dunstanbury's awakening. "Come, Lorenzo!" he
cried; he raised his hat and turned away, followed by his dog, Lorenzo
the Magnificent.

Sophy took up her lettuces and carried them into the kitchen.

"There you are, at last! And what's put you in a temper now?" asked Mrs.
Smilker. She had learned the signs of the mark.

Sophy smiled. "It's not temper this time, Mrs. Smilker. I--I'm very
happy to-day," she said. "Oh, I do hope the salad will be good!"

For he who was to eat of the salad--had he not forgotten print frock and
soiled apron, bare arms, red hands, ugly knot, and execrable cap? He
would not have looked at them--no, nor at beautiful many-tinted Julia
Robins in her pride! He had forgotten all these to look at the stained
cheek and the eyes of subtle glow. She had glanced in the mirror of love
and sipped from the cup of power.

Such was her first meeting with Lord Dunstanbury. If it were ever
forgotten, it was not Dunstanbury who forgot.

The day had wrought much in her eyes; it had wrought more than she
dreamed of. Her foot was near the ladder now, though she could not yet
see the lowest rung.



IV

FATE'S WAY--OR LADY MEG'S


The scene is at Hazleby, Lord Dunstanbury's Essex seat. His lordship is
striking the top off his breakfast egg.

"I say, Cousin Meg, old Brownlow's got a deuced pretty kitchen-maid."

"There you go! There you go! Just like your father, and your
grandfather, and all of them! If the English people had any spirit,
they'd have swept the Dunstanburys and all the wicked Whig gang into the
sea long ago."

"Before you could turn round they'd have bought it up, enclosed it, and
won an election by opening it to ships at a small fee on Sundays," said
Mr. Pindar.

"Why are Whigs worse than Tories?" inquired Mr. Pikes, with an air of
patient inquiry.

"The will of Heaven, I suppose," sniffed Lady Margaret Duddington.

"To display Divine Omnipotence in that line," suggested Mr. Pindar.

"A deuced pretty girl!" said Dunstanbury, in reflective tones. He was
doing his best to reproduce the impression he had received at Morpingham
Hall, but obviously with no great success.

"On some pretext, frivolous though it be, let us drive over and see this
miracle," Pindar suggested.

"How could we better employ this last day of our visit? You'll drive us
over, Percival?"

"No, thank you, Mr. Pindar," said the young man, resolute in wisdom.
"I'll send you over, if you like."

"I'll come with you," said Pikes. "But how account for ourselves? Old
Brownlow is unknown to us."

"If Percival had been going, I'd have had nothing to do with it, but I
don't mind taking you two old sillies," said Lady Margaret. "I wanted to
pay a call on Elizabeth Brownlow anyhow. We were at school together
once. But I won't guarantee you a sight of the kitchen-maid."

"It's a pretty drive--for this part of the country," observed
Dunstanbury.

"It may well become your favorite road," smiled Mr. Pindar,
benevolently.

"And since Lady Meg goes with us, it's already ours," added Mr. Pikes,
gallantly.

So they used to go on--for hours at a time, as Dunstanbury has
declared--both at Hazleby when they were there, and at Lady Meg's house
in Berkeley Square, where they almost always were. They were pleased to
consider themselves politicians--Pikes a Whig, twenty years behind date,
Pindar a Tory, two hundred. It was all an affectation--assumed for the
purpose, but with the very doubtful result of amusing Lady Meg. To
Dunstanbury the two old waifs--for waifs of the sea of society they
were, for all that each had a sufficient income to his name and a
reputable life behind him--were sheerly tiresome--and there seems little
ground to differ from his opinion. But they were old family friends, and
he endured with his usual graciousness.

Their patroness--they would hardly have gibed at the word--was a more
notable person. Lady Meg--the world generally, and Sophy always, spoke
of her by that style, and we may take the same liberty--was only child
of the great Earl of Dunstanbury. The title and estates passed to his
grandnephew, but half a million or so of money came to her. She took the
money, but vowed, with an outspoken thankfulness, that from the
Dunstanbury family she had taken nothing else. If the boast were true,
there must have been a powerful strain of eccentricity and perversity
derived from elsewhere. All the Dunstanbury blood was Whig; Lady Meg
counted the country ruined in 1688. Even Dunstanbury had been a man of
sensibility; Lady Meg declared war on emotion--especially on the
greatest of all emotions. The Dunstanbury attitude in thought had always
been free, even tending to the materialistic; Lady Meg would believe in
anything--so long as she couldn't see it. A queer woman, choosing to go
to war with the world and infinitely enjoying the gratuitous conflict
which she had herself provoked! With half a million pounds and the
Duddington blood one can afford these recondite luxuries--and to have a
Pindar and a Pikes before whom to exhibit their rare flavor. She was
aggressive, capricious, hard to live with. Fancies instead of purposes,
whims instead of interests, and not, as it seems, much affection for
anybody--she makes rather a melancholy picture; but in her time she made
a bit of a figure, too.

The air of the household was stormy that day at Morpingham--an incentive
to the expedition, not a deterrent, for Lady Meg, had she known it.
Sophy was in sore disgrace--accused, tried, and convicted of
insubordination and unseemly demeanor towards Mrs. Smilker. The truth
seems to be that this good woman (Rest her soul! She has a neat
tombstone in Morpingham church-yard) loved--like many another good
creature--good ale sometimes a trifle too well; and the orders she gave
when ale had been plentiful did not always consort with her less-mellow
injunctions. In no vulgar directness, but with a sarcasm which Mrs.
Smilker felt without understanding, Sophy would point out these
inconsistencies. Angered and humiliated, fearful too, perhaps, that her
subordinate would let the secret out, Mrs. Smilker made haste to have
the first word with the powers; and against the word of the cook the
word of the cook-maid weighed as naught. After smaller troubles of this
origin there had come a sort of crisis to-day. The longest of long
lectures had been read to Sophy by mistress and repeated (slightly
condensed) by master; then she was sent away to think it over; an abject
apology to outraged Mrs. Smilker must be forthcoming, or banishment was
the decree. Informed of this ultimatum, Sophy went out and hung about
the avenue, hoping for Julia to appear. Soon Julia came and heard the
story. She had indignation in readiness, and--what was more to the
purpose--a plan. Soon Sophy's eyes grew bright.

Into this storm-tossed house came Lady Meg and her spaniels. This unkind
name, derived at first from the size and shape of Mr. Pindar's ears
(they were large, and hung over at the top), had been stretched to
include Mr. Pikes also, with small loss of propriety. Both gentlemen
were low of stature, plump of figure, hairy on the face; both followed
obediently at the heels of commanding Lady Meg. The amenities of the
luncheon-table opened hearts. Very soon the tale of Sophy's iniquities
was revealed; incidentally, and unavoidably if Sophy's heinous fault
were to appear in its true measure, the tally of the Brownlows'
benevolence was reckoned. But Mrs. Brownlow won small comfort from Lady
Meg: she got a stiff touch of the truth.

"Ran in and out of the drawing-room!" she said. "Did she? The truth is,
Lizzie, you've spoiled her, and now you're angry with her for being
spoiled."

"What is she now, Mrs. Brownlow?" asked Pindar, with a sly intention.
Was this Percival's deuced pretty girl?

"She works in the kitchen, Mr. Pindar."

"The girl!" his eyes signalled to Mr. Pikes. "Let Lady Meg see her," he
urged, insinuatingly. "She has a wonderful way with girls."

"I don't want to see her; and I know your game, Pindar," said Lady Meg.

"I'm afraid she must go," sighed Mrs. Brownlow. Her husband said, more
robustly, that such an event would be a good riddance--a saying
repeated, with the rest of the conversation, by the butler (one William
Byles, still living) to the gratified ears of Mrs. Smilker in the
kitchen.

"But I'm not easy about her future. She's an odd child, and looks it."

"Pretty?" This from Mr. Pindar.

"Well, I don't know. Striking-looking, you'd rather say, perhaps, Mr.
Pindar."

"Let her go her own way. We've talked quite enough about her." Lady Meg
sounded decisive--and not a little bored.

"And then"--Mrs. Brownlow made bold to go on for a moment--"such a funny
mark! Many people wouldn't like it, I'm sure."

Lady Meg turned sharply on her. "Mark? What do you mean? What mark?"

"A mark on her face, you know. A round, red mark--"

"Big as a threepenny bit, pretty nearly," said the Squire.

"Where?"

"On her cheek."

"Where is the girl?" asked Lady Meg. Her whole demeanor had changed, her
bored air had vanished. "She seemed fair excited," Mr. Byles reports.
Then she turned to the said Byles: "Find out where that girl is, and let
me know. Don't tell her anything about it. I'll go to her."

"But let me send for her--" began the Squire, courteously.

"No, give me my own way. I don't want her frightened."

The Squire gave the orders she desired, and the last Mr. Byles heard as
he left the room was from Lady Meg:

"Marks like that always mean something--eh, Pindar?"

No doubt Mr. Pindar agreed, but his reply is lost.

The girls in the avenue had made their plan. Sophy would not bow her
head to Mrs. Smilker, nor longer eat the bread of benevolence embittered
by servitude. She would go with Julia; she, too, would tread the
boards--if only she could get her feet on them; and when did any girl
seriously doubt her ability to do that? The pair were gay and laughing,
when suddenly through the gate came Lady Meg and the spaniels--Lady Meg
ahead as usual, and with a purposeful air.

"Who are they?" cried Sophy.

Hazleby is but twelve miles from Morpingham. Julia had been over to see
the big house, and had sighted Lady Meg in the garden.

"It's Lady Margaret Duddington," she whispered, rather in a fright.
There was time for no more. Lady Meg was upon them. Sophy was identified
by her dress, and, to Lady Meg's devouring eyes, by the mark.

"You're the girl who's been behaving so badly?" she said.

Seeing no profit in arguing the merits, Sophy answered "Yes."

At this point Julia observed one old gentleman nudge the other and
whisper something; it is morally certain that Pindar whispered to Pikes:
"Percival's girl!"

"You seem to like your own way. What are you going to do? Say you're
sorry?"

"No. I'm not sorry. I'm going away."

"Come here, girl, let me look at you."

Sophy obeyed, walking up to Lady Meg and fixing her eyes on her face.
She was interested, not frightened, as it seemed. Lady Meg looked long
at her.

"Going away? Where to?"

Julia spoke up. "She's coming with me, please, Lady Margaret." Julia, it
would seem, was a little frightened.

"Who are you?"

"Julia Robins. My mother lives there." She pointed to Woodbine Cottage.
"I--I'm on the stage--"

"Lord help you!" remarked Lady Meg, disconcertingly.

"Not at all!" protested Julia, her meaning plain, her expression of it
faulty. "And I--I'm going to help her to--to get an engagement. We're
friends."

"What's she going to do with that on the stage?" Lady Meg's forefinger
almost touched the mark.

"Oh, that's all right, Lady Margaret. Just a little cold cream and
powder--"

"Nasty stuff!" said Lady Meg.

A pause followed, Lady Meg still studying Sophy's face. Then, without
turning round, she made a remark obviously addressed to the gentlemen
behind her:

"I expect this is Percival's young person."

"Without a doubt," said Pikes.

"And Percival was right about her, too," said Pindar.

"Think so? I ain't sure yet," said Lady Meg. "And at any rate I don't
care twopence about that. But--" A long pause marked a renewed scrutiny.
"Your name's Sophy, isn't it?"

"Yes." Sophy hesitated, then forced out the words: "Sophy Grouch."

"Grouch?"

"I said Grouch."

"Humph! Well, Sophy, don't go on the stage. It's a poor affair, the
stage, begging Miss Julia's pardon--I'm sure she'll do admirably at it.
But a poor affair it is. There's not much to be said for the real
thing--but it's a deal better than the stage, Sophy."

"The real thing?" Julia saw Sophy's eyes grow thoughtful.

"The world--places--London--Paris--men and women--Lord help them! Come
with me, and I'll show you all that."

"What shall I do if I come with you?"

"Do? Eat and drink, and waste time and money, like the rest of us. Eh,
Pindar?"

"Of course," said Mr. Pindar, with a placid smile.

"I sha'n't be a--a servant again?"

"Everybody in my house is a slave, I'm told, but you won't be more of a
slave than the rest."

"Will you have me taught?"

Lady Meg looked hard at her. For the first time she smiled, rather
grimly. "Yes, I'll have you taught, and I'll show you the Queen of
England, and, if you behave yourself, the Emperor of the French--Lord
help him!"

"Not unless she behaves herself!" murmured Mr. Pindar.

"Hold your tongue, Pindar! Now, then, what do you say? No, wait a
minute; I want you to understand it properly." She became silent for a
moment. Julia was thinking her a very rude woman; but, since Mr. Pindar
did not mind, who need?

Lady Meg resumed. "I won't make an obligation of you--I mean, I won't be
bound to you; and you sha'n't be bound to me. You'll stay with me as
long as you like, or as long as I like, as the case may be. If you want
to go, put your visiting-card--yes, you'll have one--in an envelope and
send it to me. And if I want you to go, I'll put a hundred-pound note in
an envelope and send it to you--upon which you'll go, and no reasons
given! Is it agreed?"

"It sounds all right," said Sophy.

"Did you always have that mark on your cheek?"

"Yes, always. Father told me so."

"Well, will you come?"

Sophy was torn. The stage was very attractive, and the love she had for
Julia Robins held her as though by a cord. But was the stage a poor
thing? Was that mysterious "real thing" better? Though even of that this
strange woman spoke scornfully. Already there must have been some
underground channel of understanding between them; for Sophy knew that
Lady Meg was more than interested in her--that she was actually excited
about her; and Lady Meg, in her turn, knew that she played a good card
when she dangled before Sophy's eyes the Queen of England and the
Emperor of the French--though even then came that saving "Lord help
him!" to damp an over-ardent expectation.

"Let me speak to Julia," said Sophy. Lady Meg nodded; the girls linked
arms and walked apart. Pindar came to Lady Meg's elbow.

"Another whim!" said he, in a low voice. Pikes was looking round the
view with a kind of vacant contentment.

"Yes," she said. His lips moved. "I know what you said. You said: 'You
old fool!' Pindar."

"Never, on my life, my lady!" They seemed more friends now than
patroness and client. Few saw them thus, but Pindar told Dunstanbury,
and the old gentleman was no liar.

"Give me one more!" she whispered, plainly excited. "That mark must mean
something. It may open a way."

"For her?" he asked, smiling.

"It must for her. It may for me."

"A way where?"

"To knowledge--knowledge of the unknown. They may speak through her!"

"Lady Meg! Lady Meg! And if they don't, the hundred-pound note! It's
very cruel."

"Who knows?--who knows, Pindar? Fate has her ways."

He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "Not half as amusing as your
ladyship's!"

Sophy, twenty yards off, flung her arms round Julia. The embrace was
long; it spoke farewell. Lady Meg's eyes brightened. "She's coming with
me," she said. Pindar shrugged his shoulders again and fell back to
heel. Sophy walked briskly up.

"I'll come, my lady," she said.

"Good. To-morrow afternoon--to London. Mrs. Brownlow has the address.
Good-bye." She turned abruptly on her heel and marched off, her retinue
following.

Julia came to Sophy.

"We can write," she said. "And she's right. You must be for the real
thing, Sophy!"

"My dear, my dear!" murmured Sophy, half in tears. "Yes, we must write."
She drew back and stood erect. "It's all very dark," she said. "But I
like it. London--and Paris! On the Seine!" Old lessons came back with
new import now.

"The Emperor of the French!" Julia mocked--with tears in her eyes.

A sudden thought occurred to Sophy. "What did she mean by 'Percival's
young person'? Is his name Percival?"

Julia gave a little cry. "Lord Dunstanbury's? Yes. You've seen him
again?"

She drew out the story. It made the sorrow of parting half forgotten.

"You owe this to him, then! How romantic!" was actress Julia's
conclusion--in part a true one, no doubt. But Sophy, looking deeper,
fingered the Red Star. She had tracked the magnet of Lady Meg's regard,
the point of her interest, the pivot of decision for that mind of
whims.



V

THE VISION OF "SOMETHING BRIGHT"


With that scene in the avenue of elm-trees at Morpingham there comes a
falling of the veil. Letters passed between Sophy and Julia Robins, but
they have not been preserved. The diary was not yet begun. Basil
Williamson did not move in the same world with Lady Meg and her
entourage: Dunstanbury was in Ireland, where his regiment was then
stationed. For the next twelve months there is only one glimpse of
Sophy--that a passing and accidental one, although not without its
significance as throwing a light on Lady Meg's adoption of Sophy (while
it lasted it amounted to that), and on the strange use to which she
hoped to be able to turn her _protégée_. The reference is, however,
tantalizingly vague just where explicitness would have been of curious
interest, though hardly of any real importance to a sensible mind.

The reference occurs in a privately printed volume of reminiscences by
the late Captain Hans Fleming, R.N., a sailor of some distinction, but
better known as a naturalist. Writing in the winter of 1865-66 (he gives
no precise date), he describes in a letter a meeting with Lady
Meg--whom, it will be noticed, he calls "old Lady Meg," although at that
time she was but forty-nine. She had so early in life taken up an
attitude of resolute spinsterhood that there was a tendency to
exaggerate her years.

"To-day in the park I met old Lady Meg Duddington. It was piercing cold,
but the carriage was drawn up under the trees. The poor spaniels on the
opposite seat were shivering! She stopped me and was, for her, very
gracious; she only 'Lord-helped-me' twice in the whole conversation. She
was full of her ghosts and spirits, her seers and witches. She has got
hold of an entirely new prophetess, a certain woman who calls herself
Madame Mantis and knows all the secrets of the future, both this side
the grave and the other. Beside Lady Meg sat a remarkably striking girl,
to whom she introduced me, but I didn't catch the name. I gathered that
this girl (who had an odd mark on one cheek, almost like a pale pink
wafer) was, in old Meg's mad mind, anyhow, mixed up with the
prophetess--as medium, or subject, or inspiration, or something of that
kind--I don't understand that nonsense, and don't want to. But when I
looked sceptical (and old Pindar chuckled--or it may have been his teeth
chattering with the cold), Meg nodded her head at the girl and said:
'She'll tell you a different tale some day: if you meet her in five
years' time, perhaps.' I don't know what the old lady meant; I suppose
the girl did, but she looked absolutely indifferent, and, indeed, bored.
One can't help being amused, but, seriously, it's rather sad for a man
who was brought up in the reverence of Lord Dunstanbury to see his only
daughter--a clever woman, too, naturally--devoting herself to such
childish stuff."

Such is the passage; it is fair to add that most of the Captain's book
is of more general interest. As he implies, he had had a long
acquaintance with the Dunstanbury family, and took a particular interest
in anything that related to it. Nevertheless, what he says has its
place here; it fits in with and explains Lady Meg's excited and mystical
exclamation to Mr. Pindar at Morpingham, "They may speak through her!"
Apparently "they" had spoken--to what effect we cannot even conjecture,
unless an explanation be found in a letter of the Kravonian period in
which Sophy says to Julia: "You remember that saying of Mantis's when we
were in London--the one about how she saw something hanging in the air
over my head--something bright." That is all she says--and "something
bright" leaves the matter very vague. A sword--a crown--the nimbus of a
saint: imagination might play untrammelled. Still some prophecy was
made; Lady Meg built on it, and Sophy (for all her apparent
indifference) remembered it, and in after-days thought it worthy of
recall. That is as far as we can go; and with that passing glimpse,
Sophy Grouch (of course the mention of the wafer-like mark puts her
identity beyond question) passes out of sight for the time; indeed, as
Sophy Grouch, in the position in which we have seen her and in the name
under which we have known her, she passes out of sight forever.



PART II

PARIS



I

PHAROS, MANTIS, AND CO.


Lady Meg left London for Paris towards the end of 1865 or the beginning
of 1866, but we hear nothing of her doings until the early summer of
1868. The veil lifts then (so far as it ever lifts from before the face
of the Paris period), and shows us the establishment in the Rue de
Grenelle. A queer picture it is in many ways; it gives reason to think
that the state of mind to which Lady Meg had now come is but mildly
described as eccentricity.

The eminent Lord Dunstanbury, Lady Meg's father, had been one of that
set of English Whigs and Liberals who were much at home in Paris in the
days of the July Monarchy. Among his friends was a certain Marquis de
Savres, the head of an old French family of Royalist principles. This
gentleman had, however, accepted the throne of Louis Philippe and the
political principles and leadership of Guizot. Between him and Lord
Dunstanbury there arose a close intimacy, and Lady Meg as a girl had
often visited in the Rue de Grenelle. Changed as her views were, and
separated as she was from most of her father's coterie in Paris,
friendship and intercourse between her and the Savres family had never
dropped. The present head of that family was Casimir de Savres, a young
man of twenty-eight, an officer of cavalry. Being a bachelor, he
preferred to dwell in a small apartment on the other side of the river,
and the family house in the Rue de Grenelle stood empty. Under some
arrangement (presumably a business one, for Marquis de Savres was by no
means rich) Lady Meg occupied the first floor of the roomy old mansion.
Here she is found established; with her, besides three French servants
and an English coachman (she has for the time apparently shaken off the
spaniels), is Mademoiselle Sophie de Gruche, in whose favor Sophy Grouch
has effected an unobtrusive disappearance.

This harmless, if somewhat absurd, transformation was carried out with a
futile elaboration, smacking of Lady Meg's sardonic perversity rather
than of Sophy's directer methods. Sophy would probably have claimed the
right to call herself what she pleased, and left the world to account
for her name in any way it pleased. Lady Meg must needs fit her up with
a story. She was the daughter of a Creole gentleman married to an
English wife. Her mother being early left a widow, Sophy had been
brought up entirely in England--hence her indifferent acquaintance with
French. If this excuse served a purpose at first, at any rate it soon
became unnecessary. Sophy's marked talent for languages (she
subsequently mastered Kravonian, a very difficult dialect, in the space
of a few months) made French a second native tongue to her within a
year. But the story was kept up. Perhaps it imposed on nobody; but
nobody was rude enough--or interested enough--to question it openly.
Sophy herself never refers to it; but she used the name from this time
forward on all occasions except when writing to Julia Robins, when she
continues to sign "Sophy" as before--a habit which lasts to the end,
notwithstanding other changes in her public or official style.

The times were stirring, a prelude to the great storm which was so soon
to follow. Paris was full of men who in the next few years were to make
or lose fame, to rise with a bound or fall with a crash. Into such
society Lady Meg's name, rank, and parentage would have carried her, had
she cared to go; she could have shown Sophy the Emperor of the French at
close quarters instead of contenting herself with a literal fulfilment
of her promise by pointing him out as he drove in the streets. But Lady
Meg was rabid against the Empire; her "Lord help him!"--the habitual
expression of contempt on her lips--was never lacking for the Emperor.
Her political associates were the ladies of the Faubourg St.-Germain,
and there are vague indications that Lady Meg was very busy among them
and conceived herself to be engaged in intrigues of vital importance.
The cracks in the imposing Imperial structure were visible enough by
now, and every hostile party was on the lookout for its chance.

As we all know, perhaps no chance, certainly no power to use a chance,
was given to Lady Meg's friends; and we need not repine that ignorance
spares us the trouble of dealing with their unfruitful hopes and
disappointed schemes. Still the intrigues, the gossip, and the Royalist
atmosphere were to Sophy in some sort an introduction to political
interests, and no doubt had an influence on her mind. So far as she ever
acquired political principles--the existence of such in her mind is, it
must be confessed, doubtful--they were the tenets which reigned in the
Rue de Grenelle and in the houses of Lady Meg's Royalist allies.

So on one side of Lady Meg are the nobles and their noble ladies sulking
and scheming, and on the other--a bizarre contrast--her witch and her
wizard, Madame Mantis and Pharos. Where the carcass is, there will the
vultures be; should the carcass get up and walk, presumably the vultures
would wing an expectant way after it. Madame Mantis--the woman of the
prophecy about "something bright"--had followed Lady Meg to Paris,
scenting fresh prey. But a more ingenious and powerful scoundrel came on
the scene; in association with Mantis--probably very close and not
creditable association--is Pharos, _alias_ Jean Coulin. In after-days,
under the Republic, this personage got himself into trouble, and was
tried at Lille for obtaining no less a sum than one hundred and fifty
thousand francs from a rich old Royalist lady who lived in the
neighborhood of the town. The rogue got his money under cover of a
vaticination that MacMahon would restore the monarchy--a nearer approach
to the real than he reached in his dealings with Lady Meg, but not,
probably, on that account any the more favorably viewed by his judges.

The President's interrogation of the prisoner, ranging over his whole
life, tells us the bulk of what we know of him; but the earliest sketch
comes from Sophy herself, in one of the rare letters of this period
which have survived. "A dirty, scrubby fellow, with greasy hair and a
squint in his eye," she tells Julia Robins. "He wears a black cloak down
to his heels, and a gimcrack thing round his neck that he calls his
'periapt'--charm, I suppose he means. Says he can work spells with it;
and his precious partner Mantis _kisses it_ (Italics are Sophy's)
whenever she meets him. Phew! I'd like to give them both a dusting! What
do you think? Pharos, as he calls himself, tells Lady Meg he can make
the dead speak to her; and she says that isn't it possible that, since
they've died themselves and know all about it, they may be able to tell
her how not to! Seeing how this suits his book, it isn't Pharos who's
going to say 'no,' though he tells her to make a will in case anything
happens before he's ready to 'establish communication'--and perhaps they
won't tell, after all, but he thinks they will! Now I come into the
game! Me being very sympathetic, they're to talk _through me_ (Italics
again are Sophy's). Did you ever hear of such nonsense? I told Master
Pharos that I didn't know whether his ghosts would talk through me, but
I didn't need any of their help to pretty well see through him! But Lady
Meg's hot on it. I suppose it's what I'm here for, and I must let him
try--or pretend to. It's all one to me, and it pleases Lady Meg. Only he
and I have nothing else to do with each other! I'll see to that. To tell
you the truth, I don't like the look in his eye sometimes--and I don't
think Mrs. Mantis would either!"

As a medium Sophy was a failure. She was antagonistic--purposely
antagonistic, said Jean Coulin, attempting to defend himself against the
President's suggestion that he had received something like three
thousand pounds from Lady Meg and given her not a jot of supernatural
information in return. This failure of Sophy's was the first rift
between Lady Meg and her. Pharos could have used it against her, and his
power was great; but it was not at present his game to eject her from
the household. He had other ends in view; and there was no question of
the hundred-pound note yet.

It is pleasant to turn to another figure--one which stands out in the
meagre records of this time and bears its prominence well. Casimir
Marquis de Savres is neither futile nor sordid, neither schemer nor
impostor. He was a brave and simple soldier and gentleman, holding his
ancestral principles in his heart, but content to serve his country in
evil times until good should come. He was courteous and attentive to
Lady Meg, touching her follies with a light hand; and to Sophy he gave
his love with an honest and impetuous sincerity, which he masked by a
gay humor--lest his lady should be grieved at the havoc she herself had
made. His feelings about Pharos, his partner, and his jugglings, need no
description. "If you are neither restoring the King nor raising the
devil to-morrow, I should like to come to breakfast," he writes in one
of his early letters. "O Lady of the Red Star, if it were to restore you
to your kingdom in the star whose sign you bear, I would raise the devil
himself, all laws of Church and State notwithstanding! I came on Tuesday
evening--you were surrounded by most unimpeachable dowagers. Excellent
principles and irreproachable French! But, _mon Dieu_, for conversation!
I came on Thursday afternoon. Pharos and Mantis held sway, and I dared
not look round for fear of my ancestors being there to see me in the
Emperor's uniform! Tell me when there will be no ancestors living or
dead, nor dowagers nor devils, that I may come and see you. If dear Lady
Meg (Laidee Maig!)[1] _should_ be pursuing one or the other in other
places, yet forbid me not to come. She has whims, we know, but not,
thank Heaven, many principles; or, if she has our principles, at least
she scorns our etiquette. Moreover, queens make etiquette, and are not
ruled by what they make. And Star-Queens are more free and more
absolute still. What a long note--all to ask for a breakfast! No, it's
to ask for a sight of your eyes--and a volume would not be too long for
me to write--though it would be a bad way to make friends with the eyes
that had to read it! I believe I go on writing because it seems in some
way to keep you with me; and so, if I could write always of you, I would
lay down my sword and take up the pen for life. Yet writing to you,
though sweet as heaven, is as the lowest hell from which Pharos fetches
devils as compared with seeing you. Be kind. Farewell.

    "CASIMIR."

[Footnote 1: He is apparently mimicking Sophy's mimicking of his
pronunciation.]

To this he adds a postscript, referring apparently to some unrecorded
incident: "Yes, the Emperor did ask who it was the other day. I was sure
his eye _hit the mark_. I have the information direct."

       *       *       *       *       *

It is very possible that this direct information pleased Sophy.

Last among the prominent members of the group in which Sophy lived in
Paris is Madame Zerkovitch. Her husband was of Russian extraction, his
father having settled in Kravonia and become naturalized there. The son
was now in Paris as correspondent to one of the principal papers of
Slavna. Madame Zerkovitch was by birth a Pole; not a remarkable woman in
herself, but important in this history as the effective link between
these days and Sophy's life in Kravonia. She was small and thin, with
auburn hair and very bright, hazel eyes, with light-colored lashes. An
agreeable talker, an accomplished singer, and a kind-hearted woman, she
was an acquaintance to be welcomed. Whatever strange notions she
harbored about Sophy in after-days, she conceived from the beginning,
and never lost, a strong affection for her, and their friendship
ripened quickly from their first meeting at Lady Meg's, where Marie
Zerkovitch was a frequent visitor, and much interested in Pharos's
hocus-pocus.

The occasion was one of the séances where Sophy was to be medium. It was
a curious scene. Gaunt Lady Meg, with her eyes strained and eager,
superintended the arrangements. "Lord help you!" was plentiful for
everybody, even for the prophet Pharos himself when his miracle was
behind time. Mantis was there, subterraneously scornful of her unwilling
rival; and the rogue Pharos himself, with his oily glibness, his cheap
mystery, and his professional jargon. Two or three dowagers and Casimir
de Savres--who had to unbuckle his sword and put it outside the door for
reasons insufficiently explained--completed the party. In the middle sat
Sophy, smiling patiently, but with her white brow wrinkled just a little
beneath the arching masses of her dark hair. On her lips the smile
persisted all through; the mark was hardly visible. "No more than the
slightest pinkness; I didn't notice it till I had looked at her for full
five minutes," says Marie Zerkovitch. This was, no doubt, the normal
experience of those who met Sophy first in moments of repose or of
depression.

Sophy is to "go off." Pharos makes his passes and goes through the rest
of his performance.

"I feel nothing at all--not even sleepy," said Sophy. "Only just tired
of staring at monsieur!"

Casimir de Savres laughed; old Lady Meg looked furious; Mantis hid a
sickly smile. Down go the lights to a dull gloom--at the prophet's
request. More gestures, more whisperings, and then sighs of exhaustion
from the energetic wizard.

"Get on, Lord help you!" came testily from Lady Meg. Had Pharos been
veritably her idol, she would have kicked him into granting her prayer.

"She won't give me her will--she won't be passive," he protests, almost
eliciting a perverse sympathy.

He produced a glittering disk, half as large again as a five-franc
piece; it gave forth infinite sparkles through the dark of the room.
"Look at that! Look hard--and think of nothing else!" he commanded.

Silence fell on the room. Quick breaths came from eager Lady Meg;
otherwise all was still.

"It's working!" whispered the wizard. "The power is working."

Silence again. Then a sudden, overpowering peal of laughter from the
medium--hearty, rippling, irrepressible and irresistible.

"Oh, Lady Meg, I feel such a fool--oh, such a fool!" she cried--and her
laughter mastered her again.

Irresistible! Marie Zerkovitch joined in Casimir's hearty mirth,
Mantis's shrill cackle and the sniggers of the dowagers swelled the
chorus. Casimir sprang up and turned up the gas, laughing still. The
wizard stood scowling savagely; Lady Meg glared malignantly at her
ill-chosen medium and disappointing _protégée_.

"What's the reason for it, Lord help you?" she snarled, with a very
nasty look at Pharos.

He saw the danger. His influence was threatened, his patroness's belief
in him shaken.

"I don't know," he answered, in apparent humility. "I can't account for
it. It happens, so far as I know, only in one case--and Heaven forbid
that I should suggest that of mademoiselle."

"What is the case?" snapped Lady Meg, by no means pacified--in fact,
still dangerously sceptical.

Pharos made an answer, grave and serious in tone in purpose and effect
malignantly nonsensical: "When the person whom it is sought to subject
to this particular influence (he touched the pocket where his precious
disk now lay) has the Evil Eye."

An appeal to a superstition old as the hills and widespread as the human
race--would it ever fail to hit some mark in a company of a dozen?
Casimir laughed in hearty contempt, Sophy laughed in mischievous
mockery. But two of the dowagers crossed themselves, Lady Meg started
and glowered--and little Madame Zerkovitch marked, recorded, and
remembered. Her mind was apt soil for seed of that order.

That, in five years' time, five years in jail awaited the ingenious
Monsieur Pharos occasions a consoling reflection.



II

THE LORD OF YOUTH


Sophy's enemies were at work--and Sophy was careless. Such is the
history of the next twelve months. Mantis was installed medium now--and
the revelations came. But they came slow, vague, fitful, tantalizing.
Something was wrong, Pharos confessed ruefully--what could it be? For
surely Lady Meg by her faith (and, it may be added, her liberality)
deserved well of the Unseen Powers? He hinted at that Evil Eve again,
but without express accusation. Under "the influence" Mantis would speak
of "the malign one"; but Mantis, when awake, thought Mademoiselle de
Gruche a charming young lady! It was odd and mysterious. Pharos could
make nothing of it; he, too, thought Mademoiselle Sophie--he advanced to
that pleasant informality of description--quite ravishing and entirely
devoted to Lady Meg, only, unhappily, so irresponsive to the Unseen--a
trifle unsympathetic, it might be. But what would you? The young had no
need to think of death or the dead. Was it to be expected, then, that
Mademoiselle Sophie would be a good subject, or take much interest in
the work, great and wonderful though it might be?

The pair of rogues did their work well and quietly--so quietly that
nothing of it would be known were it not that they quarrelled later on
over the spoils of this and other transactions, and Madame Mantis, in
the witness-box at Lille, used her memory and her tongue freely. "The
plan now was to get rid of the young lady," she said, plainly. "Pharos
feared her power over my lady, and that my lady might leave her all the
money. Pharos hated the young lady because she would have nothing to say
to him, and told him plainly that she thought him a charlatan. She had
courage, yes! But if she would have joined in with him--why, then into
the streets with me! I knew that well enough, and Pharos knew I knew it.
So I hated her, too, fearing that some day she and he would make up
their differences, and I--that for me! Yes, that was how we were,
Monsieur le Président." Her lucid exposition elicited a polite
compliment from Monsieur le Président--and we also are obliged to her.

But Sophy was heedless. She showed afterwards that she could fight well
for what she loved well, and that with her an eager heart made a strong
hand. Her heart was not in this fight. The revelation of mad Lady Meg's
true motive for taking her up may well have damped a gratitude otherwise
becoming in Sophy Grouch transmuted to Sophie de Gruche. Yet the
gratitude remained; she fought for Lady Meg--for her sanity and some
return of sanity in her proceedings. In so fighting she fought against
herself--for Lady Meg was very mad now. For herself she did not fight;
her heart and her thoughts were elsewhere. The schemes in the Rue de
Grenelle occupied her hardly more than the clash of principles, the
efforts of a falling dynasty, the struggles of rising freedom, the stir
and seething of the great city and the critical times in which she
lived.

For she was young, and the Lord of Youth had come to visit her in his
shower of golden promise. The days were marked for her no more by the
fawning advances or the spiteful insinuations of Pharos than by the
heroics of an uneasy emperor or the ingenious experiments in reconciling
contradictions wherein his ministers were engaged. For her the days
lived or lived not as she met or failed to meet Casimir de Savres. It
was the season of her first love. Yet, with all its joy, the shadow of
doubt is over it. It seems not perfect; the delight is in receiving, not
in giving; his letters to her, full of reminiscences of their meetings
and talks, are shaded with doubt and eloquent of insecurity. She was no
more than a girl in years; but in some ways her mind was precociously
developed--her ambition was spreading its still growing wings. Casimir's
constant tone of deference--almost of adulation--marks in part the man,
in part the convention in which he had been bred; but it marks, too, the
suppliant: to the last he is the wooer, not the lover, and at the end of
his ecstasy lies the risk of despair. For her part she often speaks of
him afterwards, and always with the tenderest affection; she never
ceased to carry with her wherever she went the bundle of his letters,
tied with a scrap of ribbon and inscribed with a date. But there is one
reference, worthy of note, to her innermost sentiments towards him, to
the true state of her heart as she came to realize it by-and-by. "I
loved him, but I hadn't grown into my feelings," she says. Brief and
almost accidental as the utterance is, it is full of significance; but
its light is thrown back. It is the statement of how she came to know
how she had been towards him, not of how in those happy days she seemed
to herself to be.

He knew about Grouch; he had been told by a copious superfluity of
female friendliness--by Lady Meg, cloaking suspicious malignity under
specious penitence; by Madame Mantis with impertinent and intrusive
archness; by Marie Zerkovitch in the sheer impossibility of containing
within herself any secret which had the bad fortune to be intrusted to
her. Sophy's own confession, made with incredible difficulty--she hated
the name so--fell flat and was greeted with a laugh of mockery.

It happened at the _Calvaire_ at Fontainebleau, whither they had made a
day's and night's excursion, under the escort of Marie Zerkovitch and a
student friend of hers from the Quartier Latin. These two they had left
behind sipping beer at a restaurant facing the château. On the eminence
which commands the white little town dropped amid the old forest, over
against the red roofs of the palace vying in richness with the turning
leaves, in sight of a view in its own kind unsurpassed, in its own charm
unequalled, Sophy broke the brutal truth which was to end the
infatuation of the head of a house old as St. Louis.

"It's bad to pronounce, is it?" asked Casimir, smiling and touching her
hand. "Ah, well, good or bad, I couldn't pronounce it, so to me it is
nothing."

"They'd all say it was terrible--a mésalliance."

"I fear only one voice on earth saying that."

"And the fraud I am--de Gruche!" She caught his hand tightly. Never
before had it occurred to her to defend or to excuse the transparent
fiction.

"I know stars fall," he said, with his pretty gravity, not too grave. "I
wish that they may rise to their own height again--and I rise with
them."

The sun sank behind the horizon. A gentle afterglow of salmon-pink
rested over the palace and city; the forest turned to a frame of smoky,
brownish black. Casimir waved a hand towards it and laughed merrily.

"Before we were, it was--after we are, it shall be! I sound as old as
Scripture! It has seen old masters--and great mistresses! Saving the
proprieties, weren't you Montespan or Pompadour?"

"De la Vallière?" she laughed. "Or Maintenon?"

"For good or evil, neither! Do I hurt you?"

"No; you make me think, though," answered Sophy. "Why?"

"They niggled--at virtue or at vice. You don't niggle! Neither did
Montespan nor Pompadour."

"And so I am to be--Marquise de--?"

"Higher, higher!" he laughed. "Madame la Maréchale--!"

"It is war, then--soon--you think?" She turned to him with a sudden
tension.

He pointed a Frenchman's eloquent forefinger to the dark mass of the
château, whose chimneys rose now like gloomy interrogation-marks to an
unresponsive, darkened sky. "He is there now--the Emperor! Perhaps he
walks in his garden by the round pond--thinking, dreaming, balancing."

"Throwing balls in the air, as conjurers do?"

"Yes, my star."

"And if he misses the first?"

"He'll seek applause by the second. And the second, I think, would be
war."

"And you would--go?"

"To what other end do I love the Lady of the Red Star--alas! I can't see
it--save to bring her glory?"

"That's French," said Sophy, with a laugh. "Wouldn't you rather stay
with me and be happy?"

"Who speaks to me?" he cried, springing to his feet. "Not you!"

"No, no," she answered, "I have no fear. What is it, Casimir, that
drives us on?"

"Drives us on! You! You, too?"

"It's not a woman's part, is it?"

He caught her round the waist, and she allowed his clasp. But she grew
grave, yet smiled again softly.

"If all life were an evening at Fontainebleau--a fine evening at
Fontainebleau!" she murmured, in the low clearness which marked her
voice.

"Mightn't it be?"

"With war? And with what drives us on?"

He sighed, and his sigh puzzled her.

"Oh, well," she cried, "at least you know I'm Sophy Grouch, and my
father was as mean as the man who opens your lodge-gate."

The sky had gone a blue-black. A single star sombrely announced the
coming pageant.

"And his daughter high as the hopes that beckon me to my career!"

"You've a wonderful way of talking," smiled Sophy Grouch--simple Essex
in contact with Paris at that instant.

"You'll be my wife, Sophie?"

"I don't think Lady Meg will keep me long. Pharos is working hard--so
Marie Zerkovitch declares. I should bring you a dot of two thousand five
hundred francs!"

"Do you love me?"

The old question rang clear in the still air. Who has not heard it of
women--or uttered it of men? Often so easy, sometimes so hard. When all
is right save one thing--or when all is wrong save one thing--then it is
hard to answer, and may have been hard to ask. With Casimir there was no
doubt, save the doubt of the answer. Sophy stood poised on a
hesitation. The present seemed perfect. Only an unknown future cried to
her through the falling night.

"I'll win glory for you," he cried. "The Emperor will fight!"

"You're no Emperor's man!" she mocked.

"Yes, while he means France. I'm for anybody who means France." For a
moment serious, the next he kissed her hand merrily. "Or for anybody
who'll give me a wreath, a medal, a toy to bring home to her I love."

"You're very fascinating," Sophy confessed.

It was not the word. Casimir fell from his exaltation. "It's not love,
that of yours," said he.

"No--I don't know. You might make it love. Oh, how I talk beyond my
rights!"

"Beyond your rights? Impossible! May I go on trying?"

He saw Sophy's smile dimly through the gloom. From it he glanced to the
dying gleam of the white houses dropped among the trees, to the dull
mass of the ancient home of history and kings. But back he came to the
living, elusive, half-seen smile.

"Can you stop?" said Sophy.

He raised his hat from his head and stooped to kiss her hand.

"Nor would nor could," said he--"in the warmth of life or the cold hour
of death!"

"No, no--if you die, it's gloriously!" The hour carried her away.
"Casimir, I wish I were sure!"

The spirit of his race filled his reply: "You want to be dull?"

"No--I--I--I want you to kiss my cheek."

"May I salute the star?"

"But it's no promise!"

"It's better!"

"My dear, I--I'm very fond of you."

"That's all?"

"Enough for to-night! What's he thinking of down there?"

"The Emperor? I'm not so much as sure he's there, really. Somebody said
he had started for St. Cloud this morning."

"Pretend he's there!"

"Then of anything except how many men die for what he wants."

"Or of how many women weep?"

Her reply set a new light to his passion. "You'd weep?" he cried.

"Oh, I suppose so!" The answer was half a laugh, half a sob.

"But not too much! No more than the slightest dimness to the glowing
star!"

Sophy laughed in a tremulous key; her body shook. She laid her hands in
his. "No more, no more. Surely Marie and the student are bored? Isn't it
supper-time? Oh, Casimir, if I were worthy, if I were sure! What's ahead
of us? Must we go back? To-night, up here, it all seems so simple! Does
he mean war? He down there? And you'll fight!" She looked at him for an
instant. He was close to her. She thrust him away from her. "Don't fight
thinking of me," she said.

"How otherwise?" he asked.

She tossed her head impatiently. "I don't know--but--but Pharos makes me
afraid. He--he says that things I love die."

The young soldier laughed. "That leaves him pretty safe," said he.

She put her arm through his, and they walked down. It had been a night
to be forgotten only when all is. Yet she went from him unpledged, and
tossed in her bed, asking: "Shall I?" and answered: "I'll decide
to-morrow!"

But to-morrow was not at the _Calvaire_ nor in the seducing sweetness of
the silent trees. When she rose, he was gone--and the student, too.
Marie Zerkovitch, inquisitively friendly, flung a fly for news.

"He's as fine a gentleman as Lord Dunstanbury!" cried Sophy Grouch.

"As who?" asked Marie.

Sophy smiled over her smoking coffee. "As the man who first saw me," she
said. "But, oh, I'm puzzled!"

Marie Zerkovitch bit her roll.

"Armand was charming," she observed. The student was Armand. He, too,
let it be recorded, had made a little love, yet in all seemly ardor.

So ends this glimpse of the happy days.



III

THE NOTE--AND NO REASONS


That feverish month of July--fitting climax to the scorching, arid
summer of 1870--had run full half its course. Madness had stricken the
rulers of France; to avoid danger they rushed on destruction. Gay
madness spread through the veins of Paris. Perverse always, Lady Meg
Duddington chose this moment for coming back to her senses--or at least
for abandoning the particular form of insanity to which she had devoted
the last five years.

One afternoon she called her witch and her wizard. "You're a pair of
quacks, and I've been an old fool," she said, composedly, sitting
straight up in her high-backed chair. She flung a couple of
thousand-franc notes across the table. "You can go," she ended, with
contemptuous brevity. Mantis's evil temper broke out: "She has done
this, the malign one!" Pharos was wiser; he had not done badly out of
Lady Meg, and madness such as hers is apt to be recurrent. His farewell
was gentle, his exit not ungraceful; yet he, too, prayed her to beware
of a certain influence. "Stuff! You don't know what you're talking
about!" Lady Meg jerked out, and pointed with her finger to the door.
"So we went out, and to avoid any trouble we left Paris the same day.
But this man here would not give me any of the money, though I had done
as much to earn it as he had, or more." So injured Madame Mantis told
Monsieur le Président at Lille.

Early on the morning of Sunday, the 17th, having received word through
Lady Meg's maid that her presence was not commanded in the Rue de
Grenelle, Sophy slipped round to the Rue du Bac and broke in on Marie
Zerkovitch, radiant with her great news and imploring her friend to
celebrate it by a day in the country.

"It means that dear old Lady Meg will be what she used to be to me!" she
cried. "We shall go back to England, I expect, and--I wonder what that
will be like!"

Her face grew suddenly thoughtful. Back to England! How would that suit
Sophie de Gruche? And what was to happen about Casimir de Savres? The
period of her long, sweet indecision was threatened with a forced
conclusion.

Marie Zerkovitch was preoccupied against both her friend's joy and her
friend's perplexity. Great affairs touched her at home. There would be
war, she said, certainly war; to-day the Senate went to St. Cloud to see
the Emperor. Zerkovitch had started thither already, on the track of
news. The news in the near future would certainly be war, and Zerkovitch
would follow the armies, still on the track of news. "He went before, in
the war of 'sixty-six," she said, her lips trembling. "And he all but
died of fever; that kills the correspondents just as much as the
soldiers. Ah, it's so dangerous, Sophie--and so terrible to be left
behind alone. I don't know what I shall do! My husband wants me to go
home. He doesn't believe the French will win, and he fears trouble for
those who stay here." She looked at last at Sophy's clouded face. "Ah,
and your Casimir--he will be at the front!"

"Yes, Casimir will be at the front," said Sophy, a ring of excitement
hardly suppressed in her voice.

"If he should be killed!" murmured Marie, throwing her arms out in a
gesture of lamentation.

"You bird of ill omen! He'll come back covered with glory."

The two spent a quiet day together, Sophy helping Marie in her homely
tasks. Zerkovitch's campaigning kit was overhauled--none knew how soon
orders for an advance might come--his buttons put on, his thick
stockings darned. The hours slipped away in work and talk. At six
o'clock they went out and dined at a small restaurant hard by. Things
seemed very quiet there. The fat waiter told them with a shrug: "We
sha'n't have much noise here to-night--the lads will be over there!" He
pointed across the river. "They'll be over there most of the night--on
the _grands boulevards_. Because it's war, madame. Oh, yes, it's war!"
The two young women sipped their coffee in silence. "As a lad I saw
1830. I was out in the streets in 1851. What shall I see next?" he asked
them as he swept his napkin over the marble table-top. If he stayed at
his post, he saw many strange things; unnatural fires lit his skies, and
before his doors brother shed brother's blood.

The friends parted at half-past seven. Marie hoped her husband would be
returning home soon, and with news; Sophy felt herself due in the Rue de
Grenelle. She reached the house there a little before eight. The
_concierge_ was not in his room; she went up-stairs unseen, and passed
into the drawing-room. The inner door leading to the room Lady Meg
occupied stood open. Sophy called softly, but there was no answer. She
walked towards the door and was about to look into the room, thinking
that perhaps Lady Meg was asleep, when she heard herself addressed. The
Frenchwoman who acted as their cook had come in and stood now on the
threshold with a puzzled, distressed look on her face.

"I'm sorry, Mademoiselle Sophie, to tell you, but my lady has gone."

"Gone! Where to?"

"To England, I believe. This morning, after you had gone out, she
ordered everything to be packed. It was done. She paid us here off,
bidding me alone stay till orders reached me from Monsieur le Marquis.
Then she went; only the coachman accompanied her. I think she started
for Calais. At least, she is gone."

"She said--said nothing about me?"

"You'll see there's a letter for you on the small table in the window
there."

"Oh yes! Thank you."

"Your room is ready for you to-night."

"I've dined. I shall want nothing. Good-night."

Sophy walked over to the little table in the window, and for a few
moments stood looking at the envelope which lay there, addressed to her
in Lady Meg's sprawling hand. The stately room in the Rue de Grenelle
seemed filled with a picture which its walls had never seen; old words
re-echoed in Sophy's ears: "If I want you to go, I'll put a
hundred-pound note in an envelope and send it to you; upon which you'll
go, and no reasons given! Is it agreed?" As if from a long way off, she
heard a servant-girl answer: "It sounds all right." She saw the old
elm-trees at Morpingham, and heard the wind murmur in their boughs;
Pindar chuckled, and Julia Robins's eyes were wet with tears.

"And no reasons given!" It had sounded all right--before five years of
intimacy and a life transformed. It sounded different now. Yet the
agreement had been made between the strange lady and the eager girl. Nor
were reasons hard to find. They stood out brutally plain. Having sent
her prophet to the right about, Lady Meg wanted no more of her
medium--her most disappointing medium. "They" would not speak through
Sophy; perhaps Lady Meg did not now want them to speak at all.

Sophy tore the envelope right across its breadth and shook out the
flimsy paper within. It was folded in four. She did not trouble to open
it. Lady Meg was a woman of her word, and here was the hundred-pound
note of the Bank of England--"upon which you'll go, and no reasons
given!" With a bitter smile she noticed that the note was soiled, the
foldings old, the edges black where they were exposed. She had no doubt
that all these years Lady Meg had carried it about, so as to be ready
for the literal fulfilment of her bond.

"Upon which," said Sophy, "I go."

The bitter smile lasted perhaps a minute more; then the girl flung
herself into a chair in a fit of tears as bitter. She had served--or
failed to serve--Lady Meg's mad purpose, and she was flung aside. Very
likely she had grown hateful--she, the witness of insane whims now past
and out of favor. The dismissal might not be unnatural; but, for all
their bargain, the manner was inhuman. They had lived and eaten and
drunk together for so long. Had there been no touch of affection, no
softening of the heart? It seemed not--it seemed not. Sophy wept and
wondered. "Oh, that I had never left you, Julia!" she cries in her
letter, and no doubt cried now; for Julia had given her a friend's love.
If Lady Meg had given her only what one spares for a dog--a kind word
before he is banished, a friendly lament at parting!

Suddenly through the window came a boy's shrill voice: "_Vive la
guerre!_"

Sophy sprang to her feet, caught up the dirty note, and thrust it inside
her glove. Without delay, seemingly without hesitation, she left the
house, passed swiftly along the street, and made for the Pont Royal. She
was bound for the other bank and for the Boulevard des Italiens, where
Casimir de Savres had his lodging. The stream of traffic set with her.
She heeded it not. The streets were full of excited groups, but there
was no great tumult yet. Men were eagerly reading the latest editions of
the papers. Sophy pushed on till she reached Casimir's house. She was
known there. Her coming caused surprise to the _concierge_--it was not
the proper thing; but he made no difficulty. He showed her to Casimir's
sitting-room, but of Casimir he could give no information, save that he
presumed he would return to sleep.

"I must wait--I must see him," she said; and, as the man left her, she
went to the window, flung it open wide, and stood there, looking down
into the great street.

The lights blazed now. Every seat at every _café_ was full. The
newspapers did a great trade; a wave of infinite talk, infinite chaff,
infinite laughter rose to her ears. A loud-voiced fellow was selling
pictures of the King of Prussia--as he looks now, and as he will look!
The second sheet never failed of a great success. Bands of lads came by
with flags and warlike shouts. Some cheered them, more laughed and
chaffed. One broad-faced old man she distinguished in the _café_
opposite; he looked glum and sulky and kept arguing to his neighbor,
wagging a fat forefinger at him repeatedly; the neighbor shrugged bored
shoulders; after all, he had not made the war--it was the Emperor and
those gentlemen at St. Cloud! As she watched, the stir grew greater, the
bands of marching students more frequent and noisy, "_A Berlin!_" they
cried now, amid the same mixture of applause and tolerant amusement. A
party of girls paraded down the middle of the street, singing "_J'aime
les militaires!_" The applause grew to thunder as they went by, and the
laughter broke into one great crackle when the heroines had passed.

She turned away with a start, conscious of a presence in the room.
Casimir came quickly across to her, throwing his helmet on the table as
he passed. He took her hands. "I know. Lady Meg wrote to me," he said.
"And you are here!"

"I have no other home now," she said.

With a light of joy in his eyes he kissed her lips.

"I come to you only when I'm in trouble!" she said, softly.

"It is well," he answered, and drew her with him back to the window.

Together they stood looking down.

"It is war, then?" she asked.

"Without doubt it's war--without doubt," he answered, gravely. "And
beyond that no man knows anything."

"And you?" she asked.

He took her hands again, both of hers in his. "My lady of the Red Star!"
he murmured, softly.

"And you?"

"You wouldn't have it otherwise?"

"Heaven forbid! God go with you as my heart goes! When do you go?"

"I take the road in an hour for Strasburg. We are to be of MacMahon's
corps."

"In an hour?"

"Yes."

"Your preparations--are they made?"

"Yes."

"And you are free?"

"Yes."

"Then you've an hour to make me sure I love you!"

He answered as to a woman of his own stock.

"I have an hour now--and all the campaign," said he.



IV

THE PICTURE AND THE STAR


The letter which gives Julia Robins the history of that Sunday--so
eventful alike for France and for Sophy--is the last word of hers from
Paris. Julia attached importance to it, perhaps for its romantic flavor,
perhaps because she fancied that danger threatened her friend. At any
rate, she bestowed it with the care she gave to the later letters, and
did not expose it to the hazards which destroyed most of its
predecessors. It is dated from Marie Zerkovitch's apartment in the Rue
du Bac, and it ends: "I shall stay here, whatever happens--unless
Casimir tells me to meet him in Berlin!"

The rash comprehensiveness of "whatever happens" was not for times like
those, when neither man nor nation knew what fate an hour held; but for
three weeks more she abode with Marie Zerkovitch. Marie was much
disturbed in her mind. Zerkovitch had begun to send her ominous letters
from the front--or as near thereto as he could get; the burden of them
was that things looked bad for the French, and that her hold on Paris
should be a loose one. He urged her to go home, where he would join
her--for a visit at all events, very likely to stay. Marie began to talk
of going home in a week or so; but she lingered on for the sake of being
nearer the news of the war. So, amid the rumors of unreal victories and
the tidings of reverses only too real, if not yet great, the two women
waited.

Casimir had found time and opportunity to send Sophy some half-dozen
notes (assuming she preserved all she received). On the 5th of August,
the eve of Wõrth, he wrote at somewhat greater length: "It is night. I
am off duty for an hour. I have been in the saddle full twelve hours,
and I believe that, except the sentries and the outposts, I am the only
man awake. We need to sleep. The Red Star, which shines everywhere for
me, shines for all of us over our bivouac to-night. It must be that we
fight to-morrow. Fritz is in front of us, and to-morrow he will come on.
The Marshal must stop him and spoil his game; if we don't go forward
now, we must go back. And we don't mean going back. It will be the first
big clash--and a big one, I think, it will be. Our fellows are in fine
heart (I wish their boots were as good!), but those devils over
there--well, they can fight, too, and Fritz can get every ounce out of
them. I am thinking of glory and of you. Is it not one and the same
thing? For, in that hour, I didn't make you sure! I know it. Sophie, I'm
hardly sorry for it. It seems sweet to have something left to do. Ah,
but you're hard, aren't you? Shall I ever be sure of you? Even though I
march into Berlin at the head of a regiment!

"I can say little more--the orderly waits for my letter. Yet I have so
much, much more to say. All comes back to me in vivid snatches. I am
with you in the old house--or by the _Calvaire_ (you remember?); or
again by the window; or while we walked back that Sunday night. I hear
your voice--the low, full-charged voice. I see your eyes; the star glows
anew for me. Adieu! I live for you always so long as I live. If I die,
it will be in the thought of you, and they will kill no prouder man than
Sophie's lover. To have won your love (ah, by to-morrow night, yes!) and
to die for France--would it be ill done for a short life? By my faith,
no! I'll make my bow to my ancestors without shame. 'I, too, have done
my part, messieurs!' say I, as I sit down with my forefathers. Sophie,
adieu! You won't forget? I don't think you can quite forget. Your
picture rides with me, your star shines ahead.

    "CASIMIR."

       *       *       *       *       *

He was not wrong. They fought next day. The letter is endorsed "8th
August," presumably the date of its receipt. That day came also the news
of the disaster. On the 11th the casualty list revealed Casimir de
Savres's name. A few lines from a brother officer a day later gave
scanty details. In the great charge of French cavalry which marked the
closing stages of the battle he had been the first man hit of all his
regiment--shot through the heart--and through the picture of Sophy which
lay over his heart.

No word comes from Sophy herself. And Madame Zerkovitch is brief: "She
showed me the picture. The bullet passed exactly through where that mark
on her cheek is. It was fearful; I shuddered; I hoped she didn't see.
She seemed quite stunned. But she insisted on coming with me to
Kravonia, where I had now determined to go at once. I did not want her
to come. I thought no good would come of it. But what could I do? She
would not return to England; she could not stay alone in Paris. I was
the only friend she had in the world. She asked no more than to travel
with me. 'When once I am there, I can look after myself,' she said."

The pair--a little fragment of a great throng, escaping or thrust
forth--left Paris together on the 13th or 14th of August, en route for
Kravonia. With Sophy went the bullet-pierced picture and the little
bundle of letters. She did not forget. With a sore wound in her heart
she turned to face a future dark, uncertain, empty of all she had loved.
And--had she seen Marie Zerkovitch's shudder? Did she remember again, as
she had remembered by the _Calvaire_ at Fontainebleau, how Pharos had
said that what she loved died? She had bidden Casimir not fight thinking
of her. Thinking of her, he had fought and died. All she ever wrote
about her departure is one sentence--"I went to Kravonia in sheer
despair of the old life; I had to have something new."

Stricken she went forth from the stricken city, where hundreds of men
were cutting down the trees beneath whose shade she had often walked and
ridden with her lover.



PART III

KRAVONIA



I

THE NAME-DAY OF THE KING


The ancient city of Slavna, for a thousand years or more and under many
dynasties the capital of Kravonia, is an island set in a plain. It lies
in the broad valley of the Krath, which at this point flows due east.
Immediately above the city the river divides into two branches, known as
the North and the South rivers; Slavna is clasped in the embrace of
these channels. Conditioned by their course, its form is not circular,
but pear-shaped, for they bend out in gradual broad curves to their
greatest distance from one another, reapproaching quickly after that
point is passed till they meet again at the end--or, rather, what was
originally the end--of the city to the east; the single reunited river
may stand for the stalk of the pear.

In old days the position was a strong one; nowadays it is obviously much
less defensible; and those in power had recognized this fact in two
ways--first by allocating money for a new and scientific system of
fortifications; secondly by destroying almost entirely the ancient and
out-of-date walls which had once been the protection of the city. Part
of the wall on the north side, indeed, still stood, but where it had
escaped ruin it was encumbered and built over with warehouses and
wharves; for the North River is the channel of commerce and the medium
of trade with the country round about. To the south the wall has been
entirely demolished, its site being occupied by a boulevard, onto which
faces a line of handsome modern residences--for as the North River is
for trade, so the South is for pleasure--and this boulevard has been
carried across the stream and on beyond the old limits of the city, and
runs for a mile or farther on the right bank of the reunited Krath,
forming a delightful and well-shaded promenade where the citizens are
accustomed to take their various forms of exercise.

Opposite to it, on the left bank, lies the park attached to the Palace.
That building itself, dating from 1820 and regrettably typical of the
style of its period, faces the river on the left bank just where the
stream takes a broad sweep to the south, giving a rounded margin to the
King's pleasure-grounds. Below the Palace there soon comes open country
on both banks. The boulevard merges in the main post-road to Volseni and
to the mountains which form the eastern frontier of the kingdom. At this
date, and for a considerable number of years afterwards, the only
railway line in Kravonia did not follow the course of the Krath (which
itself afforded facilities for traffic and intercourse), but ran down
from the north, having its terminus on the left bank of the North River,
whence a carriage-bridge gave access to the city.

To vote money is one thing, to raise it another, and to spend it on the
designated objects a third. Not a stone nor a sod of the new forts was
yet in place, and Slavna's solitary defence was the ancient castle which
stood on the left bank of the river just at the point of bisection,
facing the casino and botanical gardens on the opposite bank.
Suleiman's Tower, a relic of Turkish rule, is built on a simple plan--a
square curtain, with a bastion at each corner, encloses a massive
circular tower. The gate faces the North River, and a bridge, which
admits of being raised and lowered, connects this outwork with the north
wall of the city, which at this point is in good preservation. The fort
is roomy; two or three hundred men could find quarters there; and
although it is, under modern conditions, of little use against an enemy
from without, it occupies a position of considerable strength with
regard to the city itself. It formed at this time the headquarters and
residence of the Commandant of the garrison, a post held by the heir to
the throne, the Prince of Slavna.

In spite of the flatness of the surrounding country, the appearance of
Slavna is not unpicturesque. Time and the hand of man (the people are a
color-loving race) have given many tints, soft and bright, to the roofs,
gables, and walls of the old quarter in the north town, over which
Suleiman's Tower broods with an antique impressiveness. Behind the
pleasant residences which border on the southern boulevard lie handsome
streets of commercial buildings and shops, these last again glowing with
diversified and gaudy colors. In the centre of the city, where, but for
its bisection, we may imagine the Krath would have run, a pretty little
canal has been made by abstracting water from the river and conducting
it through the streets. On either side of this stream a broad road runs.
Almost exactly midway through the city the roads broaden and open into
the spacious Square of St. Michael, containing the cathedral, the fine
old city hall, several good town-houses dating two or three hundred
years back, barracks, and the modern but not unsightly Government
offices. Through this square and the streets leading to it from west
and east there now runs an excellent service of electric cars; but at
the date with which we are concerned a crazy fiacre or a crazier omnibus
was the only public means of conveyance. Not a few good private
equipages were, however, to be seen, for the Kravonians have been from
of old lovers of horses. The city has a population bordering on a
hundred thousand, and, besides being the principal depot and centre of
distribution for a rich pastoral and agricultural country, it transacts
a respectable export trade in hides and timber. It was possible for a
careful man to grow rich in Slavna, even though he were not a politician
nor a Government official.

Two or three years earlier, an enterprising Frenchman of the name of
Rousseau had determined to provide Slavna with a first-rate modern hotel
and _café_. Nothing could have consorted better with the views of King
Alexis Stefanovitch, and Monsieur Rousseau obtained, on very favorable
terms, a large site at the southeast end of the city, just where the
North and South rivers reunite. Here he built his hostelry and named it
_pietatis causâ_, the Hôtel de Paris. A fine terrace ran along the front
of the house, abutting on the boulevard and affording a pleasant view of
the royal park and the Palace in the distance on the opposite bank.

On this terrace, it being a fine October morning, sat Sophy, drinking a
cup of chocolate.

The scene before her, if not quite living up to the name of the hotel,
was yet animated enough. A score of handsome carriages drove by, some
containing gayly dressed ladies, some officers in smart uniforms. Other
officers rode or walked by; civil functionaries, journalists, and a
straggling line of onlookers swelled the stream which set towards the
Palace. Awaking from a reverie to mark the unwonted stir, Sophy saw the
leaders of the informal procession crossing the ornamental iron bridge
which spanned the Krath, a quarter of a mile from where she sat, and
gave access to the King's demesne on the left bank.

"Right bank--left bank! It sounds like home!" she thought to herself,
smiling perhaps rather bitterly. "Home!" Her home now was a single room
over a goldsmith's shop, whither she had removed to relieve Marie
Zerkovitch from a hospitality too burdensome, as Sophy feared, for her
existing resources to sustain.

The reverie bore breaking; it had been none too pleasant; in it sad
memories disputed place with present difficulties. Some third or so
remained of Lady Meg's hundred-pound note. Necessity had forced a use of
the money at any cost to pride. When all was gone, Sophy would have to
depend on what is so often a last and so often a vain refuge--the
teaching of French; it was the only subject which she could claim to
teach. Verily, it was a poor prospect; it was better to look at the
officers and the ladies than to think of it--ay, better than to think of
Casimir and of what lay in the past. With her strong will she strove to
steel herself alike against recollection and against apprehension.

The _café_ was nearly deserted; the hour was too early for the citizens,
and Sophy's own chocolate had been merely an excuse to sit down. Yet
presently a young officer in a hussar uniform stopped his horse opposite
the door, and, giving over the reins to an orderly who attended him,
nimbly dismounted. Tall and fair, with a pleasant, open face, he wore
his finery with a dashing air, and caressed a delicate, upturned
mustache as he glanced round, choosing his seat. The next moment he
advanced towards Sophy; giving her a polite salute, he indicated the
little table next to hers.

"Mademoiselle permits?" he asked. "She has, I fear, forgotten, but I
have the honor to be an acquaintance of hers."

"I remember," smiled Sophy. "Captain Markart? We met at Madame
Zerkovitch's."

"Oh, that's pleasant of you!" he cried. "I hate being clean forgotten.
But I fear you remember me only because I sang so badly!"

"I remember best that you said you wanted to go and help France, but
your General wouldn't let you."

"Ah, I know why you remember that--you especially! Forgive me--our
friend Marie Zerkovitch told me." He turned away for a moment to give an
order to the waiter.

"What's going on to-day?" asked Sophy. "Where's everybody going?"

"Why, you are a stranger, mademoiselle!" he laughed. "It's the King's
name-day, and we all go and congratulate him."

"Is that it? Are you going?"

"Certainly; in attendance on my General--General Stenovics. My lodgings
are near here, his house at the other end of the boulevard, so he gave
me leave to meet him here. I thought I would come early and fortify
myself a little for the ordeal. To mademoiselle's good health!" He
looked at her with openly admiring eyes, to which tribute Sophy accorded
a lazy, unembarrassed smile. She leaned her chin on her hand, turning
her right cheek towards him. Sophy was never disdainful, never
neglectful; her pose now was good.

"What sort of a man is the King?" she asked.

"The King is most emphatically a very good sort of fellow--a very good
old fellow. I only wish his son was like him! The Prince is a Tartar.
Has he gone by yet?"

"I don't think so. I suppose he'd have an escort, wouldn't he? I don't
know him by sight yet. Does everybody call the King a good fellow?"

"Some people are so extremely righteous!" pleaded Markart, ruefully.
"And, anyhow, he has reformed now."

"Because he's old?"

"Fifty-nine! Is that so very old? No; I rather attribute it--you're
discreet, I hope? I'm putting my fortunes in your hands--to Madame la
Comtesse."

"The Countess Ellenburg? Marie has told me something about her."

"Ah! Madame Zerkovitch is a friend of hers?"

"Not intimate, I think. And is the Countess oppressively respectable,
Captain Markart?"

"Women in her position always are," said the Captain, with an affected
sigh: his round, chubby face was wrinkled with merriment. "You see, a
morganatic marriage isn't such a well-established institution here as in
some other countries. Oh, it's legal enough, no doubt, if it's agreed to
on that basis. But the Stefanovitches have in the past often made
non-royal marriages--with their own subjects generally. Well, there was
nobody else for them to marry! Alexis got promotion in his first
marriage--an Italian Bourbon, which is always respectable, if not very
brilliant. That gave us a position, and it couldn't be thrown away. So
the second marriage had to be morganatic. Only--well, women are
ambitious, and she has a young son who bears the King's name--a boy
twelve years old."

He looked reflectively at his polished boots. Sophy sat in thoughtful
silence. A jingle of swords and the clatter of hoofs roused them. A
troop of soldiers rode by. Their uniform was the same smart tunic of
light blue, with black facings, as adorned Captain Markart's shapely
person.

"Ah, here's the Prince!" said Markart, rising briskly to his feet. Sophy
followed his example, though more in curiosity than respect.

The young man at the head of the troop returned Markart's salute, but
was apparently unconscious of the individual from whom it proceeded. He
rode by without turning his head or giving a glance in the direction of
the _café_ terrace. Sophy saw a refined profile, with a straight nose,
rather short, and a pale cheek: there was little trace of the Bourbon
side of the pedigree.

"He's on his promotion, too," continued the loquacious and irreverent
Captain, as he resumed his seat. "They want a big fish for
him--something German, with a resounding name. Poor fellow!"

"Well, it's his duty," said Sophy.

"Somebody who'll keep the Countess in order, eh?" smiled Markart,
twirling his mustache. "That's about the size of it, I expect, though
naturally the General doesn't show me his hand. I only tell you common
gossip."

"I think you hardly do yourself justice. You've been very interesting,
Captain Markart."

"I tell you what," he said, with an engaging candor, "I believe that
somehow the General makes me chatter just to the extent he wants me to,
and then stops me. I don't know how he does it; it's quite unconscious
on my part. I seem to say just what I like!"

They laughed together over this puzzle. "You mean General Stenovics?"
asked Sophy.

"Yes, General Stenovics. Ah, here he is!" He sprang up again and made a
low bow to Sophy. "Au revoir, mademoiselle. A thousand thanks!"

He saluted her and hurried to the side of the pavement. General
Stenovics rode up, with two orderlies behind him. Saluting again,
Markart mounted his horse. The General brought his to a stand and waited
the necessary moment or two with a good-humored smile. His eye wandered
from the young officer to the presumable cause of his lack of vigilance.
Sophy felt the glance rest on her face. In her turn she saw a stout,
stumpy figure, clad in a rather ugly dark-green uniform, and a heavy,
olive-tinted face adorned with a black mustache and a stubbly gray
beard. General Stenovics, President of the Council of Ministers, was not
an imposing personage to the outward view. But Sophy returned the regard
of his prominent pale-blue eyes (which sorted oddly with the complexion
of his face) with vivid attention. The General rode on, Markart
following, but turning in his saddle to salute once more and to wave his
hand in friendly farewell.

For the first time since her arrival in Slavna, Sophy was conscious of a
stir of excitement. Life had been dull and heavy; the mind had enjoyed
little food save the diet of sad memories. To-day she seemed to be
brought into sight of living interests again. They were far off, but
they were there; Markart's talk had made a link between them and her.
She sat on for a long while, watching the junction of the streams and
the broad current which flowed onward past the Palace, on its long
journey to the sea. Then she rose with a sigh; the time drew near for a
French lesson. Marie Zerkovitch had already got her two pupils.

When General Stenovics had ridden three or four hundred yards, he
beckoned his aide-de-camp and secretary--for Markart's functions were
both military and civil--to his side.

"We're last of all, I suppose?" he asked.

"Pretty nearly, sir."

"That must be his Royal Highness just crossing the bridge?"

"Yes, sir, that's his escort."

"Ah, well, we shall just do it! And who, pray"--the General turned round
to his companion--"is that remarkable-looking young woman you've managed
to pick up?"

Markart told what he knew of Mademoiselle de Gruche; it was not much.

"A friend of the Zerkovitches? That's good. A nice fellow,
Zerkovitch--and his wife's quite charming. And your friend--?"

"I can hardly call her that, General."

"Tut, tut! You're irresistible, I know. Your friend--what did you tell
her?"

"Nothing, on my honor." The young man colored and looked a trifle
alarmed. But Stenovics's manner was one of friendly amusement.

"For an example of your 'nothing,'" he went on, "you told her that the
King was an amiable man?"

"Oh, possibly, General."

"That the Countess was a little--just a little--too scrupulous?"

"It was nothing, surely, to say that?"

"That we all wanted the Prince to marry?"

"I made only the most general reference to that, sir."

"That--" he looked harder at his young friend--"the Prince is not
popular with the army?"

"On my honor, no!"

"Think, think, Markart."

Markart searched his memory; under interrogation it accused him; his
face grew rueful.

"I did wish he was more like his Majesty. I--I did say he was a Tartar."

Stenovics chuckled in apparent satisfaction at his own perspicacity. But
his only comment was: "Then your remarkably handsome young friend knows
something about us already. You're an admirable cicerone to a stranger,
Markart."

"I hope you're not annoyed, sir. I--I didn't tell any secrets?"

"Certainly not, Markart. Three bits of gossip and one lie don't make up
a secret between them. Come, we must get along."

Markart's face cleared; but he observed that the General did not tell
him which was the lie.

This day Sophy began the diary; the first entry is dated that afternoon.
Her prescience--or presentiment--was not at fault. From to-day events
moved fast, and she was strangely caught up in the revolutions of the
wheel.



II

AT THE GOLDEN LION


It was the evening of the King's name-day. There was a banquet at the
Palace, and the lights in its windows twinkled in sympathetic response
to the illuminations which blazed on the public buildings and principal
residences of Slavna. Everywhere feasting and revelry filled the night.
The restaurant of the Hôtel de Paris was crowded, every seat on its
terrace occupied; the old Inn of the Golden Lion, opposite the barracks
in the Square of St. Michael, a favorite resort of the officers of the
garrison, did a trade no less good; humbler hostelries were full of
private soldiers, and the streets themselves of revellers male and
female, military and civil, honest and dishonest, drunk and sober.
Slavna had given itself up to a frolic; for, first, a _fête_ is a
_fête_, no matter what its origin; secondly, King Alexis was the most
popular man in his dominions, though he never did a decent day's work
for them; lastly, there is often no better way to show how much you hate
one man than by making a disproportionate fuss about another. It was
well understood that by thus honoring King Alexis, its Monarch, by thus
vociferously and untiringly wishing him the longest of reigns, Slavna
was giving a stinging back-hander to Prince Sergius, its titular Prince
and Commandant. You would see the difference when the Prince's day came
round! When General Stenovics pointed to the lights gleaming across the
Krath from the Palace windows and congratulated his Royal Highness on
the splendid popularity of the reigning House, the Prince's smile may
well have been ironical.

"I shall go and see all this merriment for myself at close quarters
presently, General," said he. "I think the Commandant had best return to
the city to-night as early as the King will allow."

"An admirable devotion to duty, sir," answered the General gravely, and
without any effort to dissuade the zealous Prince.

But even in this gay city there was one spot of gloom, one place where
sullen rancor had not been ousted by malicious merriment. The first
company of his Majesty's Guards was confined to its barracks in the
Square of St. Michael by order of the Commandant of Slavna; this by
reason of high military misdemeanors--slackness when on duty, rioting
and drunkenness when on leave; nor were the officers any better than the
men. "You are men of war in the streets, men of peace in the ranks,"
said the Commandant to them that morning in issuing his decree. "You
shall have a quiet evening to think over your short-comings." The order
was reported to the King; he sighed, smiled, shook his head, said that,
after all, discipline must be vindicated, and looked at his son with
mingled admiration and pity. Such a faculty for making himself, other
people, and things in general uncomfortable! But, of course, discipline!
The Commandant looked stern, and his father ventured on no opposition or
appeal. General Stenovics offered no remonstrance either, although he
had good friends in the offending company. "He must do as he likes--so
long as he's Commandant," he said to Markart.

"May I go and see them and cheer them up a bit, sir, instead of coming
with you to the Palace?" asked that good-natured young man.

"If his Royal Highness gives you leave, certainly," agreed the General.

The Commandant liked Markart. "Yes--and tell them what fools they are,"
he said, with a smile.

Markart found the imprisoned officers at wine after their dinner; the
men had resigned themselves to fate and gone to bed. Markart delivered
his message with his usual urbane simplicity. Lieutenant Rastatz giggled
uneasily--he had a high falsetto laugh. Lieutenant Sterkoff frowned
peevishly. Captain Mistitch rapped out a vicious oath and brought his
great fist down on the table. "The evening isn't finished yet," he said.
"But for this cursed fellow I should have been dining with Vera at the
Hôtel de Paris to-night!"

Whereupon proper condolences were offered to their Captain by his
subalterns, who, in fact, held him in no small degree of fear. He was a
huge fellow, six feet three and broad as a door; a great bruiser and a
duellist of fame; his nickname was Hercules. His florid face was flushed
now with hot anger, and he drank his wine in big gulps.

"How long are we to stand it?" he growled. "Are we school-girls?"

"Come, come, it's only for one evening," pleaded Markart. "One quiet
evening won't hurt even Captain Hercules!"

The subalterns backed him with a laugh, but Mistitch would have none of
it. He sat glowering and drinking still, not to be soothed and decidedly
dangerous. From across the square came the sound of music and singing
from the Golden Lion. Again Mistitch banged the table.

"Listen there!" he said. "That's pleasant hearing while we're shut up
like rats in a trap--and all Slavna laughing at us!"

Markart shrugged his shoulders and smoked in silence; to argue with the
man was to court a quarrel; he began to repent of his well-meant visit.
Mistitch drained his glass.

"But some of us have a bit of spirit left, and so Master Sergius shall
see," he went on. He put out a great hand on either side and caught
Sterkoff and Rastatz by their wrists. "We're the fellows to show him!"
he cried.

Sterkoff seemed no bad choice for such an enterprise--a wiry, active
fellow, with a determined, if disagreeable, face, and a nasty squint in
his right eye. But Rastatz, with his slim figure, weak mouth, and high
laugh, promised no great help; yet in him fear of Mistitch might
overcome all other fear.

"Yes, we three'll show him! And now"--he rose to his feet, dragging the
pair up with him--"for a song and a bottle at the Golden Lion!"

Rastatz gasped, even Sterkoff started. Markart laughed: it could be
nothing more than a mad joke. Cashiering was the least punishment which
would await the act.

"Yes, we three together!" He released them for a moment and caught up
his sword and cap. Then he seized Rastatz's wrist again and squeezed it
savagely. "Come out of your trap with me, you rat!" he growled, in
savage amusement at the young man's frightened face.

Sterkoff gained courage. "I'm with you, Hercules!" he cried. "I'm for
to-night--the devil take to-morrow morning!"

"You're all drunk," said Markart, in despairing resignation.

"We'll be drunker before the night's out," snarled Mistitch. "And if I
meet that fellow when I'm drunk, God help him!" He laughed loudly. "Then
there might be a chance for young Alexis, after all!"

The words alarmed Markart. Young Count Alexis was the King's son by
Countess Ellenburg. A chance for young Alexis!

"For Heaven's sake, go to bed!" he implored.

Mistitch turned on him. "I don't want to quarrel with anybody in Slavna
to-night, unless I meet one man. But you can't stop me, Markart, and
you'll only do mischief by trying. Now, my boys!"

They were with him--Sterkoff with a gleam in his squinting eye, Rastatz
with a forced, uneasy giggle and shaking knees. Mistitch clapped them on
the back.

"Another bottle apiece and we'll all be heroes!" he cried. "Markart, you
go home to your mamma!"

Though given in no friendly way, this advice was wise beneath its
metaphor. But Markart did not at once obey it. He had no more authority
than power to interfere; Mistitch was his senior officer, and he had no
special orders to act. But he followed the three in a fascinated
interest, and with the hope that a very brief proof of his freedom would
content the Captain. Out from the barracks the three marched. The sentry
at the gate presented arms, but tried to bar their progress. With a
guffaw and a mighty push Mistitch sent him sprawling. "The Commandant
wants us, you fool!" he cried--and the three were in the square.

"What the devil will come of this business?" thought Markart, as he
followed them over the little bridge which spanned the canal, and thence
to the door of the Golden Lion. Behind them still he passed the seats on
the pavement and entered the great saloon. As Mistitch and his
companions came in, three-fourths of the company sprang to their feet
and returned the salute of the new-comers; so strongly military in
composition was the company--officers on one side of a six-feet-high
glass screen which cut the room in two, sergeants and their inferiors on
the other. A moment's silence succeeded the salute. Then a young officer
cried: "The King has interfered?" It did not occur to anybody that the
Commandant might have changed his mind and reversed his decree; for good
or evil, they knew him too well to think of that.

"The King interfered?" Mistitch echoed, in his sonorous, rolling, thick
voice. "No; we've interfered ourselves, and walked out! Does any one
object?"

He glared a challenge round. There were officers present of superior
rank--they drank their beer or wine discreetly. The juniors broke into a
ringing cheer; it was taken up and echoed back from behind the glass
screen, to which a hundred faces were in an instant glued, over which,
here and there, the head of some soldier more than common tall suddenly
projected.

"A table here!" cried Mistitch. "And champagne! Quick! Sit down, my
boys!"

A strange silence followed the impulsive cheers. Men were thinking.
Cheers first, thoughts afterwards, was the order in Slavna as in many
other cities. Now they recognized the nature of this thing, the fateful
change from sullen obedience to open defiance. Was it only a drunken
frolic--or, besides that, was it a summons to each man to choose his
side? Choosing his side might well mean staking his life.

A girl in a low-necked dress and short petticoats began a song from a
raised platform at the end of the room. She was popular, and the song a
favorite. Nobody seemed to listen; when she ended, nobody applauded.
Mistitch had been whispering with Sterkoff, Rastatz sitting silent,
tugging his slender, fair mustache. But none of the three had omitted to
pay their duty to the bottle; even Rastatz's chalky face bore a patch of
red on either cheek. Mistitch rose from his chair, glass in hand.

"Long life to the King!" he shouted. "That's loyal, isn't it? Ay,
immortal life!"

The cheers broke out again, mingled with laughter. A voice cried: "Hard
on his heir, Captain Hercules!"

"Ay!" Mistitch roared back. "Hard as he is on us, my friend!"

Another burst of cheering--and again that conscience-smitten silence.

Markart had found a seat, near the door and a good way from the
redoubtable Mistitch and his companions. He looked at his watch--it was
nearly ten; in half an hour General Stenovics would be leaving the
Palace, and it was meet that he should know of all this as soon as
possible. Markart made up his mind that he would slip away soon; but
still the interest of the scene, the fascination of this prelude--such
it seemed to him--held his steps bound.

Suddenly a young man of aristocratic appearance rose from a table at the
end of the room, where he had been seated in company with a pretty and
smartly dressed girl. A graceful gesture excused him to his fair
companion, and he threaded his way deftly between the jostling tables to
where Mistitch sat. He wore Court dress and a decoration. Markart
recognized in the young man Baron von Hollbrandt, junior Secretary of
the German Legation in Slavna.

Hollbrandt bowed to Mistitch, with whom he was acquainted, then bent
over the giant's burly back and whispered in his ear.

"Take a friend's advice, Captain," he said. "I've been at the Palace,
and I know the Prince had permission to withdraw at half-past nine. He
was to return to Slavna then--to duty. Come, go back. You've had your
spree."

"By the Lord, I'm obliged to you!" cried Mistitch. "Lads, we're obliged
to Baron von Hollbrandt! Could you tell me the street he means to come
by? Because"--he rose to his feet again--"we'll go and meet him!"

Half the hall heard him, and the speech was soon passed on to any out of
hearing. A sparse cheer sputtered here and there, but most were silent.
Rastatz gasped again, while Sterkoff frowned and squinted villanously.
Hollbrandt whispered once more, then stood erect, shrugged his
shoulders, bowed, and walked back to his pretty friend. He sat down and
squeezed her hand in apology; the pair broke into laughter a moment
later. Baron von Hollbrandt felt that he at least had done his duty.

The three had drunk and drunk; Rastatz was silly, Sterkoff vicious, the
giant Mistitch jovially and cruelly reckless, exalted not only by liquor
but with the sense of the part he played. Suddenly from behind the glass
screen rose a mighty roar:

"Long live Mistitch! Down with tyrants! Long live Captain Hercules!"

It was fuel to the flames. Mistitch drained his glass and hurled it on
the floor.

"Well, who follows me?" he cried.

Half the men started to their feet; the other half pulled them down.
Contending currents of feeling ran through the crowd; a man was reckless
this moment, timid the next; to one his neighbor gave warning, to
another instigation. They seemed poised on the point of a great
decision. Yet what was it they were deciding? They could not tell.

Markart suddenly forgot his caution. He rushed to Mistitch, with his
hands out and "For God's sake!" loud on his lips.

"You!" cried Mistitch. "By Heaven! what else does your General want?
What else does Matthias Stenovics want? Tell me that!"

A silence followed--of dread suspense. Men looked at one another in fear
and doubt. Was that true which Mistitch said? They felt as ordinary men
feel when the edge of the curtain is lifted from before high schemes or
on intrigues of the great.

"If I should meet the Prince to-night, wouldn't there be news for
Stenovics?" cried Mistitch, with a roar of laughter.

If he should meet the Prince! The men at the tables could not make up
their minds to that. Mistitch they admired and feared, but they feared
the proud Prince, too; they had many of them felt the weight of his
anger. Those who had stood up sank back in their places. One pot-bellied
fellow raised a shout of hysterical laughter round him by rubbing his
fat face with a napkin and calling out: "I should like just one minute
to think about that meeting, Captain Hercules!"

Markart had shrunk back, but Mistitch hurled a taunt at him and at all
the throng.

"You're curs, one and all! But I'll put a heart in you yet! And now"--he
burst into a new guffaw--"my young friends and I are going for a walk.
What, aren't the streets of Slavna free to gentlemen? My friends and I
are going for a walk. If we meet anybody on the pavement--well, he must
take to the road. We're going for a walk."

Amid a dead silence he went out, his two henchmen after him. He and
Sterkoff walked firm and true--Rastatz lurched in his gait. A thousand
eyes followed their exit, and from five hundred throats went up a long
sigh of relief that they were gone. But what had they gone to do? The
company decided that it was just as well for them, whether collectively
or as individuals, not to know too much about that. Let it be hoped that
the cool air outside would have a sobering effect and send them home to
bed! Yet from behind the glass screen there soon arose again a busy
murmur of voices, like the hum of a beehive threatened with danger.

"A diplomatic career is really full of interest, ma chère," observed
Baron von Hollbrandt to his fair companion. "It would be difficult to
see anything so dramatic in Berlin!"

His friend's pretty blue eyes lit up with an eager intensity as she took
the cigarette from between her lips. Her voice was full of joyful
excitement:

"Yes, it's to death between that big Mistitch and the Prince--the blood
of one or both of them, you'll see!"

"You are too deliciously Kravonian," said Hollbrandt, with a laugh.

Outside, big Mistitch had crossed the canal and come to the corner where
the Street of the Fountain opens on to St. Michael's Square. "What say
you to a call at the Hôtel de Paris, lads?" he said.

"Hist!" Sterkoff whispered. "Do you hear that step--coming up the street
there?"

The illuminations burned still in the Square and sent a path of light
down the narrow street. The three stopped and turned their heads.
Sterkoff pointed. Mistitch looked--and smacked his ponderous thigh.



III

THE VIRGIN WITH THE LAMP


Whatever Marie Zerkovitch's feelings might be, Fate had its hand on her
and turned her to its uses. It was she who had directed Sophy's steps to
the old house ten doors down the Street of the Fountain from St.
Michael's Square. It was no more than half a mile from her own villa on
the south boulevard (from which the Street ran to the Square), and she
had long known the decent old couple--German Jews--who lived and carried
on their trade in the house over whose front hung the sign of the Silver
Cock. The face of the building was covered with carved timbers of great
age; the door of the shop stood far back within a black and ancient
porch. Behind the shop were a couple of rooms where Meyerstein and his
wife lived; above it one large room, with a window which jutted far out
over the narrow street. In this room, which was reached by a separate
door in the left side of the porch and a crazy flight of a dozen winding
stairs, lived Sophy, and thence she sallied out daily to give her
lessons to her two pupils.

By the window she sat on the night of the King's name-day, on a low
chair. The heavy figure of a girl carrying a lamp--a specimen of her
landlord's superfluous stock--stood unemployed on the window-sill. The
room was dark, for the path of light from the illuminations, which made
the roadway below white, threw hardly a gleam on to its sombre walls;
but Sophy had no need of a lamp and every need to save her money. She
sat in the gloom, busy in thought, the fresh evening air breathing soft
and cool on her brow from the open window.

Swift to build on slenderest foundations, avid to pile imagination on
imagination till the unsubstantial structure reached the skies, her mind
was at work to-night. The life and stir, the heat and tumult, of the
city, were fuel to her dreams. Chances and happenings were all about
her; they seemed to lie, like the water for Tantalus, just beyond the
reach of her finger-tips; her eyes pierced to the vision of them through
the dusky blackness of the ancient room. In response to the confused yet
clamorous cry of the life around her, her spirit awoke. Dead were the
dear dead; but Sophy was alive. But to be a starving French mistress at
Slavna--was that a chance? Yes, a better than being cook-maid at
Morpingham; and even in the kitchen at Morpingham Fortune had found her
and played with her awhile. For such frolics and such favor, however
fickle, however hazardous, Sophy Grouch of Morpingham was ever ready.
Dunstanbury had come to Morpingham--and Lady Meg. Paris had brought the
sweet hours and the gracious memory of Casimir de Savres. Should Slavna
lag behind? Who would come now? Ever the highest for Sophy Grouch! The
vision of the royal escort and its pale young leader flashed in the
darkness before her eagerly attendant eyes.

Suddenly she raised her head. There was a wild, quick volley of
cheering; it came from the Golden Lion, whose lights across the Square a
sideways craning of her neck enabled her to see. Then there was silence
for minutes. Again the sound broke forth, and with it confused shoutings
of a name she could not make out. Yes--what was it? Mistitch--Mistitch!
That was her first hearing of the name.

Silence fell again, and she sank back into her chair. The lights, the
stir, the revelry were not for her, nor the cheers nor the shouts. A
moment of reaction and lassitude came on her, a moment when the present,
the actual, lapped her round with its dim, muddy flood of vulgar
necessity and sordid needs. With a sob she bowed her head to meet her
hands--a sob that moaned a famine of life, of light, of love. "Go back
to your scullery, Sophy Grouch!" What voice had said that? She sprang to
her feet with fists clinched, and whispered to the darkness: "No!"

In the street below, Mistitch slapped his thigh.

Sophy pushed her hair back from her heated forehead and looked out of
the window. To the right, some twenty yards away and just at the end of
the street, she saw the figures of three men. In the middle was one who
bulked like a young Falstaff--Falstaff with his paunch not grown; he was
flanked by two lean fellows who looked small beside him. She could not
see the faces plainly, since the light from the Square was behind them.
They seemed to be standing there and looking past the sign of the Silver
Cock along the street.

A measured, military footfall sounded on her left. Turning her head, she
saw a young man walking with head bent down and arms behind him. The
line of light struck full on him, he was plain to see as by broadest
day. He wore a costume strange to her eyes--a black sheepskin cap, a
sheepskin tunic, leather breeches, and high, unpolished boots--a rough,
plain dress; yet a broad, red ribbon crossed it, and a star glittered on
the breast; the only weapon was a short, curved scimitar. It was the
ancient costume of the Bailiff of Volseni, the head of that clan of
shepherds who pastured their flocks on the uplands. The Prince of Slavna
held the venerable office, and had been to Court in the dress
appropriate to it. He had refused to use his carriage, sending his
aides-de-camp home in it, and walked now through the streets of the city
which he had in charge. It was constantly his habit thus to walk; his
friends praised his vigilance; his foes reviled his prowling, spying
tricks; of neither blame nor praise did he take heed.

Sophy did not know the dress, but the face she knew; it had been but
lately before her dreaming eyes; she had seen it in the flesh that
morning from the terrace of the Hôtel de Paris.

The three came on from her right, one of the lean men hanging back,
lurking a little behind. They were under her window now. The Prince was
but a few yards away. Suddenly he looked up with a start--he had become
aware of their approach. But before he saw them the three had melted to
one. With a shrill cry of consternation--of uneasy courage oozing
out--Rastatz turned and fled back to the Square, heading at his top
speed for the Golden Lion. In the end he was unequal to the encounter.
Sterkoff, too, disappeared; but Sophy knew the meaning of that; he had
slipped into the shelter of the porch. Her faculties were alert now; she
would not forget where Sterkoff was! Mistitch stood alone in the centre
of the narrow street, his huge frame barely leaving room for a man to
pass on either side.

For a moment the Prince stood still, looking at the giant. Incredulity
had seemed to show first in his eyes; it changed now to a cold anger as
he recognized the Captain. He stepped briskly forward, and Sophy heard
his clear, incisive tones cut the air:

"What extraordinary emergency has compelled you to disobey my orders,
Captain Mistitch?"

"I wanted a breath of fresh air," Mistitch answered, in an easy,
insolent tone.

The Prince looked again; he seemed even more disgusted than angry now.
He thought Mistitch drunk--more drunk than in truth he was.

"Return to barracks at once and report yourself under stringent arrest.
I will deal with you to-morrow."

"And not to-night, Sergius Stefanovitch?" At least he was being as good
as his word, he was acting up to the vaunts he had thrown out so boldly
in the great hall of the Golden Lion.

"To-morrow we shall both be cooler." He was almost up to Mistitch now.
"Stand out of my way, sir."

Mistitch did not budge. "There's room for you to pass by," he said. "I
won't hurt you. But the middle of the road belongs to me to-night."

His voice seemed to grow clearer with every word; the critical encounter
was sobering him. Yet with sobriety came no diminution of defiance.
Doubtless he saw that he was in for the worst now, that forward was the
word, and retreat impossible. Probably from this moment he did not
intend the Prince to pass alive. Well, what he intended was the wish of
many; he would not lack shelter, friends, or partisans if he dared the
desperate venture. Be it said for him that there were few things he did
not dare. He dared now, growing sober, to stand by what the fumes of
wine had fired his tongue to.

For a moment after the big man's taunt the Prince stood motionless. Then
he drew his scimitar. It looked a poor, weak weapon against the sword
which sprang in answer from Mistitch's scabbard.

"A duel between gentlemen!" the Captain cried.

The Prince gave a short laugh. "You shall have no such plea at the
court-martial," he said. "Gentlemen don't waylay one another in the
streets. Stand aside!"

Mistitch laughed, and in an instant the Prince sprang at him. Sophy
heard the blades meet. Strong as death was the fascination for her
eyes--ay, for her ears, too, for she heard the quick-moving feet and the
quicker breathing of a mortal combat. But she would not look--she tried
not even to listen. Her eyes were for a man she could not see, her ears
for a man she could not hear. She remembered the lean fellow hidden in
the porch, straight under her window. She dared not call to warn the
Prince of him; a turn of the head, a moment of inattention, would cost
either combatant his life. She took the man in the porch for her own
adversary, his undoing for her share in the fight.

Very cautiously, making no sound, she took the heavy lamp--the massive
bronze figure of the girl--raised it painfully in both her hands, and
poised it half-way over the window-sill. Then she turned her eyes down
again to watch the mouth of the porch. Her rat was in that hole! Yet
suddenly the Prince came into her view; he circled half-way round
Mistitch, then sank on one knee; she heard him guard the Captain's
lunges with lightning-quick movements of his nimble scimitar. He was
trying the old trick they had practised for hundreds of years at
Volseni--to follow his parry with an upward-ripping stroke under the
adversary's sword, to strike the inner side of his forearm and cut the
tendons of the wrist. This trick big Captain Mistitch, a man of the
plains, did not know.

A jangle--a slither--a bellow of pain, of rage! The Prince had made his
stroke, the hill-men of Volseni were justified of their pupil.
Mistitch's big sword clattered on the flags. Facing his enemy, with his
back to the porch, the Prince crouched motionless on his knee; but it
was death to Mistitch to try to reach the sword with his unmaimed hand.

It was Sophy's minute; the message that it had come ran fierce through
all her veins. Straining to the weight, she raised the figure in her
hands and leaned out of the window. Yes, a lean hand with a long knife,
a narrow head, a spare, long back, crept out of the darkness of the
porch--crept silently. The body drew itself together for a fatal spring
on the unconscious Prince, for a fatal thrust. It would be death--and to
Mistitch salvation torn from the jaws of ruin.

"Surrender yourself, Captain Mistitch," said the Prince.

Mistitch's eyes went by his conqueror and saw a shadow on the path
beside the porch.

"I surrender, sir," he said.

"Then walk before me to the barracks." Mistitch did not turn. "At once,
sir!"

"Now!" Mistitch roared.

The crouching figure sprang--and with a hideous cry fell stricken on the
flags. Just below the neck, full on the spine, had crashed the Virgin
with the lamp. Sterkoff lay very still, save that his fingers scratched
the flags. Turning, the Prince saw a bronze figure at his feet, a bronze
figure holding a broken lamp. Looking up, he saw dimly a woman's white
face at a window.

Then the street was on a sudden full of men. Rastatz had burst into the
Golden Lion, all undone--nerves, courage, almost senses gone. He could
stammer no more than: "They'll fight!" and could not say who. But he had
gone out with Mistitch--and whom had they gone to meet?

A dozen officers were round him in an instant, crying: "Where? Where?"
He broke into frightened sobs, hiding his face in his hands. It was Max
von Hollbrandt who made him speak. Forgetting his pretty friend, he
sprang in among the officers, caught Rastatz by the throat, and put a
revolver to his head. "Where? In ten seconds--where?" Terror beat
terror. "The Street of the Fountain--by the Silver Cock!" the cur
stammered, and fell to his blubbering again.

The dozen officers, and more, were across the Square almost before he
had finished; Max von Hollbrandt, with half the now lessened company in
the inn, was hot on their heels.

For that night all was at an end. Sterkoff was picked up, unconscious
now. Sullen, but never cringing, Mistitch was marched off to the
guard-room and the surgeon's ministrations. Every soldier was ordered to
his quarters, the townsfolk slunk off to their homes. The street grew
empty, the glare of the illuminations was quenched. But of all this
Sophy saw nothing. She had sunk down in her chair by the window, and lay
there, save for her tumultuous breathing, still as death.

The Commandant had no fear, and would have his way. He stood alone now
in the street, looking from the dark splash of Mistitch's blood to the
Virgin with her broken lamp, and up to the window of the Silver Cock,
whence had come salvation.



IV

THE MESSAGE OF THE NIGHT


The last of the transparencies died out; the dim and infrequent
oil-lamps alone lit up the Street of the Fountain and St. Michael's
Square. They revelled still down at the Hôtel de Paris, whither Max von
Hollbrandt and a dozen others had hurried with the news of the evening's
great event. But here, on the borders of the old north quarter, all grew
still--the Golden Lion empty, the townsmen to their beds, the soldiers
to barracks, full of talk and fears and threats. Yet a light burned
still in the round room in the keep of Suleiman's Tower, and the
Commandant's servant still expected his royal master. Peter Vassip, a
sturdy son of Volseni, had no apprehensions--but he was very sleepy, and
he and the sentries were the only men awake. "One might as well be a
soldier at once!" he grumbled--for the men of the hills did not esteem
the Regular Army so high as it rated itself.

The Commandant lingered in the Street of the Fountain. Sergius
Stefanovitch was half a Bourbon, but it was the intellectual half. He
had the strong, concentrated, rather narrow mind of a Bourbon of before
the family decadence; on it his training at Vienna had grafted a
military precision, perhaps a pedantry, and no little added scorn of
what men called liberty and citizens called civil rights. What rights
had a man against his country? His country was in his King--and to the
King the Army was his supreme instrument. So ran his public creed, his
statesman's instinct. But beside the Bourbon mother was the Kravonian
father, and behind him the long line of mingled and vacillating fortunes
which drew descent from Stefan, Lord of Praslok, and famous reiver of
lowland herds. In that stock the temperament was different: indolent to
excess sometimes, ardent to madness at others, moderate seldom. When the
blood ran hot, it ran a veritable fire in the veins.

And for any young man the fight in the fantastically illuminated night,
the Virgin with the broken lamp, a near touch of the scythe of death,
and a girl's white face at the window? Behind the Commandant's stern
wrath--nay, beside--and soon before it--for the moment dazzling his
angry eyes--came the bright gleams of romance.

He knew who lodged at the sign of the Silver Cock. Marie Zerkovitch was
his friend, Zerkovitch his zealous follower. The journalist was back now
from the battle-fields of France and was writing articles for _The
Patriot_, a leading paper of Slavna. He was deep in the Prince's
confidence, and his little house on the south boulevard often received
this distinguished guest. The Prince had been keen to hear from
Zerkovitch of the battles, from Marie of the life in Paris; with Marie's
tale came the name, and what she knew of the story, of Sophie de Gruche.
Yet always, in spite of her praises of her friend, Marie had avoided any
opportunity of presenting her to the Prince. Excuse on excuse she made,
for his curiosity ranged round Casimir de Savres's bereaved lover. "Oh,
I shall meet her some day all the same," he had said, laughing; and
Marie doubted whether her reluctance--a reluctance to herself
strange--had not missed its mark, inflaming an interest which it had
meant to balk. Why this strange reluctance? So far it was proved
baseless. His first encounter with the Lady of the Red Star--Casimir's
poetical sobriquet had passed Marie's lips--had been supremely
fortunate.

From the splash of blood to the broken Virgin, from the broken Virgin to
the open window and the dark room behind, his restless glances sped.
Then came swift, impulsive decision. He caught up the bronze figure and
entered the porch. He knew Meyerstein's shop, and that from it no
staircase led to the upper floor. The other door was his mark, and he
knocked on it, raising first with a cautious touch, then more
resolutely, the old brass hand with hospitably beckoning finger which
served for knocker. Then he listened for a footstep on the stairs. If
she came not, the venturesome night went ungraced by its crowning
adventure. He must kiss the hand that saved him before he slept.

The door opened softly. In the deep shadow of the porch, on the winding,
windowless staircase of the old house, it was pitch dark. He felt a hand
put in his and heard a low voice saying: "Come, Monseigneur." From first
to last, both in speech and in writing, she called him by that title and
by none other. Without a word he followed her, picking his steps, till
they reached her room. She led him to the chair by the window; the
darkness was somewhat less dense there. He stood by the chair.

"The lamp's broken--and there's only one match in the box!" said Sophy,
with a low laugh. "Shall we use it now--or when you go, Monseigneur?"

"Light it now. My memory, rather than my imagination!"

She struck the match; her face came upon him white in the darkness, with
the mark on her cheek a dull red; but her eyes glittered. The match
flared and died down.

"It is enough. I shall remember."

"Did I kill him?"

"I don't know whether he's killed--he's badly hurt. This lady here is
pretty heavy."

"Give her to me. I'll put her in her place." She took the figure and set
it again on the window-sill. "And the big man who attacked you?"

"Mistitch? He'll be shot."

"Yes," she agreed with calm, unquestioning emphasis.

"You know what you did to-night?"

"I had the sense to think of the man in the porch."

"You saved my life."

Sophy gave a laugh of triumph. "What will Marie Zerkovitch say to that?"

"She's my friend, too, and she's told me all about you. But she didn't
want us to meet."

"She thinks I bring bad luck."

"She'll have to renounce that heresy now." He felt for the chair and sat
down, Sophy leaning against the window-sill.

"Why did they attack you?"

He told her of the special grudge which Mistitch and his company had
against him, and added: "But they all hate me, except my own fellows
from Volseni. I have a hundred of them in Suleiman's Tower, and they're
stanch enough."

"Why do they hate you?"

"Oh, I'm their school-master--and a very strict one, I suppose. Or, if
you like, the pruning-knife--and that's not popular with the rotten
twigs."

"There are many rotten twigs?"

She heard his hands fall on the wooden arms of the chair and pictured
his look of despair. "All--almost all. It's not their fault. What can
you expect? They're encouraged to laziness and to riot. They have no
good rifles. The city is left defenceless. I have no big guns." He broke
suddenly into a low laugh. "There--that's what Zerkovitch calls my fixed
idea; he declares it's written on my heart--big guns!"

"If you had them, you'd be--master?"

"I could make some attempt at a defence anyhow; at least we could cover
a retreat to the hills, if war came." He paused. "And in peace--yes, I
should be master of Slavna. I'd bring men from Volseni to serve the
guns." His voice had grown vindictive. "Stenovics knows that, I think."
He roused himself again and spoke to her earnestly. "Listen. This fellow
Mistitch is a great hero with the soldiers and the mob. When I have him
shot, as I shall--not on my own account, I could have killed him
to-night, but for the sake of discipline--there will very likely be a
disturbance. What you did to-night will be all over the city by
to-morrow morning. If you see any signs of disturbance, if any people
gather round here, go to Zerkovitch's at once--or, if that's not
possible or safe, come to me in Suleiman's Tower, and I'll send for
Marie Zerkovitch too. Will you promise? You must run no risk."

"I'll come if I'm afraid."

"Or if you ought to be?" he insisted, laughing again.

"Well, then--or if I ought to be," she promised, joining in his laugh.
"But the King--isn't he with you?"

"My father likes me; we're good friends. But 'like father, unlike son'
they say of the Stefanovitches. I'm a martinet, they tell me; well,
he--isn't. Nero fiddled--you remember? The King goes fishing. He's
remarkably fond of fishing, and his advisers don't discourage him. I
tell you all this because you're committed to our side now."

"Yes, I'm committed to your side. Who else is with you?"

"In Slavna? Nobody! Well, the Zerkovitches, and my hundred in Suleiman's
Tower. And perhaps some old men who have seen war. But at Volseni and
among the hills they're with me." Again he seemed to muse as he reviewed
his scanty forces.

"I wish we had another match. I want to see your face close," said
Sophy. He rose with a laugh and leaned his head forward to the window.
"Oh no; you're nothing but a blur still!" she exclaimed impatiently.

Yet, though Sophy sighed for light, the darkness had its glamour. To
each the other's presence, seeming in some sense impalpable, seemed also
diffused through the room and all around; the world besides was
non-existent since unseen; they two alone lived and moved and spoke in
the dead silence and the blackness. An agitation stirred Sophy's
heart--forerunner of the coming storm. That night she had given him
life; he seemed to be giving back life to her life that night. How
should the hour not seem pregnant with destiny, a herald of the march of
Fate?

But suddenly the Prince awoke from his reverie--perhaps from a dream. To
Sophy he gave the impression--as he was to give it more than once
again--of a man pulling himself up, tightening the rein, drawing back
into himself. He stood erect, his words became more formal, and his
voice restrained.

"I linger too long," he said. "My duty lies at the Tower yonder. I've
thanked you badly; but what thanks can a man give for his life? We shall
meet again--I'll arrange that with Marie Zerkovitch. You'll remember
what I've told you to do in case of danger? You'll act on it?"

"Yes, Monseigneur."

He sought her hand, kissed it, and then groped his way to the stairs.
Sophy followed and went with him down to the porch.

"Be careful to lock your door," he enjoined her, "and don't go out
to-morrow unless the streets are quite quiet."

"Oh, but I've a French lesson to give at ten o'clock," she remonstrated
with a smile.

"You have to do that?"

"I have to make my living, Monseigneur."

"Ah, yes," he said, meditatively. "Well, slip out quietly--and wear a
veil."

"Nobody knows my face."

"Wear a veil. People notice a face like yours. Again thanks, and
good-night."

Sophy peeped out from the porch and watched his quick, soldierly march
up the street to St. Michael's Square. The night had lightened a little,
and she could make out his figure, although dimly, until he turned the
corner and was lost to sight. She lingered for a moment before turning
to go back to her room--lingered musing on the evening's history.

Down the street, from the Square, there came a woman--young or old,
pretty or ugly, fine dame or drudge, it was too dark to tell. But it was
a woman, and she wept as though her heart were broken. For whom and for
what did she weep like that? Was she mother, or wife, or sweetheart?
Perhaps she wept for Sterkoff, who lay in peril of death. Perhaps she
loved big Mistitch, over whom hovered the shadow of swift and relentless
doom. Or maybe her sorrow was remote from all that touched them or
touched the girl who listened to her sobs--the bitter sobs which she did
not seek to check, which filled the night with a dirge of immeasurable
sadness. In the darkness, and to Sophy's ignorance of anything
individual about her, the woman was like a picture or a sculpture--some
type or monument of human woe--a figure of embodied sorrow, crying that
all joy ends in tears--in tears--in tears.

She went by, not seeing her watcher. The sound of her sobbing softened
with distance, till it died down to a faint, far-off moan. Sophy herself
gave one choked sob. Then fell the silence of the night again. Was that
its last message--the last comment on what had passed? Tears--and then
silence? Was that the end?

Sophy never learned aught of the woman--who she was or why she wept. But
her memory retained the vision. It had come as the last impression of a
night no moment of which could ever be forgotten. What had it to say of
all the rest of the night's happenings? Sophy's exaltation fell from
her; but her courage stood--against darkness, solitude, and the
unutterable sadness of that forlorn wailing. Dauntlessly she looked
forward and upward still, yet with a new insight for the cost.

So for Sophy passed the name-day of King Alexis.



V

A QUESTION OF MEMORY


King Alexis was minded that all proper recognition should be made of
Sophy's service to his family. It had been her fortune to protect a life
very precious in his eyes. Alien from his son in temperament and
pursuits, he had, none the less, considerable affection for him. But
there was more than this. With the Prince was bound up the one strong
feeling of a nature otherwise easy and careless. The King might go
fishing on most lawful days, but it was always a Stefanovitch who
fished--a prince who had married a princess of a great house, and had
felt able to offer Countess Ellenburg no more than a morganatic union.
The work his marriage had begun his son's was to complete. The royal
house of Kravonia was still on its promotion; it lay with the Prince to
make its rank acknowledged and secure.

Thus Sophy's action loomed large in the King's eyes, and he was
indolently indifferent to the view taken of it in the barrack-rooms and
the drinking-shops of Slavna. Two days after Mistitch's attempt, he
received Sophy at the Palace with every circumstance of compliment. The
Prince was not present--he made military duty an excuse--but Countess
Ellenburg and her little son were in the room, and General Stenovics,
with Markart in attendance, stood beside the King's chair.

Sophy saw a tall, handsome, elderly man with thick, iron-gray hair, most
artfully arranged. (The care of it was no small part of the duty of
Lepage, the King's French body-servant.) His Majesty's manners were
dignified, but not formal. The warmth of greeting which he had prepared
for Sophy was evidently increased by the impression her appearance made
on him. He thanked her in terms of almost overwhelming gratitude.

"You have preserved the future of my family and of our dynasty," he
said.

Countess Ellenburg closed her long, narrow eyes. Everything about her
was long and narrow, from her eyes to her views, taking in, on the way,
her nose and her chin. Stenovics glanced at her with a smile of uneasy
propitiation. It was so particularly important to be gracious just
now--gracious both over the preservation of the dynasty and over its
preserver.

"No gratitude can be too great for such a service, and no mark of
gratitude too high." He glanced round to Markart, and called
good-humoredly, "You, Markart there, a chair for this lady!"

Markart got a chair. Stenovics took it from him and himself prepared to
offer it to Sophy. But the King rose, took it, and with a low bow
presented it to the favored object of his gratitude. Sophy courtesied
low, the King waited till she sat. Countess Ellenburg bestowed on her a
smile of wintry congratulation.

"But for you, these fellows might--or rather would, I think--have killed
my son in their blind drunkenness; it detracts in no way from your
service that they did not know whom they were attacking."

There was a moment's silence. Sophy was still nervous in such company;
she was also uneasily conscious of a most intense gaze directed at her
by General Stenovics. But she spoke out.

"They knew perfectly well, sir," she said.

"They knew the Prince?" he asked sharply. "Why do you say that? It was
dark."

"Not in the street, sir. The illuminations lit it up."

"But they were very drunk."

"They may have been drunk, but they knew the Prince. Captain Mistitch
called him by his name."

"Stenovics!" The King's voice was full of surprise and question as he
turned to his Minister. The General was surprised, too, but very suave.

"I can only say that I hear Mademoiselle de Gruche's words with
astonishment. Our accounts are not consistent with what she says. We
don't, of course, lay too much stress on the protestations of the two
prisoners, but Lieutenant Rastatz is clear that the street was decidedly
dark, and that they all three believed the man they encountered to be
Colonel Stafnitz of the Hussars. That officer much resembles his Royal
Highness in height and figure. In the dark the difference of uniform
would not be noticed--especially by men in their condition." He
addressed Sophy: "Mistitch had an old quarrel with Stafnitz; that's the
true origin of the affair." He turned to the King again. "That is
Rastatz's story, sir, as well as Mistitch's own--though Mistitch is, of
course, quite aware that his most unseemly, and indeed criminal, talk at
the Golden Lion seriously prejudices his case. But we have no reason to
distrust Rastatz."

"Lieutenant Rastatz ran away only because he was afraid," Sophy
remarked.

"He ran to bring help, mademoiselle," Stenovics corrected her, with a
look of gentle reproach. "You were naturally excited," he went on.
"Isn't it possible that your memory has played you a trick? Think
carefully. Two men's lives may depend on it."

"I heard Captain Mistitch call the Prince 'Sergius Stefanovitch,'" said
Sophy.

"This lady will be a most important witness," observed the King.

"Very, sir," Stenovics assented dryly.

Sophy had grown eager. "Doesn't the Prince say they knew him?"

"His Royal Highness hasn't been asked for any account at present,"
Stenovics answered.

"If they knew who it was, they must die," said the King in evident
concern and excitement.

Stenovics contented himself with a bow of obedience. The King rose and
gave Sophy his hand.

"We shall hope to see you again soon," he said, very graciously.
"Meanwhile, General Stenovics has something to say to you in my name
which will, I trust, prove agreeable to you." His eyes dwelt on her face
for a moment as she took her leave.

Stenovics made his communication later in the day, paying Sophy the high
compliment of a personal call at the sign of the Silver Cock for that
purpose. His manner was most cordial. Sophy was to receive an honorary
appointment in the Royal Household at an annual salary of ten thousand
paras, or some four hundred pounds.

"It isn't riches--we aren't very rich in Kravonia--but it will, I hope,
make you comfortable and relieve you from the tiresome lessons which
Markart tells me you're now burdened with."

Sophy was duly grateful, and asked what her appointment was.

"It's purely honorary," he smiled. "You are to be Keeper of the
Tapestries."

"I know nothing about tapestries," said Sophy, "but I dare say I can
learn; it'll be very interesting."

Stenovics leaned back in his chair with an amused smile.

"There aren't any tapestries," he said. "They were sold a good many
years ago."

"Then why do you keep a--"

"When you're older in the royal service, you'll see that it's convenient
to have a few sinecures," he told her, with a good-humored laugh. "See
how handy this one is now!"

"But I shall feel rather an impostor."

"Merely the novelty of it," he assured her consolingly.

Sophy began to laugh, and the General joined in heartily. "Well, that's
settled," said he. "You make three or four appearances at Court, and
nothing more will be necessary. I hope you like your appointment?"

Sophy laughed delightedly. "It's charming--and very amusing," she said.
"I'm getting very much interested in your country, General."

"My country is returning your kind compliment, I can assure you," he
replied. His tone had grown dry, and he seemed to be watching her now.
She waved her hands towards the Virgin with the lamp: the massive figure
stood in its old place by the window.

"What a lot I owe to her!" she cried.

"We all owe much," said Stenovics.

"The Prince thought some people might be angry with me--because Captain
Mistitch is a favorite."

"Very possible, I'm afraid, very possible. But in this world we must do
our duty, and--"

"Risk the consequences? Yes!"

"If we can't control them, Mademoiselle de Gruche." He paused a moment,
and then went on: "The court-martial on Mistitch is convened for
Saturday. Sterkoff won't be well enough to be tried for another two or
three weeks."

"I'm glad he's not dead, though if he recovers only to be shot--! Still,
I'm glad I didn't kill him."

"Not by your hand," said Stenovics.

"But you mean in effect? Well, I'm not ashamed. Surely they deserve
death."

"Undoubtedly--if Rastatz is wrong--and your memory right."

"The Prince's own story?"

"He isn't committed to any story yet."

Sophy rested her chin on her hand, and regarded her companion closely.
He did not avoid her glance.

"You're wondering what I mean?--what I'm after?" he asked her, smiling
quietly. "Oh yes, I see you are. Go on wondering, thinking, watching
things about you for a day or two--there are three days between now and
Saturday. You'll see me again before Saturday--and I've no doubt you'll
see the Prince."

"If Rastatz were right--and my memory wrong--?"

He smiled still. "The offence against discipline would be so much less
serious. The Prince is a disciplinarian. To speak with all respect, he
forgets sometimes that discipline is, in the last analysis, only a part
of policy--a means, not an end. The end is always the safety and
tranquillity of the State." He spoke with weighty emphasis.

"The offence against discipline! An attempt to assassinate--!"

"I see you cling to your own memory--you won't have anything to say to
Rastatz!" He rose and bowed over her hand. "Much may happen between now
and Saturday. Look about you, watch, and think!"

The General's final injunction, at least, Sophy lost no time in obeying;
and on the slightest thought three things were obvious: the King was
very grateful to her; Stenovics wished at any rate to appear very
grateful to her; and, for some reason or another, Stenovics wished her
memory to be wrong, to the end that the life of Mistitch and his
companion (the greater included the less) might be spared. Why did he
wish that?

Presumably--his words about the relation of discipline to policy
supported the conclusion--to avoid that disturbance which the Prince had
forecasted as the result of Mistitch's being put to death. But the
Prince was not afraid of the disturbance--why should Stenovics be? The
Commandant was all confidence--was the Minister afraid? In some sense he
was afraid. That she accepted. But she hesitated to believe that he was
afraid in the common sense that he was either lacking in nerve or
overburdened with humanity, that he either feared fighting or would
shrink from a salutary severity in repressing tumult. If he feared, he
feared neither for his own skin nor for the skin of others; he feared
for his policy or his ambition.

These things were nothing to her; she was for the Prince, for his policy
and his ambition. Were they the same as Stenovics's? Even a novice at
the game could see that this by no means followed of necessity. The King
was elderly, and went a-fishing. The Prince was young, and a martinet.
In age, Stenovics was between the two--nearly twenty years younger than
the King, a dozen or so older than the Prince. Under the present régime
he had matters almost entirely his own way. At first sight there was, of
a certainty, no reason why his ambitions should coincide precisely with
those of the Prince. Fifty-nine, forty-one, twenty-eight--the ages of
the three men in themselves illuminated the situation--that is, if
forty-one could manage fifty-nine, but had no such power over
twenty-eight.

New to such meditations, yet with a native pleasure in them, taking to
the troubled waters as though born a swimmer, Sophy thought, and
watched, and looked about. As to her own part she was clear. Whether
Rastatz was right--whether that most vivid and indelible memory of hers
was wrong--were questions which awaited the sole determination of the
Prince of Slavna.

Her attitude would have been unchanged, but her knowledge much
increased, could she have been present at a certain meeting on the
terrace of the Hôtel de Paris that same evening. Markart was there--and
little Rastatz, whose timely flight and accommodating memory rendered
him to-day not only a free man but a personage of value. But neither did
more than wait on the words of the third member of the party--that
Colonel Stafnitz of the Hussars who had an old feud with Mistitch, for
whom Mistitch had mistaken the Prince of Slavna. A most magnanimous,
forgiving gentleman, apparently, this spare, slim-built man with
thoughtful eyes; his whole concern was to get Mistitch out of the mess!
The feud he seemed to remember not at all; it was a feud of convenience,
a feud to swear to at the court-martial. He was as ready to accommodate
Stenovics with the use of his name as Rastatz was to offer the
requisite modifications of his memory. But there--with that supply of a
convenient fiction--his pliability stopped. He spoke to Markart, using
him as a conduit-pipe--the words would flow through to General
Stenovics.

"If the General doesn't want to see me now--and I can understand that he
mustn't be caught confabbing with any supposed parties to the
affair--you must make it plain to him how matters stand. Somehow and by
some means our dear Hercules must be saved. Hercules is an ass; but so
are most of the men--and all the rowdies of Slavna. They love their
Hercules, and they won't let him die without a fight--and a very big
fight. In that fight what might happen to his Royal Highness the
Commandant? And if anything did happen to him, what might happen to
General Stenovics? I don't know that either, but it seems to me that
he'd be in an awkward place. The King wouldn't be pleased with him; and
we here in Slavna--are we going to trouble ourselves about the man who
couldn't save our Hercules?"

Round-faced Markart nodded in a perplexed fashion. Stafnitz clapped him
on the shoulder with a laugh.

"For Heaven's sake don't think about it or you'll get it all mixed! Just
try to remember it. Your only business is to report what I say to the
General."

Rastatz sniggered shrilly. When the wine was not in him, he was a
cunning little rogue--a useful tool in any matter which did not ask for
courage.

"If I'd been here, Mistitch wouldn't have done the thing at all--or done
it better. But what's done is done. And we expect the General to stand
by us. If he won't, we must act for ourselves--for there'll be no
bearing our dear Commandant if we sit down under the death of Mistitch.
In short, the men won't stand it." He tapped Markart's arm. "The General
must release unto us Barabbas!"

The man's easy self-confidence, his air of authority, surprised neither
of his companions. If there were a good soldier besides the Commandant
in Slavna, Stafnitz was the man; if there were a head in Kravonia cooler
than Stenovics's, it was on the shoulders of Stafnitz. He was the brain
to Mistitch's body--the mind behind Captain Hercules's loud voice and
brawny fist.

"Tell him not to play his big stake on a bad hand. Mind you tell him
that."

"His big stake, Colonel?" asked Markart. "What do I understand by that?"

"Nothing; and you weren't meant to. But tell Stenovics--he'll
understand."

Rastatz laughed his rickety giggle again.

"Rastatz does that to make you think he understands better than you do.
Be comforted--he doesn't." Rastatz's laugh broke out again, but now
forced and uneasy. "And the girl who knocked Sterkoff out of time--I
wish she'd killed the stupid brute--what about her, Markart?"

"She's--er--a very remarkable person, Colonel."

"Er--is she? I must make her acquaintance. Good-bye, Markart."

Markart had meant to stay for half an hour, but he went.

"Good-bye, Rastatz."

Rastatz had just ordered another _liqueur_; but, without waiting to
drink it, he too went. Stafnitz sat on alone, smoking his cigar. There
were no signs of care on his face. Though not gay, it was calm and
smooth; no wrinkles witnessed to worry, nor marred the comely remains
of youth which had survived his five and thirty years.

He finished his cigar, drank his coffee, and rose to go. Then he looked
carefully round the terrace, distinguished the prettiest woman with a
momentarily lingering look, made his salute to a brother officer, and
strolled away along the boulevard.

Before he reached the barracks in St. Michael's Square he met a woman
whose figure pleased him; she was tall and lithe, moving with a free
grace. But over her face she wore a thick veil. The veil no doubt
annoyed him; but he was to have other opportunities of seeing Sophy's
face.



VI

"IMPOSSIBLE" OR "IMMEDIATE"?


Stenovics was indeed in a quandary. Mistitch had precipitated an
unwelcome and premature crisis. The Minister's deliberate, slow-moving
game was brought to a sudden issue which he was not ready to face. It
had been an essential feature--a governing rule--of his campaign to
avoid any open conflict with the Prince of Slavna until an occasion
arose on which both the army and the King would be on his side. The King
was a power not merely by reason of his cheaply won popularity, but also
because he was, while he lived, the only man who could crown Stenovics's
operations with the consummation to which the Minister and his ally,
Countess Ellenburg, looked forward with distant yet sanguine hope. The
army was with him now, but the other factor was lacking. The King's
pride, as well as his affection, was enlisted in his son's interest.
Moreover, this occasion was very bad.

Mistitch was no better than an assassin; to take up arms on his behalf
was to fight in a cause plainly disgraceful--one which would make
success very difficult and smirch it forever and beyond remedy, even if
it came. It was no cause in which to fight both Prince and King. That
would be playing the big stake on a bad hand--as Stafnitz put it.

Yet the alternative? Stafnitz, again, had put that clearly. The army
would have no more to do with the man who could not help it at the
pinch, who could not save its favorite, who could not release Barabbas.

The Prince seemed to be in his most unyielding mood--the Bourbon in him
was peeping out. For the honor of the Royal House, and for the sake of
discipline, Mistitch must die. He had packed his court-martial with the
few trustworthy friends he had among the officers, using the
justification which jury-packers always use--and sometimes have. He had
no fear of the verdict--and no heed for its unpopularity. He knew the
danger--Stenovics made no secret about that--but said plainly that he
would sooner be beaten by a mutiny than yield to the threat of one. The
first meant for him defeat, perhaps death, but not dishonor, nor
ignominy. The more Stenovics prophesied--or threatened--a revolt of the
troops, the more the Commandant stiffened his neck.

Meanwhile, Slavna waited in ominous, sullen quiet, and the atmosphere
was so stormy that King Alexis had no heart for fishing.

On Friday morning--the day before that appointed for Mistitch's
trial--the names of the members of the Court were published; the list
met with the reception which was, no doubt, anticipated even by the
Prince himself. The streets began to fill with loiterers, talkers, and
watchers; barrack-rooms were vociferous with grumbling and with
speculation. Stafnitz, with Rastatz always at his heels, was busy with
many interviews; Stenovics sat in his room, moodily staring before him,
seeking a road out of his blind alley; and a carriage drew up before the
sign of the Silver Cock as the Cathedral bells chimed noon. It was empty
inside, but by the driver sat Peter Vassip, the Prince's personal
attendant, wearing the sheepskin coat, leather breeches, and high boots
that the men of the hills wore. His business was to summon Sophy to
Suleiman's Tower.

The Square of St. Michael was full of life and bustle, the Golden Lion
did a fine trade. But the centre of interest was on the north wall and
the adjacent quays, under the shadow of Suleiman's Tower. Within those
walls were the two protagonists. Thence the Prince issued his orders;
thither Mistitch had been secretly conveyed the night before by a party
of the Prince's own guard, trustworthy Volsenians.

A crowd of citizens and soldiers was chattering and staring at the Tower
when Sophy's carriage drew up at the entrance of the bridge which,
crossing the North River, gave access to the fort. The mouth of the
bridge was guarded by fifty of those same Volsenians. They had but to
retreat and raise the bridge behind them, and Mistitch was safe in the
trap. Only--and the crowd was quick enough to understand the
situation--the prisoner's trap could be made a snare for his jailer,
too. Unless provisions could be obtained from the country round, it
would be impossible to hold the Tower for long against an enemy
controlling the butchers' and bakers' shops of Slavna. Yet it could be
held long enough to settle the business of Captain Hercules.

The shadow of the weeping woman had passed from Sophy's spirit; the sad
impression was never the lasting one with her. An hour of crisis always
found her gay. She entered the time-worn walls of Suleiman's Tower with
a thrill of pleasure, and followed Peter Vassip up the narrow stair with
a delighted curiosity. The Prince received her in the large round room,
which constituted the first floor of the central tower. Its furniture
was simple, almost rude, its massive walls quite bare save for some
pieces of ancient armor. Narrow slits, deep-set in the masonry, served
for windows and gave a view of the city and of the country round on
every side; they showed the seething throng on the north wall and on the
quays; the distant sound of a thousand voices struck the ear.

Zerkovitch and his wife were with the Prince, seated over a simple meal,
at which Sophy joined them. Marie had watched Sophy's entrance and the
Prince's greeting closely; she marked Sophy's excitement betrayed in the
familiar signal on her cheek. But the journalist was too excited on his
own account to notice other people. He was talking feverishly, throwing
his lean body about, and dashing his hands up and down; he hardly paused
to welcome the newcomer. He had a thousand plans by which the Prince was
to overcome and hold down Slavna. One and all, they had the same defect;
they supposed the absence of the danger which they were contrived to
meet. They assumed that the soldiers would obey the Commandant, even
with the sound of the rifles which had shot Mistitch fresh in their
ears.

The Prince listened good-humoredly to his enthusiastic but highly
unpractical adherent; but his mind did not follow the talk. Sophy
hearkened with the eagerness of a novice--and he watched her face. Marie
watched his, remembering how she had prayed Sophy not to come to Slavna.
Sophy was here--and Fate had thrown her across the Prince's path. With a
woman's preference for the personal, Marie was more occupied with this
situation than with the temper of the capital or the measures of the
Prince.

At last their host roused himself, and patted Zerkovitch's shoulder
indulgently.

"Well, it's good not to fear," he said. "We didn't fear the other night,
Mademoiselle de Gruche and I. And all ended well!"

"Ended?" Marie murmured, half under her breath.

The Prince laughed. "You sha'n't make me afraid," he told her, "any more
than Zerkovitch shall make me trust Colonel Stafnitz. I can't say more
than that." He turned to Sophy. "I think you'd better stay here till we
see what's going to happen to-night--and our friends here will do the
same. If all's quiet, you can go home to sleep. If not, we can give you
quarters--rough ones, I'm afraid." He rose from the table and went to a
window. "The crowd's thinner; they've gone off to eat and drink. We
shall have one quiet hour, at all events."

An orderly entered and gave him a letter.

He read it, and said: "Tell General Stenovics I will receive him here at
two o'clock." When the messenger had gone, he turned round towards the
table. "A last appeal, I suppose! With all the old arguments! But the
General has nothing to give in exchange for Mistitch. My price would be
very high."

"No price! no price!" cried fiery Zerkovitch. "He raised his sword
against you! He must die!"

"Yes, he must die." He turned to the window again. Sophy rose from the
table and joined him there, looking over the city. Directly beneath was
the great gate, flanked on either side by broad, massive walls, which
seemed to grow out of the waters of the river. He was aware of her
movement, though he had not looked round at her. "I've brought you, too,
into this trouble--you, a stranger," he said.

"You don't think I'm sorry for that?"

"No. But it makes my impotence worse." He waved his arm towards the
city. "There it is--here am I! And yet--I'm powerless!"

Sophy followed his gesture, and understood what was passing in his
mind--the pang of the soldier without his armament, the workman without
his tools. Their midnight talk flashed back into recollection. She
remembered his bitter complaint. Under her breath, and with a sigh, she
whispered: "If you had the big guns now!"

Low as the whisper was, he heard it--and it seemed to shoot through his
brain. He turned sharply round on her and gazed full into her eyes. So
he stood a moment, then quickly returned to the table and sat down.
Sophy followed, her gaze fixed on his face. Zerkovitch ceased
writing--he had been drawing up another plan; both he and Marie now
watched the Prince. Moments went by in silence.

At last the Prince spoke--in a low voice, almost dreamy. "My guns for
Mistitch! Mistitch against my guns! That would be a price--a fair
price!"

The three sat silent. The Zerkovitches, too, had heard him talk of the
guns: how on them hung the tranquillity of the city, and how on them
might hang the country's honor and existence. Stenovics could give them,
if he would, in return for Mistitch. But to give up Mistitch was a great
surrender. Sophy's whisper, almost involuntary, the voicing of a regret,
hardly even of a distant aspiration, had raised a problem of conduct, a
question of high policy. The Prince's brain was busy with it, and his
mind perplexed. Sophy sat watching him, not thinking now, but waiting,
conscious only that by what seemed almost chance a new face had, through
her, been put on the situation.

Suddenly Zerkovitch brought his clinched fist down on the table. "No!"
he almost shouted. "They'll think you're afraid!"

"Yes, they'll think that--but not all of them. Stenovics will know
better--and Stafnitz, too. They'll know I do it, not because I'm afraid,
but in order that I never need be."

"Then Stenovics won't give them!" cried Marie.

"I think he must give anything or everything for Mistitch." He rose and
paced restlessly about the room. Sophy still followed him with her eyes,
but she alone of the three offered no argument and made no suggestion.
The Prince stood still for a moment in deep thought. Then his face
cleared. He came quickly up to Sophy, took her hand, and kissed it.

"Thank you," he said. "I don't know how it will turn out for me; the
case is too difficult for me to be able to foresee that. For me it may
be mastery--I always thought it would mean that. Or perhaps, somehow, it
may turn to ruin." He pressed Sophy's hand now and smiled at her. She
understood and returned his smile. "But the question isn't one of my
interest. My duty is plain."

He walked quickly to his writing-table and unlocked a drawer. He
returned to the table with an envelope in his hand, and sat down between
Marie and Zerkovitch.

The orderly entered again, announcing Stenovics. "Let him come in here,"
said the Prince. His manner grew lighter, and the smile which had
comforted Sophy remained on his face.

Stenovics came in; his air was nervous, and he looked at the Prince's
three companions with a visible access of embarrassment. At a nod from
the Prince, the orderly placed a chair for the General, and withdrew.

"The same matter we discussed last night, General?"

"There can be but one matter in the thoughts of all of us now, sir.
Pardon me--I understood your Royal Highness would receive me alone."

The Prince gave a low laugh. "When one bargains, shouldn't one have
witnesses?"

In an instant Stenovics laid hold of the significant word; it made him
forget his request for privacy. An eager light came into his eyes.

"Bargains? You're ready now to--?"

"_La nuit porte conseil._" He drew a paper from the envelope, unfolded
it, and handed it across the table. "You remember that--a memorandum I
sent to you three months ago--in my capacity as Commandant?"

Stenovics looked at the paper. "I remember, sir."

"It's indorsed in your hand?"

"Yes."

"The indorsement runs: 'Impossible.' Rather curt, General!"

"The note was for my private use, but your Royal Highness particularly
pressed for the return of the document."

"I did. And, after all, why use more words than necessary? One will
still be enough--but not that one."

"I'm not following you, sir," said Stenovics.

The Prince leaned across the table to him. "In our conversation, last
night, you asked me to do a very remarkable thing, and to get this lady
here" (he indicated Sophy) "to do it, too. You remember? We were to
think that, at night, in the Street of the Fountain, in the light of the
illuminations, Sergius Stefanovitch and Nikolas Stafnitz looked--and
sounded--just the same. I didn't see my way to that, and I didn't think
this lady would see hers. It seemed so difficult."

Stenovics was in a strain of close attention. The paper from the
envelope crackled under the trembling of his hand.

"Now, if we had such a memory as Lieutenant Rastatz is happy enough to
possess!" the Prince pursued. "Or if Colonel Stafnitz had taken us into
his confidence about his quarrel with Captain Mistitch! All that was not
so last night. Consequently, Captain Mistitch must be tried and shot,
instead of suffering some not very severe disciplinary punishment, for
brawling in the street and having a quarrel with his superior officer."

Stenovics marked every word, and understood the implied offer. The offer
was good enough; Stafnitz himself would not and could not ask that no
notice whatever should be taken. The trifling nature of the punishment
would in itself be a great victory. But the price? He was to hear that
in a moment.

"Sergius Stefanovitch--Nikolas Stafnitz! Which was it, General? It's
only changing two words, yet what a difference it makes!"

"The difference of peace to-night or--" Stenovics waved his hand towards
the city. But the Prince interrupted him.

"Never mind that," he said, rather sharply. "That's not first in my
mind, or I should have left the matter where it rested last night. I was
thinking of the difference to Captain Mistitch--and perhaps to you,
General."

He looked full at Stenovics, and the General's eyes fell. The Prince
pointed his finger across the table at the paper under Stenovics's
hand.

"I'm a liberal bargainer," he said, "and I offer you a good margin of
profit. I'll change two words if you'll change one--two for you against
one for me! 'Sergius Stefanovitch' becomes 'Nikolas Stafnitz' if
'Impossible' becomes 'Immediate.'"

Stenovics gave one slight start, then leaned back in his chair and
looked past the Prince out of the window opposite to him.

"Make that change, and we'll settle details afterwards. I must have full
guarantees. I must see the order sent, and the money deposited in my
name and at my disposal."

"This afternoon, sir?"

"Wouldn't it be well to release Captain Mistitch from Suleiman's Tower
before to-night?"

"The money is difficult to-day."

"The release will be impossible to-morrow."

Again Stenovics's eyes wandered to the window, and a silence followed.
Perhaps he saw the big guns already in position, dominating the city;
perhaps he listened to the hum of voices which again began to swell in
volume from the wall and from the quays. There are times when a man must
buy the present with a mortgage on the future, however onerous the terms
may be. It was danger against destruction. He put out his hand and took
from Zerkovitch a quill which the journalist was twiddling in his
fingers. He made a scratch and a scribble on the paper which the Prince
had taken from the envelope.

"'Impossible' has become 'Immediate,' sir."

"And 'Sergius Stefanovitch' 'Nikolas Stafnitz,'" said the Prince. He
looked at Sophy for confirmation, and she softly clapped her hands.



VII

THE BARONESS GOES TO COURT


The troops of the garrison and their allies, the scum of the streets,
thought that they had scored a great victory and inflicted deep
humiliation on the unpopular martinet who ruled and harried them. They
celebrated the event with noisy but harmless revels, and when Captain
Hercules was seen about again (he submitted to a fortnight's confinement
to barracks with feelings in which thankfulness, though not gratitude,
predominated), he found his popularity with them greater than ever. But
in the higher circles--the inner ring--of the party he served, his
reception was not so cordial. Stenovics would not see him; Stafnitz saw
him only to express a most uncompromising judgment on his conduct.

Yielding in appearance, in point of substance the Prince of Slavna had
scored heavily. The big guns were ordered from Germany. The Prince had
the money to pay for them, and they were to be consigned to him; these
were the guarantees which he had asked from Stenovics. When the guns
came--and he had agreed to make an extra payment for early delivery--his
situation would be very different. With trusty men behind them, it would
go hard with him if he were not master of Slavna, and he had already
obtained the King's sanction to raise and train a force of artillery
from among his own men in Volseni and its neighborhood. The men of
Volseni were proof against Mistitch's bragging and the subtle indulgence
by which Stafnitz held his power over the rank and file of the army.
They were true to the Prince.

The idle King's family pride was touched; it was the one thing which
could rouse him. At his son's express request--and at that only--he
acquiesced in the release of Mistitch and his satellite Sterkoff; but he
was determined to make his own attitude clear and to do what he could to
restore the prestige of his family. The Prince said dryly that the
prestige would profit best of all by the big guns; the King was minded
to supplement their effect by something more ornate. He created a new
Order, and made his son Grand Master of it. There was no harm in that,
and Stenovics readily consented. He declared that something more must be
done for the lady to whom his son owed his life; to be made Keeper of
the Tapestries might be a convenient recompense, but was not honor
enough. Stenovics declared that any mark of favor which His Majesty
designed for Mademoiselle de Gruche might most properly be hers.
Finally, the King instructed Stenovics to concentrate all his energies
on the matrimonial negotiations. A splendid marriage would enhance and
strengthen the prestige more than anything else. Stenovics promised
zealous obedience, and withdrew full of thought. The Order was an easy
matter, and honors for Sophy did no harm. The marriage was ground much
more delicate. It touched the "big stake" which Colonel Stafnitz had so
emphatically warned the General not to play on the bad hand dealt to him
by Mistitch's blundering. But with the big guns in position, and the
sturdy men of Volseni behind them--would a good hand ever come?

There were but three in the inner secret of the scheme, but they were
three of the longest heads in Kravonia. Countess Ellenburg was a pious
woman and of exemplary demeanor; but (as Markart told Sophy) women are
ambitious, and she had borne the King a son. Stenovics saw himself cast
aside like an old glove if Prince Sergius came to the throne. Stafnitz
was a born fisher in troubled waters, and threw a skilful net. Twice
before in the country's history, intrigue had made revolution, and
changed the order of succession in the House of Stefanovitch. The three
waited on chance, but the chance was not yet. If the King were at enmity
with his son, or if there were a demise of the Crown while the Prince
was not on the spot to look after his interests, there might lie the
opportunity. But now the King was all cordiality for his Heir Apparent,
the Prince was on the spot; the guns and their Volsenian gunners
threatened to be on the spot, too, ere long. It was not now the moment
for the big stake.

King Alexis was delighted with his new Order, and the Grand Master's
insignia were very handsome. In the centre of a five-pointed star St.
Michael slew the Dragon--a symbol, perhaps, of Captain Mistitch! The
broad ribbon was of virgin white; it would show up well against either
the black sheepskin of the Volsenian tunic or the bright blue of the
Prince's hussar uniform. There were, some day, to be five other Knights;
with the Grand Master and the Sovereign himself the mystic number Seven
would be reached--but it would never be exceeded; the Order would be
most select. All this the King explained in a florid speech, gleeful
with his new toy, while the serious folks listened with a respectful
deference and a secret smile. "If he would make order, instead of
Orders!" thought the Prince; and probably Colonel Stafnitz, in
attendance as his Majesty's aide-de-camp, had thoughts not very
different. Yet, even toys take on a significance when grown-up people
play with them. Countess Ellenburg was not pleased that only one
appointment should be made to the Order of St. Michael. Was it not time
that the pretty boy Alexis wore a Star?

The King had not done yet; there was honor for the Prince's friends,
too; men should know that service to the Royal House was meritorious in
proportion to the illustrious position of that House. Zerkovitch stood
forward and was made Chevalier of the Cross of Kravonia. The occasion
cost Zerkovitch the price of a Court suit, but for Marie's sake he bore
the outlay patiently. Then the King, having refreshed himself with a
draught which his valet Lepage brought him, turned to his most pleasing
task. The Keeper of the Tapestries was called from her place in the
circle beside Marie Zerkovitch. Colonel Stafnitz had not noticed her
standing there, but now he gave a little start; the figure seemed
familiar. He turned his head round to Markart, who was just behind him.
"Yes, that's her," Markart whispered in answer to the question in the
Colonel's eyes. The eyes flew back to Sophy instantly. There, too, was
set the gaze of Countess Ellenburg. For Sophy was in full beauty that
day. She, too, loved toys; and her ancient hatred of the name to which
she had been born must be remembered. Her eyes glowed, and the Red Star
glowed on her cheek. All her air was triumphant as she courtesied to the
King, and then stood, erect and proud, to hear his gracious words.

Gracious his words were for her deed, and gracious his smile for her
comely beauty. He could at least look a king--no man denied him
that--and speak in kingly phrases. "A service unmatched in courage, and
immeasurable in importance to us and our Royal House, the preservation
of our dearly loved son and only Heir." (Countess Ellenburg looked down
her nose at that!) For such an act did he confer a patent of nobility on
Sophy, and for greater honor gave her, as title the name of one of his
own estates, together with a charge on its revenues equal to her new
dignity.

He ended and sank back in his chair. Her Prince came forward and kissed
her hand before them all. Countess Ellenburg bowed condescendingly. A
decorous murmur of applause filled the hall as, with shining eyes,
Sophia, Baroness Dobrava, courtesied again very low.

So, as Sophy Grouch had gone, went Sophie de Gruche!

"She's delighted--poor child!" whispered Marie Zerkovitch; but only
Julia Robins, in England far away, heard the full torrent of Sophy's
simple, child-like exultation. Such a letter went to her that
night!--but there was stuff in it besides the Baroness's pæan.

Suddenly a childish voice rang out clear through the hall--a fearless,
eager little voice.

"What's that you've got on your cheek?" asked young Alexis, with
engaging candor; his finger pointed at Sophy's face.

So quaint an interruption to the stately formality of the scene struck
people's sense of humor. Everybody laughed--even Countess Ellenburg.
Sophy's own laugh rose rich and merry. Her ignorance or carelessness of
etiquette betrayed itself; she darted at the pretty boy, caught him in
her arms, and kissed him, answering: "That's my luck--my Red Star."

The boy touched the mark with his finger; a look of childish awe came
into his blue eyes.

"Your luck!" he said, softly, and continued to look at the mysterious
sign after Sophy had set him down again. The little scene was told all
over Slavna before night--and men and women talked, according to their
temper, of the nature and the meaning of the Red Star. If only the
foolish think about such things, even the wise talk.

The King left his chair and mingled with his guests. His movement was
the signal for a general relaxation of ceremony. The Prince came across
the room and joined Sophy, who had returned to Marie Zerkovitch's side.
He offered the Baroness his congratulations, but in somewhat constrained
tones. His mind seemed to be on something else; once or twice he looked
inquiringly at Marie, who in her turn showed signs of restlessness or
distress. A silence followed on Sophy's expression of her
acknowledgments. The Prince glanced again at Marie and made up his mind
to speak.

"You've done me the kindness I asked?" he inquired of Marie.

Marie picked at the feathers of her fan in unhappy embarrassment. "No,
sir, I haven't. I--I couldn't."

"But why not?" he asked in surprise.

"I--I couldn't," repeated Marie, flushing.

He looked at her gravely for a moment, then smiled. "Then I must plead
my own cause," he said, and turned to Sophy. "Next week I'm leaving
Slavna and going to my Castle of Praslok. It's near Volseni, you know,
and I want to raise and train my gunners at Volseni. We must be ready
for our guns when they come, mustn't we?"

His eyes met hers--eager glance exchanged for glance as eager. "Our
guns!" whispered Sophy under her breath.

"Marie here and Zerkovitch have promised to come with me. He'll write
what ought to be written, and she'll cook the dinners." He laughed. "Oh,
well, we do live very simply at Praslok. We shall be there three months
at least. I asked Marie to persuade you to come with her and to stay as
long as you could. But she's disappointed me. I must plead for myself."

The changing expressions of Sophy's eyes had marked every sentence of
his speech, and Marie marked every expression of the eyes. They had
grown forlorn and apprehensive when he spoke of leaving Slavna; a sudden
joy leaped into them at his invitation to Praslok.

"You'll come for a little? The scenery is very fine, and the people
interesting."

Sophy gave a low laugh. "Since the scenery is fine and the people
interesting--yes, Monseigneur."

Their eyes met again, and he echoed back her laugh. Marie Zerkovitch
drew in her breath sharply. With swift insight she saw--and foresaw. She
remembered the presentiment, under whose influence she had begged Sophy
not to come to Kravonia. But fate had weighted the scales heavily
against her. The Baroness Dobrava was here.

The Prince turned to Marie with a puzzled look. Sophy was lost in glad
anticipations. Marie met the Prince's look with a deprecating imploring
glance. He frowned a little--not in anger, but in puzzle; what she
foresaw he himself had not yet divined; he was feeling the joy without
understanding it.

"At any rate you're not responsible now if we do freeze her to death
with our mountain snows," he said in a jest which veiled friendly
reproach.

"No, at least I'm not responsible," Marie answered.

There was a note in her voice now which commanded even Sophy's
pre-engaged attention. She looked sharply at her friend--and perhaps she
understood. But she did not yield to the suggestion. She drew herself up
proudly. "I'm not afraid of what may happen to me at Praslok,
Monseigneur," she said.

A simultaneous exclamation of many voices broke across their talk. At
the other end of the room, men and women pressed into a circle round
some point of interest which could not be seen by Sophy and her
companions. A loud voice rang out in authoritative tones: "Stand back!
Stand back--and open all the windows!"

"That's Natcheff's voice," said the Prince. Natcheff was the leading
physician of Slavna. "Somebody's fainted, I suppose. Well, the place is
stuffy enough!"

Markart emerged from the circle, which had widened out in obedience to
the physician's orders. As he hurried past the Prince, he said: "The
King has fainted, sir. I'm going to fetch Lepage." Two or three other
men ran and opened the windows.

"The King fainted! I never knew him do that before."

He hastened to where his father lay, the subject of Natcheff's
ministrations. Sophy and Marie followed in his wake through the opening
which the onlookers made for him. The King showed signs of recovering,
but Natcheff's face was grave beyond even the requirements of his
profession or of his patient's rank. The next moment Lepage came up.
This man, the King's body-servant, was a small, plump person, who had
generally a weary, impassive, uninterested manner. He looked rather
uninterested even now, but his walk was very quick, and he was soon
aiding Natcheff with deft and nimble fingers.

"This is strange, Lepage," said Natcheff.

Lepage did not look up from his task.

"Has it ever happened before?"

Then Lepage did look up. He appeared to consider and to hesitate. He
glanced once at the King before he answered.

"It's the third attack in two months," he said, at last.

"You never told me!" The words shot sharp from Natcheff's lips.

"That was by His Majesty's peremptory orders. He'll be angry that I've
told you now."

"Clear the room!" ordered Natcheff, shortly.

Slavna had plenty to talk about that night. Besides the Baroness
Dobrava's Red Star, there was the fainting fit of King Alexis! The
evening bulletin was entirely favorable; the King had quite recovered.
But many had heard Lepage's confession and seen the look that it brought
to Natcheff's face.

Stenovics and Stafnitz rode back from the Palace to the city side by
side. The General was silent, immersed in deep thought. Stafnitz smoked
his cigarette with a light, rather mocking smile. At last, when they
were almost opposite the terrace of the Hôtel de Paris, Stenovics spoke.

"It looks like the handwriting on the wall," he said.

"Quite so, General," Stafnitz agreed, cheerfully. "But at present
there's no evidence to show to whom, besides the King himself, the
message is addressed."

"Or what it says?"

"I think that's plain enough, General. I think it says that the time is
short."

He watched his companion's face closely now. But Stenovics's mask was
stolid and unmoved; he said nothing; he contented himself with a sullen
grunt.

"Short for the King!" pursued Stafnitz, with a shake of his head. "Short
for the Prince, perhaps! And certainly, General, uncomfortably short for
us!"

Stenovics grunted again, and then rode on some while in silence. At
last, just as he was about to part from his companion, he made one
observation:

"Fortunately Natcheff is a friend of mine; we shall get the best
possible information."

"That might become of importance, no doubt, General," said Stafnitz,
smiling still.



VIII

MONSEIGNEUR'S UNIFORM


Dr. Natcheff amply reassured public opinion. What information he gave to
General Stenovics, his friend, is another matter, and remained locked in
that statesman's heart. Publicly and to everybody else, from the Prince
of Slavna downward, he declared that there was no ground for
apprehension, and that the King merely needed rest and change; after a
few days of the former it was proposed to seek the latter by moving the
Court to His Majesty's country-seat at Dobrava--that estate from which
Sophy had been graciously bidden to choose her title. Meanwhile, there
was no reason why the Prince should not carry out his intention, and
proceed to the Castle of Praslok.

Below Slavna, the main post-road--as has already been stated, there was
no railway at this time--follows the course of the River Krath for about
five miles in a southeasterly direction. It is then carried across the
stream (which continues to trend to the south) by an ancient wooden
bridge, and runs northeast for another fifteen miles, through flat
country, and past prosperous agricultural and pastoral villages, till it
reaches the marshy land bordering Lake Talti. The lake, extending from
this point to the spurs of the mountain-range which forms the frontier,
bars its farther direct progress, and it divides into two branches. The
right prong of the fork continues on the level till it reaches Dobrava,
eight miles from the point of bisection; here it inclines to the
northeast again, and, after some ten miles of steady ascent, crosses the
mountains by St. Peter's Pass, the one carriage-road over the range and
over the frontier. The left prong becomes a steep ascent directly the
bisection has occurred, rising sharply for five miles to the hill on
which the Castle of Praslok stands. Then it runs for another five miles
on a high plateau till it ends at the hill city of Volseni, which stands
on the edge of the plateau, looking down on Lake Talti and across to
Dobrava in the plain opposite.

Beyond Volseni there is no road in the proper sense, but only cart or
bridle-tracks. Of these the principal and most frequented runs
diagonally across the valley in which Lake Talti lies, is interrupted by
the lake (at that point about a mile and a half wide), and then meets
the road from Dobrava half-way up St. Peter's Pass, and about twenty
miles across-country from Volseni. It thus forms the base of a rough and
irregular triangle of country, with the point where the Slavna road
bisects, the Pass and Volseni marking its three angles. Lake Talti is
set in the middle, backed by a chain of hills continuous everywhere
except at the indentation of the Pass.

Though so near to Slavna in actual distance, the country is very
different from the fertile river-valley which surrounds the capital; it
is bleak and rough, a land of hill pastures and mountain woods. Its
natural features are reflected in the character of the inhabitants. The
men who count Volseni a local capital are hardier than the men of
Slavna, less given to luxury, less addicted to quarrels and riots, but
considerably more formidable opponents if once they take up arms. For
this reason, no less than on account of their devotion to him, the
Prince did well to choose this country as the recruiting-ground for his
new force of gunners.

The Prince had been at Praslok for a week when Sophy set out to join him
there. At the last moment, Zerkovitch decided to remain in Slavna, at
least until the Court made its promised move to Dobrava: reassuring as
Dr. Natcheff was, it would do no harm to have a friendly pair of eyes
and ears in the capital so long as the King remained in residence. Thus
the two ladies were accompanied only by Peter Vassip, whom the Prince
had sent to escort them. They set out in a heavy travelling-carriage at
ten in the morning, reckoning to reach the Castle before evening fell;
their progress would never be rapid, and for the last five miles
exceedingly slow. They left the capital in complete tranquillity, and
when Sophy settled her bill at the sign of the Silver Cock, and bade
farewell to old Meyerstein, her landlord, he expressed the hope that she
would soon be back, though, indeed, his poor house was, he feared, no
fit quarters for the Baroness Dobrava.

"I don't know whether I shall come back here, but I can never forget
your house. I shall always love it in my memory," said Sophy.

Max von Hollbrandt had obtained leave of absence from his Legation, and
had accompanied the Prince to Praslok. The two were friends, having many
tastes in common, and not least the taste for soldiering. Besides having
the pleasure of his company, the Prince looked to obtain valuable aid
from Max in the task on which he was engaged. The young German was
amused and delighted with his expedition. Praslok is a primitive old
place. It stands on an abrupt mound, or knob, of ground by the
road-side. So steep and sudden is the ascent, that it was necessary to
build a massive causeway of wood--an inclined plane--to lead up from the
road to the gate of the square tower which forms the front of the
building; the causeway has cross-bars at short intervals, to give
foothold to the horses which, in old days, were stabled within the
walls. Recently, however, modern stables had been built on the other
side of the road, and it had become the custom to mount the causeway and
enter the Castle on foot.

Within, the arrangements were quaint and very simple. Besides the tower
already mentioned, which contained the dining-room and two bedrooms
above it, the whole building, strictly conditioned by the shape of the
hill on which it stood, consisted of three rows of small rooms on the
ground-floor. In one row lived the Prince and his male guests, in the
second the servants, in the third the guard. The ladies were to be
accommodated in the tower above the dining-room. The rows of rooms
opened on a covered walk or cloister, which ran round the inner court of
the Castle. The whole was solidly built of gray stone--a business-like
old hill-fortress, strong by reason of its massive masonry and of the
position in which it stood. Considered as a modern residence--it had to
be treated humorously--so Max declared, and found much pleasure in it
from that point of view. The Prince, always indifferent to physical
comfort, and ever averse from luxury, probably did not realize how much
his ancestral stronghold demanded of his guests' indulgence. Old Vassip,
Peter's father, was major-domo--always in his sheepskin coat and high
boots. His old wife was cook. Half a dozen servants completed the
establishment, and of these three were grooms. The horses, in fact,
seemed to Max the only creatures whose comforts were at all on a modern
footing. But the Prince was entirely satisfied, and never so happy
anywhere as at Praslok. He loved the simple, hardy life; he loved even
more, though perhaps less consciously, the sense of being among friends.
He would not yield an inch to court popularity in Slavna; but his heart
went out to meet the unsought devotion of Volseni, the mountain town,
and its surrounding villages. Distant and self-restrained in Slavna,
here he was open, gay, and full of an almost boyish ardor.

"It's worth coming here, just to see its effect on you," Max told him,
as the two rode back together from Volseni on the day of Sophy's
arrival. They had been at work, and the recruiting promised well.

The Prince laughed gayly. "Coming here from Slavna is like fresh air
after an oven," he said. "No need to watch your tongue--or other
people's! You can laugh when you like, and frown when you like, without
a dozen people asking what's your motive for doing it."

"But, really, you shouldn't have chosen a diplomatist for your
companion, sir, if you feel like that."

"I haven't," he smiled. "I've left the diplomatist down there and
brought the soldier up. And now that the ladies are coming--"

"Ah, now we must watch our tongues a little bit! Madame Zerkovitch is
very pretty--and the Baroness might make me absolutely poetical!"

Least prying of men, yet Max von Hollbrandt could not resist sending
with this speech a glance at his companion--the visit of the Baroness
compelled this much tribute to curiosity. But the Prince's face was a
picture of unembarrassed pleasure.

"Then be poetical! We'll all be poetical!" he cried, merrily. "In the
intervals of drilling, be it understood!" he added, with a laugh.

Into this atmosphere, physical and moral--the exhilaration of keen
mountain breezes, the brightness of a winter sun, the play of high hopes
and of high spirit--came Sophy, with all her power of enjoying and her
ardor in imagining. Her mind leaped from the sad embraces of the past,
to fly to the arms of the present, to beckon gladly to the future. No
more than this had yet emerged into consciousness; she was not yet
asking how, for good or evil, she stood or was to stand towards the
Prince. Fortune had done wonderful things for her, and was doing more
yet. That was enough, and beyond that, for the moment, she was not
driven.

The mixture of poetry and drilling suited her to perfection. She got
both when she rode over to Volseni with the Prince. Crisp snow covered
the ground, and covered, too, the roofs of the old, gray, hill-side
city--long, sloping roofs, with here and there a round-tower with a
snow-clad extinguisher atop. The town was no more than one long street,
which bayed out at the farther end into a market-place. It stood with
its back against a mountain-side, defended on the other three sides by a
sturdy wall, which only now, after five centuries, began to crumble away
at the top.

At the city-gate bread and salt were brought to the Bailiff and his
companion, and she and he rode side by side down the long street to the
market-place. Here were two or three hundred, tall, fine fellows,
waiting their leader. Drill had not yet brought formality; on the sight
of him they gave a cheer and ran to form a ring about him. Many caught
his hand and pressed or kissed it. But Sophy, too, claimed their eyes.
It was very cold; she wore a short jacket of sable over her habit, and a
round cap of the same fur--gifts of Lady Meg's in the days of her
benevolence. She was at the pitch of pleasure and excitement.

In a moment, a quick-witted fellow divined who she was. "The lady who
saved him! The lady who saved him!" he cried, at the full pitch of his
voice. The Prince drew himself up in the saddle and saluted her. "Yes,
the lady who saved me," he said. Sophy had the cheers now, and they
mounted to her head with fumes of intoxication. It may be guessed how
the Red Star glowed!

"And you'll save him, if need be?" she cried--quite indiscreetly. The
Prince smiled and shook his head, but the answer was an enraptured
cheer. The hatred of Slavna was a recommendation to Volseni's increased
regard, the hint of danger a match to its fiery enthusiasm.

"A favor, Bailiff, a favor!" cried a young man of distinguished
appearance. He seemed to be well known and to carry weight, for there
were shouts of "Hear Lukovitch! Hear Lukovitch!"--and one called, with a
laugh: "Ay, listen to the Wolf!"

"What is it, Lukovitch?" asked the Prince.

"Make the lady of our company, Bailiff." New cheers were raised. "Make
her a lieutenant of our artillery."

Sophy laughed gayly.

"I have His Majesty's authority to choose my officers," said the Prince,
smiling. "Baroness, will you be a lieutenant, and wear our sheepskins in
place of your sables there?"

"It is your uniform, Monseigneur," Sophy answered, bowing her head.

Lukovitch sprang forward and kissed her hand.

"For our Bailiff's preserver as for our Bailiff, men of Volseni!" he
cried, loudly. The answering cheer brought tears to Sophy's sparkling
eyes. For a moment she could not see her Prince nor the men who thus
took her to their hearts.

Suddenly, in the midst of her exultation, she saw a face on the
outskirts of the throng. A small, spare man stood there, dressed in
unobtrusive tweeds, but making no effort to conceal himself; he was just
looking on, a stranger to the town, interested in the picturesque little
scene. The face was that of Lieutenant Rastatz.

She watched the drilling of the gunners, and then rode back with the
Prince, escorted beyond the gates by a cheering throng, which had now
been joined by many women. Dusk was falling, and the old, gray city took
on a ghostly look; the glory of the sunshine had departed. Sophy
shivered a little beneath her furs.

"Monseigneur, did you see Rastatz?" she asked.

"No, I didn't see him; but I knew he was here. Lukovitch told me
yesterday."

"And not in uniform!"

"He has leave, no doubt, and his uniform wouldn't make his stay in
Volseni any more pleasant."

"What's he there for?" she asked, fretfully.

"Ah, Baroness, you must inquire of those who sent him, I think." His
tone was light and merry.

"To spy on you, I suppose! I hate his being there. He--he isn't worthy
to be in dear Volseni."

"You and Volseni have fallen in love with each other, I see! As for
spying, all I'm doing I do openly, and all I shall do. But I don't
blame Stenovics for keeping an eye on me, or Stafnitz either. I do my
best to keep an eye on them, you know. We needn't be afraid of Rastatz,
we who have beaten Hercules Mistitch in open fight!"

"Oh, well, away with him!" cried Sophy. "The snow's not frozen--shall we
canter home, Monseigneur?"

Merrily they cantered through the fast falling evening, side by side.
Rastatz was out of mind now; all was out of mind save the fascination of
the crisp air, the silent suggestion of gathering night, her Prince who
rode beside her. The dark mass of the tower of Praslok rose too soon
before her unwilling eyes. She drew rein, sighing.

"If life were just all that and nothing else!" she said, as he helped
her to dismount and the grooms took the horses. She stopped half-way up
the steep wooden causeway and turned to look back towards Volseni. The
Prince stood close by her.

"That's good, but life has better things," he said, softly. "To ride
together is good, and to play together. But to work together is better
still, Baroness."

For a moment Sophy was silent. Then she laughed in joy.

"Well, I'm to wear your uniform henceforth, Monseigneur!"

He took her hand and kissed it. Very slowly and gradually she drew it
away, her eyes meeting his as he raised his head. The heavy door at the
top of the causeway opened; Marie Zerkovitch stood there, holding a lamp
high in her hand; the sudden light flooded their faces. For a moment
more he looked at her, then went down again on his way to the stables.
Sophy ran up to where Marie Zerkovitch stood.

"You heard our horses?" she asked, gayly.

But there was no responsive smile on Marie's lips. For her, too, the
light had shone on those two faces, and she was sorely troubled.

The next day again they rode together, and the next. On the third day,
Sophy rode into Volseni in the sheepskin cap and tunic, a short habit of
blue hiding her leather breeches and coming half-way over her long
boots. The Prince gave her his hand as they rode into the market-place.

Marie Zerkovitch trembled, Max von Hollbrandt shrugged his shoulders
with a laugh--and little Rastatz drove back to Slavna through the night.
He thought that he had seen enough for his purposes; his report might be
useful in the city on the Krath.



IX

COUNTESS ELLENBURG PRAYS


In Slavna, Dr. Natcheff continued his reassuring reports until the
public at large was so reassured as to ask for no more reports even of
the most optimistic description. But the state of mind of the few people
behind the scenes was very different. Stafnitz's conclusion held sway
there. The time was short! That was the ruling thought and the governing
fact. It might be very short; and the end might come without warning.
The secret was well kept, but to those to whom he spoke at all Natcheff
spoke openly. The King's life hung on a thread, which the least accident
might break. With perfect quiet and tranquillity he might live a year,
possibly two years; any shock or overstrain would precipitate the end.
Countess Ellenburg and her confidential friends knew this, the King knew
it himself, and Lepage his valet, knew it. There the possession of the
secret stopped.

The King was gay and courageous; courage, at least, he had never lacked.
He seemed almost indifferent. The best years were over, he said, and why
not an end? An end swift, without pain, without waiting! There was much
to be said for it. Lepage agreed with his master and told him so in his
usual blunt fashion; they agreed together not to cry about it, and the
King went fishing still. But the time was short, and he pushed on his
one great idea with a zeal and an earnestness foreign to his earlier
habit. He would see his son married, or at least betrothed, before he
died; he would see the great marriage in train--the marriage which was
to establish forever the rank and prestige of the House of Stefanovitch.
The Prince of Slavna must set forth on his travels, seeking a wife; the
King even designated a Princess of most unquestionable exaltedness, as
the first object of his son's attentions or pursuit. With an unusual
peremptoriness, and an unusual independence, he sent Stenovics orders to
communicate his wishes directly to the Prince. Stenovics received the
royal memorandum on the day on which Lieutenant Rastatz returned to
Slavna with the fruits of his observation at Volseni in his hand.

At first sight the King's commands were totally at variance with the
interests of the Ellenburg coterie, and with the progress of their great
plan. They did not want the House of Stefanovitch strengthened and
glorified in the person of its present Heir Apparent. But the matter was
more complicated than a first glance showed. There were the guns to be
considered as well--and the gunners training at Volseni; these would be
sources of strength and prestige to the Prince, not less valuable, more
tangible, than even a great match. And now the Prince was on the spot.
Send him on his travels! The time was short; when the short time ended,
he might be far away. Finally, he might go and yet take nothing by his
journey; the exalted Princess would be hard to win; the King's family
pride might defeat itself by making him pitch his hopes and his claims
too high.

On the whole the matter was difficult. The three chief conspirators
showed their conviction of this in their characteristic ways. Countess
Ellenburg became more pious than ever; General Stenovics more silent--at
least more prone to restrict his conversation to grunts; Colonel
Stafnitz more gay and interested in life; he, too, was fishing, and in
his favorite waters, and he had hopes of a big rise.

There was one contingency impossible to overlook. In spite of his
father's orders, the Prince might refuse to go. A knowledge of the state
of the King's health would afford him a very strong excuse, a suspicion
of the plans of the coterie an overpowering motive. The King himself had
foreseen the former danger and feared its effect on his dominant hopes;
by his express command the Prince was kept in ignorance; he had been
amply reassured by Dr. Natcheff. On the latter point the coterie had,
they flattered themselves, nothing to fear. On what ground, then, could
the Prince justify a refusal? His gunners? That would be unwarrantable;
the King would not accept the plea. Did Rastatz's report suggest any
other ground for refusal? If it did, it was one which, to the King's
mind, would seem more unwarrantable still.

There is no big game without its risk; but after full consideration,
Stenovics and Stafnitz decided that the King's wishes were in their
interest, and should be communicated to the Prince without delay. They
had more chances for them than against them. If their game had its
dangers--well, the time might be very short.

In these days Countess Ellenburg made a practice of shutting herself up
in her private rooms for as much as two additional hours every day. She
told the King that she sought a quiet time for meditation and prayer.
King Alexis shrugged his shoulders; meditation wouldn't help matters,
and, in face of Dr. Natcheff's diagnosis of the condition of his heart,
he must confess to a serious doubt even about prayer. He had outlived
his love for the Countess, but to the end he found in her a source of
whimsical amusement; divining, if not her ambitions, at least her
regrets; understanding how these regrets, when they became very acute,
had to be met by an access of piety. Naturally they would be acute now,
in view of Natcheff's diagnosis. He thanked her for her concern, and
bade her by all means go and pray.

What was the stuff of her prayers--the stuff behind the words? No doubt
she prayed for her husband's life. No doubt she prayed for her son's
well-being. Very likely she even prayed that she might not be led into
temptation, or to do anything wrong, by her love for her son; for it was
her theory that the Prince himself would ruin his own chances, and throw
the Crown away. It is not easy always to be sure of conscious
insincerity.

Yet the devil's advocate would have had small difficulty in placing a
fresh face on her prayers, in exhibiting what lay below the words, in
suggesting how it was that she came forth from her secret devotions, not
happy and tranquillized, but with weary eyes, and her narrow lips
close-set in stern self-control. Her prayer that she might do nothing
wrong was a prayer that the Prince might do nothing right. If that
prayer were granted, sin on her part would become superfluous. She
prayed not to be led into temptation--that sounded quite orthodox; was
she to presume to suggest to Heaven the means by which temptation should
be avoided?

Stenovics skilfully humored this shade of hypocrisy. When he spoke to
her, there were in his mouth no such words as plans or schemes or hopes
or ambitions--no, nor claims nor rights. It was always, "the
possibilities we are compelled to contemplate"--"the steps we may be
forced into taking"--"the necessities of mere self-defence"--"the
interests of the kingdom"--"the supreme evil of civil strife"--which
last most respectable phrase meant that it was much better to jockey the
Prince out of his throne than to fight him for it. Colonel Stafnitz bit
his lip and gnawed his mustache during these interviews. The Countess
saw--and hated him. She turned back to Stenovics's church-going phrases
and impassive face. Throughout the whole affair the General probably
never once mentioned to her in plain language the one and only object of
all their hopes and efforts. In the result business took rather longer
to transact--the church-going phrases ran to many syllables; but
concessions must be made to piety. Nor was the Countess so singular; we
should often forego what we like best if we were obliged to define it
accurately and aloud.

After one of these conferences the Countess always prayed; it may be
presumed that she prayed against the misfortune of a cast-iron
terminology. Probably she also urged her views--for prayer is in many
books and mouths more of an argument than a petition--that all marriages
were on one and the same footing, and that Heaven knew naught of a
particular variety named in some countries morganatic. Of the keeping of
contracts, made contrary to the presumed views of Heaven, we are all
aware that Churches--and sometimes States, too--are apt to know or count
nothing.

Such were the woman and her mind. Some pity may go out to her. In the
end, behind all her prayers, and inspiring them--nay, driving her to
her knees in fear--was the conviction that she risked her soul. When she
felt that, she pleaded that it was for her son's sake. Yet there lay
years between her son and man's estate; the power was for some one
during those years.

"If I had the Countess's views and temperament, I should grow
potatoes--and, if possible, grow them worse than my neighbors," said
Colonel Stafnitz. "If I lived dully, I should at least die in peace!"

The King held a very confidential conference. It was to sign his will.
The Countess was there; the little boy, who moved in happy
unconsciousness of all the schemes which centred round him, was sent
into the next room to play with Lepage. Stenovics and Stafnitz were
present as witnesses, and Markart as secretary. The King touched lightly
on his state of health, and went on to express his conviction of the
Prince of Slavna's distinguished consideration for Countess Ellenburg
and fraternal affection for little Alexis. "I go the happier for being
sure of this, gentlemen," he said, to his two counsellors. "But in any
case the Countess and my son are well secured. There will be enough for
you, Charlotte, to live in suitable style, here or abroad, as you
please. My son I wish to stay here and enter my army. I've settled on
him the estate of Dobrava, and he will have means equal to his station.
It's well to have this arranged; from day to day I am in the hands of
God."

As with another King, nothing in life became him like the leaving of it.
There was little more work to do--he had but to wait with courage and
with dignity. The demand now was on what he had in abundance, not on a
faculty which he had always lacked. He signed the document, and bade the
General and Stafnitz witness it. In silence they obeyed him, meaning to
make waste-paper of the thing to which they set their names.

That business done--and the King alone seemed happy in the doing of it
(even Stafnitz had frowned)--the King turned suddenly to Stenovics.

"I should like to see Baroness Dobrava. Pray let her be sent for this
afternoon."

The shock was sudden, but Stenovics's answer came steady, if slow.

"Your Majesty desires her presence?"

"I want to thank her once again, Stenovics. She's done much for us."

"The Baroness is not in Slavna, sir, but I can send for her."

"Not in Slavna? Where is she, then?"

He asked what the whole kingdom knew. Save himself, nobody was ignorant
of Sophy's whereabouts.

"She is on a visit to his Royal Highness at Praslok, sir." Stenovics's
voice was a triumph of neutrality.

"On a visit to the Prince?" Surprise sounded in his voice.

"Madame Zerkovitch is there too, sir," Stenovics added. "The ladies have
been there during the whole of the Prince of Slavna's stay."

The King shot a glance at Countess Ellenburg; she was looking prim and
grim. He looked, also, at Stafnitz, who bit his mustache, without quite
hiding an intentional but apparently irrepressible smile. The King did
not look too grave--and most of his gravity was for Countess Ellenburg.

"Is that--hum--at this moment, quite desirable?" he asked.

His question met with silence; the air of all three intimated that the
matter was purely one for His Majesty. The King sat a moment with a
frown on his brow--the frown which just supplants a smile when a thing,
generally amusing and not unnatural, happens by chance to occur
inconveniently.

Across this silence came a loud voice from the next room--Lepage's
voice. "Take care, take care! You'll upset the flowers, Prince!"

The King started; he looked round at his companions. Then he struck a
hand-bell on the table before him. Lepage appeared.

"Lepage, whom did you address as 'Prince' just now?"

"Count Alexis, sir."

"Why?"

"The Count insisted."

"Don't do it again. It's absurd! Go away!"

A dull red patched Countess Ellenburg's cheeks. Lids brooded low over
the eyes of Stafnitz and of Stenovics. It was a very awkward little
scene--the King's irritation had got the better of him for the moment.
What would the kindred of the exalted Princess have said? The King
turned to Countess Ellenburg and forced a smile.

"The question of reproof is one for you, Countess," he said, frigidly.
"And now about the Baroness--No, I mean, I wanted to ask if my wishes
have been communicated to the Prince of Slavna."

"The Prince has received them, sir. He read them in the presence of my
messenger, and requested leave to send his answer in writing, unless he
might wait on Your Majesty."

"There are reasons why I had better not see him just now. Ask him to
write--but very soon. The matter isn't one for delay." The King rose
from his seat.

"Your Majesty still wishes me to send for Baroness Dobrava?"

The King reflected for a moment, and answered simply: "No."

His brief word broke up the conference--it had already lasted longer
than suave and reassuring Dr. Natcheff would have advised. The men went
away with a smile, all of them--the King, Stenovics, Stafnitz,
round-faced Markart--each smiling according to the quality of each,
their smiles answering to Max von Hollbrandt's shrug of the shoulders.
There are things which bring men to what painful youth was taught to
call the least common denominator. A horse-race does it, a prize-fight,
a cricket-match, a battle, too, in some sort. Equally efficacious, very
often, though it is to be recorded with reluctance, is a strong
flirtation with no proper issue obvious.

The matter was grave, yet all the men laughed. The matter was grave, and
Countess Ellenburg did not laugh. Was that what Stafnitz called her
views and her temperament? In part, no doubt. Besides, men will laugh at
the side-issues of the gravest affairs; it is not generally the case
with woman. Added again to this, perhaps Countess Ellenburg knew more,
or divined more. Among glaring diversity there was, perhaps,
something--an atom--of similarity between her and Sophy--not the
something which refuses, but the something which couples high conditions
with assent. The thousandth chance is to most men negligible; to most
women it is no worse than the tenth; their sense of mathematical odds is
sorely--and sometimes magnificently--imperfect.

It had flashed across Countess Ellenburg's mind that maybe Sophy, too,
played for a big stake--or, rather, lived for it and so would die. The
men had not thought of that; to them, the violent flirtation had its
obvious end and its passing inconvenience. It might delay the Prince's
departure for a while; it might make his marriage more entirely an
affair of duty and of state. With this idea they smiled and shrugged;
the whole business came under the head which, in their thoughts and
their confidential conversations, they would style nonsense.

It was not so with the Countess. Disconcerted by that episode of Lepage
and young Alexis, more moved by the sudden appearance of Baroness
Dobrava as a factor in the game, she returned to prayer.

What now was the form and matter of her prayer? The form must go
unformulated--and the words unconjectured. Yet she prayed so long that
she must have succeeded in putting a good face on her petitions. Without
a plausible plea nobody could have rested on their knees so long.

It is probable that she prayed for others as she prayed for herself--she
prayed that the Prince of Slavna and the Baroness Dobrava might escape
temptation.

Or that, if they fell--? Again it was not for her to dictate to Heaven.
Heaven had its ways of dealing with such sinners.

Yet through all her prayers must have echoed the words: "It's absurd!"
She prayed again, most likely, against being suspected of wishing that
the man who uttered them--her husband--might soon be dead.

The King dead--and the Prince a slave to love--to the idle hours of an
unprofitable love! It was a fine vision, and needed a vast deal of
covering with the veil of prayer.



X

THE SOUND OF A TRUMPET


The Prince of Slavna's answer to the intimation of his father's wishes
was dutiful, courteous, and discreetly diplomatic. The Prince was much
occupied with his drills and other occupations; he availed himself of
Max von Hollbrandt's practised pen--the guest was glad to do his royal
host this favor.

They talked over the sense of the reply; Max then draughted it. The
Prince did no more than amend certain expressions which the young
diplomatist had used. Max wrote that the Prince cordially sympathized
with the King's wishes; the Prince amended to the effect that he
thoroughly understood them. Max wrote that the Prince was prepared
cordially and energetically to co-operate in their realization; the
Prince preferred to be prepared to consider them in a benevolent spirit.
Max suggested that two or three months' postponement of the suggested
journey would not in itself be fatal; the Prince insisted that such a
delay was essential, in order that negotiations might be set on foot to
ensure his being welcomed with due _empressement_. Max added that the
later date would have an incidental advantage, since it would obviate
the necessity of the Prince's interrupting the important labors on which
he was engaged; the Prince said instead that, in his judgment, it was
essential, in the interests of the kingdom, that the task of training
the artillery should not be interfered with by any other object, however
well worthy of consideration that object might be.

In the result, the draught as amended, though not less courteous or
dutiful than Max's original, was noticeably more stiff. Translate them
both into the terse and abrupt speech of every-day life, and one said:
"I'd rather not, please," while the other came at least very near to a
blank "I won't!" Max's was acquiescence, coupled with a prayer for
postponement; the Prince's was postponement first, with an accompanying
assurance of respectful consideration.

Max was not hurt, but he felt a professional disapproval; the Prince had
said more, and shown more of his mind, than was needful; it was throwing
more cards on the table than the rules of the game demanded.

"Mine would have done just as well," he complained to Marie Zerkovitch.
"If mine had been rejected, his could have followed. As it is, he's
wasted one or other of them. Very foolish, since just now time's his
main object!" He did not mean saving time, but protracting it.

Marie did no more than toss her head peevishly. The author of the
original draught persevered.

"Don't you think mine would have been much wiser--to begin with?"

"I don't see much difference. There's little enough truth in either of
them!" she snapped.

Max looked at her with an amused and tolerant smile. He knew quite well
what she meant. He shook his head at her with a humorous twinkle. "Oh,
come, come, don't be exacting, madame! There's a very fair allowance of
truth. Quite half the truth, I should think. He is really very anxious
about the gunners!"

"And about what else?"

Max spread out his hands with a shrug, but passed the question by. "So
much truth, in fact, that it would have served amply for at least two
letters," he remarked, returning to his own special point of complaint.

Marie might well amuse the easy-going, yet observant and curious, young
man; he loved to watch his fellow-creatures under the stress of feelings
from which he himself was free, and found in the opportunities afforded
him in this line the chief interest both of his life and of his
profession.

But Marie had gradually risen to a high, nervous tension. She was no
puritan--puritans were not common in Kravonia, nor had Paris grafted
such a slip onto her nature. Had she thought as the men in the Palace
thought when they smiled, had she thought that and no more, it is
scarcely likely that she would have thus disturbed herself; after all,
such cases are generally treated as in some sense outside the common
rules; exceptional allowances are, in fact, whether properly or not,
made for exceptional situations. Another feeling was in her mind--an
obsession which had come almost wholly to possess her. The fateful
foreboding which had attacked her from the first had now full dominion
over her; its rule was riveted more closely on her spirit day by day, as
day by day the Prince and Sophy drew closer together. Even that Sophy
had once saved his life could now no longer shake Marie's doleful
prepossession. Unusual and unlooked-for things take color from the mind
of the spectator; the strange train of events which had brought Sophy
to Praslok borrowed ominous shadows from a nervous, apprehensive
temperament.

No such gloom brooded over Sophy. She gave herself up to the hour: the
past forgotten, the future never thought of. It was the great time of
her life. Her feelings, while not less spontaneous and fresh, were more
mature and more fully satisfied than when Casimir de Savres poured his
love at her feet. A cry of happiness almost lyrical runs through her
scanty record of these days--there was little leisure for diary or
letters.

Winter was melting into spring, snow dwelled only on the hill-tops, Lake
Talti was unbound and sparkled in the sun; the days grew longer, yet
were far too short. To ride with him to Volseni, to hear the cheers, to
see the love they bore him, to watch him at work, to seem to share the
labor and the love--then to shake off the kindly clinging friends and
take to a mountain-path, or wander, the reins on the horses' necks, by
the margin of the lake, and come home through the late dusk, talking
often, silent often, always together in thought as in bodily
presence--was not this enough? "If I had to die in a month, I should owe
life a tremendous debt already"--that is her own summing up; it is
pleasant to remember.

It would be enough to say--love; enough with a nature ardent as hers.
Yet, with love much else conspired. There was the thought of what she
had done, of the things to which she was a party; there was the sense of
power, the satisfaction of ambition, a promise of more things; there was
the applause of Volseni as well as the devotion of the Prince; there
was, too--it persisted all through her life--the funny, half-childish,
and (to a severe eye) urchin-like pleasure in the feeling that these
were fine doings for Sophy Grouch, of Morpingham in Essex! "Fancy _me_!"
is the indefensibly primitive form in which this delight shows in one of
the few letters bearing date from the Castle of Praslok.

Yet it is possible to find this simple, gracious surprise at Fortune's
fancies worthy of love. Her own courage, her own catching at Fortune's
forelock, seem to have been always unconscious and instinctive. These
she never hints at, nor even begins to analyze. Of her love for the
Prince she speaks once or twice--and once in reference to what she had
felt for Casimir. "I loved him most when he left me, and when he died,"
she writes. "I love him not less now because I love Monseigneur. But I
can love Monseigneur more for having loved Casimir. God bade the dear
dead die, but He bade me live, and death helped to teach me how to do
it." Again she reflects: "How wonderfully everything is _worth
while_--even sorrows!" Following which reflection, in the very next line
(she is writing to Julia Robins), comes the naïve outburst: "I look just
splendid in my sheepskin tunic--and he's given me the sweetest toy of a
revolver; that's in case they ever charge, and try and cut us up behind
our guns!" She is laughing at herself, but the laugh is charged with an
infectious enjoyment. So she lived, loved, and laughed through those
unequalled days, trying to soothe Marie Zerkovitch, bantering Max von
Hollbrandt, giving her masculine mind and her feminine soul wholly to
her Prince. "She was like a singularly able and energetic sunbeam," Max
says quaintly, himself obviously not untouched by her attractions.

The Prince's mind was simple. He was quite sincere about his guns; he
had no wish to go on his travels until they had arrived, and he could
deliver them into the safe custody of his trained and trusty Volsenians,
and of Lukovitch their captain. Less than that was not safety, with
Stenovics in office and Colonel Stafnitz on duty at the capital. But
Marie Zerkovitch was right, too, even though over-exacting, as Max had
told her. The letter to the King held but half the truth, and that half
not the more significant. He could not go from Sophy's side to seek a
wife. The desire of his heart and the delight of his eyes--she was here
in Praslok.

Her charm was not only for his heart and eyes, her fascination not
solely for his passion; on his intellect also she laid her powerful
hold, opening the narrow confines of his mind to broader views, and
softening the rigor of his ideals. He had seen himself only as the stern
master, the just chastiser of a turbulent capital and an unruly
soldiery. But was there not a higher aim? Might he not be loved in the
plains as on the hills, at Slavna as at Volseni?

By himself he could not achieve that; his pride--nay, his
obstinacy--forbade the first step. But what his sensitive dignity
rejected for himself, he could see her sunny graciousness accomplish
without loss of self-respect, naturally, all spontaneously. He was a
soldier; hers were the powers of peace, of that instinctive
statesmanship of the emotions by which hearts are won and kingdoms knit
together by a tie stronger than the sword. Because in his mind's eye he
saw her doing this, the idea at which the men in the Palace had smiled,
and which even Marie Zerkovitch would have accepted as the lesser evil,
never came into his head. In the future years she was to be openly at
his side, doing these things for him and for the land of his love and
labor. Would she not be a better partner than some stranger, to whom he
must go cap in hand, to whom his country would be a place of exile and
his countrymen seem half-barbarians, whose life with him would be one
long tale of forced and unwilling condescension? A pride more subtle
than his father's rose in revolt.

If he could make the King see that! There stood the difficulty. Right in
the way of his darling hope was the one thing on which the King
insisted. The pride of family--the great alliance--the single point
whereon the easy King was an obstacle so formidable! Yet had he
despaired, he would have been no such lover as he was.

His answer had gone to the King; there was no news of its reception yet.
But on the next day, in the evening, great tidings came from Slavna,
forwarded by Zerkovitch, who was in charge of the Prince's affairs
there. The Prince burst eagerly into the dining-room in the tower of
Praslok, where Sophy sat alone. He seemed full of triumphant excitement,
almost boyish in his glee. It is at such moments that hesitations are
forgotten and the last reserves broken down.

"My guns!" he cried. "My guns! They've started on their way. They're due
in Slavna in a month!"

"In a month!" she murmured softly. "Ah, then--"

"Our company will be ready, too. We'll march down to Slavna and meet the
guns!" He laughed. "Oh, I'll be very pleasant to Slavna now--just as you
advise me. We'll meet them with smiles on our faces." He came up to her
and laid his hand on hers. "You've done this for me," he said, smiling
still, yet growing more grave.

"It'll be the end of this wonderful time, of this our time together!"

"Of our time at Praslok--not of our time together. What, won't
Lieutenant Baroness Dobrava march with her battery?"

She smiled doubtfully, gently shaking her head. "Perhaps! But when we
get to Slavna--? Oh, I'm sorry that this time's so nearly done!"

He looked at her gravely for a few moments, making, perhaps, a last
quick calculation--undergoing, perhaps, a last short struggle. But the
Red Star glowed against the pallor of her face; her eyes were gleaming
beacons.

"Neither the guns, nor the men, nor Slavna--no, nor the Crown, when that
time comes--without you!" he said.

She rose slowly, tremblingly, from her chair, and stretched out her
hands in an instinctive protest: "Monseigneur!" Then she clasped her
hands, setting her eyes on his, and whispering again, yet lower:
"Monseigneur!"

"Marie Zerkovitch says Fate sent you to Kravonia. I think she's right.
Fate did--my fate. I think it's fated that we are to be together to the
end, Sophy."

A step creaked on the old stairs. Marie Zerkovitch was coming down from
her room on the floor above. The door of the dining-room stood open, but
neither of them heard the step; they were engrossed, and the sound
passed unheeded.

Standing there with hands still clasped, and eyes still bound to his,
she spoke again--and Marie Zerkovitch stood by the door and heard the
quick yet clear words, herself fascinated, unable to move or speak.

"I've meant nothing of it. I've thought nothing of it. I seem to have
done nothing towards it. It has just come to me." Her tone took on a
touch of entreaty, whether it were to him, or to some unseen power
which ruled her life, and to which she might have to render an account.

"Yet it is welcome?" he asked quietly. She was long in answering; he
waited without impatience, in a confidence devoid of doubt. She seemed
to seek for the whole truth and to give it to him in gravest, fullest
words.

"It is life, Monseigneur," she said. "I can't see life without it now."

He held out his hands, and very slowly she laid hers in them.

"It is enough--and nothing less could have been enough from you to me
and from me to you," he said gently. "Unless we live it together, I
think it can be no life for us now."

The chain which had held Marie Zerkovitch motionless suddenly snapped.
She rushed into the room, and, forgetful of everything in her agitation,
seized the Prince by the arm.

"What do you mean?" she cried. "What do you mean? Are you mad?"

He was very fond of little Marie. He looked down at her now with an
affectionate, indulgent smile.

"Come, you've heard what I said, I suppose--though it wasn't meant for
your ears, you know! Well, then, I mean just what I said, Marie."

"But what do you mean by it?" she persisted in a feverish, almost
childish, excitement. She turned on Sophy, too. "And what do you mean by
it, Sophy?" she cried.

Sophy passed a hand across her brow. A slow smile relieved the enchanted
tension of her face; she seemed to smile in a whimsical surprise at
herself. Her answer to Marie came vague and almost dreamy. "I--I
thought of nothing, dear Marie," she said; then with a sudden low murmur
of delighted laughter she laid her hands in the Prince's again. She had
thought of nothing but of that life together and their love.

"She'll share my life, Marie, and, when the time comes, my throne," the
Prince said softly: he tried to persuade and soothe her with his gentle
tones.

Marie Zerkovitch would not have it. Possessed by her old fear, her old
foreboding, she flung away the arm she held with an angry gesture. "It's
ruin!" she cried. "Ruin, ruin!" Her voice rang out through the old room
and seemed to fill all the Castle of Praslok with its dirgeful note.

"No," said he firmly. "Ruin will not come through me, nor through her.
It may be that ruin--what you call ruin--will come. It may be that I
shall lose my life or my throne." He smiled a little. "Such changes and
chances come as nothing new to a Stefanovitch. I have clever and bold
men against me. Let them try! We'll try, too. But ruin will not be by
her fault, nor through this. And if it were, don't I owe her my life
already? Should I refuse to risk for her the life she has given?" He
dropped his voice to homelier, more familiar tones, and ended, with a
half-laugh: "Come, little friend, you mustn't try to frighten Sergius
Stefanovitch. It's better the House should end than live on in a coward,
you know."

The plea was not perfect--there was wisdom as well as courage in
question. Yet he would have maintained himself to be right in point of
wisdom, too, had Marie pressed him on it. But her force was spent; her
violence ended, and with it her expostulations. But not her terror and
dismay. She threw herself into a chair and covered her face with her
hands, sobbing bitterly.

The Prince gently caressed her shaking shoulder, but he raised his eyes
to Sophy, who had stood quiet through the scene.

"Are you ready for what comes, Sophy?" he asked.

"Monseigneur, I am ready," she said, with head erect and her face set.
But the next instant she broke into a low yet rich and ringing laugh; it
mingled strangely with Marie's sobs, which were gradually dying away,
yet sounded still, an undertone of discord with Sophy's mirth. She
stretched out her hands towards him again, whispering in an amused pity:
"Poor child--she thought that we should be afraid!"

Out from the dusk of the quiet evening came suddenly the blare of a
trumpet, blown from Volseni by a favoring breeze. It sounded every
evening, at nightfall, to warn the herdsmen in the hills of the closing
of the gates, and had so sounded from time beyond man's memory.

The Prince raised his hand to bid her listen.

"In good Volseni there is watch and ward for us!"

The echoes of the blast rang for an instant round the hills.

"And there is watch and ward, and the glad sound of a trumpet, in my
heart, Monseigneur," she said.

The sobs were still, laughter was hushed, the echoes died away. In utter
silence their hands and their eyes met. Only in their hearts love's
clarion rang indomitable and marvellously glad.



XI

M. ZERKOVITCH'S BEDROOM FIRE


Often there are clever brains about us of whose workings we care
nothing, save so far as they serve to the defter moving of our dishes or
the more scientific brushing and folding of our clothes. Humorists and
philosophers have described or conjectured or caricatured the world of
those who wait on us, inviting us to consider how we may appear to the
inward gaze of the eyes which are so obediently cast down before ours or
so dutifully alert to anticipate our orders. As a rule, we decline the
invitation; the task seems at once difficult and unnecessary. Enough to
remember that the owners of the eyes have ears and mouths also! A small
leak, left unstanched, will empty the largest cask at last; it is well
to keep that in mind both in private concerns and in affairs of public
magnitude.

The King's body-servant, Emile Lepage, had been set a-thinking. This was
the result of the various and profuse scoldings which he had undergone
for calling young Count Alexis "Prince." The King's brief, sharp words
at the conference had been elaborated into a reproof both longer and
sterner than his Majesty was wont to trouble himself to administer; he
had been very strong on the utter folly of putting such ideas into the
boy's head. Lepage was pretty clear that the idea had come from the
boy's head into his, but he said nothing more of that. The boy himself
scolded Lepage--first for having been overheard, secondly (and, as
Lepage guessed, after being scolded himself very roundly) for using the
offending title at all. Meekly Lepage bore this cross also--indeed, with
some amusement, and a certain touch of pity for young Alexis, who was
not a prince and obviously could not make out why: in the books a king's
sons were always princes, even though there were (as in those glorious
days there often were) fifty or threescore of them.

Then Countess Ellenburg scolded him: the King's "It's absurd!" was
rankling sorely in her mind. Her scolding was in her heaviest
manner--very religious: she called Heaven to witness that never, by word
or deed, had she done anything to give her boy such a notion. The days
are gone by when Heaven makes overt present answer; nothing happened!
She roundly charged Lepage with fostering the idea for his own purposes;
he wanted to set the Prince of Slavna against his little brother, she
supposed, and to curry favor with the rising sun at the poor child's
cost.

She was very effective, but she angered Lepage almost beyond endurance.
By disposition he was thoroughly good-natured, if sardonic and
impassive; he could not suffer the accusation of injuring the pretty boy
for his own ends; it was both odious and absurd. He snapped back smartly
at her: "I hope nobody will do more to put wrong ideas in his head than
I have done, Madame la Comtesse." In a fury she drove him from the room.
But she had started ever so slightly. Lepage's alert brain jumped at the
signal.

Finally, Stenovics himself had a lecture for poor, much-lectured Lepage.
It was one of the miscalculations to which an over-cautious cunning is
prone. Stenovics was gentle and considerate, but he was very
urgent--urgent, above all, that nothing should be said about the
episode, neither about it, nor about the other reprimands. Silence,
silence, silence was his burden. Lepage thought more and more. It is
better to put up with gossip than to give the idea that the least gossip
would be a serious offence. People gossip without thinking, it's easy
come and gone, easy speaking and easy forgetting; but stringent
injunctions not to talk are apt to make men think. References to the
rising sun, also, may breed reflection in the satellites of a setting
orb. Neither Countess Ellenburg nor General Stenovics had been as well
advised as usual in this essentially trumpery matter.

In short, nervousness had been betrayed. Whence came it? What did it
mean? If it meant anything, could Lepage turn that thing to account? The
King's favorite attendant was no favorite with Countess Ellenburg. For
Lepage, too, the time might be very short! He would not injure the boy,
as the angry mother had believed, or at least suggested; but, without
question of that, there was no harm in a man's looking out for himself;
or if there were, Lepage was clear in thinking that the Countess and the
General were not fit preachers of such a highly exacting gospel.

Lepage concluded that he had something to sell. His wares were a
suspicion and a fact. Selling the suspicion wronged nobody--he would
give no warranty with it--_Caveat emptor_. Selling the fact was
disobedience to the King his master. "Disobedience, yes; injury, no,"
said Lepage with a bit of casuistry. Besides, the King, too, had scolded
him.

Moreover, the Prince of Slavna had always treated Monsieur Emile Lepage
with distinguished consideration. The Bourbon blood, no doubt, stretched
out hands to _la belle France_ in Monsieur Lepage's person.

Something to sell! Who was his buyer? Whose interest could be won by his
suspicion, whose friendship bought with his fact? The ultimate buyer was
plain enough. But Lepage could not go to Praslok, and he did not approve
of correspondence, especially with Colonel Stafnitz in practical control
of the Household. He sought a go-between--and a personal interview. At
least he could take a walk; the servants were not prisoners. Even
conspirators must stop somewhere--on pain of doing their own cooking and
the rest! At a quarter past eight in the evening, having given the King
his dinner and made him comfortable for the next two hours, Lepage
sallied forth and took the road to Slavna. He was very carefully
dressed, wore a flower in his buttonhole, and had dropped a discreet
hint about a lady, in conversation with his peers. If ladies often
demand excuses, they may furnish them too; present seriousness invoked
aid from bygone frivolity.

At ten o'clock he returned, still most spruce and orderly, and with a
well satisfied air about him. He had found a purchaser for his suspicion
and his fact. His pocket was the better lined, and he had received
flattering expressions of gratitude and assurances of favor. He felt
that he had raised a buttress against future assaults of Fortune. He
entered the King's dressing-room in his usual noiseless and unobtrusive
manner. He was not aware that General Stenovics had quitted it just a
quarter of an hour before, bearing in his hand a document which he had
submitted for his Majesty's signature. The King had signed it and
endorsed the cover "_Urgent_."

"Ah, Lepage, where have you been?" asked the King.

"Just to get a little air and drink a glass at the Golden Lion."

"You look gayer than that!" smiled the King. Evidently his anger had
passed; perhaps he wished to show as much to an old servant whom he
liked and valued.

Conscience-stricken--or so appearing--Lepage tore the flower from his
coat. "I beg Your Majesty's pardon. I ought to have removed it before
entering your Majesty's presence. But I was told you wished to retire at
once, sir, so I hurried here immediately."

The King gave a weary yawn. "Yes, I'll go to bed at once, Lepage; and
let me sleep as long as I can. This fag-end of life isn't very amusing."
He passed his hand wearily across his brow. "My head aches. Isn't the
room very close, Lepage? Open the window."

"It has begun to rain, sir."

"Never mind, let's have the rain, too. At least, it's fresh."

Lepage opened a window which looked over the Krath. The King rose:
Lepage hastened to offer his arm, which his Majesty accepted. They went
together to the window. A sudden storm had gathered; rain was pelting
down in big drops.

"It looks like being a rough night," remarked the King.

"I'm afraid it does, sir," Lepage agreed.

"We're lucky to be going to our beds."

"Very, sir," answered Lepage, wondering whose opposite fate his Majesty
was pitying.

"I shouldn't care, even if I were a young man and a sound one, to ride
to Praslok to-night."

"To Praslok, sir?" There was surprise in Lepage's voice. He could not
help it. Luckily it sounded quite natural to the King. It was certainly
not a night to ride five and twenty miles, and into the hills, unless
your business was very urgent.

"Yes, to Praslok. I've had my breath of air--you can shut the window,
Lepage."

The King returned to the fireplace and stood warming himself. Lepage
closed the window, drew the curtains, and came to the middle of the
room, where he stood in respectful readiness--and, underneath that, a
very lively curiosity.

"Yes," said the King slowly, "Captain Markart goes to Praslok
to-night--with a despatch for his Royal Highness, you know. Business,
Lepage, urgent business! Everything must yield to that." The King
enunciated this virtuous maxim as though it had been the rule of his
life. "No time to lose, Lepage, so the Captain goes to-night. But I'm
afraid he'll have a rough ride--very rough."

"I'm afraid so, sir," said Lepage, and added, strictly in his thoughts:
"And so will Monsieur Zerkovitch!"

Captain Markart was entirely of his Majesty's opinion as he set out on
his journey to Praslok. His ride would be rough, dark, and solitary--the
last by Stenovics's order. Markart was not afraid, he was well armed;
but he expected to be very bored, and knew that he would be very wet, by
the time he reached the Castle. He breathed a fervent curse on the
necessities of State, of which the Minister had informed him, as he
buttoned up his heavy cavalry overcoat, and rode across the bridge on to
the main road on the right bank, an hour before midnight.

Going was very heavy, so was the rain, so was the darkness; he and his
horse made a blurred, laboring shape on the murky face of night. But his
orders were to hasten, and he pushed on at a sharp trot and soon covered
his first stage, the five miles to the old wooden bridge, where the road
leaves the course of the Krath, is carried over the river, and strikes
northeast, towards the hills.

At this point he received the first intimation that his journey was not
to be so solitary as he had supposed. When he was half-way across the
bridge, he heard what sounded like an echo of the beat of his horse's
hoofs on the timbers behind him. The thing seemed odd. He halted a
moment to listen. The sound of his horse's hoofs stopped--but the echo
went on. It was no echo, then; he was not the only traveller that way!
He pricked his horse with the spur; regaining the road, he heard the
timbers of the bridge still sounding. He touched his horse again and
went forward briskly. He had no reason to associate his
fellow-traveller's errand with his own, but he was sure that when
General Stenovics ordered despatch, he would not be pleased to learn
that his messenger had been passed by another wayfarer on the road.

But the stranger, too, was in a hurry, it seemed; Markart could not
shake him off. On the contrary, he drew nearer. The road was still broad
and good. Markart tried a canter. The stranger broke into a canter. "At
any rate, it makes for good time," thought Markart, smiling uneasily. In
fact, the two found themselves drawn into a sort of race. On they went,
covering the miles at a quick, sustained trot, exhilarating to the men,
but rather a strain on their horses. Both were well mounted. Markart
wondered who the stranger with such a good horse was. He turned his
head, but could see only the same sort of blur as he himself made; part
of the blur, however, seemed of a lighter color than his dark overcoat
and bay horse produced.

Markart's horse pecked; his rider awoke to the fact that he was pounding
his mount without doing much good to himself. He would see whether the
unknown meant to pass him or was content to keep on equal terms. His
pace fell to a gentle trot--so did the stranger's. Markart walked his
horse for half a mile--so did the stranger. Thenceforward they went
easily, each keeping his position, till Markart came to where the road
forked--on the right to Dobrava, on the left to Praslok and Volseni.
Markart drew rein and waited; he might just as well see where the
stranger was going.

The stranger came up--and Markart started violently. The lighter tinge
of the blur was explained. The stranger rode a white horse. It flashed
on Markart that the Prince rode a white charger, and that the animal had
been in Slavna the day before--he had seen it being exercised. He peered
into the darkness, trying to see the man's face; the effort was of no
avail. The stranger came to a stand beside him, and for a few moments
neither moved. Then the stranger turned his horse's head to the left: he
was for Praslok or Volseni, then! Markart followed his example. He knew
why he did not speak to the stranger, but he was wondering why on earth
the stranger did not speak to him. He went on wondering till it occurred
to him that, perhaps, the stranger was in exactly the same state of
mind.

There was no question of cantering, or even of trotting, now. The road
rose steeply; it was loose and founderous from heavy rain; great stones
lay about, dangerous traps for a careless rider. The horses labored. At
the same moment, with the same instinct, Markart and the stranger
dismounted. The next three miles were done on foot, and there before
them, in deeper black, rose the gate-tower of the Castle of Praslok. The
stranger had fallen a little behind again; now he drew level. They were
almost opposite the Castle.

A dog barked from the stables. Another answered from the Castle. Two
more took up the tune from the stables; the Castle guardian redoubled
his responsive efforts. A man came running out from the stables with a
lantern; a light flashed in the doorway of the Castle. Both Markart and
the stranger came to a stand-still. The man with the lantern raised it
high in the air, to see the faces of the travellers.

They saw each other's faces, too. The first result was to send them into
a fit of laughter--a relief from tension, a recognition of the absurdity
into which their diplomatic caution had led them.

"By the powers, Captain Markart!"

"Monsieur Zerkovitch, by Heaven!"

They laughed again.

"Ah, and we might have had a pleasant ride together!"

"I should have rejoiced in the solace of your conversation!"

But neither asked the other why he had behaved in such a ridiculous
manner.

"And our destination is the same?" asked Zerkovitch. "You stop here at
the Castle?"

"Yes, yes, Monsieur Zerkovitch. And you?"

"Yes, Captain, yes; my journey ends at the Castle."

The men led away their horses, which sorely needed tending, and they
mounted the wooden causeway side by side, both feeling foolish, yet sure
they had done right. In the doorway stood Peter Vassip with his lantern.

"Your business, gentlemen?" he said. It was between two and three in the
morning.

They looked at each other; Zerkovitch was quicker, and with a courteous
gesture invited his companion to take precedence.

"Private and urgent--with his Royal Highness."

"So is mine, Peter," said Zerkovitch.

Markart's humor was touched again; he began to laugh. Zerkovitch
laughed, too, but there was a touch of excitement and nervousness in his
mirth.

"His Royal Highness went to bed an hour ago," said Peter Vassip.

"I'm afraid you must rouse him. My business is immediate," said Markart.
"And I suppose yours is too, Monsieur Zerkovitch?" he added jokingly.

"That it is," said Zerkovitch.

"I'll rouse the Prince. Will you follow me, gentlemen?"

Peter closed and barred the gate, and they followed him through the
court-yard. A couple of sentries were pacing it; for the rest, all was
still. Peter led them into a small room, where a fire was burning, and
left them together. Side by side they stood close to the fire; each
flung away his coat and tried to dry his boots and breeches at the
comforting blaze.

"We must keep this story a secret, or we shall be laughed at by all
Slavna, Monsieur Zerkovitch."

Zerkovitch gave him a sharp glance. "I should think you would report
your discreet conduct to your superiors, Captain. Orders are orders,
secrecy is secrecy, even though it turns out that there was no need for
it."

Markart was about to reply with a joke when the Prince entered. He
greeted both cordially, showing, of course, in Markart's presence, no
surprise at Zerkovitch's arrival.

"There will be rooms and food and wine ready for you, gentlemen, in a
few minutes. Captain Markart, you must rest here for to-night, for your
horse's sake as well as your own. I suppose your business will wait till
the morning?"

"My orders were to lose not a moment in communicating it to you, sir."

"Very well. You're from his Majesty?"

"Yes, sir."

"The King comes first--and I dare say your affair will wait,
Zerkovitch?"

Zerkovitch protested with an eagerness by no means discreet in the
presence of a third party--an aide-de-camp to Stenovics!--"No, sir,
no--it can't wait an--"

The Prince interrupted. "Nonsense, man, nonsense! Now go to your room.
I'll come in and bid you 'Good-night.'" He pushed his over-zealous
friend from the room, calling to Peter Vassip to guide him to the
apartment he was to occupy. Then he came back to Markart. "Now,
Captain!"

Markart took out his letter and presented it with a salute. "Sit down
while I read it," said the Prince, seating himself at the table.

The Prince read his letter, and sat playing with it in his fingers for
half a minute or so. Then a thought seemed to strike him. "Heavens, I
never told Peter to light fires! I hope he has. You're wet--and
Zerkovitch is terribly liable to take cold." He jumped up. "Excuse me;
we have no bells in this old place, you know." He ran out of the room,
closing the door behind him.

Markart sprang to the door. He did not dare to open it, but he listened
to the Prince's footsteps. They sounded to the left--one, two, three,
four, five, six paces. They stopped--a door opened and shut. Markart
made a mental note and went back to the fire, smiling. He thought that
idea of his really would please General Stenovics.

In three minutes the Prince returned. "I did Peter
injustice--Zerkovitch's fire is all right," he said. "And there's a good
one in your room, too, he tells me. And now, Captain Markart, to our
business. You know the contents of the letter you carried?"

"Yes, sir. They were communicated to me, in view of their urgency, and
in case of accident to the letter."

"As a matter of form, repeat the gist to me."

"General Stenovics has to inform your Royal Highness on the King's
behalf that his Majesty sees no need of a personal interview, as his
mind is irrevocably fixed, and he orders your Royal Highness to set out
for Germany within three days from the receipt of this letter. No
pretext is to delay your Royal Highness's departure."

"Perfectly correct, Captain. To-morrow I shall give you an answer
addressed directly to the King. But I wish now to give you a message to
General Stenovics. I shall ask the King for an audience. Unless he
appoints a time within two days, I shall conclude that he has not had
the letter, or--pray mark this--has not enjoyed an opportunity of
considering it independently. General Stenovics must consider what a
responsibility he undertakes if he advises the King to refuse to see his
son. I shall await his Majesty's answer here. That is the message. You
understand?"

"Perfectly, sir."

"Just repeat it. The terms are important."

Markart obeyed. The Prince nodded his head. "You shall have the letter
for the King early in the morning. Now for bed! I'll show you to your
room."

They went out and turned to the left. Markart counted their paces. At
six paces they came to a door--and passed it. Four farther on, the
Prince ushered him into the room where he was to sleep. It was evident
that the Prince had made personal inspection of the state of Monsieur
Zerkovitch's fire!

"Good-night, Captain. By-the-way, the King continues well?"

"Dr. Natcheff says, sir, that he doesn't think his Majesty was ever
better in his life."

The Prince looked at him for just a moment with a reflective smile. "Ah,
and a trustworthy man, Natcheff! Good-night!"

Markart did not see much reason to think that the question, the look,
the smile, and the comment had any significance. But there would be no
harm in submitting the point to General Stenovics. Pondering over this,
he forgot to count the Prince's paces this time. If he had counted, the
sum would have been just four. Monsieur Zerkovitch's fire needed another
royal inspection--it needed it almost till the break of day.

"The King's life hangs by a hair, and your Crown by a thread." That was
the warning which Lepage had given and Zerkovitch had carried through
the night.



XII

JOYFUL OF HEART


The storm had passed; day broke calm and radiant over the Castle of
Praslok; sunshine played caressingly on the lake and on the hills.

Markart had breakfasted and paid a visit to his horse; he wanted to be
off by nine o'clock, and waited only for the Prince's letter. He was
returning from the stables, sniffing the morning air with a vivid
enjoyment of the change of weather, when he saw Sophy coming along the
road. She had been for a walk. Her eyes and cheeks glowed with
exhilaration. She wore her sheepskin tunic, her sheepskin cap with its
red cockade, and her short, blue skirt over high boots. She walked as
though on the clouds of heaven, a wonderful lightness in her tread; the
Red Star signalled the exaltation of her spirit; the glad sound of the
trumpet rang in her heart.

Her cordial greeting to Markart was spiced with raillery, to which he
responded as well as his ignorance allowed; he was uncertain how much
she knew of the real situation. But if his tongue was embarrassed, his
eyes spoke freely. He could not keep them from her face; to him she
seemed a queen of life and joy that glorious morning.

"You've recovered from your fright?" she asked. "Poor Monsieur
Zerkovitch is still sleeping his off, I suppose! Oh, the story's all
over the Castle!"

"It'll be all over the country soon," said Markart with a rueful smile.

"Well, after all, Monsieur Zerkovitch is a journalist, and journalists
don't spare even themselves, you know. And you're not a reticent person,
are you? Don't you remember all the information you gave me once?"

"Ah, on the terrace of the Hôtel de Paris! Much has happened since then,
Baroness."

"Much always happens, if you keep your eyes open," said Sophy.

"If you keep yours open, nothing happens for me but looking at them."

She laughed merrily; a compliment never displeased Sophy, and she could
bear it very downright.

"But if I were to shut my eyes, what would you do then?"

He looked doubtfully at her mocking face; she meant a little more than
the idle words naturally carried.

"I don't think you'll give me the chance of considering, Baroness." He
indicated her costume with a gesture of his hand. "You've entered the
service, I see?"

"Yes, Captain Markart, the King's service. We are brethren--you serve
him, too?"

"I have that honor." Markart flushed under her laughing scrutiny.

"We fight shoulder to shoulder then. Well, not quite. I'm a gunner, you
see."

"Minus your guns, at present!"

"Not for long!" She turned round and swept her arms out towards the lake
and the hills. "It's a day to think of nothing--just to go riding,
riding, riding!" Her laugh rang out in merry longing.

"What prevents you?"

"My military duties, perhaps, Captain," she answered. "You're lucky--you
have a long ride; don't spoil it by thinking!"

"I think? Oh no, Baroness! I only obey my orders."

"And they never make you think?" Her glance was quick at him for an
instant.

"There's danger in thinking too much, even for ladies," he told her.

She looked at him more gravely, for his eyes were on her now with a
kindly, perhaps a remorseful, look.

"You mean that for me?" she asked. "But if I, too, only obey my orders?"

"With all my heart I hope they may lead you into no danger," he said.

"There's only one danger in all the world--losing what you love."

"Not, sometimes, gaining it?" he asked quickly.

"Still, the only danger would be of losing it again."

"There's life, too," he remarked with a shrug.

"Sir, we're soldiers!" she cried in merry reproof.

"That doesn't prevent me from prizing your life, Baroness, in the
interests of a world not too rich in what you contribute to it."

Sophy looked at him, a subtle merriment in her eyes. "I think, Captain
Markart, that, if you were my doctor, you'd advise me to try--a change
of air! Praslok is too exciting, is that it? But I found Slavna--well,
far from relaxing, you know!"

"The Kravonian climate as a whole, Baroness--"

"Oh no, no, that's too much!" she interrupted. Then she said: "It's very
kind of you--yes, I mean that--and it's probably--I don't know--but
probably against your orders. So I thank you. But I can face even the
rigors of Kravonia."

She held out her hand; he bent and kissed it. "In fact, I hadn't the
least right to say it," he confessed. "Not the least from any point of
view. It's your fault, though, Baroness."

"Since I'm party to the crime, I'll keep the secret," she promised with
a decidedly kindly glance. To Sophy, admiration of herself always argued
something good in a man; she had none of that ungracious scorn which
often disfigures the smile of beauty. She gave a little sigh, followed
quickly by a smile.

"We've said all we possibly can to one another, you and I; more than we
could, perhaps! And now--to duty!" She pointed to the door of the
Castle.

The Prince was coming down the wooden causeway. He, too, wore the
Volseni sheepskins. In his hand he carried a sealed letter. Almost at
the same moment a groom led Markart's horse from the stables. The Prince
joined them and, after a bow to Sophy, handed the letter to Markart.

"For his Majesty. And you remember my message to General Stenovics?"

"Accurately, sir."

"Good!" He gave Markart his hand. "Good-bye--a pleasant ride to you,
Captain--pleasanter than last night's." His grave face broke into a
smile.

"I'm not to have Monsieur Zerkovitch's company this time, sir?"

"Why, no, Captain. You see, Zerkovitch left the Castle soon after six
o'clock. Rather a short night, yes, but he was in a hurry."

Sophy burst into a laugh at the dismay on Markart's face. "We neither of
us knew that, Captain Markart, did we?" she cried. "We thought he was
sleeping off the fright you'd given him!"

"Your Royal Highness gives me leave--?" stammered Markart, his eye on
his horse.

"Certainly, Captain. But don't be vexed, there will be no invidious
comparisons. Zerkovitch doesn't propose to report himself to General
Stenovics immediately on his arrival."

Good-natured Markart joined in the laugh at his own expense. "I'm hardly
awake yet; he must be made of iron, that Zerkovitch!"

"Quicksilver!" smiled the Prince. As Markart mounted, he added: "Au
revoir!"

Markart left the two standing side by side--the Prince's serious face
lit up with a rare smile, Sophy's beauty radiant in merriment. His own
face fell as he rode away. "I half wish I was in the other camp," he
grumbled. But Stenovics's power held him--and the fear of Stafnitz. He
went back to a work in which his heart no longer was; for his heart had
felt Sophy's spell.

"You can have had next to no sleep all night, Monseigneur," said Sophy
in reproach mingled with commiseration.

"I don't need it; the sight of your face refreshes me. We must talk.
Zerkovitch brought news."

In low, grave tones he told her the tidings, and the steps which he and
Zerkovitch had taken.

"I understand my father's reasons for keeping me in the dark; he meant
it well, but he was blinded by this idea about my marriage. But I see,
too, how it fitted in with Stenovics's ideas. I think it's war between
us now--and I'm ready."

Sophy was almost dazed. The King's life was not to be relied on for a
week--for a day--no, not for an hour! But she listened attentively.
Zerkovitch had gone back to Slavna on a fresh horse and at top speed; he
would have more than two hours' lead of Markart. His first duty was to
open communications with Lepage and arrange that the valet should send
to him all the information which came to his ears, and any impressions
which he was able to gather in the Palace. Zerkovitch would forward the
reports to Praslok immediately, so long as the Prince remained at the
Castle. But the Prince was persuaded that his father would not refuse to
see him, now that he knew the true state of the case. "My father is
really attached to me," he said, "and if I see him, I'm confident that I
can persuade him of the inexpediency of my leaving the kingdom just now.
A hint of my suspicions with regard to the Countess and Stenovics would
do it; but I'm reluctant to risk giving him such a shock. I think I can
persuade him without."

"But is it safe for you to trust yourself at Slavna--in the Palace? And
alone?"

"I must risk the Palace alone--and I'm not much afraid. Stenovics might
go to war with me, but I don't think he'd favor assassination. And to
Slavna I sha'n't go alone. Our gunners will go with us, Sophy. We have
news of the guns being on the way; there will be nothing strange in my
marching the gunners down to meet them. They're only half-trained, even
in drill, but they're brave fellows. We'll take up our quarters with
them in Suleiman's Tower. I don't fear all Slavna if I hold Suleiman's
Tower with three hundred Volsenians. Stafnitz may do his worst!"

"Yes, I see," she answered, thoughtfully. "I can't come with you to
Suleiman's Tower, though."

"Only if there are signs of danger. Then you and Marie must come; if all
is quiet, you can stay in her house. We can meet often--as often as
possible. For the rest, we must wait."

She saw that they must wait. It was impossible to approach the King on
the matter of Sophy. It cut dead at the heart of his ambition; it would
be a shock as great as the discovery of Countess Ellenburg's ambitions.
It could not be risked.

"But if, under Stenovics's influence, the King does refuse to see you?"
she asked--"Refuses to see you, and repeats his orders?"

The Prince's face grew very grave, but his voice was firm.

"Not even the King--not even my father--can bid me throw away the
inheritance which is mine. The hand would be the King's, but the voice
the voice of Stenovics. I shouldn't obey; they'd have to come to Volseni
and take me."

Sophy's eyes kindled. "Yes, that's right!" she said. "And for to-day?"

"Nothing will happen to-day--unless, by chance, the thing which we now
know may happen any day; and of that we shouldn't hear till evening. And
there's no drill even. I sent the men to their homes on forty-eight
hours' furlough yesterday morning." His face relaxed in a smile. "I
think to-day we can have a holiday, Sophy."

She clapped her hands in glee. "Oh, Monseigneur, a holiday!"

"It may be the last for a long time," he said; "so we must enjoy it."

This day--this holiday which might be the last--passed in a fine
carelessness and a rich joy in living. The cloudless sky and the
glittering waters of Lake Talti were parties to their pleasure, whether
as they rode far along the shore, or sat and ate a simple meal on the
rock-strewn margin. Hopes and fears, dangers and stern resolves, were
forgotten; even of the happier issues which the future promised, or
dangled before their eyes, there was little thought or speech. The blood
of youth flowed briskly, the heart of youth rose high. The grave Prince
joked, jested, and paid his court; Sophy's eyes gleamed with the fun as
not even the most exalted and perilous adventure could make them
sparkle.

"Oh, it's good," she cried--"good to live and see the sun! Monseigneur,
I believe I'm a pagan--a sun-worshipper! When he's good enough to warm
me through, and to make the water glitter for me, and shadows dance in
such a cunning pattern on the hills, then I think I've done something
that he likes, and that he's pleased with me!" She sprang to her feet
and stretched out her hands towards the sun. "In the grave, I believe, I
shall remember the glorious light; my memory of that could surely never
die!"

His was the holiday mood, too. He fell in with her extravagance, meeting
it with banter.

"It's only a lamp," he said, "just a lamp; and it's hung there for the
sole purpose of showing Sophy's eyes. When she's not there, they put it
out--for what's the use of it?"

"They put it out when I'm not there?"

"I've noticed it happen a dozen times of late."

"It lights up again when I come, Monseigneur?"

"Ah, then I forget to look!"

"You get very little sun anyhow, then!"

"I've something so much better."

It is pathetic to read--pathetic that she should have set it down as
though every word of it were precious--set it down as minutely as she
chronicled the details of the critical hours to which fate was soon to
call her.

Yet, was she wrong? Days of idleness are not always the emptiest; life
may justify its halts; our spirits may mount to their sublimest pitch in
hours of play. At least, the temper of that holiday, and her eager
prizing and recording of it, show well the manner of woman that she
was--her passionate love of beauty, her eager stretching out to all that
makes life beautiful, her spirit, sensitive to all around, taking color
from this and that, reflecting back every ray which the bounty of nature
or of man poured upon it, her great faculty of living. She wasted no
days or hours. Ever receiving, ever giving, she spent her sojourn in a
world that for her did much, yet never could do enough, to which she
gave a great love, yet never seemed to herself to be able to give
enough. Perhaps she was not wrong when she called herself a pagan. She
was of the religion of joy; her kindest thought of the grave was that
haply through some chink in its dark walls there might creep one tiny
sunbeam of memory.

They rode home together as the sun was setting--a sun of ruddy gold,
behind it one bright, purple cloud, the sky beyond blue, deepening
almost into black. When Praslok came in sight, she laid her hand on his
with a long-drawn sigh.

"We have been together to-day," she said. "That will be there always.
Yes, the sun and the world were made for us this day--and we have been
worthy."

He pressed her hand. "You were sent to teach me what joy is--the worth
of the world to men who live in it. You're the angel of joy, Sophy.
Before you came, I had missed that lesson."

"I'm very glad"--thus she ends her own record of this day of
glory--"that I've brought joy to Monseigneur. He faces his fight joyful
of heart." And then, with one of her absurd, deplorable, irresistible
lapses into the merest ordinary feminine, she adds: "That red badge is
just the touch my sheepskin cap wanted!"

Oh, Sophy, Sophy, what of that for a final reflection on the eve of
Monseigneur's fight?



XIII

A DELICATE DUTY


There was a stir in Slavna; excitement was gradually growing, not
unmixed with uneasiness; gossip was busy at the Hôtel de Paris and at
the Golden Lion. Men clustered in groups and talked, while their wives
said that they would be better at home, minding their business and
letting politics alone. Knowledge was far to seek; rumors were
plentiful. Dr. Natcheff might be as reassuring as he pleased--but he had
spent the night at the Palace! All was quiet in the city, but news came
of the force that was being raised in Volseni, and the size of the force
lost nothing as the report passed from mouth to mouth. Little as Slavna
loved the Prince, it was not eager to fight him. A certain reaction in
his favor set in. If they did not love him, they held him in sincere
respect; if he meant to fight, then they were not sure that they did!

Baroness Dobrava's name, too, was much on men's lips; stories about
Sophy were bandied to and fro; people began to remember that they had
from the beginning thought her very remarkable--a force to be reckoned
with. The superstitious ideas about her made their first definite
appearance now. She had bewitched the Prince, they said, and the men of
the hills, too; the whole mountain country would rise at her bidding and
sweep down on Slavna in rude warfare and mad bravery. The Sheepskins
would come, following the Red Star!

The citizens of Slavna did not relish the prospect; at the best it would
be very bad for trade; at the worst it would mean blood and death let
loose in the streets. A stern ruler was better than civil war. The
troops of the garrison were no longer such favorites as they had been;
even Captain Hercules subdued his demeanor (which, indeed, had never
quite recovered from the chastisement of the Prince's sword) to a
self-effacing discretion. He, too, in his heart, and in his heavy,
primitive brain, had an uneasy feeling about the witch with the Red
Star; had she not been the beginning of trouble? But for her, Sterkoff's
long knife would have set an end to the whole chapter long ago!

The time was short and the omens doubtful. It was the moment for a bold
stroke, for a forcing game. The waverers must be shown where power lay,
whose was the winning side.

Captain Markart arrived at Slavna at one o'clock. Zerkovitch had used
his start well and reached the city nearly three hours earlier. When
Markart told Stenovics (he reported himself at once to the General) how
he had been outwitted, Stenovics smiled, saying: "I know, and I know
what he has done since he got here. They stole a march on you, but not
on me, Captain. And now--your story!" He listened to Markart's tale with
a frowning brow, and then dismissed him, saying: "You will meet me at
the Palace. We meet the King in conference at four o'clock." But the
General himself went to the Palace long before four, and he and Stafnitz
were closeted with Countess Ellenburg. Lepage, returning from a walk to
the city at two o'clock, saw the General arrive on horseback.
Lieutenant Rastatz saw Lepage arrive--ay, and had seen him set out, and
marked all his goings; but of this Lepage was unconscious. The little
lieutenant was not much of a soldier, but he was an excellent spy.
Lepage had been with Zerkovitch.

The King was confined to his apartments, a suite of six rooms on the
first floor, facing the river. Here he had his own sitting-room,
dressing, and bedrooms. Besides these there were the little cupboard
Lepage slept in, and a spare room, which at present accommodated Dr.
Natcheff. The sixth room was occupied by odds and ends, including the
tackle, rods, and other implements of his Majesty's favorite pastime.
The council was held in the sitting-room. Natcheff and Lepage were not
present, but each was in his own room, ready for any possible call on
his services. Markart was there, first to tell his story and deliver his
letter, secondly in his capacity as secretary to General Stenovics. The
Countess and Stafnitz completed the party.

The King was anxious, worried, obviously unwell; his voice trembled as
he read aloud his son's letter. It was brief but dutiful, and even
affectionate. After a slight reproach that he should have been kept in
ignorance of the apprehensions entertained about the King's health, the
Prince requested an audience within the next two days; he had
considerations which it was his duty to lay before his Majesty, and he
firmly but respectfully claimed the right of confidential communication
with his father; that was essential to his Majesty's obtaining a true
appreciation of his views. The hit at Stenovics was plain enough, and
the Prince did not labor it. The letter ended there, with an expression
of earnest concern for the King's health. There was no word in it about
starting on his journey.

Then Markart told his story--not that he had much to tell. In essence he
added only that the Prince proposed to await the King's answer at
Praslok. Neither to him had the Prince said a word about starting on his
journey.

On this point Stenovics seized, pursuant, no doubt, to the plan devised
in that preliminary discussion with the other two members of the little
_coterie_.

"It is remarkable, sir--even more than remarkable--that his Royal
Highness makes no reference at all to the direct command which your
Majesty was pleased to issue to him," he observed.

The King listened, puzzled and rather distressed. "Yes, it isn't proper,
it isn't respectful. But now that my son knows of the state of my
health, I think I must see him. It seems unnatural to refuse. After all,
it may be the last time--since he's going on this journey."

"But is the Prince going on his journey, sir?" asked Stenovics. "Does
the studied silence of his letter augur well for his obedience? Doesn't
he seek an interview in order to persuade your Majesty against your
better judgment? I must be pardoned freedom of speech. Great interests
are at stake." The last words were true enough, though not in the sense
in which the King was meant to understand them.

"My son knows how near this matter is to my heart. I shall be able to
persuade him to do his duty," said the King.

The first round of the fight was going against the _coterie_. They did
not want the King to see his son. Danger lay there. The Prince's was the
stronger character; it might well prevail; and they were no longer
certain that the Prince knew or guessed nothing of their hopes and
intentions; how much news had Zerkovitch carried to Praslok the night
before? Stenovics addressed the King again.

"Captain Markart gathered that the Prince was reluctant to interrupt the
military training on which he is engaged at Volseni, sir."

"A very excellent thing, that; but the other matter is more urgent. I
shouldn't change my mind on account of that."

"A personal interview might be trying to your Majesty."

The King looked annoyed, possibly a little suspicious. "You've no other
objection than that to urge, General Stenovics?"

Stenovics had none other which he could produce. "No, sir," he said.

"While I'm here I must do my duty--and I shall induce my son to do his.
I'll receive the Prince of Slavna in private audience to-morrow or next
day. I'll fix the precise time later, and I'll write the letter myself."

The decision was final--and it was defeat so far. There was a moment's
silence. Markart saw Colonel Stafnitz nod his head, almost
imperceptibly, towards Countess Ellenburg. The need and the moment for
reinforcements had come; the Colonel was calling them up. The order of
battle had been well considered in Countess Ellenburg's apartments! The
second line came into action. The Countess began with a question, put
with a sneer:

"Did no other reason for the Prince's unwillingness to set out on his
journey suggest itself to Captain Markart from what he saw at Praslok?"

The King turned sharply round to her, then to Markart. "Well?" he asked
the latter.

Markart was sadly embarrassed.

"Who was at Praslok?" asked the Countess.

"Madame Zerkovitch, and her husband for one night, and Baroness
Dobrava."

"Yes, Baroness Dobrava!"

"She's still there?" asked the King. He looked perplexed, even vexed,
but again he smiled. He looked at Stenovics and Stafnitz, but this time
he found no responsive smiles. Their faces were deadly serious. "Oh,
come, well--well, that's not serious. Natural, perhaps, but--the Prince
has a sense of duty. He'll see that that won't do. And we'll send the
Baroness a hint--we'll tell her how much we miss her at Slavna." He
tried to make them answer his smile and accept his smoothing away of the
difficulty. It was all a failure.

"I'm bound to say, sir, that I consider Baroness Dobrava a serious
obstacle to his Royal Highness's obeying your wishes--a serious
obstacle," said Stenovics.

"Then we must get her away, General."

"Will he let her go?" snapped the Countess.

"I must order it, if it comes to that," said the King. "These
little--er--affairs--these--what?--holiday flirtations--"

The Countess lost--or appeared to lose--control of herself suddenly.
"Little affairs! Holiday flirtations! If it were only that, it would be
beneath your notice, sir, and beneath mine. It's more than that!"

The King started and leaned forward, looking at her. She rose to her
feet, crying: "More than that! While we sit talking here, he may be
marrying that woman!"

"Marrying her?" cried the King; his face turned red, and then, as the
blood ebbed again, became very pale.

"That's what she means--yes, and what he means, too!"

The King was aghast. The second assault struck home--struck at his
dearest hopes and wounded his most intimate ambitions. But he was still
incredulous. He spread out trembling hands, turning from the vehement
woman to his two counsellors.

"Gentlemen!" he said, imploringly, with out-stretched hands.

They were silent--grave and silent.

"Captain Markart, you--you saw anything to suggest this--this terrible
idea?"

The fire was hot on poor Markart again. He stammered and stuttered.

"The--the Baroness seemed to have much influence, sir; to--to hold a
very high position in the Prince's regard; to--to be in his
confidence--"

"Yes!" struck in the Countess. "She wears the uniform of his artillery!
Isn't that a compliment usually reserved for ladies of royal rank? I
appeal to you, Colonel Stafnitz!"

"In most services it is so, I believe, Countess," the Colonel answered
gravely.

"But I should never allow it--and without my consent--"

"It might be invalid, sir, though there's some doubt about that. But it
would be a fatal bar to our German project. Even an influence short of
actual marriage--"

"She means marriage, I say, marriage!" The Countess was quite rudely
impatient of her ally--which was very artistic. "An ambitious and
dangerous woman! She has taken advantage of the favor the King showed
her."

"And if I died?" asked the King.

Stenovics shrugged his shoulders. "Of course, there would be no control
then," said he.

The King looked round. "We must get her away from Praslok."

"Will she come?" jeered the Countess. "Not she! Will he let her go? Not
he!"

The King passed his hand weakly across his brow. Then he rang a bell on
the table. Lepage entered, and the King bade him bring him the draught
which Natcheff had prescribed for his nerves. Well might the unfortunate
man feel the need of it, between the Countess's open eruption and the
not less formidable calm of Stenovics and Stafnitz! And all his favorite
dreams in danger!

"She won't leave him--or he'll follow her. The woman has infatuated
him!" the Countess persisted.

"Pray, madame, let me think," said the harassed and sick King. "We must
open communications with Baroness Dobrava."

"May I suggest that the matter might prove urgent, sir?" said Stenovics.

"Every hour is full of danger," declared the Countess.

The King held up his hand for silence. Then he took paper and pen, and
wrote with his own hand some lines. He signed the document and folded
it. His face was now firm and calmer. The peril to his greatest
hopes--perhaps a sense of the precarious tenure of his power--seemed to
impart to him a new promptness, a decision alien to his normal
character. "Colonel Stafnitz!" he said in a tone of command.

The Colonel rose to his feet and saluted. From an adviser in council he
became in a moment a soldier on duty.

"I am about to entrust to you a duty of great delicacy. I choose you
because, short of General Stenovics himself, there is no man in whom I
have such confidence. To-morrow morning you will go to Praslok and
inform his Royal Highness that you have a communication from me for
Baroness Dobrava. If the Prince is absent, you will see the Baroness
herself. If she is absent, you will follow her and find her. The matter
is urgent. You will tell her that it is my request that she at once
accompany you back here to the Palace, where I shall receive her and
acquaint her with my further wishes. If she asks of these, say that you
are not empowered to tell her anything; she must learn them from myself.
If she makes any demur about accompanying you immediately, or if demur
is made or delay suggested from any quarter, you will say that my
request is a command. If that is not sufficient, you will produce this
paper. It is an order under my hand, addressed to you and directing you
to arrest Baroness Dobrava and escort her here to my presence,
notwithstanding any objection or resistance, which any person whatever
will offer at his peril. You will be back here by to-morrow evening,
with the Baroness in your charge. Do it without employing the order for
arrest if possible, but do it anyhow and at all costs. Do you
understand?"

"Perfectly, sir. Am I to take an escort?"

The answer to that question was anxiously considered--and awaited
anxiously.

"Yes," said the King, "you will. The precise force I leave to your
discretion. It should be large enough to make you secure from
hinderance by any act short of open and armed resistance to my
commands."

Stafnitz saluted again, and at a sign from the King resumed his seat.
The King's manner relaxed as he turned to Stenovics. "When we've got her
here, we'll reason with her--she'll hear reason--and persuade her that
her health will benefit by a foreign trip. If necessary, I shall cause
her to be deported. She must be out of Kravonia in three days unless she
can clear herself from all suspicion. I'll arrange that the Prince
sha'n't come for his audience until she is well out of Slavna. It is, of
course, absolutely essential that no word of this should pass the walls
of this room. If once a hint of it reached Praslok, the task of laying
our hands on the Baroness might become infinitely more difficult."

The three were well pleased. They had come to fear Sophy, and on that
score alone would be right glad to see the last of her. And when she had
gone, there was a fairer chance that the Prince, too, would go on his
travels; whether he went after her or not they cared little, so that he
went, and the recruiting and training at Volseni were interrupted.

Again, she was to go before the audience. That was another point. The
peril of the audience remained, but they had improved their chances.
Perhaps Stafnitz's brain was already busy with the possibilities of his
mission and his escort. The latter was to be large enough to make him
secure from hinderance by any act short of open and armed resistance to
the King's commands. If it were impossible (as his Majesty obviously
considered) to contemplate such resistance, it was evidently no less
impossible to reckon what might happen as a consequence of it.

The King rang his bell impatiently. "I want my draught again. I'm very
tired. Is there anything else which need detain us to-day?"

As he spoke, before Stenovics could answer, Lepage came in with the
draught. The valet wore an even unusually demure and uninterested
expression.

"There is one other matter, sir," said Stenovics.

The King paused in the act of drinking and listened with his glass in
his hand, Lepage standing beside him.

"Your Majesty just now impressed on us the need of secrecy as to what
passes between these walls. I think, sir, you would insist on the same
thing with all who serve you confidentially. You haven't asked, sir, how
the Prince became aware of the state of your Majesty's health."

The King started a little. "No, I forgot that. It was against my direct
orders. How was it?"

Stenovics kept his eyes on the King; Markart and Stafnitz allowed
themselves to study Lepage's features; he stood the scrutiny well.

"The news, sir, was betrayed by a man within these walls--a man in close
touch with your Majesty."

"Natcheff!" exclaimed the King.

"Certainly not, sir. Another. This man, of whom I had suspicions, and
whom I caused to be watched, went by night to the house of Monsieur
Zerkovitch, who is, as you are aware, a close friend and (if I may use
the word) an adherent of the Prince of Slavna. Their interview took
place between nine and ten last night. At eleven Zerkovitch, having
borrowed a horse from the Prince's stables, set out for Praslok. He rode
hard through the night and reached the Castle, as Captain Markart has
told us, in the small hours of the morning. There he had an interview
with the Prince. He left Praslok between six and seven in the morning
and arrived at his house on the south boulevard by eleven. At half-past
eleven he walked up the Street of the Fountain, crossed St. Michael's
Square, and entered a small inn in a little alley behind the Cathedral.
Here the man I speak of was waiting for him. They were together half an
hour. Zerkovitch then left. The man remained till one, then came out,
and returned to the Palace by a circuitous route, arriving here about
two o'clock. I venture to say that the meaning of all this is quite
clear. This man is in communication with Praslok, using Zerkovitch as
his intermediary. It's for your Majesty to say how far his disobedience
in regard to acquainting the Prince with your condition is a serious
offence. As to that I say nothing. But it will be obvious that this man
should know nothing of any private measures undertaken or contemplated."

The King had listened carefully. "The case seems clear," he said. "This
fellow's a traitor. He's done harm already, and may do more. What do you
ask, General?"

"We might be content to let him know nothing. But who can be quite
certain of insuring that? Sir, you have just arrived at a very important
decision--to take certain action. Absolute secrecy is essential to its
success. I've no wish to press hardly on this man, but I feel bound to
urge that he should be put under arrest and kept in the charge of a
person who is beyond suspicion until the action to which I refer has
been successfully carried out."

"The precaution is an obvious one, and the punishment hardly
sufficient." The King rose. "Do as you say, General. I leave you full
discretion. And now I'll go to my room and rest. I'm very tired. Give
me your arm, Lepage, and come and make me comfortable."

Lepage did not offer his arm. He was not looking at the King, nor
listening to him; his eyes and his ears were for General Stenovics.
Stenovics rose now and pointed his finger at Lepage.

"That, sir, is the man," said he.

"Lepage!" cried the King, and sank heavily into his seat with a
bewildered face. Lepage--his familiar--the man he trusted!



XIV

HIS MAJESTY DIES--TO-MORROW!


The King's ambition and pride had quivered under the threat of a cruel
blow; the charge against Lepage wounded him hardly less deeply. He
regarded his body-servant with the trustful affection which grows on an
indolent man in course of years--of countless days of consulting,
trusting, relying on one ever present, ever ready, always trustworthy.
Lepage had been with him nearly thirty years; there was hardly a secret
of the King's manhood which he had not known and kept. At last had he
turned traitor?

Stenovics had failed to allow for this human side of the matter; how
much more alone the revelation would make the King feel, how much more
exposed and helpless--just, moreover, when sickness made his invaluable
servant more indispensable still. A forlorn dignity filled the King's
simple question: "Is it true, Lepage?"

Lepage's impassivity vanished. He, too, was deeply moved. The sense of
guilt was on him--of guilt against his master; it drove him on, beyond
itself, to a fierce rage against those who had goaded him into his
disobedience, whose action and plans had made his disobedience right.
For right now he believed and felt it; his talks with Zerkovitch had
crystallized his suspicions into confident certainty. He was carried
beyond thinking of what effect his outburst might have on his own
fortunes or how it might distress the already harassed King. He struck
back fiercely at his accuser, all his national quickness of passion
finding vent in the torrent of words he poured forth in excuse or
justification. He spoke his native French, very quickly, one word
jostling over another, his arms flying like windmills, and his hair
bristling, as it seemed, with defiance.

"Yes, it's true, sir. I disobeyed your Majesty--for the first time in
thirty years! For the first time in my life, sir, I did it! And why?
Because it was right; because it was for honor. I was angry, yes! I had
been scolded because Count Alexis bade me call him 'Prince,' and you
heard me do it. Yes, I was angry. Was it my fault? Had I told him he was
a prince? No! Who had told him he was a prince? Don't ask me, sir. Ask
somebody else. For my part, I know well the difference between one who
is a prince and one who is not. Oh, I'm not ignorant of that! I know,
too, the difference between one who is a queen and one who is not--oh,
with the utmost respect to Madame la Comtesse! But I know it--and I
remember it. Does everybody else remember it?"

He stopped for a moment and clutched at his stiff, tight collar, as
though to wrench it away from his neck, and let the stream of his words
flow even more freely. While he paused, nobody spoke. Stenovics's heavy
gaze was on the King, Stafnitz's eyes discreetly on the ceiling; the
Countess looked scared. Had they made a mistake? Would it have been
better to run the risk of what Lepage could do? The King's hands were on
the table in front of him; they trembled where they lay.

"Why wasn't the Prince to know? Because then he wouldn't go on his
journey! His journey after the German princess!" He faced Stenovics now,
boldly and defiantly, pointing a forefinger at him. "Yes, they wanted
him to go. Yes, they did! Why, sir? To marry a princess--a great
princess? Was that what they wanted? Eh, but it would have been little
use for Count Alexis to ask me to call him a prince then! And Madame la
Comtesse--with the utmost respect to Madame la Comtesse--she wanted a
great princess here? Oh, she wanted that mightily, to be sure!"

The King stirred uneasily in his chair.

"Sir, will you listen to him?" the Countess broke in.

His answer was cold: "I listen to every man before I order him to be
punished."

"Yes, they wanted him to go. Yes, certainly! For he trains his men at
Volseni, trains them for his big guns. When the men are trained and the
guns have come--well, who'll call Count Alexis a prince then? Will even
they who taught him to think himself a prince? Oh yes; they wanted him
to go. And he wouldn't go if he knew your Majesty was ill. He loves your
Majesty. Yes! But if he hated you, still would he go?" With a sudden
turn he was round on Stenovics again, and threw out his arms as though
to embrace a picture. "Look! The Prince is away, the guns are come, the
King dies! Who commands in the Palace? Who governs Slavna?" He was back
to the King with another swift turn. "May I answer, sir? May I tell you?
The mother of Prince Alexis commands in the Palace; Slavna is ruled by
the friends of Captain Mistitch!" His voice fell to an ironical murmur.
"And the Prince is far off--seeking a great princess! Sir, do you see
the picture?"

Stafnitz suddenly lowered his eyes from the ceiling and looked at the
gesticulating little man with a smile.

"Such imagination in the servants' hall!" he murmured half under his
breath.

The King neither rebuked his levity nor endorsed the insinuated satire.
He took no notice at all. His eyes were fixed on his still trembling
hands.

Stenovics spoke in a calm, smooth voice. "Absolutely, sir, I believe the
man's honest!" he said, with an inflection of good-humored surprise.
"One sees how he got the idea! I'm sure he's genuinely devoted to your
Majesty, and to the Prince--as we all are. He sees something going on
which he doesn't understand; he knows something more is going on that
he's ignorant of. He knows the unfortunate condition of your Majesty's
health. He's like a nurse--forgive me--in charge of a sick child; he
thinks everybody but himself has designs on his charge. It's really
natural, however absurd--but it surely makes the precaution I suggested
even more necessary? If he went about spreading a tale like this!"

The line was clever--cleverer far than the Countess's rage, cleverer
than Stafnitz's airily bitter sneer. But of it, too, the King took no
notice. Lepage took no more than lay in a very scornful smile. He leaned
down towards the motionless, dull-faced King, and said in his ear:

"They wanted him to go, yes! Did they want him to come back again, sir?"
He bent a little lower, and almost whispered: "How long would his
journey have taken, sir? How long would it have taken him to get back
if--in case of need?" One more question he did not ask in words; but it
was plain enough without them: "How long can your Majesty count on
living?"

At last the King raised his head and looked round on them. His eyes were
heavy and glassy.

"This man has been my trusted servant for many, many years. You, General
Stenovics, have been my right hand, my other self. Colonel Stafnitz is
high in my confidence. And Lepage is only my servant."

"I seek to stand no higher than any other of your Majesty's servants,
except in so far as the nature of my services gives me a claim," said
Stenovics.

"But there's one here who stands far nearer to me than any one, who
stands nearer to me than any living being. She must know of this thing,
if it's true; if it's being done, her hand must be foremost among the
hands that are doing it." His eyes fixed themselves on the Countess's
face. "Is it true?" he asked.

"Sir, how can you ask? How can you listen? True! It's a malignant
invention. He's angry because I reproved him."

"Yes, I'm angry. I said so. But it's true for all that."

"Silence, Lepage! Am I to take your word against the Countess's?"

Markart, a silent listener to all this scene, thought that Lepage's game
was up. Who could doubt what the Countess's word would be? Probably
Lepage, too, thought that he was beaten, that he was a ruined man. For
he played a desperate card--the last throw of a bankrupt player. Yet it
was guided by shrewdness, and by the intimate knowledge which his years
of residence in the Palace had given him. He knew the King well; and he
knew Countess Ellenburg hardly less thoroughly.

"I speak truth, sir, as I believe it. But I can't expect you to take my
word against the Countess's. I have too much respect for Madame la
Comtesse to ask that."

Again he bent down towards the King; the King looked up at him;
Stenovics's simile came back into the mind. In a low, soothing tone
Lepage made his throw--his last suggestion. "Madame la Comtesse is of
great piety. If Madame la Comtesse will take a solemn oath--well, then
I'm content! I'll say I was mistaken--honest, I declare, sir, but
mistaken."

Stenovics raised his head with a sharp jerk. Stafnitz smiled scornfully;
he was thinking that Lepage was not, after all, a very resourceful
fellow. An oath! Great Heavens! Oaths were in the day's work when you
put your hand to affairs like this. But here Stenovics was wiser--and
Lepage was shrewder. Stafnitz generalized from an experience rather
one-sided; the other two knew the special case. When oaths were
mentioned--solemn oaths--Stenovics scented danger.

The King knew his wife, too; and he was profoundly affected, convulsed
to the depths of his mind. The thing sounded true--it had a horrible
sound of truth. He craved the Countess's denial, solemn as it could be
framed. That would restore the confidence which was crumbling from
beneath his tormented, bewildered mind.

"Can anybody object to that," he asked slowly, "if I say it will relieve
my mind?" He smiled apologetically. "I'm a sick man, you know. If it
will relieve a sick man's mind, banish a sick man's fancies? If I shall
sleep a little better--and old Lepage here be ashamed of himself?"

None of them dared to object. None could plausibly, unless the Countess
herself--and she dared not. In his present mood the King would not
accept the plea of her dignity; against it he would set the indulgence
due to a sick man's rebellious fancies; could she, for her dignity's
sake, deny him what would make him sleep?

He looked at her; something in her face appeared to strike him as
strange. A sort of quiver ran through his body; he seemed to pull
himself together with an effort; as he spoke to her, his voice sounded
faint and ever so slightly blurred.

"You've heard Lepage, and I know that you'll speak the truth to me on
your oath--the truth about the thing nearest to the heart of a dying
man--nearest to the heart of your dying husband. You wouldn't lie on
oath to a dying man, your husband and your King. For I am dying. You
have years still; but they'll end. You believe that some day you and I
will stand together before the Throne. As you shall answer to Heaven in
that day, is this true? Was it in your heart, and in the heart of these
men, to keep my son, the heir of my House, from his throne? Is it true?
As you shall answer to God for your soul, is there any truth in it?"

The woman went gray in the face--a sheet of gray paper seemed drawn over
her cheeks; her narrow lips showed a pale red streak across it. Her
prayers--those laborious, ingenious, plausible prayers--helped her
nothing here.

"I protest! At this time, sir! The Countess will be upset!"

Stenovics had been driven to this; he feared greatly. Not a soul heeded
him; every eye now was on the woman. She struggled--she struggled to
lie; she struggled to do what she believed would bring perdition to her
soul. Her voice was forced and harsh when at last she broke silence.

"As I shall answer in that day--"

"As you shall answer to God for your soul in that day--" the King
repeated.

She gave a wild glance at Stenovics, seeking succor, finding no refuge.
Her eyes came back to the King's face. "As I shall answer--" Every word
came forth by its own self, with its separate birth-pang--"As I shall
answer to God for my soul--"

She stopped. There was silence while a man might count ten. She threw
her hands above her head and broke into a violent torrent of sobs. "I
can't! I can't!" they heard her say through her tumultuous weeping.

The King suddenly started back in his chair as though somebody had
offered to strike him. "You--you--you, my wife! You, Stenovics! You,
whom I trusted--trusted--trusted like--! Ah, is that you, Lepage? Did I
hear rightly--wouldn't she swear?"

"With the utmost respect to Madame la Comtesse, she could not swear,
sir."

The King sprang to his feet. "Go!" he cried.

They all rose--the Countess shaken with unconquerable sobs. But the next
moment the King made a quick in-drawing of the breath, like a man
suddenly pricked by some sharp thing. He dropped back in his chair; his
head fell to meet his hands on the table in front. The hands were palms
downward, and his forehead rested on his knuckles.

There was a moment's pause. Then Lepage darted from the room, crying:
"Dr. Natcheff! Dr. Natcheff!" Stenovics wiped his brow. Stafnitz raised
his head with a queer look at the King, and his mouth shaped for a
whistle. The Countess's sobs seemed as though frozen, her whole frame
was rigid. The King did not move.

Natcheff came rushing in; Lepage, who followed closely, shut the door
after him. They both went to the King. There was silence while Natcheff
made his examination. In a couple of minutes he turned round to them.

"Something has caused his Majesty strong agitation?"

"Yes," answered Stenovics.

"Yes!" said Natcheff. He cleared his throat and glanced doubtfully at
the Countess.

"Well?" asked Stenovics.

Natcheff threw out his hands, shrugging his shoulders ever so slightly:

"I regret to say that the effect is the worst possible. His Majesty is
dead."

Silence again--a silence strangely broken. Stafnitz sprang across the
room with a bound like a cat's, and caught the physician by the
shoulder.

"No!" he said. "Not for twenty-four hours yet! His Majesty
dies--to-morrow!"



XV

A JOB FOR CAPTAIN HERCULES


"His Majesty dies--to-morrow!"

Stafnitz's words seemed to freeze them all stiff where they stood; even
Countess Ellenburg's sobs, which had threatened to break forth again,
were arrested in their flow.

"Markart, lock the door leading to the King's apartments. Natcheff and
Lepage, carry the King into his bedroom; lay him on the bed; stay there
till I call you. Countess, General, I invite your earnest attention."

Stenovics's mind excelled in the waiting game, the slow, tortuous
approach, the inch-by-inch advance of leisurely diplomacy. For him this
crisis was at first too sudden. The swift and daring intellect of
Stafnitz naturally and inevitably took the lead; his strong will
fascinated his confederates.

"Is this to be the beginning or the end?" he asked. "For us and our
friends--which? If we send a courier to Praslok to call King Sergius to
his capital--what then? For you, Countess, and your son, oblivion and
obscurity at Dobrava--for all the rest of your life, just that! For you,
General, and for me, and our friends--yes, you too, Markart!--our
_congé_, more or less civilly given. There won't be more insignificant
men in all Slavna on the day King Sergius enters. But there's no King
Sergius yet!"

Stenovics was regaining the use of his brain; his eyes grew distant in
deep meditation. Countess Ellenburg looked eager and grim; her lips
could not swear a false oath--well, she was not asked to swear any oath
now. Markart could not think; he stood staring at Stafnitz.

"In half an hour that courier must start for Praslok, if he starts at
all. Of all things, we mustn't hesitate."

He had painted the result to them of the coming of King Sergius; it
meant the defeat of years of effort; it entailed the end of hopes, of
place, of power or influence. There was no future for those three in
Kravonia if King Sergius came. And Markart, of course, seemed no more
than one of Stenovics's train.

"And if the courier doesn't start?" asked Stenovics. He took out and lit
a cigar, asking no leave of the Countess; probably he hardly knew that
he was smoking it.

Stafnitz looked at his watch. "Five o'clock! We have twenty-four
hours--it would be risky to keep the secret longer. There's not much
time; we must be prompt. But we mustn't sacrifice anything to hurry. For
instance, it would look odd to present the King's orders to Baroness
Dobrava in the middle of the night! She'd smell a rat, if she's as
clever as they say. And so would the Prince, I think. I could have a
hundred men at Praslok by midnight, but I shouldn't propose to have them
there before eleven o'clock to-morrow. Well, they could be back here by
five in the afternoon! In the course of the day we'll occupy all the
important points of the city with troops we can trust. Then, in the
evening--as soon as we see how matters have gone at Praslok--we proclaim
King Alexis!"

The Countess gave a little shiver--whether of fear or of eagerness it
was impossible to tell. Stenovics drummed his fingers on the table and
turned his cigar quickly round and round in his mouth. Markart had
recovered his clearness of mind and closely watched all the scene.

The Countess rose suddenly--in strong agitation. "I--I can't bear it,"
she said. "With him lying there! Let me go! Presently--presently you
shall tell me--anything."

Stenovics laid down his cigar and went to her. "Wait in there"--he
pointed to Natcheff's room--"till you're quite composed. Then go to your
own room and wait till I come. Mind, Countess, no sign of agitation!" He
led her out. Stafnitz shrugged his shoulders.

"She'll be all right," he said to Markart with a passing smile.

"I think she was fond of the King," said Markart.

Stenovics returned. "Now!" he said, seating himself again and resuming
his cigar. "You suggest that we still use that order--for the arrest of
Baroness Dobrava?"

"It's signed 'Alexis,' and King Alexis lives till five to-morrow.
Moreover, if all goes well, King Alexis lives again for many years after
that."

Stenovics nodded slightly. "The Baroness comes willingly--or you bring
her? At any rate, one way or the other, she's in our hands by this time
to-morrow?"

"Exactly, General. I fail to perceive that this lamentable event"--he
waved his hand towards the King's empty chair--"alters the case as
regards the Baroness one jot."

"Not the least--unless you consider that risking our heads on the throw
has any such effect," replied Stenovics; and for the first time he
smiled.

"Once you wanted to play the big stake on a bad hand, General. Won't you
put it on the table now, when you've a good one?"

"I'm thinking of a certain strong card in the other hand which you
haven't mentioned yet. Baroness Dobrava is to be in our power by this
time to-morrow. But what will the Prince of Slavna be doing? Still
drilling his men at Volseni, still waiting for his guns?"

Stafnitz looked him full in the face. "No," he said. "The Prince had
better not still be drilling his men at Volseni, nor waiting for his
guns."

"I think not, too," Stenovics agreed, twisting his cigar round again.

"General, do you think the Prince will let Baroness Dobrava come to
Slavna without him?"

"I don't know. He might have confidence enough in you; he wouldn't wish
to annoy or agitate the King. He might await his summons to an audience.
On the whole, I think he would submit--and rely on being able to induce
the King to alter his mind when they met. I'm not sure he wouldn't
advise her to go with you."

"Well, yes, I confess that struck me, too, as rather likely--or at least
possible."

"If it happened, it wouldn't be convenient," said Stenovics, with a
patient sigh. "Because he would come after her in a day or two."

"But if I were detained by urgent business in Slavna--and we've agreed
that there's work to be done to-morrow in Slavna--another officer would
go to Praslok. The order, which I have here, mentions no name, although
the King designated me by word of mouth."

"The order mentions no name?"

"No; it directs the Baroness to accompany the bearer. True, at the foot
my name is written--'Entrusted to Colonel Stafnitz.' But with care and a
pair of scissors--!" He smiled at Markart again, as though taking him
into the joke.

"Well, well, suppose another officer goes to Praslok--why shouldn't the
Prince trust the Baroness to the care of that officer as readily as to
you? You don't--how shall I put it?--monopolize his confidence,
Colonel."

Stafnitz still wore his easy, confidential smile, as he answered with an
air of innocent slyness: "Suppose the officer were--Captain Mistitch? I
think it's just the job for Captain Hercules!"

Even Stenovics started a little at that. He laid down his cigar and
looked at his friend the Colonel for some seconds. Then he looked at
Markart, smiling, seeming to ponder, to watch how Markart was taking it,
even to sympathize with Markart on having to consider a rather startling
proposal, on having, possibly, to do some little violence to his
feelings. Certainly Captain Markart gathered the impression that
Stenovics was doubtful how he would stand this somewhat staggering
suggestion. At last the General turned his eyes back to Stafnitz again.

"That's as ingenious a bit of deviltry as I ever heard, Colonel," he
remarked quietly.

"Captain Mistitch is restored to duty. He's of proper rank to perform
such a service, and to command an escort of a hundred men. After all, an
officer of my rank made a certain concession in accepting so small a
command."

"Of course, if the Prince knew you as I do, my dear Colonel, he'd trust
her to a thousand Mistitches sooner than to you--"

"But then--he doesn't!" the Colonel smiled.

"He'd regard the sending of Mistitch as a deliberate insult."

"I'm afraid he would."

"He's hot-tempered. He'd probably say as much."

"Yes. And Mistitch is hot-tempered. He'd probably resent the
observation. But you'll remember, General, that the escort is to be
large enough to make the officer commanding it secure against hinderance
by any act short of open and armed resistance to the King's command."

"He'll never believe the King would send Mistitch!"

"Will that make his peaceable obedience more likely?"

"In a moment they'd be at each other's--" He stopped. "Markart, go and
see if they need anything in there." He pointed to the King's bedroom,
where Natcheff and Lepage were.

Markart rose and obeyed. His head was swimming; he hardly yet understood
how very ingenious the ingenious deviltry was, how the one man was to be
sent whose directions the Prince could not submit to, whose presence was
an insult, to whom it was impossible to entrust Baroness Dobrava. He was
very glad to get out of the room. The last he saw was Stafnitz drawing
his chair close up to Stenovics and engaging in low-voiced, earnest
talk.

The King's body lay on the bed, decently disposed, and covered with a
large fur rug. Lepage sat on a chair near by, Natcheff on another in the
window. Both looked up for a moment as Markart entered, but neither
spoke. Markart found a third chair and sat down. Nobody said anything;
the three were as silent and almost as still as the fourth on the bed. A
low murmur of voices came from the next room; the words were
indistinguishable. So passed full half an hour--a strange and terrible
half-hour it seemed to Markart.

The door opened, and Stafnitz called Natcheff. The physician rose and
followed him. Another twenty minutes went by, still in silence; but once
Markart, looking for a moment at his mute companion, saw a tear rolling
slowly down Lepage's wrinkled cheek. Lepage saw him looking and broke
the silence:

"I suppose I helped to kill him!"

Markart shrugged his shoulders helplessly. Silence came again. Very long
it seemed; but, on looking at his watch, Markart found that it was not
yet half-past six.

Again the door opened, and Stafnitz called to them both. They followed
him into the next room. Stenovics was sitting at the table with his
hands clasped on it in front of him. Stafnitz took up a position by his
side, standing as though on duty. Natcheff had disappeared. Stenovics
spoke in calm, deliberate tones; he seemed to have assumed command of
the operations again.

"Captain Markart, I'm about to entrust to you an important and
responsible duty. For the next twenty-four hours, and afterwards until
relieved by my orders, you will be in charge of this man Lepage, and
will detain him in these apartments. His own room and this room will be
at the disposal of yourself and your prisoner, but you must not let the
prisoner out of your sight. Dr. Natcheff remains in his room. He will
have access to the King's room when he desires, but he will not leave
the suite of apartments. Beyond seeing to this, you will have no
responsibility for him. The door leading to the suite will be locked by
me, and will be opened only by me, or by my orders. I remain at the
Palace to-night; under me Captain Sterkoff will be the officer on guard.
He will himself supply you with any meals or other refreshments which
you may require. Ring this hand-bell on the table--no other bell,
mind--and he will be with you immediately. Do you understand your
orders?"

Markart understood them very well; there was no need of Stafnitz's
mocking little smile to point the meaning. Markart was to be Lepage's
jailer, Sterkoff was to be his. Under the most civil and considerate
form he was made as close a prisoner as the man he guarded. Evidently,
Stenovics had come to the conclusion that he could not ask Markart to
put too great a strain on his conscience! The General, however, seemed
very kindly disposed towards him, and was, indeed, almost apologetic:

"I've every hope that this responsible and, I fear, very irksome duty
may last only the few hours I mentioned. You put me under a personal
obligation by undertaking it, my dear Markart."

In the absence of any choice, Markart saluted and answered: "I
understand my orders, General."

Stafnitz interposed: "Captain Sterkoff is also aware of their purport."

Stenovics looked vexed. "Yes, yes, but I'm sure Markart himself is quite
enough." It seems odd that, in the midst of such a transaction as that
in which he was now engaged, Stenovics should have found leisure--or
heart--to care about Markart's feeling. Yet so it was--a curiously
human touch creeping in! He shut Markart up only under the strongest
sense of necessity and with great reluctance. Probably Stafnitz had
insisted, in the private conversation which they had held together:
Markart had shown such evident signs of jibbing over the job proposed
for Captain Hercules!

Lepage's heart was wrung, but his spirit was not broken. Stafnitz's
ironical smile called an answering one to his lips.

"It would console my feelings if I also were put in charge of somebody,
General," he said. "Shall I, in my turn, keep an eye on Dr. Natcheff, or
report if the Captain here is remiss in the duty of keeping himself a
prisoner?"

"I don't think you need trouble yourself, Monsieur Lepage. Captain
Sterkoff will relieve you of responsibility." To Lepage, too, Stenovics
was gentle, urbane, almost apologetic.

"And how long am I to live, General?"

"You're in the enviable position, Monsieur Lepage, of being able,
subject to our common mortality, to settle that for yourself. Come,
come, we'll discuss matters again to-morrow night or the following
morning. There are many men who prefer not to do things, but will accept
a thing when it's done. They're not necessarily unwise. I've done no
worse to you than give you the opportunity of being one of them. I think
you'll be prudent to take it. Anyhow, don't be angry; you must remember
that you've given us a good deal of trouble."

"Between us we have killed the King."

Stenovics waved his hands in a commiserating way. "Practical men mustn't
spend time in lamenting the past," he said.

"Nor in mere conversation, however pleasant," Stafnitz broke in with a
laugh. "Captain Markart, march your prisoner to his quarters."

His smile made the order a mockery. Markart felt it, and a hatred of the
man rose in him. But he could do nothing. He did not lead Lepage to his
quarters, but followed sheepishly in his prisoner's wake. They went
together into the little room where Lepage slept.

"Close quarters too, Captain!" said the valet. "There is but one
chair--let me put it at your service." He himself sat down on the bed,
took out his tobacco, and began to roll himself a cigarette.

Markart shut the door and then threw himself on the solitary chair, in a
heavy despondency of spirit and a confused conflict of feelings. He was
glad to be out of the work, yet he resented the manner in which he was
put aside. There were things going on in which it was well to have no
hand. Yet was there not a thing going on in which every man ought to
have a hand, on one side or the other? Not to do it, but to be ready to
accept it when done! He was enough of a soldier to feel that there lay
the worst, the meanest thing of all. Not to dare to do it, but to profit
by the doing! Stenovics had used the words to Lepage, his prisoner. By
making him in effect a prisoner, too, the General showed that he applied
them to the Captain also. Anything seemed better than that--ay, it would
be better to ride to Praslok behind Captain Hercules! In that adventure
a man might, at least, risk his life!

"An odd world!" said the valet, puffing out his cigarette smoke. "Honest
men for prisoners, and murderers for jailers! Are you a prisoner or a
jailer, Captain Markart?"



XVI

A FRENCHMAN AND A MATTRESS


To say the truth, the word "murderers" seemed to Captain Markart more
than a little harsh. To use it was to apply to Kravonian affairs the
sterner standards of more steady-going, squeamish countries. A _coup
d'état_ may well involve fighting; fighting naturally includes killing.
But are the promoters of the _coup_ therefore murderers? Murderers with
a difference, anyhow, according to Kravonian ideas, which Captain
Markart was inclined to share. Moreover, a _coup d'état_ is war; the
suppression of information is legitimate in war. If the Prince of Slavna
could not find out for himself what had happened in the Palace, were his
opponents bound to tell him? In fact, given that an attempt to change
the succession in your own interest was not a crime, but a legitimate
political enterprise, the rest followed.

Except Mistitch! It was difficult to swallow Mistitch. There was a
mixture of ingenuity and brutality about that move which not even
Kravonian notions could easily accept. If Stafnitz had gone--nay, if he
himself had been sent--probably Markart's conscience would not have
rebelled. But to send Captain Hercules--that was cogging the dice! Yet
he was very angry that Stenovics should have divined his feelings and
shut him up. The General distrusted his courage as well as his
conscience--there lay the deepest hurt to Markart's vanity; it was all
the deeper because in his heart he had to own that Stenovics read him
right. Not only the brazen conscience was lacking, but also the iron
nerve.

Getting no answer to his unpleasantly pointed question, Lepage relapsed
into silence. He stood by the window, looking out on the lawn which
sloped down to the Krath. Beyond the river the lights of Slavna glowed
in the darkening sky. Things would be happening in Slavna soon; Lepage
might well look at the city thoughtfully. As a fact, however, his mind
was occupied with one problem only--where was Zerkovitch and how could
he get at him? For Lepage did not waver--he had taken his line.

Presently, however, his professional instincts seemed to reassert
themselves. He opened a cupboard in the room and brought out a clean
pair of sheets, which he proceeded to arrange on the bed. Busy at this
task, he paused to smile at Markart and say: "We must do the best we
can, Captain. After all, we have both camped, I expect! Here's the bed
for you--you'll do finely." He went back to the cupboard and lugged out
a mattress. "And this is for me--the shake-down on the floor which I use
when I sleep in the King's room--or did use, I should say. In my
judgment, Captain, it's comfortable to go to bed on the floor--at least,
one can't fall."

It was eight o'clock. They heard the outer door of the suite of rooms
open and shut. A man was moving about in the next room; if they could
judge by the sound of his steps, he also paid Dr. Natcheff a brief
visit. They heard the clink of dishes and of glass.

"Dinner!" said Lepage. "Ah, that's not unwelcome! Have I permission?"
Markart nodded, and he opened the door. On the table in the
sitting-room was a savory dish, bread, and two bottles of wine. Captain
Sterkoff was just surveying the board he had spread, with his head on
one side. There was nothing peculiar in that; his head was permanently
stuck on one side--a list to starboard--since the Virgin with the lamp
had injured the vertebræ of his neck. But the attitude, together with
his beaked nose, made him look like a particularly vicious parrot.
Markart saw him through the open door and could not get the resemblance
out of his mind.

"Supper, gentlemen!" said Sterkoff with malevolent mirth. "The Doctor
can't join you. He's a little upset and keeps his bed. A good appetite!
I trust not to be obliged to disturb you again to-night."

Markart had come in by now, but he was too surly and sore to speak.
Without a word he plumped down into a chair by the table and rested his
chin on his hands, staring at the cloth. It was left to Lepage to bow to
Sterkoff, and to express their joint thanks. This task he performed with
sufficient urbanity. Then he broke into a laugh.

"They must think it odd to see you carrying dishes and bottles about the
Palace, Captain?"

"Possibly," agreed Sterkoff. "But you see, my friend, what they think in
the Palace doesn't matter very much, so long as none of them can get
outside."

"Oh, they none of them spend the evening out?"

"Would they wish to, when the King has an attack of influenza, and Dr.
Natcheff is in attendance? It would be unfeeling, Lepage!"

"Horribly, Captain! Probably even the sentries would object?"

"It's possible they would," Sterkoff agreed again. He drew himself up
and saluted Markart, who did not move or pay any attention.
"Good-night, Lepage." He turned to the door; his head seemed more cocked
on one side than ever. Lepage bade him "Good-night" very respectfully;
but as the key turned in the door, he murmured longingly: "Ah, if I
could knock that ugly mug the rest of the way off his shoulders!"

He treated Markart with no less respect than he had accorded to
Sterkoff; he would not hear of sitting down at table with an officer,
but insisted on handing the dish and uncorking the wine. Markart
accepted his attentions and began to eat languidly, with utter want of
appetite.

"Some wine, Captain, some wine to cheer you up in this tiresome duty of
guarding me!" cried Lepage, picking up a bottle in one hand and a glass
in the other. "Oh, but that wry-necked fellow has brought you a dirty
glass! A moment, Captain! I'll wash it." And off he bounded--not even
waiting to set down the bottle--into the little room beyond.

His brain was working hard now, marshalling his resources against his
difficulties. The difficulties were thirty feet to fall, Sterkoff's
sentries, the broad, swift current of the Krath--for even in normal
times there was always a sentry on the bridge--then the search for
Zerkovitch in Slavna. His resources were a mattress, a spare pair of
sheets, and a phial half full of the draught which Dr. Natcheff had
prescribed for the King.

"It's very unfortunate, but I've not the least notion how much would
kill him," thought Lepage, as he poured the medicine--presumably a
strong sedative--into the wine-glass and filled up with wine from the
bottle Sterkoff had provided. He came back, holding the glass aloft with
a satisfied air. "Now it's fit for a gentleman to drink out of," said
he, as he set it down by Markart's hand. The Captain took it up and
swallowed it at a draught.

"Ugh! Corked, I think! Beastly, anyhow!" said he.

"They poison us as well as shut us up!" cried Lepage in burlesque anger.
"Try the other bottle, Captain!"

The other bottle was better, said Markart, and he drank pretty well the
whole of it, Lepage standing by and watching him with keen interest. It
was distressing not to know how much of the King's draught would kill;
it had been necessary to err on the safe side--the side safe for Lepage,
that is.

Captain Markart thought he would smoke his cigar in the little room,
lying on the bed; he was tired and sleepy--very sleepy, there was no
denying it. Lepage sat down and ate and drank; he found no fault with
the wine in the first bottle. Then he went and looked at Markart. The
Captain lay in his shirt, breeches, and boots. He was sound asleep and
breathing heavily; his cigar had fallen on the sheet, but apparently had
been out before it fell. Lepage regarded him with pursed lips, shrugged
his shoulders, and slipped the Captain's revolver into his pocket. The
Captain's recovery must be left to Fate.

For the next hour he worked at his pair of sheets, slicing, twisting,
and splicing. In the end he found himself possessed of a fairly stout
rope twelve or thirteen feet long, but he could find nothing solid to
tie it to near the window, except the bed, and that was a yard away. He
would still have a fall of some twenty feet, and the ground was hard
with a spring frost. There would be need of the mattress. He put out
all the lights in the room and cautiously raised the window.

The night was dark, he could not see the ground. He stood there ten
minutes. Then he heard a measured tramp; a dark figure, just
distinguishable, came round the corner of the Palace, walked past the
window to the end of the building, turned, walked back, and disappeared.
Hurriedly Lepage struck a match and took the time. Again he waited,
again the figure came. Again he struck a light and took the time. He
went through this process five times before he felt reasonably sure that
he could rely on having ten minutes to himself if he started the moment
Sterkoff's sentry had gone round the corner of the building.

He pulled the mattress up onto the sill of the window and waited. There
was no sound now but of Markart's stertorous breathing. But presently
the measured tramp below came, passed, turned, and passed away. Lepage
gave a last tug at the fastenings of his rope, threw the end out of
window, took the mattress, and dropped it very carefully as straight
down as he could.

The next moment, in spite of Sterkoff, somebody had left the Palace. Why
not? The runaway was aware that the King was not really suffering from
influenza--he could spend an evening in Slavna without reproach!

"I wish I knew the safest way to fall!" thought Lepage, dangling at the
end of his rope. It swayed about terribly; he waited awhile for it to
steady itself--he feared to miss the mattress; but he could not wait
long, or that measured tramp and that dark figure would come. There
would be a sudden spurt of light, and a report--and what of Lepage
then? He gathered his legs up behind his knees, took a long breath--and
fell. As luck would have it, though he landed on the very edge of the
mattress, yet he did land on it, and tumbled forward on his face,
shaken, but with bones intact. There was a numb feeling above his
knees--nothing worse than that.

He drew another long breath. Heavy bodies--and even mattresses--fall
quickly; he must have seven or eight minutes yet!

But no! Heavy bodies, even mattresses, falling quickly, make a noise.
Lepage, too, had come down with a thud, squashing hidden air out of the
interstices of the mattress. The silence of night will give resonance to
gentler sounds than that, which was as though a giant had squeezed his
mighty sponge. Lepage, on his numb knees, listened. The steps came, not
measured now, but running. The dark figure came running round the
corner. What next? Next the challenge--then the spurt of light and the
report! What of Lepage then? Nothing--so far as Lepage and the rest of
humanity for certainty knew.

Of that nothing--actual or possible--Lepage did not approve. He hitched
the mattress onto his back, bent himself nearly double, and, thus both
burdened and protected, made for the river. He must have looked like a
turtle scurrying to the sea, lest he should be turned over--and so left
for soup in due season.

"Who goes there? Halt! Halt!"

The turtle scurried on; it was no moment to stop and discuss matters.

The spurt of light, the report! There was a hole in the mattress, but
well above Lepage's head. Indeed, if hit at all, he was not most likely
to be hit in the head; that vital portion of him was tucked away too
carefully. He presented a broader aim; but the mattress masked him
nobly.

There was another shot--the northwest corner of the mattress this time.
But the mattress was on the river's edge. The next instant it was
floating on the current of the Krath, and Sterkoff's sentry was
indulging in some very pretty practice at it. He hit it every time,
until the swift current carried it round the bend and out of sight.

The whole thing seemed strange and rather uncanny to the sentry. He
grounded his rifle and wiped his brow. It had looked like a carpet
taking a walk on its own account--and then a swim! Superior officers
might be accustomed to such strange phenomena. The sentry was not. He
set off at a round pace to the guard-room; he did not even stay to
notice the white rope which dangled in the air from a first-floor
window. Had he stopped, he would have heard Markart's invincible,
drug-laden snoring.

Lepage had separated himself from his good friend and ally, the
mattress, and dived under water while the sentry blazed away. He
welcomed the current which bore him rapidly from the dangerous
neighborhood of the Palace. He came to the surface fifty feet down
stream and made for the other side. He could manage no more than a very
slanting course, but he was a strong swimmer, lightly dressed, with an
in-door man's light kid shoes. He felt no distress; rather a vivid,
almost gleeful, excitement came upon him as he battled with the strong,
cold stream. He began to plume himself on the mattress. Only a Frenchman
would have thought of that! A Slavna man would have ran away with
unguarded flanks. A Volsenian would have stayed to kill the sentry, and
be shot down by Sterkoff's guard. Only a Frenchman would have thought of
the mattress!

He made land a quarter of a mile below the Palace. Ah, it was colder on
the road there than struggling with the cold water! But his spirit was
not quenched. He laughed again--a trifle hysterically, perhaps. In spite
of Sterkoff he was spending the evening out! He set his feet for
Slavna--briskly, too! Nay, he ran, for warmth's sake, and because of
what the sentry might even now be reporting to Sterkoff, and, through
him, to General Stenovics. The thought brought him to a stand-still
again; there might be a cordon of sentries across the road! After a
moment's hesitation he broke away from the main road, struck due south,
and so ran when he could, walked when he must, two miles.

He was getting terribly tired now, but not cold--rather he was
feverishly hot inside his clammy garments. He turned along a country
cross-road which ran west, and passed through a village, leaving the
Hôtel de Paris on the main road far to his right. At last he reached the
main road south and turned up it, heading again for Slavna and for the
bridge which crossed the South River. He passed the bridge without being
challenged as the Cathedral clock struck midnight from St. Michael's
Square. The worst of his task was accomplished. If now he could find
Zerkovitch!

But he was sore spent; running was out of the question now; he slunk
slowly and painfully along the south boulevard, clinging close to the
fences of the gardens, seeking the shelter of the trees which overhung
them.

Draggled, hatless, dirty, infinitely weary, at last he reached
Zerkovitch's house at the corner where the boulevard and the Street of
the Fountain meet. He opened the garden gate and walked in. Spent as he
was, he breathed a "Bravo!" when he saw a light burning in the hall. He
staggered on, rang the bell, and fairly fell in a lump outside the door.

He had done well; he, a man of peace, busy with clothes--he had done
well that night! But he was finished. When Zerkovitch opened the door,
he found little more than a heap of dank and dirty raiment; he hauled it
in and shut the door. He supported Lepage into the study, sat him down
by the fire, and got brandy for him to drink, pouring out full half a
tumbler. Lepage took it and drank the better part of it at a gulp.

"The King died at five o'clock, Monsieur Zerkovitch," he said. He drank
the rest, let the tumbler fall with a crash in the fender, buried his
head on his breast, and fell into blank unconsciousness.

He was out of the battle--as much as Markart, who slept the clock round
in spite of Stenovics's shakings and Dr. Natcheff's rubbings and
stimulants. But he had done his part. It was for Zerkovitch to do his
now.

The King had died at five o'clock? It was certainly odd, that story,
because Zerkovitch had just returned from the offices of _The Patriot_;
and, immediately before he left, he had sent down to the foreman-printer
an official _communiqué_, to be inserted in his paper. It was to the
effect that Captain Mistitch and a guard of honor of fifty men would
leave Slavna next morning at seven o'clock for Dobrava, to be in
readiness to receive the King, who had made magnificent progress, and
was about to proceed to his country seat to complete his convalescence.

Captain Mistitch and a guard of honor for Dobrava! Zerkovitch decided
that he would, if possible, ride ahead of them to Dobrava--that is, part
of the way. But first he called his old housekeeper and told her to put
Lepage to bed.

"Don't worry about anything he says. He's raving," he added
thoughtfully.

But poor Lepage raved no more that night. He did not speak again till
all was over. He had done his part.

At five o'clock in the morning, Zerkovitch left Slavna, hidden under a
sack in a carrier's cart. He obtained a horse at a high price from a
farmer three miles along the road, and thence set out for the Castle at
his best speed. At six, Captain Mistitch, charged with Stafnitz's
careful instructions, set out with his guard of honor along the same
road--going to Dobrava to await the arrival of the King, who lay dead in
the Palace on the Krath!

But since they started at six, and not at seven, as the official
_communiqué_ led Zerkovitch to suppose, he had an hour less to spare
than he thought. Moreover, they went not fifty strong, but one hundred.

These two changes--of the hour and the force--were made as soon as
Stenovics and Stafnitz learned of Lepage's escape. A large force and a
midnight march would have aroused suspicion in Slavna. The General did
what he could safely do to meet the danger which the escape
suggested--the danger that news of the King's death might be carried to
Praslok before Mistitch and his escort got there.



XVII

INGENIOUS COLONEL STAFNITZ


After his happy holiday the Prince slept well, and rose in a cheerful
mood--still joyful of heart. He anticipated that the day would bring him
a summons from his father; he had little doubt that in the course of a
personal interview he could persuade the King to agree to a postponement
of his journey. Of Sophy he meant to say nothing--by a reservation
necessary and not inexcusable. It was impossible not to take into
account the knowledge he had acquired of the state of the King's health.
The result of that condition was that his provision must, in all
likelihood, be for months only, and not for years. The task for the
months was to avoid disturbing the King's mind, so long as this course
was consistent with the maintenance of his own favorable position. It
must be remembered that no man in the kingdom built more on this latter
object than the King himself; no man was less a partisan of Countess
Ellenburg and of young Alexis than the husband of the one and the father
of the other. The royal line--the line which boasted Bourbon blood--was
for the King the only line of Stefanovitch.

Of the attack prepared against him the Prince knew nothing--nothing even
of the King's mind having been turned against the Baroness Dobrava,
whom so short a time ago he had delighted to honor; nothing, of course,
of Stafnitz's audacious _coup_, nor of the secret plan which Stenovics
and the Colonel had made, and of which Mistitch was to be the
instrument. Of all the salient features of the situation, then, he was
ignorant, and his ignorance was shared by those about his person. On the
other hand, Stenovics had his finger on every thread save one--the
Lepage-Zerkovitch thread, if it may so be called. That was important,
but its importance might be nullified if Mistitch made good speed.

On the whole, the odds were much in favor of the coterie. If by any
means they could prevent the King from coming alive and free to Slavna,
the game would be theirs. If he did come alive and free, their game
would probably be up. His presence would mean a hard fight--or a
surrender; and Slavna had no stomach for such a fight--though it would
be piously thankful to be rid of Sergius, whether as Prince or King,
without the necessity of an ordeal so severe.

As a preliminary to the summons he anticipated, and to a possible stay
of some days with his father at Slavna, the Prince had details to
discuss and routine business to transact with Lukovitch, the captain of
his battery in Volseni. He was early on horseback; Sophy and Max von
Hollbrandt (Max's stay at the Castle was to end the next day) rode with
him as far as the gates of the city; there they left him and turned down
into the plain, to enjoy a canter on the banks of Lake Talti. The three
were to meet again for the mid-day meal at Praslok. Marie Zerkovitch had
been ailing, and kept her bed in the morning. The Prince's mounted guard
rode behind him and his friends to Volseni, for the sake of exercising
their horses. In the Castle there were left only Marie Zerkovitch and
the servants. The Prince did not anticipate that any message would come
from the Palace before noon at the earliest.

Morning avocations pursued their usual peaceful and simple course at the
Castle; old Vassip, his wife, and the maids did their cleaning; Peter
Vassip saw to his master's clothes, and then, to save his father labor,
began to sluice the wooden causeway; the stablemen groomed their
horses--they had been warned that the Prince might want another mount
later in the day. Marie Zerkovitch lay in her bed, sleeping soundly
after a restless night. There seemed no hint of trouble in the air. It
must be confessed that up to now it looked as though Praslok would be
caught napping.

It was Peter Vassip, busy on the causeway, who first saw Zerkovitch. He
rested and leaned on his mop to watch the head which rose over the hill,
the body that followed, the farm-horse lumbering along in a slow,
clumsy, unwilling gallop. The man was using stick and spur--he was
riding mercilessly. Peter ran down to the road and waited. A groom came
across from the stables and joined him.

"He's got no call to treat the horse like that, whoever he is," the
groom observed.

"Not unless he's on urgent business," said Peter, twirling the water
from his mop.

Zerkovitch was up to them; he leaped from his horse. "I must see the
Prince," he cried, "and immediately!"

"The Prince is at Volseni, sir; he rode over to see Captain Lukovitch."

"When will he be back?"

"We don't expect him till twelve o'clock."

Zerkovitch snatched out his watch.

"There's nobody here but Madame Zerkovitch, sir; she's still in bed, not
very well, sir."

"Twelve o'clock!" muttered Zerkovitch, paying no heed to the news about
his wife.

"The Baroness and Baron von Hollbrandt are out riding--"

"Can you give me a fresh horse? I must ride on and find the Prince at
Volseni."

"Oh yes, sir." He signed to the groom. "And hurry up!" he added.

"The guard's here, of course?"

"No, sir. They've gone with the Prince."

Zerkovitch twitched his head irritably and again looked at his watch.
"There must be time," he said. "They can't be here at soonest for an
hour and a half."

Peter Vassip did not understand him, but neither did he venture to ask
questions.

"Your horse 'll be here in a minute, sir. I think you'll find the Prince
in his office over the city gate. He went to do business, not to drill,
this morning."

Zerkovitch looked at him for a moment, wondering, perhaps, whether he
would be wise to tell his news. But what was the use of telling Peter
Vassip? Or his own wife? What could she do? It was for the Prince to say
who should be told. The one thing was to find the Prince. There was
time--at the very least an hour and a half.

The groom brought the fresh horse, and Zerkovitch began to mount.

"A glass of wine, sir?" Peter Vassip suggested. He had marked
Zerkovitch's pale face and strained air; he had wondered to see his
clothes sprinkled with whitey-brown fibres--traces of the sack under
whose cover he had slid out of Slavna.

Zerkovitch was in the saddle. "No," he answered. "But a bumper, Peter,
when I've found the Prince!" He set spurs to his horse and was off at a
gallop for Volseni; the road, though high on the hills, was nearly level
now.

Peter scratched his head as he looked after him for a moment; then he
returned to his mop.

He was just finishing his task, some twenty minutes later, when he heard
Sophy's laugh. She and Hollbrandt came from a lane which led up from the
lake and joined the main road a hundred yards along towards Volseni.
Peter ran and took their horses, and they mounted the causeway in
leisurely, pleasant chat. Sophy was in her sheepskin uniform; her cheeks
were pale, but the Star glowed. The world seemed good to her that
morning.

"And that is, roughly, the story of my life," she said with a laugh, as
she reached the top of the causeway and leaned against the rude
balustrade which ran up the side of it.

"A very interesting one--even very remarkable," he said, returning her
laugh. "But much more remains to be written, I don't doubt, Baroness."

"Something, perhaps," said Sophy.

"A good deal, I imagine!"

She shot a mischievous glance at him: she knew that he was trying to
lure from her an avowal of her secret. "Who can tell? It all seems like
a dream sometimes, and dreams end in sudden awakenings, you know."

"If it's a dream, you make an excellent dream-lady, Baroness."

Peter Vassip put his mop and pail down by the stables, and came up and
stood beside them.

"Did the mare carry you well to-day, sir?" he asked Max.

"Admirably, Peter. We had a splendid ride--at least I thought so. I hope
the Baroness--?"

Sophy threw out her arms as though to embrace the gracious world. "I
thought it beautiful; I think everything beautiful to-day. I think you
beautiful, Baron von Hollbrandt--and Peter is beautiful--and so is your
mother, and so is your father, Peter. And I half believe that, just this
morning--this one splendid morning--I'm beautiful myself. Yes, in spite
of this horrible mark on my cheek!"

"I hear something," said Peter Vassip.

"Just this morning--this one splendid morning--I agree with you,"
laughed Max. "Not even the mark shall change my mind! Come, you love the
mark--the Red Star--don't you?"

"Well, yes," said Sophy, with a little, confidential nod and smile.

"I hear something," said Peter Vassip, with his hand to his ear.

Sophy turned to him, smiling. "What do you hear, Peter?"

He gave a sudden start of recollection. "Ah, has that anything to do
with Monsieur Zerkovitch?"

"Monsieur Zerkovitch?" broke from them both.

"He's been here; he's ridden at a gallop on to Volseni--to find the
Prince." He added briefly all there was to add--his hand at his ear all
the time.

"Hum! That looks like news," said Max. "What can it be?"

"He didn't stop even to tell Marie! It must be urgent."

They looked in one another's faces. "Can there be--be anything wrong in
Slavna?"

"You mean--the troops?"

"I had thought of that."

"I can think of nothing but that. If it were anything from the Palace,
it would come by a royal courier sooner than by any other hand."

"I can hear plainly now," said Peter Vassip. "Listen!"

They obeyed him, but their ears were not so well trained. A dull,
indefinite sound was all they could distinguish.

"Horses--a number of them. Mounted men it must be--the hoofs are so
regular. Cavalry!"

"It's the Prince coming back from Volseni!" cried Sophy.

"No, it's from the other direction; and, besides, there are too many for
that."

Mounted men on the Slavna road--and too many to be the Prince's guard!

"What can it be?" asked Sophy in a low voice.

"I don't know. Zerkovitch's arrival must be connected with the same
thing, I think."

"There! There are their shakoes coming over the rise of the hill!" cried
Peter Vassip.

The next moment showed the company. They rode in fours, with sergeants
on the flanks. The officer in command was behind--the three on the
causeway could not see him yet. They were Hussars of the King's Guard,
the best regiment in the army. The Prince of Slavna had made them good
soldiers--they hated him for it. But Stafnitz was their colonel. On they
came; in their blue tunics and silver braid they made a brave show in
the sunshine.

The three watched now without word or motion. The sudden sight held them
spellbound. Not one of them thought of sending to warn the Prince. If
they had, the thought would have been useless, unless it had chimed in
with Mistitch's will. Twenty men could have been on them before there
was time to saddle a horse. If the expedition were a hostile one, the
Castle was caught napping in very truth!

Sophy stood forward a pace in front of her companions; her hand rested
on the little revolver which Monseigneur had given her.

On came the company; the foremost file reached within twenty yards of
the causeway. There they halted. Half of them dismounted, each man as he
did so intrusting his horse to his next fellow. Half of the fifty thus
left mounted repeated this operation, leaving the remaining twenty-five
in charge of all the horses. The seventy-five took position, four deep,
on the road. They separated, lining either side.

The figure of their commander now appeared. He rode to the foot of the
causeway, then dismounted, and gave his horse to the sergeant who
attended him. His men followed and drew up in the road, blocking the
approach to the Castle. Big Mistitch began to ascend the causeway, a
broad smile on his face. It was a great moment for Captain Hercules--the
day of revenge for which he had waited in forced patience and discreet
unobtrusiveness. It was a critical day, also, in view of the
instructions he had. To do him justice, he was not afraid.

Sophy saw and knew. This must have been the news that Zerkovitch
carried, that he had galloped on to tell to the Prince at Volseni. Some
event--some unknown and untoward turn of fortune--had loosed Mistitch on
them! That was all she had time to realize before Mistitch saluted her
and spoke.

"I have the honor of addressing the Baroness Dobrava?"

"You know me well, I think, Captain Mistitch, and I know you."

"Our journey together will be all the pleasanter for that."

"Your business with me, please?"

"I have it in command from his Majesty to escort you to Slavna--to the
Palace and into his presence. The King himself will then acquaint you
with his wishes."

"You're a strange messenger to send."

"That's a point to put to my superior officer, Colonel Stafnitz, who
sent me, Baroness."

Sophy pointed at his men. "You ride strongly supported!"

"Again the Colonel's orders, Baroness. I confess the precautions seemed
to me excessive. I had no doubt you would willingly obey his Majesty's
commands. Here, by-the-way, is the written order." He produced the order
the King had signed before his death.

Sophy had been thinking. Neither her courage nor her cunning forsook
her. She waved the document away. "I can take your word, Captain? You're
making no mistake to-day?--I really am Baroness Dobrava--not somebody
else with whom you have a feud?" She laughed at him gayly and went on:
"Well, I'm ready. I'm dressed for a ride--and I'll ride with you
immediately. In two minutes we'll be off." She saw a groom in the road
staring at the troopers, and called to him to bring her a horse.

This prompt obedience by no means suited Mistitch's book. It forced him
either to show his hand or to ride off with Sophy, leaving the Prince to
his devices--and, in a little while, to his revenge.

"I mustn't hurry you. You have some preparations--?"

"None," said Sophy. Her horse was led out into the road.

"You'll at least desire to acquaint his Royal Highness--?"

"Not at all necessary. Baron von Hollbrandt can do that later on."

Mistitch looked puzzled. Sophy smiled; her intuition had been right. The
attack on her was a feint, her arrest a blind; the Prince was the real
object of the move. She stepped down towards Mistitch.

"I see my horse is ready. We can start at once, Captain," she said.

"I'm instructed to express to the Prince regret that it should be
necessary--"

"The regret will be conveyed to him. Come, Captain!"

But Mistitch barred her way.

"His Royal Highness is in the Castle?" he asked. His voice grew angry
now; he feared the great stroke had failed; he saw that Sophy played
with him. How would he and his escort look riding back to Slavna with
nothing to show for their journey save the capture of one unresisting
woman--a woman whom they dared not harm while the Prince remained free,
and might become all-powerful?

"If he had been, you'd have known it by now, I think," smiled Sophy.
"No, the Prince isn't at the Castle."

"I'll see that for myself!" Mistitch cried, taking a step forward.

With a low laugh Sophy drew aside, passed him, and ran down the
causeway. In an instant she darted between the ranks of Mistitch's men
and reached her horse. The groom mounted her. She looked up to Mistitch
and called to him gayly:

"Now for Slavna, Captain! And hurry, or you'll be left behind!"

Her wit was too quick for him. Max von Hollbrandt burst out laughing;
Peter Vassip grinned.

"What are you waiting for, Captain?" asked Max. "Your prisoner's only
too anxious to go with you, you see!"

"I'll search the Castle first!" he cried in a rage which made him forget
his part.

Peter Vassip sprang forward and barred the way. Mistitch raised his
mighty arm. But Sophy's voice rang out gayly:

"Nonsense, Peter! There's nothing to conceal. Let the Captain pass!"

Her words stopped Mistitch--he feared a trap. Max saw it and mocked him.
"Don't be afraid, Captain--take fifty men in with you. The garrison
consists of a lady in bed, an old man, and five female servants."

Sophy heard and laughed. Even the troopers began to laugh now. Mistitch
stood on the top of the causeway, irresolute, baffled, furious.

But behind his stupidity lay the cunning astuteness of Stafnitz, the
ingenious bit of devilry. Mistitch's name availed where his brain could
not. For the moment the Prince made little of the Crown which had become
his; when he heard Zerkovitch's news, his overpowering thought was that
the woman he loved might be exposed to the power and the insults of
Mistitch. Sophy was playing a skilful game for him, but he did not know
it.

"I hear something," said Peter Vassip again, whispering to Max von
Hollbrandt.

Yes, there was the galloping of horses on the Volseni road!

Colonel Stafnitz had not miscalculated.

Now Mistitch heard the sound. His heavy face brightened. He ran down the
causeway, loudly ordering his men to mount. He was no longer at a loss.
He had his cue now--the cue Stafnitz had given him.



XVIII

TO THE FAITHFUL CITY


The King had died yesterday--yet none had told his heir! Mistitch had
set out for Dobrava with fifty men to wait for the King--who was dead!
The dead King would never go to Dobrava--and no messenger came to the
new King at Praslok!

Zerkovitch's news was enough to raise the anger of a King--and Sergius
blazed with it. But more potent still was his wrathful fear as he
thought of Sophy at Praslok, in the power of Captain Hercules.

He had his guard of twenty mounted men with him. With these he at once
set forth, bidding Lukovitch collect all the men he could and follow him
as speedily as possible. If Mistitch had really gone to Dobrava, then he
would find him there and have the truth out of him. But if, as the
Prince hardly doubted, he was making for Praslok, there was time to
intercept him, time to carry off Sophy and the other inmates of the
Castle, send them back to safety within the walls of Volseni, and
himself ride on to meet Mistitch with his mind at ease.

Relying on Zerkovitch's information, he assumed that the troopers had
not started from Slavna till seven in the morning. They had started at
six. He reckoned also on Zerkovitch's statement, that they were but
fifty strong. They were a hundred. Yet, had he known the truth, he could
not have used more haste--and he would not have waited for another man!
He stayed to tell no man in Volseni the news about his father--except
Lukovitch. But as his twenty rode out of the gate behind him, he turned
his head to Zerkovitch, who trotted beside him--for Zerkovitch neither
could nor would rest till the game was played--and said: "Tell them that
the King is dead, and that I reign." Zerkovitch whispered the news to
the man next him, and it ran along the line. A low, stern cheer, hardly
more than a murmured assurance of loyalty and service, came from the
lips of the men in sheepskins.

Mistitch saw them coming, and turned to his troop; he had time for a
little speech--and Stafnitz had taught him what to say: "Men, you are
servants of the King, and of the King only. Not even the Prince of
Slavna can command you against the King's orders. The King's orders are
that we take Baroness Dobrava to Slavna, no matter who resists. If need
be, these orders stand even against the Prince."

Stafnitz's soldiers--the men he petted, the men who had felt the
Prince's stern hand--were only too glad to hear it. To strike for the
King and yet against the hated Prince--it was a luxury, a happy and
unlooked-for harmonizing of their duty and their pleasure. Their
answering cheer was loud and fierce.

It struck harsh on the ears of the advancing Prince. His face grew hard
and strained as he heard the shouts and saw the solid body of men across
his path, barring access to his own castle. And within a yard or two of
their ranks, by the side of the road, sat the figure which he knew so
well and so well loved.

Now Mistitch played his card--that move in the game which Sophy's cool
submission to his demand had for the moment thwarted, but to which the
Prince's headlong anger and fear now gave an opening--the opening which
Stafnitz had from the first foreseen. It would need little to make the
fiery Prince forget prudence when he was face to face with Mistitch. It
was not a safe game for Mistitch personally--both Stafnitz and he knew
that. But Captain Hercules was confident. He would not be caught twice
by the Volseni trick of sword! The satisfaction of his revenge, and the
unstinted rewards that his Colonel offered, made it worth his while to
accept the risk, and rendered it grateful to his heart.

Sophy sat smiling. She would fain have averted the encounter, and had
shaped her manoeuvres to that end. It was not to be so, it seemed.
Now, she did not doubt Monseigneur's success. But she wished that
Zerkovitch had not reached Volseni so quickly, that the Prince had
stayed behind his walls till his plans were ready; and that she was
going a prisoner to Slavna to see the King, trusting to her face, her
tongue, her courage, and the star of her own fortune. Never had her
buoyant self-confidence run higher.

On the top of the causeway, Max von Hollbrandt looked to his revolver,
Peter Vassip loosened his knife in its leather sheath. A window above
the gate opened, and Marie Zerkovitch's frightened face looked out. The
women-servants jostled old Vassip in the doorway. The grooms stood
outside the stables. No one moved--only the Prince's little troop came
on. When they were fifty yards away, Mistitch cried to his men: "Draw
swords!" and himself pricked his horse with his spur and rode up to
where Sophy was.

Mistitch drew his horse up parallel to Sophy's, head to tail, on her
right side, between her and the approaching force. With the instinct of
hatred she shrank away from him; it had all been foreseen and rehearsed
in Stafnitz's mind! Mistitch cried loudly: "In the King's name, Baroness
Dobrava!" He leaned from the saddle and caught her right wrist in his
huge hand: he had the justification that, at his first attempt to touch
her, Sophy's hand had flown to her little revolver and held it now.
Mistitch crushed her wrist--the revolver fell to the ground. Sophy gave
one cry of pain. Mistitch dropped her wrist and reached his arm about
her waist. He was pulling her from her horse, while again he cried out:
"In the King's name! On guard!"

It was a high jump from the top of the causeway, but two men took it
side by side--Max von Hollbrandt, revolver in hand, Peter Vassip with
knife unsheathed.

As they leaped, another shout rang out: "Long live King Sergius!"

The Prince rode his fastest, but faster still rode Zerkovitch. He
outpaced the Prince and rode right in among Mistitch's men, crying
loudly again and again, unceasingly: "The King is dead! The King is
dead! The King is dead!"

Then came the Prince; he rode full at Mistitch. His men followed him,
and dashed with a shock against the troopers of Mistitch's escort. As
they rode, they cried: "Long live King Sergius!" They had unhorsed a
dozen men and wounded four or five before they realized that they met
with no resistance. Mistitch's men were paralyzed. The King was
dead--they were to fight against the King! The magic of the name worked.
They dropped the points of their swords. The Volsenians, hesitating to
strike men who did not defend themselves, puzzled and in doubt, turned
to their Bailiff--their King--for his orders.

As the Prince came up, Mistitch hurled Sophy from him; she fell from her
horse, but fell on the soft, grassy road-side, and sprang up unhurt save
for a cruel pain in her crushed wrist. She turned her eyes whither all
eyes were turned now. The general battle was stayed, but not the single
combat. For a moment none moved save the two who were now to engage.

The fight of the Street of the Fountain fell to be fought again. For
when Peter Vassip was darting forward, knife in hand, with a spring like
a mountain goat's, his master's voice called: "Mine, Peter, mine!" It
was the old cry when they shot wild-boar in the woods about Dobrava, and
it brought Peter Vassip to a stand. Max von Hollbrandt, too, lowered his
pointed revolver. Who should stand between his quarry and the King,
between Sophy's lover and the man who had so outraged her? Big Mistitch
was the King's game, and the King's only, that day.

Mistitch's chance was gone, and he must have known it. Where was the
sergeant who had undertaken to cover him? He had turned tail. Where was
the enveloping rush of his men, which should have engulfed and paralyzed
the enemy? Paralysis was on his men themselves; they believed
Zerkovitch, and lacked appetite for the killing of a King. Where was his
triumphant return to Slavna, his laurels, his rewards, his wonderful
swaggerings at the Golden Lion? They were all gone. Even though he
killed the King, there were two dozen men vowed to have his life. They
must have it--but at what price? His savage valor set the figure high.

It was the old fight again, but not in the old manner. There was no
delicate sword-play, no fluctuating fortunes in the fray. It was all
stem and short. The King had not drawn his sword, Mistitch did not seek
to draw his. Two shots rang out sharply--that was all. The King reeled
in his saddle, but maintained his seat. Big Mistitch threw his hands
above his head with a loud cry and fell with a mighty crash on the road,
shot through the head. Peter Vassip ran to the King and helped him to
dismount, while Max von Hollbrandt held his horse. Sophy hurried to
where they laid him by the road-side.

"Disarm these fellows!" cried Zerkovitch.

But Mistitch's escort were in no mood to wait for this operation; nor to
stay and suffer the anger of the King. With their leader's fall the last
of heart was out of them. Wrenching themselves free from such of the
Volsenians as sought to arrest their flight, they turned their horses'
heads and fled, one and all, for Slavna. The King's men attempted no
pursuit; they clustered round the spot where he lay.

"I'm hit," he said to Sophy, "but not badly, I think."

From the Castle door, down the causeway, came Marie Zerkovitch, weeping
passionately, wringing her hands. The soldiers parted their close ranks
to let her through. She came to the road-side where Sophy supported
Monseigneur's head upon her knees. Sophy looked up and saw her. Marie
did not speak. She stood there sobbing and wringing her hands over Sophy
and the wounded King.

That afternoon--an hour after the first of the straggling rout of
Mistitch's escort came in--King Alexis died suddenly! So ran the
official notice, endorsed by Dr. Natcheff's high authority. The coterie
were in up to their necks; they could not go back now; they must go
through with it. Countess Ellenburg took to her knees; Stenovics and
Stafnitz held long conversations. Every point of tactical importance in
the city was occupied by troops. Slavna was silent, expectant, curious.

Markart awoke at five o'clock, heavy of head, dry in the mouth, sick and
ill. He found himself no longer in the King's suite, but in one of the
apartments which Stafnitz had occupied. He was all alone; the door stood
open. He understood that he was no more a prisoner; he knew that the
King was dead!

But who else was dead--and who alive--and who King in Slavna?

He forced himself to rise, and hurried through the corridors of the
Palace. They were deserted; there was nobody to hinder him, nobody of
whom to ask a question. He saw a decanter of brandy standing near the
door of one room, and drank freely of it. Then he made his way into the
garden. He saw men streaming over the bridge towards Slavna, and
hastened after them as quickly as he could. His head was still in a
maze; he remembered nothing after drinking the glass of wine which
Lepage the valet had given him. But he was possessed by a strong
excitement, and he followed obstinately in the wake of the throng which
set from the Palace and the suburbs into Slavna.

The streets were quiet; soldiers occupied the corners of the ways; they
looked curiously at Markart's pale face and disordered uniform. A dull
roar came from the direction of St. Michael's Square, and thither
Markart aimed his course. He found all one side of the Square full of a
dense crowd, swaying, jostling, talking. On the other side troops were
massed; in an open space in front of the troops, facing the crowd, was
Colonel Stafnitz, and by his side a little boy on a white pony.

Markart was too far off to hear what Stafnitz said when he began to
speak--nay, the cheers of the troops behind the Colonel came so sharp on
his words as almost to drown them; and after a moment's hesitation (as
it seemed to Markart), the crowd of people on the other side of the
Square echoed back the acclamations of the soldiers.

All Countess Ellenburg's ambitions were at stake; for Stenovics and
Stafnitz it was a matter of life itself now, so daringly had they raised
their hands against King Sergius. Countess Ellenburg had indeed
prayed--and now prayed all alone in a deserted Palace--but not one of
the three had hesitated. At the head of a united army, in the name of a
united people, Stafnitz had demanded the proclamation of young Alexis as
King. For an hour Stenovics had made a show of demurring; then he bowed
to the national will. That night young Alexis enjoyed more honor than he
had asked of Lepage the valet--he was called not Prince, but Majesty. He
was King in Slavna, and the first work to which they set his childish
hand was the proclamation of a state of siege.

Slavna chose him willingly--or because it must at the bidding of the
soldiers. But Volseni was of another mind. They would not have the
German woman's son to reign over them. Into that faithful city the
wounded King threw himself with all his friends.

The body of Mistitch lay all day and all night by the wayside. Next
morning at dawn the King's grooms came back from Volseni and buried it
under a clump of trees by the side of the lane running down to Lake
Talti. Their curses were the only words spoken over the grave; and they
flattened the earth level with the ground again, that none might know
where the man rested who had lifted his hand against their master.

The King was carried to Volseni sore stricken; they did not know whether
he would live or die. He had a dangerous wound in the lungs, and, to
make matters worse, the surgical skill available in Volseni was very
primitive.

But in that regard fortune brought aid, and brought also to Sophy a
strange conjuncture of the new life with the old. The landlord of the
inn sent word to Lukovitch that two foreign gentlemen had arrived at his
house that afternoon, and that the passport of one of them described him
as a surgeon; the landlord had told him how things stood, and he was
anxious to render help.

It was Basil Williamson. Dunstanbury and he, accompanied by Henry Brown,
Dunstanbury's servant, had reached Volseni that day on their return from
a tour in the Crimea and round the shores of the Sea of Azof.



XIX

THE SILVER RING


It was late at night, and quiet reigned in Volseni--the quiet not of
security, but of ordered vigilance. A light burned in every house; men
lined the time-worn walls and camped in the market-place; there were
scouts out on the road as far as Praslok. No news came from outside, and
no news yet from the room in the guard-house where the wounded King lay.
The street on which the room looked was empty, save for one man, who
walked patiently up and down, smoking a cigar. Dunstanbury waited for
Basil Williamson, who was in attendance on the King and was to pronounce
to Volseni whether he could live or must die.

Dunstanbury had been glad that Basil could be of use, but for the rest
he had listened to the story which Zerkovitch told him with an amused,
rather contemptuous indifference--with an Englishman's wonder why other
countries cannot manage their affairs better, and something of a
traveller's pleasure at coming in for a bit of such vivid, almost
blazing "local color" in the course of his journey. But whether Alexis
reigned, or Sergius, mattered nothing to him, and, in his opinion, very
little to anybody else.

Nor had he given much thought to the lady whose name figured so
prominently in Zerkovitch's narrative, the Baroness Dobrava. Such a
personage seemed no less appropriate to the surroundings than the rest
of the story--no less appropriate and certainly not a whit more
important. Of course he hoped Basil would make a good report, but his
mind was not disturbed; his chief hope was that the claims of humanity
would not prolong his stay in Volseni beyond a few days. It was a
picturesque little place, but not one for a long visit; and in any case
he was homeward bound now, rather eager for the pleasures of the London
season after his winter journey--the third he had made in the interests
of a book on Russia which he had in contemplation, a book designed to
recommend him as an expert student of foreign affairs. He could hardly
consider that these goings-on in Kravonia came within the purview of a
serious study of his subject. But it was a pleasant, moonlit night, the
old street was very quaint, the crisis he had happened on bizarre and
amusing. He smoked his cigar and waited for Basil without impatience.

He had strolled a hundred yards away and just turned to loiter back,
when he saw a figure come out of the guard-house, pause for a moment,
and then advance slowly towards him. The sheepskin cap and tunic made
him think at first that the stranger was one of the Volsenian levy; the
next moment he saw the skirt. At once he guessed that he was in the
presence of Baroness Dobrava, the heroine of the piece, as he had called
her in his own mind and with a smile.

Evidently she meant to speak to him; he threw away his cigar and walked
to meet her. As they drew near to each other he raised his hat. Sophy
bowed gravely. Thus they met for the first time since Sophy washed her
lettuces in the scullery at Morpingham, and, at the young lord's
bidding, fetched Lorenzo the Magnificent a bone. This meeting was,
however remotely, the result of that. Dunstanbury had started her career
on the road which had led her to where she was.

"I've seen Mr. Williamson," she said, "and he knows me now. But you
don't yet, do you, Lord Dunstanbury? And anyhow, perhaps, you wouldn't
remember."

She had been a slip of a girl when he saw her last, in a print frock,
washing lettuces. With a smile and a deprecatory gesture he confessed
his ignorance and his surprise. "Really, I'm afraid I--I don't. I've
been such a traveller, and meet so many--" An acquaintance with Baroness
Dobrava was among the last with which he would have credited himself--or
perhaps (to speak his true thoughts), charged his reputation.

"Mr. Williamson knew me almost directly--the moment I reminded him of my
mark." She touched her cheek. Dunstanbury looked more closely at her, a
vague recollection stirring in him. Sophy's face was very sad, yet she
smiled just a little as she added: "I remember you so well--and your dog
Lorenzo. I'm Sophy Grouch of Morpingham, and I became Lady Meg's
companion. Now do you remember?"

He stepped quickly up to her, peered into her eyes, and saw the Red
Star.

"Good Heavens!" he said, smiling at her in an almost helpless way.
"Well, that is curious!" he added. "Sophy Grouch! And you are--Baroness
Dobrava?"

"There's nothing much in that," said Sophy. "I'll tell you all about
that soon, if we have time. To-night I can think of nothing but
Monseigneur. Mr. Williamson has extracted the bullet, but I'm afraid
he's very bad. You won't take Mr. Williamson away until--until it's
settled--one way or the other, will you?"

"Neither Basil nor I will leave so long as we can be of the least
service to you," he told her.

With a sudden impulse she put her hands in his. "It's strangely good to
find you here to-night--so strange and so good! It gives me strength,
and I want strength. Oh, my friends are brave men, but you--well,
there's something in home and the same blood, I suppose."

Dunstanbury thought that there was certainly something in having two
Englishmen about, instead of Kravonians only, but such a blunt sentiment
might not be acceptable. He pressed her hands as he released them.

"I rejoice at the chance that brings us here. You can have every
confidence in Basil. He's a first-rate man. But tell me about yourself.
We have time now, haven't we?"

"Really, I suppose we have! Monseigneur has been put to sleep. But I
couldn't sleep. Come, we'll go up on the wall."

They mounted on to the city wall, just by the gate, and leaned against
the mouldering parapets. Below lay Lake Talti in the moonlight, and
beyond it the masses of the mountains. Yet while Sophy talked,
Dunstanbury's eyes seldom left her face; nay, once or twice he caught
himself not listening, but only looking, tracing how she had grown from
Sophy Grouch in her scullery to this. He had never forgotten the strange
girl: once or twice he and Basil had talked of her; he had resented Lady
Meg's brusque and unceremonious dismissal of her protégée; in his
memory, half-overgrown, had lain the mark on Sophy's cheek. Now here she
was, in Kravonia, of all places--Baroness Dobrava, of all people! And
what else, who knew? The train of events which had brought this about
was strange; yet his greater wonder was for the woman herself.

"And here we are!" she ended with a woful smile. "If Monseigneur lives,
I think we shall win. For the moment we can do no more than hold
Volseni; I think we can do that. But presently, when he's better and can
lead us, we shall attack. Down in Slavna they won't like being ruled by
the Countess and Stenovics as much as they expect. Little by little we
shall grow stronger." Her voice rose a little. "At last Monseigneur will
sit firm on his throne," she said. "Then we'll see what we can do for
Kravonia. It's a fine country, and rich, Lord Dunstanbury, and outside
Slavna the people are good material. We shall be able to make it very
different--if Monseigneur lives."

"And if not?" he asked, in a low voice.

"What is it to me except for Monseigneur? If he dies--!" Her hands
thrown wide in a gesture of despair ended her sentence.

If she lived and worked for Kravonia, it was for Monseigneur's sake.
Without him, what was Kravonia to her? Such was her mood; plainly she
took no pains to conceal it from Dunstanbury. The next moment she turned
to him with a smile. "You think I talk strangely, saying: 'We'll do this
and that'? Yes, you must, and it's suddenly become strange to me to say
it--to say it to you, because you've brought back the old things to my
mind, and all this is so out of keeping with the old things--with Sophy
Grouch, and Julia Robins, and Morpingham! But until you came it didn't
seem strange. Everything that has happened since I came to this country
seemed to lead up to it--to bring it about naturally and irresistibly. I
forgot till just now how funny it must sound to you--and how--how bad, I
suppose. Well, you must accustom yourself to Kravonia. It's not Essex,
you know."

"If the King lives?" he asked.

"I shall be with Monseigneur if he lives," she answered.

Yes, it was very strange; yet already, even now--when he had known her
again for half an hour, had seen her and talked to her--gradually and
insidiously it began to seem less strange, less fantastic, more natural.
Dunstanbury had to give himself a mental shake to get back to Essex and
to Sophy Grouch. Volseni set old and gray amid the hills, the King whose
breath struggled with his blood for life, the beautiful woman who would
be with the King if and so long as he lived--these were the present
realities he saw in vivid immediate vision; they made the shadows of the
past seem not indeed dim--they kept all their distinctness of outline in
memory--but in their turn fantastic, and in no relation to the actual.
Was that the air of Kravonia working on him? Or was it a woman's voice,
the pallid pride of a woman's face?

"In Slavna they call me a witch," she said, "and tell terrible tales
about this little mark--my Red Star. But here in Volseni they like
me--yes, and I can win over Slavna, too, if I get the opportunity. No, I
sha'n't be a weakness to Monseigneur if he lives."

"You'll be--?"

"His wife?" she interrupted. "Yes." She smiled again--nay, almost
laughed. "That seems worst of all--worse than anything else?"

Dunstanbury allowed himself to smile too. "Well, yes, of course that's
true," he said. "Out of Kravonia, anyhow. What's true in Kravonia I
really don't know yet."

"I suppose it's true in Kravonia too. But what I tell you is
Monseigneur's will about me."

He looked hard at her. "You love him?" he asked.

"As my life, and more," said Sophy, simply.

At last Dunstanbury ceased to look at her; he laid his elbows on the
battlements and stood there, his eyes roaming over the lake in the
valley to the mountains beyond. Sophy left his side, and began to walk
slowly up and down the rugged, uneven, overgrown surface of the walls.

The moon was sinking in the sky; there would be three or four dark hours
before the dawn. A man galloped up to the gate and gave a countersign in
return to a challenge; the heavy gates rolled open; he rode in; another
rode out and cantered off along the road towards Praslok. There was
watch and ward--Volseni was not to be caught napping as Praslok had
been. Whether the King lived or died, his Volsenians were on guard.
Dunstanbury turned his back on the hills and came up to Sophy.

"We Essex folk ought to stand by one another," he said. "It's the merest
chance that has brought me here, but I'm glad of the chance now. And
it's beginning to feel not the least strange. So long as you've need of
help, count me among your soldiers."

"But you oughtn't to mix yourself up--"

"Did you act on that principle when you came to Kravonia?"

With a smile Sophy gave him her hand. "So be it. I accept your
service--for Monseigneur."

"I give it to you," he persisted.

"Yes--and all that is mine I give to Monseigneur," said Sophy.

Any man who meets, or after an interval of time meets again, an
attractive woman, only to find that her thoughts are pre-empted and
totally preoccupied, suffers an annoyance not the less real because he
sees the absurdity of it; it is to find shut a gate which with better
luck might have been open. The unusual circumstances of his new
encounter with Sophy did not save Dunstanbury from this common form of
chagrin; the tragic element in her situation gave it a rather uncommon
flavor. He would fain have appeared as the knight-errant to rescue such
beauty in such distress; but the nature of the distress did not seem
favorable to the proper romantic sequel.

He made his offer of service to her; she assigned him to the service of
Monseigneur! He laughed at his own annoyance--and determined to serve
Monseigneur as well as he could. At the same time, while conceding most
amply--nay, even feeling--Monseigneur's excuse, he could not admire his
policy in the choice of a bride. That was doubtless a sample of how
things were done in Kravonia! He lived to feel the excuse more
strongly--and to pronounce the judgment with greater hesitation.

Sophy had given him her hand again as she accepted his offer in
Monseigneur's name.--He had not yet released it when she was called from
the street below in a woman's voice--a voice full of haste and alarm.

"Marie Zerkovitch calls me! I must go at once," she said. "I expect
Monseigneur is awake." She hurried off with a nod of farewell.

Dunstanbury stayed a little while on the wall, smoking a cigarette, and
then went down into the street. The door of the guard-house was shut;
all was very quiet as he passed along to the market-place where the inn
was situated. He went up to his room overlooking the street, and, taking
off his coat only, flung himself on the bed. He was minded thus to await
Basil Williamson's return with news of the King. But the excitement of
the day had wearied him; in ten minutes he was sound asleep.

He was aroused by Basil Williamson's hand on his shoulder. The young
doctor, a slim-built, dark, wiry fellow, looked very weary and sad.

"How has it gone?" asked Dunstanbury, sitting up.

"It's been a terrible night. I'm glad you've had some sleep. He awoke
after an hour; the hemorrhage had set in again. I had to tell him it was
a thousand to one against him. He sent for her, and made me leave them
alone together. There was only one other room, and I waited there with a
little woman--a Madame Zerkovitch--who cried terribly. Then he sent for
Lukovitch, who seems to be the chief man in the place. Presently
Lukovitch went away, and I went back to the King. I found him terribly
exhausted; she was there, sitting by him and whispering to him now and
then; she seemed calm. Presently Lukovitch came back; the Zerkovitches
and the German man came too. They all came in--the King would not hear
my objections--and with them came a priest. And then and there the King
married her! She spoke to nobody except to me before the service began,
and then she only said: 'Monseigneur wishes it.' I waited till the
service was done, but I could bear no more. I went outside while they
shrived him. But I was called back hurriedly. Then the end came very
soon--in less than half an hour. He sent everybody away except her and
me, and when I had done all that was possible, I went as far off as I
could--into the corner of the room. I came back at a call from her just
before he died. The man was looking extraordinarily happy, Dunstanbury."

"They were married?"

"Oh yes. It's all right, I suppose--not that it seems to matter much
now, does it? Put on your coat and come to the window. You'll see a
sight you'll remember, I think."

Together they went to the window. The sun had risen from behind the
mountains and flooded the city with light; the morning air was crisp and
fragrant. The market-place was thronged with people--men in line in
front, women, girls, and boys in a mass behind. They were all absolutely
quiet and silent. Opposite where they were was a raised platform of
wood, reached by steps from the ground; it was a rostrum for the use of
those who sold goods by auction in the market. A board on trestles had
been laid on this, and on the board was stretched the body of the King.
At his feet stood Lukovitch; behind were Max von Hollbrandt, Zerkovitch,
and Marie. At the King's head stood Sophy, and Peter Vassip knelt on the
ground beside her. She stood like a statue, white and still; but
Dunstanbury could see the Red Star glowing.

Lukovitch seemed to have been speaking, although the sound of his voice
had not reached them through the closed window of the topmost room in
the inn. He spoke again now--not loudly, but in a very clear voice.

"The King lies dead through treachery," he said. "In Slavna the German
woman rules, and her son, and the men who killed the King. Will you have
them to rule over you, men of Volseni?"

A shout of "No!" rang out, followed again by absolute silence. Lukovitch
drew the curved sword that he wore and raised it in the air. All the
armed men followed his example; the rest, with the women and young
people, raised their right hands. It was their custom in calling Heaven
to witness.

"God hears us!" said Lukovitch, and all the people repeated the words
after him.

Dunstanbury whispered to Basil: "Do they mean to fight?" An eagerness
stirred in his voice.

"Listen! He's speaking again."

"Whom then will you have for your King, men of Volseni?" asked
Lukovitch. "There is one on whose finger the King has put the silver
ring of the Bailiffs of Volseni. With his own hand he set it there
before he died--he set it there when he made her his Queen, as you have
heard. Will you have the Bailiff of Volseni for your King?"

A great shout of "Yes!" answered him.

"You will have Sophia for your King?"

"Sophia for our King!" they cried.

Lukovitch raised his sword again; all raised swords or hands. The solemn
words "God hears us!" were spoken from every mouth. Lukovitch turned to
Sophy and handed his drawn sword to her. She took it. Then she knelt
down and kissed the King's lips. Rising to her feet again, she stood for
a moment silent, looking over the thronged market-square; yet she seemed
hardly to see; her eyes were vacant. At last she raised the sword to her
lips, kissed it, and then held it high in the air.

"It was Monseigneur's wish. Let us avenge him! God hears me!"

"God hears you!" came all the voices.

The ceremony was finished. Six men took up the board on which the King
lay, carried it down from the rostrum, and along the street to the
guard-house. Sophy followed, and her friends walked after her. Still she
seemed as though in a dream; her voice had sounded absent, almost
unconscious. She was pale as death, save for the Red Star.

Following her dead, she passed out of sight. Immediately the crowd began
to disperse, though most of the men with arms gathered round Lukovitch
and seemed to await his orders.

Basil Williamson moved away from the window with a heavy sigh and a
gesture of dejection.

"I wish we could get her safe out of it," he said. "Isn't it wonderful,
her being here?"

"Yes--but I'd forgotten that." Dunstanbury was still by the window; he
had been thinking that his service now would not be to Monseigneur. Yet
no doubt Basil had mentioned the wisest form of service. Sophy's own few
words--the words for which she cited Heaven's witness--hinted at
another.

But Basil had recalled his mind to the marvel. Moved as he had been by
his talk with Sophy, and even more by the scene which had just been
enacted before his eyes, his face lit up with a smile as he looked
across to Basil.

"Yes, old fellow, wonderful! Sophy Grouch! Queen of Kravonia! It beats
Macbeth hollow!"

"It's pretty nearly as dreary!" said Basil, with a discontented grunt.

"I find it pretty nearly as exciting," Dunstanbury said. "And I hope for
a happier ending. Meanwhile"--he buckled the leather belt which held
his revolver round his waist--"I'm for some breakfast, and then I shall
go and ask that tall fellow who did all the talking if there's anything
I can do for King Sophia. By Jove! wouldn't Cousin Meg open her eyes?"

"You'll end by getting yourself stuck up against the wall and shot,"
Basil grumbled.

"If I do, I'm quite sure of one thing, old fellow--and that is that your
wooden old mug will be next in the line, or thereabouts."

"I say, Dunstanbury, I wish I could have saved him!"

"So do I. Did you notice her face?"

Williamson gave a scornful toss of his head.

"Well, yes, I was an ass to ask that!" Dunstanbury admitted, candidly.
It would certainly not have been easy to avoid noticing Sophy's face.

At six o'clock that morning Max von Hollbrandt took horse for Slavna.
His diplomatic character at once made it proper for him to rejoin his
Legation and enabled him to act as a messenger with safety to himself.
He carried the tidings of the death of the King and of the
proclamation--of Sophy. There was no concealment. Volseni's defiance to
Slavna was open and avowed. Volseni held that there was no true
Stefanovitch left, and cited the will of the last of the Royal House as
warrant for its choice. The gauntlet was thrown down with a royal air.

It was well for Max to get back to his post. The diplomatists in Slavna,
and their chiefs at home, were soon to be busy with the affairs of
Kravonia. Mistitch had struck at the life of even more than his
King--that was to become evident before many days had passed.



XX

THEY HAVE COLDS IN SLAVNA


It is permissible to turn with some relief--although of a kind more
congenial to the cynic than to an admirer of humanity--from the tragedy
of love in Volseni to the comedy of politics which began to develop
itself in Slavna from the hour of the proclamation of young Alexis.

The first result of this auspicious event, following so closely on the
issue of Captain Mistitch's expedition, was to give all the diplomatists
bad colds. Some took to their beds, others went for a change of air; but
one and all had such colds as would certainly prevent them from
accepting royal invitations or being present at State functions. Young
Alexis had a cold, too, and was consequently unable to issue royal
invitations or take his part in State functions. Countess Ellenburg was
even more affected--she had lumbago; and even General Stenovics was
advised to keep quite quiet for a few days.

Only Colonel Stafnitz's health seemed proof against the prevailing
epidemic. He was constantly to be seen about, very busy at the barracks,
very busy at Suleiman's Tower, very gay and cheerful on the terrace of
the Hôtel de Paris. But then he, of course, had been in no way
responsible for recent events. He was a soldier, and had only obeyed
orders; naturally his health was less affected. He was, in fact, in
very good spirits, and in very good temper except when he touched on
poor Captain Hercules's blundering, violent ways. "Not the man for a
delicate mission," he said, decisively, to Captain Markart. The Captain
forbore to remind him how it was that Mistitch had been sent on one. The
way in which the Colonel expressed his opinion made it clear that such a
reminder would not be welcome.

The coterie which had engineered the revolution was set at sixes and
sevens by its success. The destruction of their common enemy was also
the removal of their common interest. Sophy at Volseni did not seem a
peril real enough or near enough to bind them together. Countess
Ellenburg wanted to be Regent; Stenovics was for a Council, with himself
in the chair. Stafnitz thought himself the obvious man to be Commandant
of Slavna; Stenovics would have agreed--only it was necessary to keep an
eye on Volseni! Now if he were to be Commandant, while the Colonel took
the field with a small but picked force! The Colonel screwed up his
mouth at that. "Make Praslok your headquarters, and you'll soon bring
the Sheepskins to their senses," Stenovics advised insidiously. Stafnitz
preferred headquarters in Suleiman's Tower! He was not sure that coming
back from Praslok with a small force, however picked, would be quite as
easy as going there.

In the back of both men's minds there was a bit of news which had just
come to hand. The big guns had been delivered, and were on their way to
Slavna, coming down the Krath in barges. They were consigned to the
Commandant. Who was that important officer now to be?

When thieves fall out, honest men come by their own. The venerable
saying involves one postulate--that there shall be honest men to do it.
In high places in Slavna this seemed to be a difficulty, and it is not
so certain that Kravonia's two great neighbors, to east and west, quite
filled the gap. These Powers were exchanging views now. They were
mightily shocked at the way Kravonia had been going on. Their Ministers
had worse colds than any of the other Ministers, and their Press had a
great deal to say about civilization and such like topics. Kravonia was
a rich country, and its geographical position was important. The history
of the world seems to show that the standard of civilization and
morality demanded of a country depends largely on its richness and the
importance of its geographical position.

The neighbor on the west had plenty of mountains, but wanted some
fertile plains. The neighbor on the east had fertile plains adjacent to
the Kravonian frontier, and would like to hold the mountain line as a
protection to them. A far-seeing statesman would have discerned how
important correct behavior was to the interests of Kravonia! The great
neighbors began to move in the matter, but they moved slowly. They had
to see that their own keen sense of morality was not opposed to the keen
sense of morality of other great nations. The right to feel specially
outraged is a matter for diplomatic negotiations, often, no doubt, of
great delicacy.

So in the mean time Slavna was left to its own devices for a little
longer--to amuse itself in its light-hearted, unremorseful, extremely
unconscientious way, and to frown and shake a distant fist at grim,
gray, sad little Volseni in the hills. With the stern and faithful band
who mourned the dead Prince neither Stenovics nor Stafnitz seemed for
the moment inclined to try conclusions, though each would have been very
glad to see the other undertake the enterprise. In a military regard,
moreover, they were right. The obvious thing, if Sophy still held out,
was to wait for the big guns. When once these were in position, the old
battlements of Volseni could stand scarcely longer than the walls of
Jericho. And the guns were at the head of navigation on the Krath now,
waiting for an escort to convoy them to Slavna. Max von Hollbrandt--too
insignificant a person to feel called upon to have a cold--moved about
Slavna, much amused with the situation, and highly gratified that the
fruit which the coterie had plucked looked like turning bitter in their
mouths.

Within the Palace on the river-bank young Alexis was strutting his brief
hour, vastly pleased; but Countess Ellenburg was at her prayers again,
praying rather indiscriminately against everybody who might be
dangerous--against Sophy at Volseni; against the big neighbors, whose
designs began to be whispered; against Stenovics, who was fighting so
hard for himself that he gave little heed to her or to her dignity;
against Stafnitz, who might leave her the dignity, such as it was, but
certainly, if he established his own supremacy, would not leave her a
shred of power. Perhaps there were spectres also against whose accusing
shades she raised her petition--the man she had deluded, the man she had
helped to kill; but that theme seems too dark for the comedy of Slavna
in these days. The most practical step she took, so far as this world
goes, was to send a very solid sum of money to a bank in Dresden: it was
not the first remittance she had made from Slavna.

Matters stood thus--young Alexis having been on the throne in Slavna,
and Sophy in Volseni, for one week--when Lepage ventured out from
Zerkovitch's sheltering roof. He had suffered from a chill by no means
purely diplomatic; but, apart from that, he had been in no hurry to show
himself; he feared to see Rastatz's rat-face peering for him. But all
was quiet. Sterkoff and Rastatz were busy with their Colonel in
Suleiman's Tower. In fact, nobody took any notice of Lepage; his secret,
once so vital, was now gossip of the market-place. He was secure--but he
was also out of a situation.

He walked somewhat forlornly into St. Michael's Square, and as luck
would have it--Lepage thought it very bad luck--the first man he ran
against was Captain Markart. Uneasy in his conscience, Lepage tried to
evade the encounter, but the Captain was of another mind. His head was
sound again, and, on cool reflection, he was glad to have slept through
the events of what Stenovics's proclamation had styled "the auspicious
day." He seized little Lepage by the arm, greeted him with cordiality,
and carried him off to drink at the Golden Lion. Without imputing any
serious lack of sobriety to his companion, Lepage thought that this
refreshment was not the first of which the good-humored Captain had
partaken that forenoon; his manner was so very cordial, his talk so very
free.

"Well, here we are!" he said. "We did our best, you and I, Lepage; our
consciences are clear. As loyal subjects, we have now to accept the
existing régime."

"What is it?" asked Lepage. "I've been in-doors a week."

"It's Alexis--still Alexis! Long live Alexis!" said Markart, with a
laugh. "You surely don't take Baroness Dobrava into account?"

"I just wanted to know," said Lepage, drinking thoughtfully.
"And--er--Captain--behind Alexis? Guiding the youthful King? Countess
Ellenburg?"

"No doubt, no doubt. Behind him his very pious mother, Lepage."

"And behind her?" persisted Lepage.

Markart laughed, but cast a glance round and shook his head.

"Come, come, Captain, don't leave an old friend in the dark--just where
information would be useful!"

"An old friend! Oh, when I remember my aching head! You think me very
forgiving, Monsieur Lepage."

"If you knew the night I spent, you'd forgive me anything," said Lepage,
with a shudder of reminiscence.

"Ah, well," said Markart, after another draught, "I'm a soldier--I shall
obey my orders."

"Perfect, Captain! And who will give them to you, do you think?"

"That's exactly what I'm waiting to see. Oh, I've turned prudent! No
more adventures for me!"

"I'm quite of your mind; but it's so difficult to be prudent when one
doesn't know which is the strongest side."

"You wouldn't go to Volseni?" laughed Markart.

"Perhaps not; but there are difficulties nearer home. If you went out of
this door and turned to the left, you would come to the offices of the
Council of Ministers. If you turned to the right, and thence to the
right again, and on to the north wall, you would come, Captain, to
Suleiman's Tower. Now, as I understand, Colonel Stafnitz--"

"Is at the Tower, and the General at the offices, eh?"

"Precisely. Which turn do you mean to take?"

Markart looked round again. "I shall sit here for a bit longer," he
said. He finished his liquor, thereby, perhaps, adding just the touch of
openness lacking to his advice, and, leaning forward, touched Lepage on
the arm.

"Do you remember the Prince's guns--the guns for which he bartered
Captain Hercules?"

"Ay, well!" said Lepage.

"They're on the river, up at Kolskoï, now. I should keep my eye on them!
They're to be brought to Slavna. Who do you think'll bring them? Keep
your eye on that!"

"They're both scoundrels," said Lepage, rising to go.

Markart shrugged his shoulders. "The fruit lies on the ground for the
man who can pick it up! Why not? There's nobody who's got any right to
it now."

He expressed exactly the view of the two great neighbors, though by no
means in the language which their official communications adopted.

Stenovics knew their views very well. He had also received a pretty
plain intimation from Stafnitz that the Colonel considered the escorting
of the guns to Slavna as a purely military task, appertaining not to the
Ministry of State, but to the officer commanding the garrison in the
capital. Stafnitz was that officer, and he proposed himself to go to
Kolskoï. Suleiman's Tower, he added, would be left in the trustworthy
hands of Captain Sterkoff. Again Stenovics fully understood; indeed, the
Colonel was almost brutally candid. His letter was nothing less than
plain word that power lay with the sword, and that the sword was in his
own hand. Stenovics had got rid of King Sergius only to fall under the
rule of Dictator Stafnitz! Was that to be the end of it?

Stenovics preferred any other issue. The ideal thing was his own rule in
the name of young Alexis, with such diplomatic honoring and humoring of
Countess Ellenburg as might prove necessary. That was plainly impossible
so long as Stafnitz was master of the army; it would become finally
hopeless if Sterkoff held Suleiman's Tower till Stafnitz brought the
guns to Slavna. What, then, was Stenovics's alternative? For he was not
yet brought to giving up the game as totally lost. His name stood high,
though his real power tottered on a most insecure foundation. He could
get good terms for his assistance: there was time to make friends with
the mammon of unrighteousness.

Privately, as became invalids, without the knowledge of any one outside
their confidential _entourage_, the representatives of the two great
neighbors received General Stenovics. They are believed to have
convinced him that, in the event of any further disorders in Kravonia,
intervention could not be avoided; troops were on either frontier, ready
for such an emergency; a joint occupation would be forced on the Allies.
With a great deal of sorrow, no doubt, the General felt himself driven
to accept this conclusion.

He at once requested Stafnitz to fetch the guns to Slavna; he left the
Colonel full discretion in the matter. His only desire was to insure the
tranquillity of the capital, and to show Volseni how hopeless it was to
maintain the fanciful and absurd claims of Baroness Dobrava. The
representatives, it must be supposed, approved this attitude, and wished
the General all success; at a later date his efforts to secure order,
and to avoid the inevitable but regrettable result of any new
disturbance, were handsomely acknowledged by both Powers. General
Stenovics had not Stafnitz's nerve and dash, but he was a man of
considerable resource.

A man of good feeling, too, to judge from another step he took--whether
with the cognizance of the representatives or entirely of his own motion
has never become known. He waited till Colonel Stafnitz, who returned a
civil and almost effusive reply to his communication, had set off to
fetch the guns--which, as has been seen, had been unloaded from the
railway and lay at Kolskoï, three days' journey up the Krath; then he
entered into communication with Volseni. He sent Volseni a private and
friendly warning. What was the use of Volseni holding out when the big
guns were coming? It could mean only hopeless resistance, more disorder,
more blood-shed. Let Volseni and the lady whose claims it supported
consider that, be warned in time, and acknowledge King Alexis!

This letter he addressed to Zerkovitch. There were insuperable
diplomatic difficulties in the way of addressing it to Sophy directly.
"Madam I may not call you, and Mistress I am loath to call you," said
Queen Elizabeth to the Archbishop's wife: it was just a case of that
sort of difficulty. He could not call her Queen of Kravonia, and she
would be offended if he called her Baroness Dobrava. So the letter went
to Zerkovitch, and it went by the hand of one of Zerkovitch's
friends--so anxious was the General to be as friendly and conciliatory
as circumstances permitted.

Much to his surprise, considerably to his alarm, Lepage was sent for to
the General's private residence on the evening of the day on which
Colonel Stafnitz set out for Kolskoï to fetch the guns.

Stenovics greeted him cordially, smoothed away his apprehension,
acquainted him with the nature of his mission and with the gist of the
letter which he was to carry. Stenovics seemed more placid to-night than
for some time back--possibly because he had got Stafnitz quietly out of
Slavna.

"Beg Monsieur Zerkovitch to give the letter to Baroness Dobrava (he
called her that to Lepage) as soon as possible, and to urge her to
listen to it. Add that we shall be ready to treat her with every
consideration--any title in reason, and any provision in reason, too.
It's all in my letter, but repeat it on my behalf, Lepage."

"I shouldn't think she'd take either title or money, General," said
Lepage, bluntly.

"You think she's disinterested? No doubt, no doubt! She'll be the more
ready to see the uselessness of prolonging her present attitude." He
grew almost vehement, as he laid his hand on a large map which was
spread out on the table in front of him. "Look here, Lepage. This is
Monday. By Wednesday evening Colonel Stafnitz will be at Kolskoï--here!"
He put his finger by the spot. "On Thursday morning he'll start back.
The barges travel well, and--yes--I think he'll have his guns here by
Sunday; less than a week from now! Yes, on Thursday night he ought to
reach Evena, on Friday Rapska, on Saturday the lock at Miklevni. Yes, on
Saturday the lock at Miklevni! That would bring him here on Sunday. Yes,
the lock at Miklevni on Saturday, I think." He looked up at Lepage
almost imploringly. "If she hesitates, show her that. They're bound to
be here in less than a week!"

Lepage cocked his head on one side and looked at the Minister
thoughtfully. It all sounded very convincing. Colonel Stafnitz would be
at the lock at Miklevni on Saturday, and on Sunday with the guns at
Slavna. And, of course, arduous though the transport would be, they
could be before Volseni in two or three days more. It was really no use
resisting!

Stenovics passed a purse over to Lepage. "For your necessary expenses,"
he said. Lepage took up the purse, which felt well filled, and pocketed
it. "The Baroness mayn't fully appreciate what I've been saying," added
Stenovics. "But Lukovitch knows every inch of the river--he'll make it
quite plain, if she asks him about it. And present her with my sincere
respects and sympathy--my sympathy with her as a private person, of
course. You mustn't commit me in any way, Lepage."

"I think," said Lepage, "that you're capable of looking after that
department yourself, General. But aren't you making the Colonel go a
little too fast?"

"No, no; the barges will do about that."

"But he has a large force to move, I suppose?"

"Oh, dear, no! A large force? No, no! Only a company--just about a
hundred strong, Lepage." He rose. "Just about a hundred, I think."

"Ah, then he might keep time!" Lepage agreed, still very thoughtfully.

"You'll start at once?" the General asked.

"Within an hour."

"That's right. We must run no unnecessary risks; delay might mean new
troubles."

He held out his hand and shook Lepage's warmly. "You must believe that I
respect and share your grief at the King's death."

"Which King, General?"

"Oh! oh! King Alexis, of course! We must listen to the voice of the
nation. Our new King lives and reigns. The voice of the nation, Lepage!"

"Ah!" said Lepage, dryly. "I'd been suspecting some ventriloquists!"

General Stenovics honored the sally with a broad smile. He thought the
representatives with colds would be amused if he repeated it. The pat on
the shoulder which he gave Lepage was a congratulation. "The animal is
so very inarticulate of itself," he said.



XXI

ON SATURDAY AT MIKLEVNI!


Though not remote in distance, yet Volseni was apart and isolated from
all that was happening. Not only was nothing known of the two great
neighbors--nothing reached men in Volseni of the state of affairs in
Slavna itself. They did not know that the thieves were quarrelling about
the plunder, nor that the diplomatists had taken cold; they had not
bethought them of how the art of the ventriloquists would be at work.
They knew only that young Alexis reigned in Slavna by reason of their
King's murder and against the will of him who was dead; only that they
had chosen Sophia for their Queen because she had been the dead King's
wife and his chosen successor.

All the men who could be spared from labor came into the city; they
collected what few horses they could; they filled their little fortress
with provisions. They could not go to Slavna, but they awaited with
confidence the day when Slavna should dare to move against them into the
hills. Slavna had never been able to beat them in their own hills yet;
the bolder spirits even implored Lukovitch to lead them down in a raid
on the plains.

Lukovitch would sanction no more than a scouting party, to see whether
any movement were in progress from the other side. Peter Vassip rode
down with his men to within a few miles of Slavna. For result of the
expedition he brought back the news of the guns: the great guns, rumor
said, had reached Kravonia and were to be in Slavna in a week.

The rank and file hardly understood what that meant; anger that their
destined and darling guns should fall into hostile hands was the feeling
uppermost. But the tidings struck their leaders home to the heart.
Lukovitch knew what it meant. Dunstanbury, who had served three years in
the army at home, knew very well. Covered by such a force as Stafnitz
could bring up, the guns could pound Volseni to pieces--and Volseni
could strike back not a single blow.

"And it's all through her that the guns are here at all!" said
Zerkovitch, with a sigh for the irony of it.

Dunstanbury laid his hand on Lukovitch's shoulder. "It's no use," he
said. "We must tell her so, and we must make the men understand. She
can't let them have their homes battered to pieces--the town with the
women and children in it--and all for nothing!"

"We can't desert her," Lukovitch protested.

"No; we must get her safely away, and then submit."

Since Dunstanbury had offered his services to Sophy, he had assumed a
leading part. His military training and his knowledge of the world gave
him an influence over the rude, simple men. Lukovitch looked to him for
guidance; he had much to say in the primitive preparations for defence.
But now he declared defence to be impossible.

"Who'll tell her so?" asked Basil Williamson.

"We must get her across the frontier," said Dunstanbury. "There--by St.
Peter's Pass--the way we came, Basil. It's an easy journey, and I don't
suppose they'll try to intercept us. You can send twenty or thirty
well-mounted men with us, can't you, Lukovitch? A small party well
mounted is what we shall want."

Lukovitch waved his hands sadly. "With the guns against us it would be a
mere massacre! If it must be, let it be as you say, my lord." His heart
was very heavy; after generations of defiance, Volseni must bow to
Slavna, and his dead Lord's will go for nothing! All this was the doing
of the great guns.

Dunstanbury's argument was sound, but he argued from his heart as well
as his head. He was convinced that the best service he could render to
Sophy was to get her safely out of the country; his heart urged that her
safety was the one and only thing to consider. As she went to and fro
among them now, pale and silent, yet always accessible, always ready to
listen, to consider, and to answer, she moved him with an infinite pity
and a growing attraction. Her life was as though dead or frozen; it
seemed to him as though all Kravonia must be to her the tomb of him
whose grave in the little hill-side church of Volseni she visited so
often. An ardent and overpowering desire rose in him to rescue her, to
drag her forth from these dim cold shades into the sunlight of life
again. Then the spell of this frozen grief might be broken; then should
her drooping glories revive and bloom again. Kravonia and who ruled
there--ay, in his heart, even the fate of the gallant little city which
harbored them, and whose interest he pleaded--were nothing to him beside
Sophy. On her his thoughts were centred.

Sophy's own mind in these days can be gathered only from what others
saw. She made no record of it. Fallen in an hour from heights of love
and hope and exaltation, she lay stunned in the abyss. In intellect calm
and collected, she seems to have been as one numbed in feeling, too
maimed for pain, suffering as though from a mortification of the heart.
The simple men and women of Volseni looked on her with awe, and
chattered fearfully of the Red Star: how that its wearer had been
predestined to high enterprise, but foredoomed to mighty reverses of
fortune. Amidst all their pity for her, they spoke of the Evil Eye; some
whispered that she had come to bring ruin on Volseni: had not the man
who loved her lost both Crown and life?

And it was she through whom the guns had come! The meaning of the guns
had spread now to every hearth; what had once been hailed as an
achievement second only to her exploit in the Street of the Fountain
served now to point more finely the sharpening fears of superstition.
The men held by her still, but their wives were grumbling at them in
their homes. Was she not, after all, a stranger? Must Volseni lie in the
dust for her sake, for the sake of her who wore that ominous,
inexplicable Star?

Dunstanbury knew all this; Lukovitch hardly sought to deny it, though he
was full of scorn for it; and Marie Zerkovitch had by heart the tales of
many wise old beldams who had prophesied this and that from the first
moment that they saw the Red Star. Surely and not slowly the enthusiasm
which had crowned Sophy was turning into a fear which made the people
shrink from her even while they pitied, even while they did not cease to
love. The hand of heaven was against her and against those who were
near her, said the women. The men still feigned not to hear; had they
not taken Heaven to witness that they would serve her and avenge the
King? Alas, their simple vow was too primitive for days like these--too
primitive for the days of the great guns which lay on the bosom of the
Krath!

Dunstanbury had an interview with Sophy early on the Tuesday morning,
the day after Stafnitz had started for Kolskoï. He put his case with the
bluntness and honesty native to him. In his devotion to her safety he
did not spare her the truth. She listened with the smile devoid of
happiness which her face now wore so often.

"I know it all," she said. "They begin to look differently at me as I
walk through the street--when I go to the church. If I stay here long
enough, they'll all call me a witch! But didn't they swear? And
I--haven't I sworn? Are we to do nothing for Monseigneur's memory?"

"What can we do against the guns? The men can die, and the walls be
tumbled down! And there are the women and children!"

"Yes, I suppose we can do nothing. But it goes to my heart that they
should have Monseigneur's guns."

"Your guns!" Dunstanbury reminded her with a smile of whimsical
sympathy.

"That's what they say in the city, too?" she asked.

"The old hags, who are clever at the weather and other mysteries. And,
of course, Madame Zerkovitch!"

Sophy's smile broadened a little. "Oh, of course, poor little Marie
Zerkovitch!" she exclaimed. "She's been sure I'm a witch ever since
she's known me."

"I want you to come over the frontier with me--and Basil Williamson.
I've some influence, and I can insure your getting through all right."

"And then?"

"Whatever you like. I shall be utterly at your orders."

She leaned her head against the high chair in which she sat, a chair of
old oak, black as her hair; she fixed her profound eyes on his.

"I wish I could stay here--in the little church--with Monseigneur," she
said.

"By Heavens, no!" he cried, startled into sudden and untimely vehemence.

"All my life is there," she went on, paying no heed to his outburst.

"Give life another chance. You're very young."

"You can't count life by years, any more than hours by minutes. You
reckon the journey not by the clock, but by the stages you have passed.
Once before I loved a man--and he was killed in battle. But that was
different. I was very hurt, but I wasn't maimed. I'm maimed now by the
death of Monseigneur."

"You can't bring ruin on these folk, and you can't give yourself up to
Stenovics." He could not trust himself to speak more of her feelings nor
of the future; he came back to the present needs of the case.

"It's true--and yet we swore!" She leaned forward to him. "And
you--aren't you afraid of the Red Star?"

"We Essex men aren't afraid, we haven't enough imagination," he
answered, smiling again.

She threw herself back, crying low: "Ah, if we could strike one
blow--just one--for the oath we swore and for Monseigneur! Then perhaps
I should be content."

"To go with me?"

"Perhaps--if, in striking it, what I should think best didn't come to
me."

"You must run no danger, anyhow," he cried, hastily and eagerly.

"My friend," she said, gently, "for such as I am to-day there's no such
thing as danger. Don't think I value my position here or the title
they've given me, poor men! I have loved titles"--for a moment she
smiled--"and I should have loved this one, if Monseigneur had lived. I
should have been proud as a child of it. If I could have borne it by his
side for even a few weeks, a few days! But now it's barren and
bitter--bitter and barren to me."

He followed the thoughts at which her words hinted; they seemed to him
infinitely piteous.

"Now, as things have fallen out, what am I in this country? A waif and
stray! I belong to nobody, and nobody to me."

"Then come away!" he burst out again.

Her deep eyes were set on his face once more. "Yes, that's the
conclusion," she said, very mournfully. "We Essex people are sensible,
aren't we? And we have no imagination. Did you laugh when you saw me
proclaimed and heard us swear?"

"Good Heavens, no!"

"Then think how my oath and my love call me to strike one blow for
Monseigneur!" She hid her eyes behind her hand for a moment. "Aren't
there fifty--thirty--twenty, who would count their lives well risked?
For what are men's lives given them?"

"There's one at least, if you will have it so," Dunstanbury answered.

There was a knock on the door, and without waiting for a bidding
Zerkovitch came quickly in; Lukovitch was behind, and with him Lepage.
Ten minutes before, the valet had ridden up to the city gates, waving
his handkerchief above his head.

Sophy gave a cry of pleasure at seeing him. "A brave man, who loved his
King and served Monseigneur!" she said, as she darted forward and
clasped his hand.

Zerkovitch was as excited and hurried as ever. He thrust a letter into
her hand. "From Stenovics, madame, for you to read," he said.

She took it, saying to Lepage with a touch of reproach: "Are you General
Stenovics's messenger now, Monsieur Lepage?"

"Read it, madame," said he.

She obeyed, and then signed to Lukovitch to take it, and to Dunstanbury
to read it also. "It's just what you've been saying," she told him with
a faint smile, as she sank back in the high oaken seat.

"I am to add, madame," said Lepage, "that you will be treated with every
consideration--any title in reason, any provision in reason, too."

"So the General's letter says."

"But I was told to repeat it," persisted the little man. He looked round
on them. Lukovitch and Dunstanbury had finished reading the letter and
were listening, too. "If you still hesitated, I was to impress upon you
that the guns would certainly be in Slavna in less than a week--almost
certainly on Sunday. You know the course of the river well, madame?"

"Not very well above Slavna, no."

"In that case, which General Stenovics didn't omit to consider, I was to
remind you that Captain Lukovitch probably knew every inch of it."

"I know it intimately," said Lukovitch. "I spent two years on the
timber-barges of the Krath."

"Then you, sir, will understand that the guns will certainly reach
Slavna not later than Sunday." He paused for a moment, seeming to
collect his memory. "By Wednesday evening Colonel Stafnitz will be at
Kolskoï. On Thursday morning he'll start back. On that evening he ought
to reach Evena, on Friday Rapska." Lukovitch nodded at each name. Lepage
went on methodically. "On Saturday the lock at Miklevni. Yes, on
Saturday the lock at Miklevni!" He paused again and looked straight at
Lukovitch.

"Exactly--the lock at Miklevni," said that officer, with another nod.

"Yes, the lock at Miklevni on Saturday. You see, it's not as if the
Colonel had a large force to move. That might take longer. He'll be able
to move his company as quick as the barges travel."

"The stream's very strong, they travel pretty well," said Lukovitch.

"But a hundred men--it's nothing to move, Captain Lukovitch." He looked
round on them again, and then turned back to Sophy. "That's all my
message, madame," he said.

There was a silence.

"So it's evident the guns will be in Slavna by Sunday," Lepage
concluded.

"If they reach Miklevni on Saturday--any time on Saturday--they will,"
said Lukovitch. "And up here very soon after!"

"The General intimated that also, Captain Lukovitch."

"The General gives us very careful information," observed Dunstanbury,
looking rather puzzled. He was not so well versed in Stenovics's methods
as the rest. Lukovitch smiled broadly, and even Zerkovitch gave a little
laugh.

"How are things in Slavna, Monsieur Lepage?" the last named asked.

Lepage smiled a little, too. "General Stenovics is in full control of
the city--during Colonel Stafnitz's absence, sir," he answered.

"They've quarrelled?" cried Lukovitch.

"Oh no, sir. Possibly General Stenovics is afraid they might." He spoke
again to Sophy. "Madame, do you still blame me for being the General's
messenger?"

"No, Monsieur Lepage; but there's much to consider in the message.
Captain Lukovitch, if Monseigneur had read this message, what would he
have thought the General meant?"

Lukovitch's face was full of excitement as he answered her:

"The Prince wouldn't have cared what General Stenovics meant. He would
have said that the guns would be three days on the river before they
came to Slavna, that the barges would take the best part of an hour to
get through Miklevni lock, that there was good cover within a quarter of
a mile of the lock--"

Sophy leaned forward eagerly. "Yes, yes?" she whispered.

"And that an escort of a hundred men was--well, might be--not enough!"

"And that riding from Volseni--?"

"One might easily be at Miklevni before Colonel Stafnitz and the guns
could arrive there!"

Dunstanbury gave a start, Zerkovitch a chuckle, Lepage a quiet smile.
Sophy rose to her feet; the Star glowed, there was even color in her
cheeks besides.

"If there are fifty, or thirty, or twenty," she said, her eyes set on
Dunstanbury, "who would count their lives well risked, we may yet
strike one blow for Monseigneur and for the guns he loved."

Dunstanbury looked round. "There are three here," he said.

"Four!" called Basil Williamson from the doorway, where he had stood
unobserved.

"Five!" cried Sophy, and, for the first time since Monseigneur died, she
laughed.

"Five times five, and more, if we can get good horses enough!" said
Captain Lukovitch.

"I should like to join you, but I must go back and tell General
Stenovics that you will consider his message, madame," smiled Lepage.



XXII

JEALOUS OF DEATH


In the end they started thirty strong, including Sophy herself. There
were the three Englishmen, Dunstanbury, Basil Williamson, and Henry
Brown, Dunstanbury's servant, an old soldier, a good rider and shot. The
rest were sturdy young men of Volseni, once destined for the ranks of
the Prince of Slavna's artillery; Lukovitch and Peter Vassip led them.
Not a married man was among them, for, to his intense indignation,
Zerkovitch was left behind in command of the city. Sophy would have this
so, and nothing would move her; she would not risk causing Marie
Zerkovitch to weep more and to harbor fresh fears of her. So they rode,
"without encumbrances," as Dunstanbury said, laughing--his spirits rose
inexpressibly as the moment of action came.

Their horses were all that could be mustered in Volseni of a mettle
equal to the dash. The little band paraded in the market-place on Friday
afternoon; there they were joined by Sophy, who had been to pay a last
visit to Monseigneur's grave; she came among them sad, yet seeming more
serene. Her spirit was the happier for striking a blow in Monseigneur's
name. The rest of them were in high feather; the prospect of the
expedition went far to blot out the tragedy of the past and to veil the
threatening face of the future. As dusk fell, they rode out of the city
gate.

Miklevni lies twenty miles up the course of the river from Slavna; but
the river flows there nearly from north to south, turning to the east
only four or five miles above the capital. You ride, then, from Volseni
to Miklevni almost in a straight line, leaving Slavna away on the left.
It is a distance of no more than thirty-five miles or thereabouts, but
the first ten consist of a precipitous and rugged descent by a
bridle-path from the hills to the valley of the Krath. No pace beyond a
walk was possible at any point here, and for the greater part of the way
it was necessary to lead the horses. When once the plain was reached,
there was good going, sometimes over country roads, sometimes over
grass, to Miklevni.

It was plain that the expedition could easily be intercepted by a force
issuing from Slavna and placing itself astride the route; but then they
did not expect a force to issue from Slavna. That would be done only by
the orders of General Stenovics, and Lepage had gone back to Slavna to
tell the General that his message was being considered--very carefully
considered--in Volseni. General Stenovics, if they understood him
rightly, would not move till he heard more. For the rest, risks must be
run. If all went well, they hoped to reach Miklevni before dawn on
Saturday. There they were to lie in wait for Stafnitz--and for the big
guns which were coming down the Krath from Kolskoï to Slavna.

Lukovitch was the guide, and had no lack of counsel from lads who knew
the hills as well as their sweethearts' faces. He rode first, and, while
they were on the bridle-path, they followed in single file, walking
their horses or leading them. Sophy and Dunstanbury rode behind, with
Basil Williamson and Henry Brown just in front of them. In advance, some
hundreds of yards, Peter Vassip acted as scout, coming back from time to
time to advise Lukovitch that the way was clear. The night fell fine and
fresh, but it was very dark. That did not matter; the men of Volseni
were like cats for seeing in the dark.

The first ten miles passed slowly and tediously, but without mistake or
mishap. They halted on the edge of the plain an hour before midnight and
took rest and food--each man carried provisions for two days. Behind
them now rose the steep hills whence they had come, before them
stretched the wide plain; away on their left was Slavna, straight ahead
Miklevni, the goal of their pilgrimage. Lukovitch moved about, seeing
that every man gave heed to his horse and had his equipment and his
weapons in good order. Then came the word to remount, and between twelve
and one, with a cheer hastily suppressed, the troop set forth at a good
trot over the level ground. Now Williamson and Henry Brown fell to the
rear with three or four Volsenians, lest by any chance or accident Sophy
should lose or be cut off from the main body. Lukovitch and Peter Vassip
rode together at the head.

To Dunstanbury that ride by night, through the spreading plain, was
wonderful--a thing sufficient in itself, without regard to its object or
its issue. He had seen some service before--and there was the joy of
that. He had known the comradeship of a bold enterprise--there was the
exaltation of that. He had taken great risks before--there was the
excitement of that. The night had ere now called him to the saddle--and
it called now with all its fascination. His blood tingled and burned
with all these things. But there was more. Beside him all the way was
the figure of Sophy dim in the darkness, and the dim silhouette of her
face--dim, yet, as it seemed, hardly blurred; its pallor stood out even
in the night. She engrossed his thoughts and spurred his speculations.

What thoughts dwelt in her? Did she ride to death, and was it a death
she herself courted? If so, he was sworn in his soul to thwart her, even
to his own death. She was not food for death, his soul cried,
passionately protesting against that loss, that impoverishment of the
world. Why had they let her come? She was not a woman of whom that could
be asked; therefore it was that his mind so hung on her, with an
attraction, a fascination, an overbearing curiosity. The men of Volseni
seemed to think it natural that she should come. They knew her, then,
better than he did!

Save for the exchange of a few words now and then about the road, they
had not talked; he had respected her silence. But she spoke now, and to
his great pleasure less sadly than he had expected. Her tone was light,
and witnessed to a whimsical enjoyment which not even memory could
altogether quench.

"This is my first war, Lord Dunstanbury," she said. "The first time I've
taken the field in person at the head of my men!"

"Yes, your Majesty's first campaign. May it be glorious!" he answered,
suiting his tone to hers.

"My first and my last, I suppose. Well, I could hardly have looked to
have even one--in those old days you know of--could I?"

"Frankly, I never expected to hold my commission as an officer from
you," he laughed. "As it is, I'm breaking all the laws in the world, I
suppose. Perhaps they'll never hear of it in England, though."

"Where there are no laws left, you can break none," she said. "There are
none left in Kravonia now. There's but one crime--to be weak; and but
one penalty--death."

"Neither the crime nor the penalty for us to-night!" he cried, gayly.
"Queen Sophia's star shines to-night!"

"Can you see it?" she asked, touching her cheek a moment.

"No, I can't," he laughed. "I forgot--I spoke metaphorically."

"When people speak of my star, I always think of this. So my star shines
to-night? Yes, I think so--shines brightly before it sets! I wonder if
Kravonia's star, too, will have a setting soon--a stormy setting!"

"Well, we're not helping to make it more tranquil," said Dunstanbury.

He saw her turn her head suddenly and sharply towards him; she spoke
quickly and low.

"I'm seeking a man's life in this expedition," she said. "It's his or
mine before we part."

"I don't blame you for that."

"Oh no!" The reply sounded almost contemptuous; at least it showed
plainly that her conscience was not troubled. "And he won't blame me
either. When he sees me, he'll know what it means."

"And, in fact, I intend to help. So do we all, I think."

"It was our oath in Volseni," she answered. "They think Monseigneur will
sleep the better for it. But I know well that nothing troubles
Monseigneur's sleep. And I'm so selfish that I wish he could be
troubled--yes, troubled about me; that he could be riding in the spirit
with us to-night, hoping for our victory; yet very anxious, very anxious
about me; that I could still bring him joy and sorrow, grief and
delight. I can't desire that Monseigneur should sleep so well. They're
kinder to him--his own folk of Volseni. They aren't jealous of his
sleep--not jealous of the peace of death. But I'm very jealous of it.
I'm to him now just as all the rest are; I, too, am nothing to
Monseigneur now."

"Who knows? Who can know?" said Dunstanbury, softly.

His attempted consolation, his invoking of the old persistent hope, the
saving doubt, did not reach her heart. In her great love of life, the
best she could ask of the tomb was a little memory there. So she had
told Monseigneur; such was the thought in her heart to-night. She was
jealous and forlorn because of the silent darkness which had wrapt her
lover from her sight and so enveloped him. He could not even ride with
her in the spirit on the night when she went forth to avenge the death
she mourned!

The night broke towards dawn, the horizon grew gray. Lukovitch drew in
his rein, and the party fell to a gentle trot. Their journey was almost
done. Presently they halted for a few minutes, while Lukovitch and Peter
Vassip held a consultation. Then they jogged on again in the same order,
save that now Sophy and Dunstanbury rode with Lukovitch at the head of
the party. In another half-hour, the heavens lightening yet more, they
could discern the double row of low trees which marked, at irregular
intervals, the course of the river across the plain. At the same moment
a row of squat buildings rose in murky white between them and the
river-bank. Lukovitch pointed to it with his hand.

"There we are, madame," he said. "That's the farm-house at the right
end, and the barn at the left--within a hundred yards of the lock.
There's our shelter till the Colonel comes."

"What of the farmer?" asked Dunstanbury.

"We shall catch him in his bed--him and his wife," said Lukovitch.
"There's only the pair of them. They keep the lock, and have a few acres
of pastureland to eke out their living. They'll give us no trouble. If
they do, we can lock them in and turn the key. Then we can lie quiet in
the barn; with a bit of close packing, it'll take us all. Peter Vassip
and I will be lock-keepers if anything comes by; we know the work--eh,
Peter?"

"Ay, Captain; and the man--Peter's his name too, by-the-way--must give
us something to hide our sheepskins."

Sophy turned to Dunstanbury. She was smiling now.

"It sounds very simple, doesn't it?" she asked.

"Then we watch our chance for a dash--when the Colonel's off his guard,"
Lukovitch went on.

"But if he won't oblige us in that way?" asked Dunstanbury, with a
laugh.

"Then he shall have the reward of his virtue in a better fight for the
guns," said Lukovitch. "Now, lads, ready! Listen! I'm going forward with
Peter Vassip here and four more. We'll secure the man and his wife;
there might be a servant-girl on the premises too, perhaps. When you
hear my whistle, the rest of you will follow. You'll take command, my
lord?" He turned to Sophy. "Madame, will you come with me or stay here?"

"I'll follow with Lord Dunstanbury," she said. "We ought all to be in
the barn before it's light?"

"Surely! A barge might come up or down the river, you see, and it
wouldn't do for the men on board to see anybody but Vassip and me, who
are to be the lock-keepers."

He and Peter Vassip rode off with their party of four, and the rest
waited in a field a couple of hundred yards from the barn--a dip in the
ground afforded fair cover. Some of the men began to dismount, but
Dunstanbury stopped them. "It's just that one never knows," he said;
"and it's better to be on your horse than off it in case any trouble
does come, you know."

"There oughtn't to be much trouble with the lock-keeper and his wife--or
even with the servant-girl," said Basil Williamson.

"Girls can make a difference sometimes," Sophy said, with a smile. "I
did once, in the Street of the Fountain over in Slavna there!"

Dunstanbury's precaution was amply justified, for, to their
astonishment, the next instant a shot rang through the air, and, the
moment after, a loud cry. A riderless horse galloped wildly past them;
the sheepskin rug across the saddle marked it as belonging to a
Volsenian.

"By Heaven, have they got there before us?" whispered Dunstanbury.

"I hope so; we sha'n't have to wait," said Sophy.

But they did wait there a moment. Then came a confused noise from the
long, low barn. Then a clatter of hoofs, and Lukovitch was with them
again; but his comrades were four men now, not five.

"Hush! Silence! Keep cover!" he panted breathlessly. "Stafnitz is here
already; at least, there are men in the barn, and horses tethered
outside, and the barges are on the river, just above the lock. The
sentry saw us. He challenged and fired, and one of us dropped. It must
be Stafnitz!"

Stafnitz it was. General Stenovics had failed to allow for the respect
which his colleague entertained for his abilities. If Stenovics expected
him back at Slavna with his guns on the Sunday, Stafnitz was quite clear
that he had better arrive on Saturday. To this end he had strained every
nerve. The stream was with him, flowing strong, but the wind was
contrary; his barges had not made very good progress. He had pressed the
horses of his company into service on the towing-path. Stenovics had not
thought of that. His rest at Rapska had been only long enough to give
his men and beasts an hour's rest and food and drink. To his pride and
exultation, he had reached the lock at Miklevni at nightfall on Friday,
almost exactly at the hour when Sophy's expedition set out on its ride
to intercept him. Men and horses might be weary now; Stafnitz could
afford to be indifferent to that. He could give them a good rest, and
yet, starting at seven the next morning, be in Slavna with them and the
guns in the course of the afternoon. There might be nothing wrong, of
course--but it was no harm to forestall any close and clever calculation
of the General's.

"The sentry?" whispered Dunstanbury.

"I had to cut him down. Shall we be at them, my lord?"

"No, not yet. They're in the barn, aren't they?"

"Yes. Don't you hear them? Listen! That's the door opened. Shall we
charge?"

"No, no, not yet. They'd retreat inside, and it would be the devil then.
They'd have the pull of us. Wait for them to come out. They must send to
look for the sentry. Tell the men to lean right down in their
saddles--close down--close! Then the ground covers us. And now--silence
till I give the word!"

Silence fell again for a few moments. They were waiting for a movement
from Stafnitz's men in the barn. Only Dunstanbury, bareheaded, risked a
look over the hillock which protected them from view.

A single man had come out of the barn, and was looking about him for the
sentry who had fired. He seemed to suspect no other presence. Stafnitz
must have been caught in a sound nap this time.

The searcher found his man and dropped on his knees by him for a moment.
Then he rose and ran hurriedly towards the barn, crying: "Colonel!
Colonel!"

"Now!" whispered impetuous Lukovitch.

But Dunstanbury pressed him down again, saying: "Not yet. Not yet."

Sophy laid her hand on his arm. "Half of us to the barges," she said.

In their eagerness for the fight, Lukovitch and Dunstanbury had
forgotten the main object of it. But the guns were what Monseigneur
would have thought of first--what Stafnitz must first think of too--the
centre of contest and the guerdon of victory.



XXIII

A WOMAN AND A GHOST


For the history of this night from the enemy's side, thanks are due to
the memory, and to the unabashed courtesy, of Lieutenant Rastatz, who
came alive, if not with a whole skin, out of the encounter, and lived to
reach middle age under a new _régime_ so unappreciative of his services
that it cashiered him for getting drunk within a year from this date. He
ended his days as a billiard-marker at the Golden Lion--a fact agreeable
to poetic justice, but not otherwise material. While occupying that
capacity, he was always ready to open his mouth to talk, provided he
were afforded also a better reason for opening it.

Stafnitz and his men felt that their hard work was done; they were
within touch of Slavna, and they had no reason, as they supposed, to
fear any attack. The Colonel had indulged them in something approaching
to a carouse. Songs had been sung, and speeches made; congratulations
were freely offered to the Colonel; allusions were thrown out, not too
carefully veiled, to the predicament in which Stenovics found himself.
Hard work, a good supper, and plentiful wine had their effect. Save the
sentries, all were asleep at ten o'clock, and game to sleep till the
reveille sounded at six.

Their presence was a surprise to their assailants, who had, perhaps,
approached in too rash a confidence that they were first on the ground;
but the greater surprise befell those who had now to defend the barges
and the guns. When the man who had found the dead sentry ran back and
told his tale, all of them, from Stafnitz downward, conceived that the
attack must come from Stenovics; none thought of Sophy and her
Volsenians. There they were, packed in the barn, separated from their
horses, and with their carbines laid aside. The carbines were easily
caught up; the horses not so easily reached, supposing an active,
skilful enemy at hand outside.

For themselves, their position was good to stand a siege. But Stafnitz
could not afford that. His mind flew where Sophy's had. Throughout, and
on both sides, the guns were the factor which dominated the tactics of
the fight. It was no use for Stafnitz to stay snug in the barn while the
enemy overpowered the bargees (supposing they tried to fight), disposed
of the sentry stationed on each deck, and captured the guns. Let the
assailant carry them off, and the Colonel's game was up! Whoever the foe
was, the fight was for the guns--and for one other thing, no doubt--for
the Colonel's life.

"We felt in the deuce of a mess," Rastatz related, "for we didn't know
how many they were, and we couldn't see one of them. The Colonel walked
out of the barn, cool as a cucumber, and looked and listened. He called
to me to go with him, and so I did, keeping as much behind his back as
possible. Nothing was to be seen, nothing to be heard. He pointed to the
rising ground opposite. 'That must hide them,' he said. Back he went and
called the first half-company. 'You'll follow me in single file out of
the barn and round to the back of it; let there be a foot between each
of you--room enough to miss. When once you get in rear of the barn, make
for the barges. Never mind the horses. The second half-company will
cover the horses with their fire. Rastatz, see my detachment round, and
then follow. We'll leave the sergeant-major in command here. Now, quick,
follow me!'

"Out he went, and the men began to follow in their order. I had to stand
in the doorway and regulate the distance between man and man. I hadn't
been there two seconds before a dozen heads came over the hill, and a
dozen rifles cracked. Luckily the Colonel was just round the corner.
Down went the heads again, but they'd bagged two of our fellows. I
shouted to more to come out, and at the same time ordered the
sergeant-major to send a file forward to answer the fire. Up came the
heads again, and they bagged three more. Our fellows blazed away in
reply, but they'd dropped too quickly--I don't think we got one.

"Well, we didn't mind so much about keeping our exact distances after
that--and I wouldn't swear that the whole fifty of us faced the fire; it
was devilish disconcerting, you know; but in a few minutes thirty or
five-and-thirty of us got round the side of the barn somehow, and for
the moment out of harm's way. We heard the fire going on still in front,
but only in a desultory way. They weren't trying to rush us--and I don't
think we had any idea of rushing them. For all we knew, they might be
two hundred--or they might be a dozen. At any rate, with the advantage
of position, they were enough to bottle our men up in the barn, for the
moment at all events."

This account makes what had happened pretty plain. Half of Sophy's
force had been left to hold the enemy, or as many of them as possible,
in the barn. They had dismounted, and, well covered by the hill, could
make good practice without much danger to themselves. Lukovitch was in
command of this section of the little troop. Sophy, Dunstanbury, and
Peter Vassip, also on foot (the horses' hoofs would have betrayed them),
were stealing round, intent on getting between the barges and any men
whom Stafnitz tried to place in position for their defence. After
leaving men for the containing party, and three to look after the
horses, this detachment was no more than a dozen strong. But they had
started before Stafnitz's men had got out of the barn, and, despite the
smaller distance the latter had to traverse, could make a good race of
it for the barges. They had all kept together, too, while the enemy
straggled round to the rear of the barn in single file. And they had one
great, perhaps decisive, advantage, of whose existence Peter Vassip,
their guide, was well aware.

Forty yards beyond the farm a small ditch ran down to the Krath; on the
side near the farm it had a high, overhanging bank, the other side being
nearly level with the adjoining meadow. Thus it formed a natural trench
and led straight down to where the first of the barges lay. It would
have been open to an enfilade from the river, but Stafnitz had only one
sentry on each barge, and these men were occupied in staring at their
advancing companions and calling out to know what was the matter. As for
the bargees, they had wisely declared neutrality, deeming the matter no
business of theirs; shots were not within the terms of a contract for
transport. Stafnitz, not dreaming of an attack, had not reconnoitred
his ground. But Lukovitch knew every inch of it (had not General
Stenovics remembered that?), and so did Peter Vassip. The surprise of
Praslok was to be avenged.

Rastatz takes up the tale again; his narrative has one or two touches
vivid with a local color.

"When I got round to the rear of the barn, I found our fellows scattered
about on their bellies. The Colonel was in front on his belly, with his
head just raised from the ground, looking about him. I lay down, too,
getting my head behind a stone which chanced to be near me. I looked
about me too, when it seemed safe. And it did seem safe at first, for we
could hear nothing, and deuce a man could we see! But it wasn't very
pleasant, because we knew that, sure enough, they must be pretty near us
somewhere. Presently the Colonel came crawling back to me. 'What do you
make of it, Rastatz?' he whispered. Before I could answer, we heard a
brisk exchange of fire in front of the barn. 'I don't like it,' I said.
'I can't see them, and I've a notion they can see me, Colonel, and
that's not the pleasantest way to fight, is it?' 'Gad, you're right!'
said he, 'but they won't see me any the better for a cigarette'--and
then and there he lit one.

"Well, he'd just thrown away his match when a young fellow--quite a lad
he was--a couple of yards from us, suddenly jumped from his belly on to
his knees and called out quite loud--it seemed to me he'd got a sort of
panic--quite loud, he called out: 'Sheepskins! Sheepskins!' I jumped
myself, and I saw the Colonel start. But, by Jove, it was true! When you
took a sniff, you could smell them. Of course I don't mean what the
better class wear--you couldn't have smelt the tunic our lamented
Prince wore, nor the one the witch decked herself out in--but you could
smell a common fellow's sheepskin twenty yards off--ay, against the
wind, unless the wind was mighty strong.

"'Sheepskins it is!' said the Colonel with a sniff. 'Volsenians, by gad!
It's Mistress Sophia, Rastatz, or some of her friends, anyhow.' Then he
swore worthily: 'Stenovics must have put them up to this! And where the
devil are they, Rastatz?' He raised his head as he spoke, and got his
answer. A bullet came singing along and went right through his shako; it
came from the line of the ditch. He lay down again, laughed a little,
and took a puff at his cigarette before he threw it away. Just then one
of our sentries bellowed from the first barge: 'In the ditch! In the
ditch!' 'I wish you'd spoken a bit sooner,' says the Colonel, laughing
again."

While this was passing on Stafnitz's side, Sophy and her party were
working quietly and cautiously down the course of the ditch. Under the
shelter of its bank they had been able to hold a brief and hurried
consultation. What they feared was that Stafnitz would make a dash for
the barges. Their fire might drop half his men, but the survivors, when
once on board--and the barges were drawn up to the edge of the
stream--would still be as numerous as themselves, and would command the
course of the ditch, which was at present their great resource and
protection. But if they could get on board before the enemy, they
believed they could hold their own; the decks were covered with
_impedimenta_ of one sort or another which would afford them cover,
while any party which tried to board must expose itself to fire to a
serious and probably fatal extent.

So they worked down the ditch--except two of them. Little as they could
spare even two, it was judged well to leave these; their instructions
were to fire at short intervals, whether there was much chance of
hitting anybody or not. Dunstanbury hoped by this trick to make Stafnitz
believe that the whole detachment was stationary in the ditch thirty
yards or more from the point where it joined the river. Only ten strong
now--and one of them a woman--they made their way towards the mouth of
the ditch and towards the barges which held the prize they sought.

But a diversion, and a very effective one, was soon to come from the
front of the barn. Fearing that the party under Sophy and Dunstanbury
might be overpowered, Lukovitch determined on a bold step--that of
enticing the holders of the barn from their shelter. He directed his men
to keep up a brisk fire at the door; he himself and another man--one
Ossip Yensko--disregarding the risk, made a rapid dash across the line
of fire from the barn, for the spot where the horses were. The fire
directed at the door successfully covered their daring movement; they
were among the horses in a moment, and hard at work cutting the bands
with which they were tethered; the animals were half mad with fright,
and the task was one of great danger.

But the manoeuvre was eminently successful. A cry of "The horses! The
horses!" went up from the barn. Men appeared in the doorway; the
sergeant-major in command himself ran out. Half the horses were loose,
and stampeded along the towing-path down the river. "The horses! The
horses!" The defenders surged out of the barn, in deadly fear of being
caught there in a trap. They preferred the chances of the fire, and
streamed out in a disorderly throng. Lukovitch and Yensko cut loose as
many more horses as they dared wait to release; then, as the defenders
rushed forward, retreated, flying for their lives. Lukovitch came off
with a ball in his arm; Yensko dropped, shot through the heart. The men
behind the hill riddled the defenders with their fire. But now they were
by their horses--such as were left of them--nearer twenty than ten
dotted the grass outside the barn-door. And the survivors were
demoralized; their leader, the sergeant-major, lay dead. They released
the remaining horses, mounted, and with one parting volley fled down the
river. With a cry of triumph, Lukovitch collected the remainder of his
men and dashed round the side of the barn. The next moment Colonel
Stafnitz found himself attacked in his rear as well as held in check
from the ditch in his front.

"For a moment we thought it was our own men," said Rastatz, continuing
his account, "and the Colonel shouted: 'Don't fire, you fools!' But then
they cheered, and we knew the Volsenian accent--curse them! 'Sheepskins
again!' said the Colonel, with a wry kind of smile. He didn't hesitate
then; he jumped up, crying: 'To the barges! To the barges! Follow me!'

"We all followed: it was just as safe to go with him as to stay where
you were! We made a dash for it and got to the bank of the river. Then
they rose out of the ditch in front of us--and they were at us behind,
too--with steel now; they daren't shoot, for fear of hitting their own
people in our front. But the idea of a knife in your back isn't
pleasant, and in the end more of our men turned to meet them than went
on with the Colonel. I went on with him, though. I'm always for the
safest place, if there's one safer than another. But here there wasn't,
so I thought I might as well do the proper thing. We met them right by
the water's-edge, and the first I made out was the witch herself, in
sheepskins like the rest of them, white as a sheet, but with that
infernal mark absolutely blazing. She was between Peter Vassip and a
tall man I didn't know--I found out afterwards that he was the
Englishman Dunstanbury--and the three came straight at us. She cried:
'The King! the King!' and behind us we heard Lukovitch and his lot
crying: 'The King! the King!'

"Our fellows didn't like it, that's the truth. They were uneasy in their
minds about that job of poor old Mistitch's, and they feared the witch
like the devil. The heart was out of them; one lad near me burst out
crying. A witch and a ghost didn't seem pleasant things to fight. Oh, it
was all nonsense, but you know what fellows like that are. Their cry of
'The King!' and the sight of the woman caused a moment's hesitation. It
was enough to give them the drop on us. But the Colonel never hesitated;
he flung himself straight at her, and fired as he sprang. I just saw
what happened before I got a crack on the crown of the head from the
butt-end of a rifle, which knocked me out of time. As the Colonel fired,
Peter Vassip flung himself in front of her, and took the bullet in his
own body. Dunstanbury jumped right on the Colonel, cut him on the arm so
that he dropped his revolver, and grappled with him. Dunstanbury dropped
his sword, and the Colonel's wasn't drawn. It was just a tussle. They
were tussling when the blood came flowing down into my eyes from the
wound on my head; I couldn't see anything more; I fainted. Just as I
went off I heard somebody cry: 'Hands up!' and I imagined the fighting
was pretty well over."

The fighting was over. One scene remained which Rastatz did not see.
When Colonel Stafnitz, too, heard the call "Hands up!" when the firing
stopped and all became quiet, he ceased to struggle. Dunstanbury found
him suddenly changed to a log beneath him; his hands were already on the
Colonel's throat, and he could have strangled him now without
difficulty. But when Stafnitz no longer tried to defend himself, he
loosed his hold, got up, and stood over him with his hand on the
revolver in his belt. The Colonel fingered his throat a minute, sat up,
looked round, and rose to his feet. He saw Sophy standing before him; by
her side Peter Vassip lay on the ground, tended by Basil Williamson and
one of his comrades. Colonel Stafnitz bowed to Sophy with a smile.

"I forgot you, madame," said Stafnitz.

"I didn't forget Monseigneur," she answered.

He looked round him again, shrugged his shoulders, and seemed to think
for a moment. There was an absolute stillness--a contrast to the
preceding turmoil. But the silence made uncomfortable men whom the fight
had not shaken. Their eyes were set on Stafnitz.

"The Prince died in fair fight," he said.

"No; you sent Mistitch to murder him," Sophy replied. Her eyes were
relentless; and Stafnitz was ringed round with enemies.

"I apologize for this embarrassment. I really ought to have been
killed--it's just a mistake," he said, with a smile. He turned quickly
to Dunstanbury: "You seem to be a gentleman, sir. Pray come with me; I
need a witness." He pointed with his unwounded hand to the barn.

Dunstanbury bowed assent. The Colonel, in his turn, bowed to Sophy, and
the two of them turned and walked off towards the barn. Sophy stood
motionless, watching them until they turned the corner; then she fell on
her knees and began to talk soothingly to Peter Vassip, who was hard
hit, but, in Basil Williamson's opinion, promised to do well. Sophy was
talking to the poor fellow when the sound of a revolver shot--a single
shot--came from the barn. Colonel Stafnitz had corrected the mistake.
Sophy did not raise her head. A moment later Dunstanbury came back and
rejoined them. He exchanged a look with Sophy, inclining his head as a
man does in answering "Yes." Then she rose.

"Now for the barges and the guns," she said.

They could not carry the guns back to Volseni; nor, indeed, was there
any use for them there now. But neither were Monseigneur's guns for the
enemies of Monseigneur. Under Lukovitch's skilled directions (his wound
proved slight) the big guns were so disabled as to remain of little
value, and the barges taken out into mid-stream and there scuttled with
their cargoes. While one party pursued this work, Dunstanbury made the
prisoners collect their wounded and dead, place them on a wagon, and set
out on their march to Slavna. Then his men placed their dead on
horses--they had lost three. Five were wounded besides Peter Vassip, but
none of them severely--all could ride. For Peter they took a cart from
the farm to convey him as far as the ascent to the hills; up that he
would have to be carried by his comrades.

It was noon before all their work was done. The barges were settling in
the water. As they started to ride back to Volseni, the first sank; the
second was soon to follow it.

"We have done our work," said Lukovitch.

And Sophy answered, "Yes."

But Stafnitz's men had not carried the body of their commander back.
They left it in the barn, cursing him for the trap he had led them into.
Later in the day, the panic-stricken lock-keeper stole out from the
cellar where he had hidden himself, and found it in the barn. He and his
wife lifted it with cursings, bore it to the river, and flung it in. It
was carried over the weir, and floated down to Slavna. They fished it
out with a boat-hook just opposite Suleiman's Tower. The hint to Captain
Sterkoff was a broad one. He reported a vacancy in the command, and sent
the keys of the fort to General Stenovics. It was Sunday morning.

"The Colonel has got back just when he said he would. But where are the
guns?" asked General Stenovics of Captain Markart. The Captain had by
now made up his mind which turn to take.

But no power ensued to Stenovics. At the best his fate was a soft
fall--a fall on to a cushioned shelf. The cup of Kravonia's iniquity,
full with the Prince's murder, brimmed over with the punishment of the
man who had caused it. The fight by the lock of Miklevni sealed
Kravonia's fate. Civilization must be vindicated! Long columns of
flat-capped soldiers begin to wind, like a great snake, over the summit
of St. Peter's Pass. Sophy watched them through a telescope from the old
wall of Volseni.

"Our work is done. Monseigneur has mightier avengers," she said.



XXIV

TRUE TO HER LOVE


Volseni forgave Sophy its dead and wounded sons. Her popularity blazed
up in a last fierce, flickering fire. The guns were taken; they would
not go to Slavna; they would never batter the walls of Volseni into
fragments. Slavna might be defied again. That was the great thing to
Volseni, and it made little account of the snakelike line which crawled
over St. Peter's Pass, and down to Dobrava, and on to Slavna. Let
Slavna--hated Slavna--reckon with that! And if the snake--or another
like it--came to Volseni? Well, that was better than knuckling down to
Slavna. To-night King Sergius was avenged, and Queen Sophia had returned
in victory!

For the first time since the King's death the bell of the ancient church
rang joyously, and men sang and feasted in the gray city of the hills.
Thirty from Volseni had beaten a hundred from Slavna; the guns were at
the bottom of the Krath; it was enough. If Sophy had bidden them, they
would have streamed down on Slavna that night in one of those fierce
raids in which their forefathers of the Middle Ages had loved to swoop
upon the plain.

But Sophy had no delusions. She saw her Crown--that fleeting phantom
ornament, fitly foreseen in the visions of a charlatan--passing from her
brow without a sigh. She had not needed Dunstanbury's arguments to
prove to her that there was no place for her left in Kravonia. She was
content to have it so; she had done enough. Sorrow had not passed from
her face, but serenity had come upon it in fuller measure. She had
struck for Monseigneur, and the blow was witness to her love. It was
enough in her, and enough in little Volseni. Let the mightier avengers
do the rest!

She had allowed Dunstanbury to leave her after supper in order to make
preparations for a start to the frontier at dawn. "You must certainly
go," she had said, "and perhaps I'll come with you."

She went at night up on to the wall--always her favorite place; she
loved the spaciousness of air and open country before her there. Basil
Williamson found her deep in thought when he came to tell her of the
progress of the wounded.

"They're all doing well, and Peter Vassip will live. Dunstanbury has
made him promise to come to him when he's recovered, so you'll meet him
again at all events. And Marie Zerkovitch and her husband talk of
settling in Paris. You won't lose all your Kravonian friends."

"You assume that I'm coming with you to-morrow morning?"

"I'm quite safe in assuming that Dunstanbury won't go unless you do," he
answered, smiling. "We can't leave you alone here, you know."

"I shouldn't stay here, anyhow," she said. "Or, at any rate, I should be
where nobody could hurt me." She pointed at a dim lantern, fastened to
the gate-tower by an iron clamp, then waved her hand towards the
surrounding darkness. "That's life, isn't it?" she asked. "If I believed
that I could go to Monseigneur, I would go to-night--nay, I would have
gone at Miklevni; it was only putting my head out of that ditch a minute
sooner! If I believed even that I could lie in the church there and know
that he was near! If I believed even that I could lie there quietly and
remember and think of him! You're a man of science--you're not a
peasant's child, as I am. What do you think? You mustn't wonder that
I've had my thoughts, too. At Lady Meg's we did little else than try to
find out whether we were going on anywhere else. That's all she cared
about. And if she does ever get to a next world, she won't care about
that; she'll only go on trying to find out whether there's still another
beyond. What do you think?"

"I hardly expected to find you so philosophically inclined," he said.

"It's a practical question with me now. On its answer depends whether I
come with you or stay here--by Monseigneur in the church."

Basil said something professional--something about nerves and temporary
strain. But he performed this homage to medical etiquette in a rather
perfunctory fashion. He had never seen a woman more composed or more
obviously and perfectly healthy. Sophy smiled and went on:

"But if I live, I'm sure at least of being able to think and able to
remember. It comes to a gamble, doesn't it? It's just possible I might
get more; it's quite likely--I think it's probable--I should lose even
what I have now."

"I think you're probably right about the chances of the gamble," he told
her, "though no doubt certainty is out of place--or at least one doesn't
talk about it. Shall I tell you what science says?"

"No," said Sophy, smiling faintly. "Science thinks in multitudes--and
I'm thinking of the individual to-night. Even Lady Meg never made much
of science, you know."

"Do you remember the day when I heard you your Catechism in the avenue
at Morpingham?"

"Yes, I remember. Does the Catechism hold good in Kravonia, though?"

"It continues, anyhow, a valuable document in its bearing on this life.
You remember the mistake you made, I dare say?"

"I've never forgotten it. It's had something to do with it all," said
Sophy. "That's how you, as well as Lord Dunstanbury, come in at the
beginning as you do at the end."

"Has it nothing to do with the question now--putting it in any
particular phraseology you like?" In his turn he pointed at the smoky
lantern. "That's not life," he said, growing more earnest, yet smiling.
"That's now--just here and now--and, yes, it's very smoky." He waved his
hand over the darkness. "That's life. Dark? Yes, but the night will
lift, the darkness pass away; valley and sparkling lake will be there,
and the summit of the heaven-kissing hills. Life cries to you with a
sweet voice."

"Yes," she murmured, "with a sweet voice. And perhaps some day there
would be light on the hills. But, ah, I'm torn in sunder this night. I
wish I had died there at Miklevni while my blood was hot." She paused a
long while in thought. Then she went on: "If I go, I must go while it's
still dark, and while these good people sleep. Go and tell Lord
Dunstanbury to be ready to start an hour before dawn; and do you and he
come then to the door of the church. If I'm not waiting for you there,
come inside and find me."

He started towards her with an eager gesture of protest. She raised her
hand and checked him.

"No, I've decided nothing. I can't tell yet," she said. She turned and
left him; he heard her steps descending the old winding stair which led
from the top of the wall down into the street. He did not know whether
he would see her alive again--and with her message of such ambiguous
meaning he went to Dunstanbury. Yet curiously, though he had pleaded so
urgently with her, though to him her death would mean the loss of one of
the beautiful things from out the earth, he was in no distress for her
and did not dream of attempting any constraint. She knew her
strength--she would choose right. If life were tolerable, she would take
up the burden. If not, she would let it lie unlifted at her quiet feet.

His mood could not be Dunstanbury's, who had come to count her presence
as the light of the life that was his. Yet Dunstanbury heard the message
quietly, and quietly made every preparation in obedience to her bidding.
That done, he sat in the little room of the inn and smoked his pipe with
Basil. Henry Brown waited his word to take the horses to the door of the
church. Basil Williamson had divined his friend's feeling for Sophy, and
wondered at his calmness.

"If I felt the doubt that you do, I shouldn't be calm," said
Dunstanbury. "But I know her. She will be true to her love."

He could not be speaking of that love of hers which was finished, whose
end she was now mourning in the little church. It must be of another
love that he spoke--of one bred in her nature, the outcome of her
temperament and of her being the woman that she was. The spirit which
had brought her to Slavna had made her play her part there, had
welcomed and caught at every change and chance of fortune, had never
laid down the sword till the blow was struck--that spirit would preserve
her and give her back to life now--and some day give life back to her.

He was right. When they came to the door of the church, she was there.
For the first time since Monseigneur had died, her eyes were red with
weeping; but her face was calm. She gave her hand to Dunstanbury.

"Come, let us mount," she said. "I have said 'Good-bye.'"

Lukovitch knew Dunstanbury's plans. He was waiting for them at the gate,
his arm in a sling, and with him were the Zerkovitches. These last they
would see again; it was probably farewell forever to gallant Lukovitch.
He kissed the silver ring on Sophy's finger.

"I brought nothing into Kravonia," she said, "and I carry nothing out,
except this ring which Monseigneur put on my finger--the ring of the
Bailiffs of Volseni."

"Keep it," said Lukovitch. "I think there will be no more Bailiffs of
Volseni--or some Prince, not of our choosing, will take the title by his
own will. He will not be our Bailiff, as Monseigneur was. You will be
our Bailiff, though our eyes never see you, and you never see our old
gray walls again. Madame, have a kindly place in your heart for Volseni.
We sha'n't forget you nor the blow we struck under your leadership. The
fight at Miklevni may well be the last that we shall fight as free men."

"Volseni is written on my heart," she answered. "I shall not forget."

She bade her friends farewell, and then ordered Lukovitch to throw open
the gate. She and the three Englishmen rode through, Henry Brown leading
the pack-horse by the bridle. The mountains were growing gray with the
first approaches of dawn.

As she rode through, Sophy paused a moment, leaned sideways in her
saddle, and kissed the ancient lintel of the door.

"Peace be on this place," she said, "and peace to the tomb where
Monseigneur lies buried!"

"Peace be on thy head and fortune with thee!" answered Lukovitch in the
traditional words of farewell. He kissed her hand again, and they
departed.

It was high morning when they rode up the ascent to St. Peter's Pass and
came to the spot where their cross-track joined the main road over the
pass from Dobrava and the capital. In silence they mounted to the
summit. The road under their horses' feet was trampled with the march of
the thousands of men who had passed over it in an irresistible advance
on Slavna.

At the summit of the pass they stopped, and Sophy turned to look back.
She sat there for a long while in silence.

"I have loved this land," at last she said. "It has given me much, and
very much it has taken away. Now the face of it is to be changed. But in
my heart the memory of it will not change." She looked across the
valley, across the sparkling face of Lake Talti, to the gray walls of
Volseni, and kissed her hand. "Farewell, Monseigneur!" she whispered,
very low.

The day of Kravonia was done. The head of the great snake had reached
Slavna. Countess Ellenburg and young Alexis were in flight. Stenovics
took orders where he had looked to rule. The death of Monseigneur was
indeed avenged. But there was no place for Sophy, the Queen of a
tempestuous hour.

They set their horses' heads towards the frontier. They began the
descent on the other side. The lake was gone, the familiar hills
vanished; only in the eye of memory stood old Volseni still set in its
gray mountains. Sophy rode forth from Kravonia in her sheepskins and her
silver ring--the last Queen of Kravonia, the last Bailiff of Volseni,
the last chosen leader of the mountain men. But the memory of the Red
Star lived after her--how she loved Monseigneur and avenged him, how her
face was fairer than the face of other women, and more pale--and how the
Red Star glowed in sorrow and in joy, in love and in clash of arms,
promising to some glory and to others death. In the street of Volseni
and in the cabins among the hills you may hear the tale of the Red Star
yet.

As she passed the border of the land which was so great in her life, by
a freak of memory Sophy recalled a picture till now forgotten--a woman,
unknown, untraced, unreckoned, who had passed down the Street of the
Fountain, weeping bitterly--an obscure symbol of great woes, of the
tribute life pays to its unresting enemies.

Yet to the unconquerable heart life stands unconquered. What danger had
not shaken not even sorrow could overthrow. She rode into the future
with Dunstanbury on her right hand--patience in his mind, and in his
heart hope. Some day the sun would shine on the summit of heaven-kissing
hills.


THE END





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