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   Chapter 9 MUTTERINGS OF STORM

A Son of the Immortals By Louis Tracy Characters: 27350

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Before Joan's carriage had traveled a hundred yards it was halted by a loud command. An officer, galloping at the head of a detachment of cavalry, sought news of the King, and an escorted vehicle coming from the upper end of Fürst Michaelstrasse promised developments. Joan was startled back into consciousness by the sudden stoppage. The excited babble going on without was incomprehensible and therefore alarming, nor did the polite assurances of the officer, as he bent in the saddle and peered in at the window while he aired his best French, serve to still this fresh tumult in her veins.

"What is he saying?" she asked Felix, turning her frightened eyes from the urbane personage on horseback to Poluski's intent face.

"He was sent to rescue the King," was the explanation. "He says the bodyguard received warning less than two minutes ago."

"Tell him the King is safe now."

"Oh, he knows that already. What puzzled him is the fact that the troops at the War Ministry, which lies beyond the President's house, should have reached there before him."

"What does it matter, since help came in time? Please bid the coachman go on. I-I would like to be the first to let Princess Delgrado know that her son has escaped from those horrid men. Who were they? Why should they want to kill Alec?"

Felix did not obey her bequest instantly. He exchanged some hasty words with the strange officer, who chanced to be Drakovitch, and answered Joan's questions only when the cab resumed its journey. "Have you forgotten the part played by the Seventh Regiment in the recent history of Delgratz?" he cried.

"I remember something about them. Alec disbanded them. Oh-they were the soldiers who revolted and murdered the late King and Queen."

"Exactly. Do women ever read the newspapers intelligently, I wonder? You state a most remarkable fact, considering that this is Delgratz and your future capital, as coolly as if it had happened in Kamchatka."

"But still I do not understand why they should turn against Alec. I have at least sufficient intelligence to recall the avowed object of their crime,-the restoration of the Delgrado line."

Felix smiled. If Joan was able to defend herself, she was certainly making a rapid recovery. "That is a mere hazy recollection of their afterthought. Of all despotisms, save me from a military one, and soldiers who slay Kings are the worst of despots. If there were no Kings, there would be few soldiers, Joan. Put that valuable truism away among the other wise saws that govern your life. You will appreciate its truth, and the even greater truth of its converse, when you are a Queen. But soldiers are stupid creatures, obviously so, since killing is no argument, or the word philosopher would mean a man armed with a bludgeon. If they do away with a tyrant and elect his successor, they are apt to acquire the habit. Soldiers are meant to obey, not to rule, and these Kosnovian Kingmakers were not patriots but cutthroats."

Joan buried her face in her hands. The thought came unbidden that in some inexplicable way she shared with the infamous Seventh Regiment a large measure of responsibility for Alec's dangerous kingship.

"Mademoiselle is ill. Why trouble her with your silly chatter?" demanded Pauline angrily.

"Eh, what the deuce? My name isn't Balaam," retorted Felix.

"Nor am I a donkey, monsieur. If it wasn't for you, miladi would now be happy in her little apartment in the Place de la Sorbonne. I keep my ears open, me!"

"I said nothing about your ears, Madame Pauline," tittered Felix.

The Frenchwoman's homely features reddened, and a vitriolic reply was only half averted by the lurching of the carriage through a gateway. Joan looked out, and her eyes were moist.

"I possess two good friends in Delgratz, and I hope they will not quarrel on my account," she said, with a piteous smile that silenced the woman. Poluski's mouth twisted.

"We are not quarreling, my belle," he cried. "Pauline thinks I brought you here, whereas your presence is clearly an act of Providence. Being a modest person, I naturally protested."

If Joan was not utterly bewildered by the whirligig of events, and more than ever unnerved now at the near prospect of meeting Prince and Princess Delgrado in the perhaps unwelcome guise of their son's affianced wife, she would certainly have discovered that Felix was saying the first thing that came uppermost in his mind. The outcome must have been a quick mental review of the day's incidents in order to hit upon the special item he was trying to conceal, though it is probable that no girl of Joan's candid nature would ever guess the suspicion rapidly maturing to a settled belief in the Pole's acute brain.

For Captain Drakovitch, the officer who led the bodyguard in their belated ride to the King's aid, had told him that a waiter, John Sobieski by name, had arrived breathless at the President's house many minutes before the actual alarm was given. Sobieski had sobbed out some incoherent words about the King, and the Seventh Regiment; but Prince Michael, who was in the courtyard, snapped up the man immediately, bidding him hold his tongue, and hurrying him inside the building. Once there, Sobieski became more confused than ever. Prince Michael obviously regarded him as a crazy rumor-monger until Nesimir appeared. The latter, by reason of his local knowledge, instantly appreciated the true significance of an attack on the King in a crowded thoroughfare by a gang whom Sobieski was sure he had identified correctly.

Nevertheless, precious time had been consumed by the elder Delgrado's interference. The President acted with promptitude; but the outcome was clear. If it had not been for Bosko, the King must have fallen.

"Gods!" vowed Drakovitch in his emphatic story to Felix, "there were we lounging about smoking cigarettes while his Majesty was in a fair way to be cut in pieces! A nice state of affairs! If some one had not warned Stampoff, we might have been too late!"

"Better not mention it in public," was Poluski's advice. "The mere notion of the resultant disaster would make Prince Michael seriously ill. Moreover, such things grow in the telling, and the story will be traced back to you."

The other had agreed, and Felix followed his own counsel by withholding from Joan all knowledge of the unpleasant mischance that had nearly cost the lives of the King and his companions in the besieged hotel. But his thoughts were busy, and, when he found Sobieski detained in the entrance hall, he consigned Joan and her maid to the care of a servant, briefly explaining that they were to be taken to Princess Delgrado, and forthwith questioned his fellow countryman.

Sobieski was quaking with fear. The scornful disbelief expressed by Prince Michael had discomfited him at the beginning, and now he was practically under arrest until his connection with the outrage was investigated officially. One of Stampoff's messengers had already announced the King's safety, or by this time Sobieski must have become the lunatic Prince Michael took him to be.

"What then, my friend, they did not credit your tale, I hear?" said Felix genially, and the sound of his voice drove some of the misery from the waiter's pallid cheeks.

"It was my fault, monsieur. I ran so fast that I lost my breath and the gentleman could not understand me."

"Ah, is that it? Did you speak Polish?"

"No, no, monsieur. I always speak Serbian here."

"And what did you say?"

"Just what you told me to say,-that the King was in danger and that the President was to send troops instantly to the Fürst Michaelstrasse. Then the old gentleman, he whom they call Prince Michael, came up and said he did not believe a word of it."

"Mon Dieu! He understood you, it appears?"

"Perhaps not, monsieur. I made a hash of it, especially when I told him Monsieur Poluski sent me."

"Sure you mentioned that?"

"Quite sure, monsieur. It was then he ordered me inside the house. The mention of your name seemed to annoy him. For a little while he could say nothing but 'Poluski, Poluski! Is he in it?' I swore you had nothing to do with the plot, monsieur, but had acted throughout as the King's friend; then he stormed at me again, and called me a blockhead for coming to the palace with such a mad story. He asked me what I thought would have been the consequence if the Princess heard me, and I said I knew nothing about any Princess; I was only quite sure the King would be slain if some one did not hasten to his rescue."

"But some one had more sense, some one listened?" said Felix dryly.

"Ah, yes. When the President came down the stairs, Prince Michael went to meet him, laughing all the time at my romancing, as he called it. But I shouted out, being quite desperate then, and Monsieur Nesimir heard me. Of course, by that time, I was in such a state that my knees shook. I was certain the King would be found dead, and perhaps you, monsieur, and then would there be no one to prove that I was not mixed up in the affair, so people would think I ran to the palace in order to save my own skin. I nearly dropped with fear, feeling that so many minutes were being lost, and that made me more nervous than ever when I was answering Monsieur Nesimir's questions."

Poluski's worn face exhibited no more emotion than if he was a graven image, but his voice was sympathetic. "At any rate, everything has ended happily, friend John," said he. "The King is alive, you did your duty, and you will find him not unmindful of your services. By whose order are you detained here?"

The excited waiter began to snivel. "I don't know, monsieur. Pray intercede for me and have me set at liberty, or I shall lose my situation if it gets about that I have been arrested. My patron will have nothing to do with politics. He says his business is to sell beer and coffee, and all parties are equally fond of his goods."

Felix, who was already being eyed askance by the presidential hangers-on in the entrance lobby, returned to the courtyard and appealed to the officer in charge of the escort. A brief conversation with an official elicited the fact that Sobieski awaited Prince Michael's commands.

"Then bring Prince Michael here," said Poluski.

"Monsieur!" An astounded flunky could say no more; but this impudent hunchback was in no wise abashed.

"Exactly, Monsieur Felix Poluski wishes to see his Excellency at once. Tell him that, and it will suffice."

The lackey was forced to yield, and, much to his surprise, Prince Michael did not hesitate an instant in obeying that imperative summons. An expression of annoyance flitted across his florid features when he found Poluski standing near the trembling waiter; but he tackled the situation with nonchalance.

"Have you been here long, Felix?" he inquired. "No one told me you had arrived. Your young lady friend has been taken to the Princess-at her own request, I am given to understand. Dreadful business, this unforeseen attack on my son, isn't it? I must confess that I didn't credit a word of it when this poor fellow rushed in with his broken tale. Ah, by the way, I gave some orders in my alarm that may have been misinterpreted." He dug a hand into a pocket; but withdrew it, empty.

"His Majesty will see to it that you are suitably rewarded," he said to Sobieski. "Meanwhile, you have my hearty thanks, and I regret that any hasty words of mine should have caused you inconvenience. You can go at once, of course."

Sobieski made off, well pleased that his stormy career in the whirlpool of state affairs was ended. But Felix shook hands with him and said quietly:

"I will not forget."

Prince Michael seized Poluski's arm with a fine assumption of dignified cordiality. "So it was really you who sent that stammering youth with such an astounding message? Come, then. Tell me all about it. Was Alec actually in peril?"

He drew Felix up the stairs, out of earshot of the servants and orderlies in the wide hall. Felix sniffed.

"Odd thing," he grinned. "You are a Prince and I am an anarchist, yet both of us need a nip of brandy when we are disturbed. But I have the better of you in one respect, my dear Michael. My hand doesn't shake. Now, yours--"

The clasp on his arm loosened, lost some of its friendliness, and Prince Delgrado stood for an instant on the stairs.

"I tried to show a calm front before the others; but the predicament my son was in found the weak place in my armor," he said.

"My case exactly," said Felix. "Joan diagnosed the symptoms, and dosed me with cognac. You, I imagine, were your own physician."

"Ah, since you mention the lady, who is she?"

"Joan? A female divinity, one of the few charming women left in the world."

"Admirable! One can associate those qualities with residence in Paris; but in Delgratz, Felix, one finds them unusual-shall I say out of place?"

"If I were you, Monseigneur, I would learn to regard her in a totally different light. Joan ought to be at home here, because she is your prospective daughter in law."

Michael Delgrado could govern his nervous system with some measure of success when words were the only weapons that threatened. He did not flinch now; but threw open the door of the nearest room on the upper floor. It chanced to be the apartment in which President Nesimir had received Alec and Stampoff on that memorable morning, barely a month ago, when the young King came to Delgratz to claim his patrimony. Neither man was aware of the coincidence that led Michael to slam the door, place his back against it, and gurgle a question:

"Are you jest

ing, Felix?"

"Quarter of an hour ago I was on the point of being introduced to a grim personage who would have squeezed the last joke out of me," said Poluski. "His name was Death, Pallida Mors, who steps with even stride from the huts of the poor to the palace of the King, and he gave me such a fright that I shall be in no mood all day for any display of humor. Why, man, don't you realize that I have been under this roof fully five minutes without experiencing the slightest desire to sing?"

"But, Felix, do be in earnest for once. What is this you tell me? How can Alexis III. marry this woman, this adventuress?"

Poluski's big gray eyes narrowed into slits, and the hump on his shoulders became more pronounced as his head drooped forward a little; but his smooth tones did not falter, and his uneasy hearer thought he found a note of friendly commiseration in them.

"A hard word, Michael, hard and unjust. Joan is no adventuress," he said. "We old birds are too ready to condemn a young and pretty woman who falls in love with a King; but in the present instance criticism is disarmed, since Joan was in love with Alec when he had no more worldly wealth than the endowment of your princely name, and when his chance of becoming King of Kosnovia was as remote as-what shall I say?-well, as your own."

Michael came away from the door and stood looking out at the window. It afforded a partial view of the courtyard and the fairly wide street beyond the gate. "I know, of course, that your ideas and mine on these subjects differ very greatly," he said after a pause, and with a perceptible return to his grandiose manner; "but as you say rightly, both of us are old enough to realize that a reigning King can marry none but a Princess of some royal house. Again, the King of Kosnovia must marry a Serb. There you have two fixed principles, so to speak, each of which renders it impossible for a lady who rejoices apparently in no other name than Joan--"

"Joan Vernon," put in Felix, producing a cigarcase, an exact replica of that containing the bombs, and selecting one of the long thin cigars he favored.

"Ah, certainly. The Princess spoke to her in Vienna, and ascertained her name then. Well, Miss Joan Vernon cannot, by the very nature of things, become Queen of Kosnovia. It is not that I disapprove of the notion, Felix; it is simply impossible."

Poluski struck a match and began to smoke furiously. Delgrado probably expected him to say something; but he waited in vain, since Felix seemed to be far more perturbed by the suspected existence of a hole in the outer wrapping of the cigar, and futile efforts to close it with the tip of a finger, than by the princely hinting at a morganatic marriage.

Perforce, Prince Michael resumed the discussion. "I am stating the facts calmly and without prejudice," he said. "I assume that you are not misleading me or that some sort of lovers' vows exists between these young people?"

He paused again. Poluski was triumphant. He had found the hole, applied the surgical method of a tourniquet by pressure, and the cigar was drawing perfectly.

"Having said so much, Felix, you might be sufficiently communicative in other respects," growled Delgrado, turning angrily from the window.

"Parbleu! I left you to do the talking, Monseigneur. This devil of a cigar has been bored by a weevil, and was broken winded till I stopped the leak. You were saying?"

"That Alec Delgrado might have married your young friend; but King Alexis III. cannot."

"He will," said Felix, grinning complacently.

"If he does, it will cost him his throne."

"Poof! For a man of the world, Michael, you utter opinions that are singularly inept. I think you were driving just now at the accepted theory of royal alliances? If it holds good for Alec, it affects you, his father. You didn't marry a Princess, but happily secured a good, honest American lady, sufficiently endowed with good, honest American dollars to keep you in luxury throughout your useless life. If there is some law which says that Alec cannot make Joan a Queen, the same law would prevent him from being a King. But it doesn't. King he is, and King he will remain as long as it pleases God to keep him in good health and save him from the miserable rascals who tried to assassinate him to-day-and their like. What you want, Michael, is a friend who is not afraid to warn you. Now, for the hour, kindly regard me as filling that useful capacity. After twenty-five years of extravagance you have managed, I suppose, to exhaust your excellent wife's fortune. You came to Delgratz this morning for the express purpose of drawing fresh supplies from the Kosnovian treasury. Well, you haven't met your son yet; but when you suggest that he should begin to impoverish his people to maintain you in idle pomp in Paris, I fancy you will find him adamant. That is not his theory of governing. If it was, he would neither marry Joan nor be alive at this moment, since Heaven saw fit to intrust me with the control of both his bride and his life.

"One thing more I have to say, Michael, and then I have finished, unless you press me too hardly. Let us suppose Alec had fallen in to-day's attempt. Whom do you think would succeed him? Michael V. Not for five minutes! You know now, and I have known all along, that the real instigator of the May outbreak was Julius Marulitch and his Greek bear leader, Constantine Beliani. You were inspired, Michael, when you resigned your claims in favor of your son. Those two meant to put you forward as their puppet and shove you to the wall as soon as the Delgrado line was restored and they were able to pull the strings here in safety. They never dreamed that Alec, the careless, happy-go-lucky boy, the polo player and haunter of studios, would prove a stumbling block in the path of royal progress. You were a mere pawn, Michael. They counted on pushing you out of the way as easily as if you were a baby in a perambulator. What was true a month ago is more true now. Go down on your knees and thank Heaven that it saw fit to preserve your son's life this afternoon; for his life alone stands between you and the abyss!

"Now, I have spoken, and-name of a good little gray man!-you don't seem to like the hearing. But do not forget what I have said, Michael. I have poured forth a stream of golden words. It will be well for you if you are never called on to apply other test to their value than your own judgment; for as sure as the day dawns that you dream of reigning in Delgratz, so surely will you dig your own grave with a shovel lent by the devil."

Poluski ceased, and apparently expected no answer. He, too, went to a window and gazed out at the sunlit vista of graveled courtyard and yellow buildings.

Already there were long patches of shade; for the day was closing. A foot regiment marched past the palace gates, and Prince Michael might have remembered that in Delgratz a sentry with a loaded rifle guards each street after sunset. But his bloated face was curiously haggard, and his prominent eyes looked at the soldiers with the unconscious aspect of a man whose castle in Spain had suddenly proved itself the most deceptive of mirages. Perhaps, for a brief space, he saw himself as Felix saw him, and a species of horror may have fallen on him at the mere conceit that another man was able to peep into his heart and surprise there the foul notion that had seized him when John Sobieski brought the tidings of his son's desperate plight.

Be that as it may, Prince Michael Delgrado offered no reply to the decrepit, poverty stricken artist who had dared to unmask him in such exceedingly plain terms. Not a word passed between them during many minutes. The shuffling tramp and dust of the regiment died away, and the thoroughfare beyond the gates had resumed its normal condition when a new animation was given to the courtyard by a loud order and the hurried assembly of the guard.

"Good!" said Felix contentedly. "Here comes the King! Your Excellency will now receive confirmation of some of my statements. As for the rest, if I am proved right in some respects, it will be a first rate idea to accept the remainder without proof."

Delgrado shot a baleful glance at the hunchback; but ignored his comment. "If it is not indiscreet of a parent to betray some interest in a son's prospective happiness, may I venture again to inquire who Miss Joan Vernon is?"

"I think I answered you."

"In general terms. Feminine divinity and charm should be the characteristics of all brides; but these delectable beings do not enter the world fully formed, like Venus Aphrodite newly risen from the sea of Cyprus."

"Oh, to me it suffices that she exists, and is Joan. I have known her a whole year, during her student life in Paris, in fact. Your simile was well chosen, Monseigneur. Aphrodite came with the spring, and so came Joan."

"And before Paris?"

"The New England section of America, I believe. Her mother died when Joan was a child; her father was in the navy and was drowned."

"An artist, you say?"

"Artistic would be the better description. She is too rich ever to paint well."

"Rich!"

"As artists go. She has an income of two hundred pounds a year."

"Ah, bah!"

"Don't be so contemptuous of five thousand francs. They go a long way-with care. I believe that my dear Joan spends all her money on dress, and keeps soup in the pot by copying pictures. But she will make a lovely Queen. Saperlotte! I must paint her in purple and ermine."

Yielding to the spell of the vision thus conjured up, Felix forgot his racked nerves and sang lustily a stanza from "Masaniello." Prince Michael flung out of the room to meet his son; but the strains followed him down the stairs.

Yet Poluski was thinking while he sang, and the burden of his thought was that this anxious father had asked him no word as to the scene in that bullet swept room, nor the means whereby Alec and his friends were snatched from death.

Very different was the meeting between Joan and Princess Delgrado. The panic stricken mother, scarce crediting the assurance given her by the President's family that there were no grounds for the disquieting rumors that arose from Sobieski's appeal for help, was in an agony of dread when the first undoubted version of the true occurrence was brought by Stampoff's courier.

The arrival of Joan, of one who had actually been in her son's company until the danger was passed, though helping to dispel her terror, aroused a consuming desire to learn exactly what had happened. Joan, of course, could only describe the siege and their state of suspense until the soldiers cleared the street of the would-be assassins. As to the motive of the outrage or the manner in which it reached its sudden crisis, she had no more knowledge than the Princess, and a quite natural question occurred to the older woman when Joan told how Felix Poluski had startled the King and herself by his warning cry.

"My son had gone to visit you, then?" she said, not without a shadow of resentment at the fact that he had discovered this girl's whereabouts readily enough, though seemingly there was none to tell him that his father and mother were in the city and longing to see him.

Joan flushed at the words; but her answer carried conviction. "I do not yet understand just how or when Felix discovered that the King's life was threatened," she said; "but there can be no doubt it was a ruse on his part to distract the attention of the mob when he told his Majesty that I was in the hotel.-I chanced to be looking out-and I was very angry with Felix when I saw that he had stopped the King and was evidently informing him of my presence."

"Then my son did not know you were in Delgratz?"

"He had no notion I was any nearer than Paris."

"What an amazing chapter of accidents that you should be in Delgratz to-day, and, under Providence, become the means of saving Alec's life; for it is quite clear to me now that had he gone a few yards farther he would have been shot down without mercy!"

Joan colored even more deeply. Her pride demanded that she should no longer sail under a false flag, yet it was a seeming breach of maidenly reserve that she should announce her own betrothal. It would have come easier if she could claim more consideration from this kind faced, pleasant voiced woman than was warranted by the casual acquaintance of a railway journey. But Alec had sent her to his mother, and Joan's nature would not permit her to carry on the deception, though it might be capable of the most plausible explanation afterward.

"I feel I ought to tell you," she said, and the blood suddenly ebbed away from her face to her throbbing heart. "Alec and I were friends in Paris. We were fond of each other; but gave not much heed to it, since I was poor and he told me he had his way to make in the world. He wrote to me a few days ago, asking me to marry him. I did not know what to say, when chance threw in my way a commission to copy a picture in this very city. Put in such words, it all sounds very mad and unconvincing; but it is true, and it is equally true that I should never have acknowledged to-day that I returned his love if-if I did not think-for a few awful minutes-that we should both be killed. And-and-I wanted to die in his arms!"

Joan began to cry, and Princess Delgrado cried too, and it was in tears that King Alexis III. found them when he had returned Prince Michael's stately greeting and was told that the young American lady who had come from the shattered hotel was in his mother's room.

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