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   Chapter 2 MONSEIGNEUR

A Son of the Immortals By Louis Tracy Characters: 29044

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It was lucky, a sheer fluke."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Is Monseigneur at home?" he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The news! The news from Kosnovia!"

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

"All! Grand Dieu, what more would you have? It means-everything."

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

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

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

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

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

"It is at least my good fortune to be the first to congratulate my King!" he cried at last. "Be calm, I pray you; but a tremendous change has been affected at Delgr

atz. Last night, while Theodore and the Queen were at dinner, the Seventh Regiment mutinied. It was on guard at the Schwarzburg. Officers and men acted together. There was no resistance. It was impossible. Theodore and Helena were killed!" This man, who appealed for calmness, was himself in a white heat of emotion.

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

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

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

"I!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No!" cried Alec sharply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How much?" inquired Beliani.

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

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

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

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

"Or promise them," said Count Julius.

"Or take them," said Beliani.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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