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   Chapter 3 IN THE ORIENT EXPRESS

A Son of the Immortals By Louis Tracy Characters: 27497

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Gone! Gone where?" he asked blankly.

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

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

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

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

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

"To Fontainebleau?"

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

"No name? Barbizon?"

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

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

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

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

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

"What is it?" inquired Alec.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he read an account of the Delgratz crime,-for it was only a crime, a brutal and callous murder, not worthy to be dignified by the mantle of political hate. The unhappy King and Queen of Kosnovia were dining in company with the Queen's brother and the Minister of Ways and Communications when the regiment on duty in the palace burst in on them. King Theodore was shot down while endeavoring t

o protect the Queen. She too fell riddled with bullets, and both corpses were flung into a courtyard. The unhappy guests were wounded, and still remained prisoners in the hands of the regicides, who vaunted that they had "saved" the country, and meant to restore the ancient sovereignty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beaumanoir, Villa Turquoise, Chantilly.

Come and join in the revel.

Alec.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"To oblige me."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"A friend from the British Embassy."

"From an Embassy! Then we are lost."

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

"But if the Embassies know--"

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

"Ah, from a woman, of course?"

"No. But--"

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

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

"Oui, m'sieur!" said Bosko.

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