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   Chapter 8 THE KING'S LETTER

The Goose Girl By Harold MacGrath Characters: 19202

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The ambassador from Jugendheit, Baron von Steinbock, was not popular in Dreiberg, at least not among the people, who still held to the grand duke's idea that the kingdom had been behind the abduction of the Princess Hildegarde. The citizens scowled at his carriage, they scowled at the mention of his name, they scowled whenever they passed the embassy, which stood in the heart of the fashionable residences in the K?nig Strasse. Never a hot-headed Dreiberger passed the house without a desire to loot it, to scale the piked fence and batter in the doors and windows. Steinbock himself was a polished, amiable gentleman, in no wise meriting this ill-feeling. The embassy was in all manner the most important in Dreiberg, though Prussia and Austria overshadowed it in wealth and prestige.

At this moment the people gazed at the house less in rancor than in astonishment. The king of Jugendheit was to marry her serene highness! It was a bad business, a bad business; no good would come of it. The great duke was a weak man, after all.

The menials in and about the embassy felt the new importance of their positions. So then, imagine the indignation of the majordomo, when, summoned at dusk one evening to the carriage gates, three or four days after the portentous news had issued from the palace, he found only a ragged and grimy carter who demanded peremptorily to be admitted and taken to his excellency at once.

"Be off with you, ragamuffin!" growled the majordomo.

"Be quick; open the gates!" replied the carter, swinging his whip threateningly.

"Go away!" The majordomo spun on his heels contemptuously.

"I will skin you alive," vowed the carter, striking the iron with the butt of his whip, "if you do not open these gates immediately. Open!"

There was real menace this time. Could the fellow be crazy? The majordomo concluded to temporize.

"My good man," he said conciliatorily, "you have brains. You ought to know that his excellency will receive no man in your condition. If you do not stop hammering on those bars, I shall send for the police."

The carter thrust a hand through the grill. There was a ring on one of his fingers.

"Imbecile, set your eye on that and admit me without more ado!"

The majordomo was thunderstruck. Indeed, a blast from the heavens would have jarred him less.

"Open, then!"

The majordomo threw back the bolts and the carter pushed his way in. That ring on the carter's finger? The majordomo felt himself slipping into a fantastic dream.

"Take me to the baron."

Vastly subdued the majordomo preceded the carter into the office of the embassy. There he left the strange guest and went in search of the baron. The ambassador was in his study, reading.

"Your Excellency, there is a man in the office who desires to see you quickly."

The ambassador laid down his book. "Upon what pretense did he gain admittance at this hour?" he demanded.

"I refused him admittance, your Excellency, because he was dressed like a carter.-"

"A carter!" The ambassador wrathfully jumped to his feet.

"One moment, your Excellency. He wore a ring on his finger, and I could not refuse him."

"A ring, you say?"

Guarding his voice with his hand, the majordomo whispered two words.

"Here, and dressed like a carter? What the devil!" The ambassador rushed from the study.

It was dark in the embassy office. Quickly the ambassador lighted some candles. Gas would be too bright for such a meeting.

"Well, your Excellency?" said a voice from the leather lounge.

"Who are you?" For this was not the voice the baron expected to hear.

"My name at present does not matter. The news I bring is far more important. His majesty emphatically declines any alliance with the House of Ehrenstein."

The ambassador stumbled into a chair, his mind dulled, his shoulders inert. This was a blow.

"Declines?" he murmured.

"He repudiates his uncle's negotiations absolutely."

"Damnation!" swore the ambassador, coming to life once more.

"The exact word used by the prince; in fact, the word has become common property in the last forty-eight hours. Now then, what's to be done? What do you suggest?"

"This means war. The duke will never swallow such an insult."

"War! It looks as if you and I, Baron, shall not accompany the king of Prussia into Alsace-Lorraine. We shall have entertainment at home."

"This is horrible!"

"The devil of a muddle!"

"But what possessed the prince to blunder like this?"

"The prince really is not to blame. Our king, Baron, is a young colt. A few months ago he gave his royal uncle carte blanche to seek a wife for him. Politics demanded an alliance between Jugendheit and Ehrenstein. There have been too many years of useless antagonism. On the head of this bolt from Heaven comes the declaration of his majesty that he will marry any other princess on the continent."

"They will pull this place down, brick by brick!"

"Let them! We have ten thousand more troops than Ehrenstein."

"You young men are a pack of fools!"

"Softly, Baron."

"You would like nothing better than war."

"Unless it is peace."

"Where is the king?"

The carter smiled. "He is hunting, they say, with the crown prince of Bavaria."

"But you, why have you come dressed like this?"

"That is a little secret which I am not at liberty to disclose."

"But, great God, what's to be done?"

"Lie," urbanely.

"What good will lies do?"

"They will suspend the catastrophe till we are ready to meet it. The marriage is not to take place till spring. That will give us plenty of time. After the coronation his majesty may be brought to reason. This marriage must not fall through now. The grand duke will not care to become the laughing-stock of Europe. The prince's advice is for you to go about your affairs as usual. Only one man must be taken into your confidence, and that man is Herbeck. If any one can straighten out his end of the tangle it is he. He is a big man, of fertile invention; he will understand. If this thing falls through his honors will fall with it. He will work toward peace, though from what I have learned the duke would not shun war."

"Where is the prince?"

"Wherever he is, he is working for the best interests of the state. Don't worry about his royal highness; he's a man."

"When did you come?"

"This morning. Though I have been here before in this same guise."

"There is the Bavarian princess," remarked the ambassador musingly.

"Ha! A good thought! But the king is romantic; she is older than he, and ugly."

"You are not telling me everything," intuitively.

"I know it. I am telling you all that is at present necessary."

"You make me the unhappiest man in the kingdom! I have worked so hard and long toward this end. When did the king decline this alliance?"

"Evidently the moment he heard of it. I have his letter in my pocket. I am requested to read it to you. Listen:

"'MY ILLUSTRIOUS AND INDUSTRIOUS UNCLE: I regret exceedingly that at this late day I should cause you political embarrassment; but when I gave my consent to the espousal of any of the various princesses at liberty, surely it was understood that Ehrenstein was not to be considered. I refuse to marry the daughter of the man who privately strove to cover my father with contumely, who dared impute to him a crime that was any man's but my father's. I realize that certain policies called for this stroke on your part, but it can not be. My dear uncle, you have digged a fine pit, and I hope you will find a safe way out of it. I refuse to marry the Princess Hildegarde. This is final. It can be arranged without any discredit to the duke or to yourself. Let it be said that her serene highness has thrown me over. I shan't go to war about it.

"'FREDERICK.'"

"Observe 'My illustrious and industrious uncle'!" laughed the carter without mirth. "Our king, you will see, has a graceful style."

"Your tone is not respectful," warned the ambassador.

"Neither is the state of my mind. Oh, my king is a fine fellow; he will settle down like his father before him; but to-day-" The carter dropped his arms dejectedly.

"There is something going on."

"What, you are likely to learn at any moment. Pardon me, Baron, but if I dared I would tell you all. But his highness' commands are over me and I must obey them. It would be a mental relief to tell some one."

"Curse these opera-dancers!"

The carter laughed. "Aye, where kings are concerned. But you do him injustice. Frederick is as mild as Strephon." He gained his feet. He was young, pleasant of face, but a thorough soldier.

"You are Lieutenant von Radenstein!" cried the ambassador. "I recognize you now."

"Thanks, your Excellency!"

"You are in the royal household, the regent's invisible arm. I have heard a good deal about you. I knew your father well."

"Again, thanks. Now, the regent has heard certain rumors regarding an American named Carmichael, a consul. He is often seen with her highness. Rather an extraordinary privilege."

"Rest your mind there, Lieutenant. This Carmichael is harmless. You understand, her highness has not always been surrounded by royal etiquette. She has had her freedom too long not to grow restive under restraint. The American is a pleasant fellow, but not worth considering. Americans will never understand the ways of court life. Still, he is a gentleman, and so far there is nothing compromising in that situation. He can be eliminated at any time."

"This is reassuring. You will see the chancellor to-night and s

how him this letter?"

"I will, and God help us all to straighten out this blunder!"

"Amen to that! One word more, and then I'm off. If a butcher or a baker, or even a mountaineer pulls the bell-cord and shows this ring, admit him without fail. He will have vital news. And now, good night and good luck to your excellency."

For half an hour the ambassador remained staring at the candlesticks. By and by he resumed his chair. What should he do? Where should he begin? Suppose the chancellor should look at the situation adversely, from the duke's angle of vision, should the duke learn? There was but one thing to do and that was to go boldly to Herbeck and lay the matter before him frankly. Neither Jugendheit nor Ehrenstein wanted war. The chancellor was wise; it would be better to dally with the truth than needlessly to sacrifice ten thousand lives. But what had the lieutenant further to conceal? The ambassador wanted no dinner. He rang for his hat and coat, and twenty minutes later he was in the chancellor's cabinet.

"You seem out of health, Baron," was the chancellor's greeting.

"I am indeed that, Count. I received a letter to-day from the prince regent. It was sent to him by his majesty, who is hunting in Bavaria. Read it, Count, but I pray to you to do nothing hastily."

The chancellor did not open the letter, he merely balanced it. That so light a thing should be so heavy with dark portents! His accustomed pallor assumed a grayish tinge.

"So his majesty declines?" he said evenly. "You have already heard?" cried the amazed ambassador.

"Nothing; I surmise. The hour, your appearance, the letter-to what else could they point?

I was afraid all along. Strange instinct we have at times. The regent is to be pitied; he took too much for granted. He has been used to power one day too long. Ah, if his majesty could but see her, could only know how lovely she is in heart and mind and face! Is she not worthy a crown?"

"Herbeck, nothing would please me better, nothing would afford my country greater pleasure and satisfaction, than to see this marriage consummated. It would nail that baseless lie which has so long been current."

"I believe you. We two peoples should be friendly. It has taken me months to bring this matter round. The duke rebelled; her highness scorned the hand of Frederick. One by one I had to overcome their objections-to this end. The past refuses to be buried. Still, if you saw all the evidence in the case you would not blame the duke for his attitude."

"But those documents are rank forgeries!"

"So they may be, but that has not been proved."

"Why should his late majesty abduct the daughter of the grand duke? For what benefits? To what end? Ah, Count, if some motive could be brought forward, some motive that could stand!"

"Motives, my friend? They spring from the most unheard-of places. And motives in action are always based on impulses. But let us waste no time on retrospection. It is the present which confronts us. You do not want war."

"No more do you."

"What remedy do you suggest?"

"I ask, nay, I plead that question of you."

"I represent the offended party." The chancellor's gaunt features lighted with a transient smile. "Proceed, Baron."

"I suggest, then, that the duke must not know."

"Agreed. Go on."

"You will put the matter before her highness."

"That will be difficult."

"Let her repudiate the negotiations. Let her say that she has changed her mind. His majesty is quite willing that the humiliation be his."

"That is generous. But suppose she has set her heart on the crown of Jugendheit? What then?"

The baron bit the ends of his mustache.

"Suppose that?" the chancellor pressed relentlessly.

"In that event, the affair is no longer in our hands but in God's."

"As all affairs are. Is there no way of changing the king's mind?"

"Read the letter, Count," said the ambassador.

Herbeck hunted for the postmark: Bavaria. He read the letter. There was nothing between the lines. It was the work of rather an irresponsible boy.

"May I take this to her highness?" asked the chancellor.

"I'm afraid-"

"I promise its contents will not go beyond her eye."

"I will take the risk."

"His majesty is very young," was the chancellor's comment.

"Young! He is a child. He has been in his palace twice in ten years. He is travel-mad. He has been wandering in France, Holland, England, Belgium. He tells his uncle to play the king till the coronation. Imagine it! And the prince has found this authority so pleasant and natural that he took it for granted that his majesty would marry whomever he selected for him. To have allowed us to go forward, as we have done, believing that he had the whole confidence of the king!"

Herbeck consulted his watch. It was half after six. Her highness did not dine till eight.

"I shall go to her highness immediately, Baron. I shall return the letter by messenger, and he will tell you the result of the interview."

"God be with you," said the ambassador, preparing to take his leave, "for all women are contrary."

After the baron was gone the chancellor paced the room with halting step. Then, toward the wraith of his ambition he waved a hand as if to explain how futile are the schemes of men. He shook himself free from this idle moment and proceeded to the apartments of her highness. Would she toss aside this crown, or would she fight for it? He found her alone.

"Well, my good fairy, what is in your magic wand to-night?" she asked. How fond she was of this great good man, and how lonely he always seemed!

He saluted her hand respectfully. "I am not a good fairy to-night, your Highness. On the contrary, I am an ogre. I have here a letter. I have given my word that its contents shall not be repeated to the duke, your father. If I let you read it, will you agree to that?"

"And who has written this letter?" non-committally.

"His majesty, the king of Jugendheit," slowly.

"A letter from the king?" she cried, curious. "Should it not be brought to me on a golden salver?"

"It is probable that I am bringing it to you at the end-of a bayonet," solemnly. "If the duke learns its contents the inevitable result will be war."

A silence fell upon them and grew. This was the bitterest moment but one in the chancellor's life.

"I believe," she said finally, "that it will not be necessary to read his majesty's letter. He declines the honor of my hand: is that not it?"

The chancellor signified that it was.

"Ah!" with a note of pride in her voice and a flash in her eyes. "And I?"

"You will tell the duke that you have changed your mind," gravely.

"Do princesses change their minds like this?"

"They have often done so."

"In spite of publicity?"

"Yes, your Highness."

"And if I refuse to change my mind?"

"I am resigned to any and all events."

"War." Her face was serious. "And what has the king to suggest?"

"He proposes to accept the humiliation of being rejected by you."

"Why, this is a gallant king! Pouff! There goes a crown of thistledown." She smiled at the chancellor, then she laughed. There was nothing but youth in the laughter, youth and gladness. "Oh, I knew that you were a good fairy. Listen to me. I declare to you that I am happier at this moment than I have been in days. To marry a man I have never seen, to become the wife of a man who is nothing to me, whose looks, character, and habits are unknown; why, I have lived in a kind of horror. You did not find me soon enough; there are yet some popular ideas in my head which are alien to the minds of princesses. I am free!" And she uttered the words as with the breath of spring.

The chancellor's shoulders drooped a trifle more, and his hand closed down over the letter. Otherwise there was no notable change in his appearance. He was always guarding the muscles of his face. Inscrutability is the first lesson of the diplomat; and he had learned it thirty years before.

"There will be no war," resumed her highness. "I know my father; our wills may clash, but in this instance mine shall be the stronger."

"But this is not the end."

"You mean that there will be other kings?" She had not thought of this, and some of the brightness vanished from her face.

"Yes, there will be other kings. I am sorry. What young girl has not her dream of romance? But princesses must not have romances. Yours, my child, must be a political marriage. It is a harsh decree."

"Have not princesses married commoners?"

"Never wisely. Your highness will not make a mistake like that."

"My highness will or will not marry, as she pleases. Am I a chattel, that I am to be offered across this frontier or that?"

The chancellor moved uneasily. "If your highness loved out of your class, which I know you do not, I should be worried."

"And if I did?" with a rebel tilt to her chin.

"Till that moment arrives I shall not borrow trouble. You will, then, tell the duke that you have changed your mind, that you have reconsidered?"

"This evening. Now, godfather, you may kiss her serene highness on the forehead."

"This honor to me?" The chancellor trembled.

"Even so."

He did not touch her with Ne hands, but the kiss he put on her forehead was a benediction.

"You may go now," she said, "for I shall need the whole room to dance in. I am free, if only for a little while!"

Outside the door the chancellor paused. She was singing. It was the same aria he had heard that memorable night when he found her in the dim garret.

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