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   Chapter 7 JOAN BECOMES THE VICTIM OF CIRCUMSTANCES

A Son of the Immortals By Louis Tracy Characters: 29889

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Perhaps--"

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

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

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

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

"No; but I was a fool."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"When was this work begun?" he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Ha! and who may that be?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Felix, how can I copy that?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Felix, who told you about Alec?"

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

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

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

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

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

muslin confection, and be ready to dine with the King at seven-thirty or thereabouts."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Found guilty?"

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

"Have they many sympathizers?"

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

"It reminds one of Warsaw."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"O, Alec! O, mon roi!"

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

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

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

"In the hotel?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beaumanoir and Felix fortified the position

Page 153

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

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

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