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   Chapter 11 JOAN DECIDES

A Son of the Immortals By Louis Tracy Characters: 26888

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


An odd element of fatality seemed to attach itself to the Byzantine Saint Peter in the cathedral of Delgratz. Joan nearly lost her life within a few hours of the time when first she saw that remarkable work of art, and it was ordained that one of the last clear memories of the checkered life in Kosnovia should be its round staring eyes, its stiffly modeled right hand, uplifted, it might be, in reproof or exhortation, the ornate pastoral staff, and the emblem of the crossed keys that labeled the artist's intent to portray the chief apostle. Poor Joan had already conceived a violent dislike of the reputed Giotto. It was no longing to complete her work that drove her, at the end, to the solemn cathedral, but the compelling need of confiding in Felix. For it had come to this: she must fly from Delgratz at once and forever.

It chanced that morning that Alec had taken a holiday. He appeared unexpectedly at breakfast and sat by Joan's side, and his lover's eyes had detected a pallor, a certain strained and wistful tension of the lips, signs of mental storm and stress that she hoped would not be noticeable.

"Sweetheart," he whispered in quick alarm, "you are not well. You are feeling this wretched climate. I am minded to throw sentiment aside and send my mother and you to the New Konak to-day."

"I am quite well," she said, with a forced composure that she felt did not deceive him. It was necessary to invent some explanation, and she continued hurriedly, "I did not sleep soundly last night. Some wandering night bird flew in through my open window and startled me with its frantic efforts to escape from the room. That is all. After a little rest I shall be myself again."

"That gloomy old cathedral is not a healthy place, I am inclined to think," he said, scanning her face again with the anxious gaze of one who could not endure even a momentary eclipse of its bright vivacity. "You go there too often, and now that we know from whom your commission was received it is straining a point of etiquette to continue your work. It will relieve any scruples you may have on that head if I tell you that I paid Monsieur Beliani yesterday every farthing of the money advanced to you by his agent in Paris."

"I am glad of that," she said simply. "I did not like the idea of being indebted to him. Though he is a very clever man, I regard him as a good deal of a rogue."

Alec was not to be switched off personal issues because Joan expressed her opinions in this matter of fact manner. "I am quite sure you are ill, or at any rate run down," he persisted. "What you need is a change of air. I think I can allow myself a few hours' respite from affairs of state to-day. What say you if the two of us drive to our country house this morning and find out for ourselves the progress made by the workmen? I seem to remember that the contractor named a date, not far distant now, when the place would be habitable."

"There is nothing in the world that I should like better," said Joan.

Again Alec detected a strange undercurrent of emotion in her voice; but he attributed it to the lack of sleep she had complained of, and with his customary tact forbore from pressing her for any further explanation.

They took their drive, and to all outward semblance Joan enjoyed it thoroughly. Her drooping spirits revived long before the last straggling houses of Delgratz were left behind. She exhibited the keenest interest in the house and gardens. Although their inspection did not end until the sun was high in the heavens, she insisted upon entering every room and traversing many of the paths in the spacious grounds. She talked, too, with a fluency that in any other woman would have aroused a suspicion of effort; but Alec was too glad that the marked depression of the morning had passed to give heed to her half-hysterical mood. He entered with zest into her eager scrutiny of their future home, sought her advice on every little detail, and grew enthusiastic himself at the prospect of a speedy removal from the barnlike presidential palace to that leafy paradise. He remembered afterward how Joan's eyes dwelt longingly on an Italian garden that had always attracted her; but it was impossible that he should read the farewell in them.

They returned to the city in time for luncheon; then the King had to hurry away to try and overtake the day's engagements.

His parting words were an injunction to Joan that she should not go out again during the hot hours, but endeavor to obtain the rest of which she had been deprived during the night.

"Good-by, dear," she said. "You may feel quite certain that when next we meet I shall be a different person altogether to the pallid creature whom you met at breakfast this morning."

Alec was still conscious of some strange detachment in her words. His earlier feeling that she was acting a part came back with renewed force; but he again attributed it to the reaction that comes to highly strung natures after a surfeit of excitement in the midst of a new and difficult environment.

He kissed her tenderly, and Joan seemed to be on the verge of tears. He was puzzled; but thought it best to refrain from comment. "Poor girl!" he said to himself. "She feels it hard to be surrounded by people who are all strangers, and mostly shut off by the barrier of language."

But he was in no sense alarmed. He left the palace convinced that a few hours of repose would bring back the color to her cheeks and the natural buoyancy to her manner. Then he meant to chaff her about her distracted air; for Joan was no neurotic subject, and she herself would be the first to laugh at the nervous fit of the morning.

Poluski, hard at work at his frescoes since an early hour, and grudgingly snatching a hasty meal at midday, was surprised when Joan came to him after the King's departure and told him that she meant to finish her picture that afternoon. He made no comment, however, indeed he was glad of her company, and the two drove away together in the capacious closed carriage that brought them to and fro between cathedral and palace. During their working hours, they refused to be hampered by the presence of servants. An old Greek, who acted as caretaker, took charge of canvases, easels, paintboxes, and other utensils of the painter's craft, and he came out gleefully from his lodge as soon as their vehicle rumbled under the deep arch of the outer porch.

Usually, Joan had a word and a smile for him, though the extent of her Greek conversation was a phrase or two learned from Felix; but to-day she hardly seemed to see him, and lost not a moment in settling down to work. She had not much to do; in fact, so far as Felix took note of her action, after adjusting the canvas and mixing some colors on the palette, she sat idle for a long time, and even then occupied herself with an unnecessary deepening of tints in the picture, which already displayed an amazing resemblance to its stilted and highly colored prototype.

At last she spoke, and Felix, perched on a platform above her head, was almost startled by the sorrow laden cadence of her voice.

"I did not really come here to-day to paint," she said. "The picture is finished; my work in Delgratz is ended. You and Pauline are the only two people in the world whom I can trust, and I have brought you here, Felix, to tell you that I am leaving Delgratz to-night."

The hunchback slid down from the little scaffolding he had constructed to enable him to survey the large area covered by the frescoes. "I suppose I have understood what you said," he cried. "It is impossible to focus one's thoughts properly on the spoken word when a huge dome adds vibrations of its own, and I admit that I am invariably irritated myself when I state a remarkable fact with the utmost plainness and people pretend to be either deaf or dull of comprehension."

That was Poluski's way. He never would take one seriously; but Joan merely sighed and bent her head.

"You say you are leaving Delgratz to-night! May one ask why?" he went on, dropping his bantering manner at once.

"No," she said.

Felix bassooned a few deep notes between his lips. "You have some good reason for telling me that, I presume?" he muttered, uttering the first words that occurred to his perplexed brain.

"Yes, the very best of reasons, or at least the most convincing. I cannot remain here unless I marry Alec, and as I have absolutely determined not to marry him, it follows that I must go."

"Ah, you are willing to give some sort of reason, then," he said. "At present I am muddled. One grasps that unless you marry Alec you must go; but why not marry Alec? It sounds like a proposition of Euclid with the main clauses omitted."

"I am sorry, Felix, but I cannot explain myself further. You came to Delgratz with me; will you return with me to Paris? If not, will you at least promise to help me to get away and keep secret the fact that I am going?"

Felix grew round eyed with amazement; but he managed to control his tongue. "You are asking a good deal, dear," he said. "Do you know what you are doing? Do you realize what your action will mean to Alec? What has happened? Some lover's tiff. That is unlike you, Joan. If you run off in this fashion, you will be trying most deliberately to break poor Alec's heart."

Joan uttered a queer little choking sob, yet recovered her self control with a rapidity that disconcerted Felix far more than she imagined at the moment.

"He will suffer, I know," she murmured, "and it does not console me to feel that in the end I shall suffer far more; but I am going, Felix, whatsoever the cost, no matter whose heart may be broken. Heaven help me! I must go, and I look to you for assistance. Oh, my friend, my friend! I have only you in all the world. Do not desert me in my need!"

She had never before seen Felix really angry; but even in the extremity of her distress she could not fail to note a strange glitter in the gray eyes now fixed on her in a fiery underlook. The little man was deeply moved; for once in his life he did not care how much he showed his resentment.

"Saperlotte!" he growled. "What has come to you? Is it you who speak, or the devil? You are possessed of a fiend, Joan, a fiend that is tempting you to do this wrong!"

Joan rose, pale faced and resolute. Despite the flood of rage and despair that surged in Poluski's quivering frame, she reminded him of a glimpse he caught of her in that last desperate moment when the door of the hotel was battered open by the insurgents and her mind was already fixed on death as a blessed relief from the horror of life.

"I only ask you to believe in my unalterable purpose," she said with a calmness that stupefied him. "If no other means presents itself, I should wander out of the palace in the darkness and endeavor to reach Austria by the ferry across the Danube. I believe there are difficulties for the stranger if one goes that way; but again I throw myself on your mercy, Felix, and appeal to you for guidance and help. This is my worst hour. If you fail me now, I shall indeed be wretched."

Felix leaned against an upright of the scaffolding and passed a trembling hand over his forehead. "Forgive me, Joan, if I have spoken harshly!" he muttered in the dubious voice of a man who hardly knows what he is saying.

"There is nothing to forgive. It is I, rather, who should seek forgiveness from you for imposing this cruel test of friendship. But what can I do, Felix? I am a woman and alone, and, when I think of what lies before me, I am afraid."

With a great effort he steadied himself. Placing both hands on the girl's shoulders, he turned her face to the light that fell from a small rose window in a side aisle. In silence he looked at her, seeking to wring the secret of this madness from her steadfast eyes.

"Ma belle," he cried suddenly, "I am beginning to believe that you are in earnest."

"No matter how many years it may please God to leave me on earth, I shall never be more resolved on anything than on my departure from Delgratz to-night."

"You place trust in me, you say in one breath, yet you deny it in another. Tell me then, Joan, what is the obstacle that has arisen to prevent you from marrying Alec? It all hinges on that. Who has been lying to you?"

She could not continue to meet his accusing eyes. It seemed to her that if he urged her more her heart would burst. Yielding to the impulse of the hunted animal, she wrenched herself free and turned to run somewhere, anywhere, so that she might avoid his merciless inquisition. A harsh laugh fell on her ears, and nothing more effective to put a stop to her flight could have been devised.

"Name of a name!" he roared, "shall we not take our pictures? If we are false to all else, let us at least be true to our harmless daubs!"

The taunt was undeserved and glanced unheeded from the shield of the girl's utter misery. Perhaps because that was so, the Pole's next words were tender and soothing.

"Come, then, my Joan," he growled, "never shall it be said against me that I deserted a comrade in distress. I hoped to see you happily wedded. It was my fantasy that Alec and you would inaugurate a new line of monarchs and thus bring about the social revolution from an unexpected quarter. But I was mistaken. Holy blue! never was man so led astray since Eve strolled into the wro

ng orchard and brought Adam with her!"

By this time he had caught her. He held her arm, and began to stroke one of her hands softly as if she had shown symptoms of falling in a faint. "We will go, mignonne," he soothed her, "you and I, and none here shall know till we have crossed the frontier. Not even then will they guess what has become of us, unless you find it in your heart to leave some little word for Alec. You will do that? You will save him from despair, from the torture of doubt--"

"Oh, Felix, spare me!" she sobbed convulsively.

"But one must look squarely at the facts, mignonne. If you run away and give no sign, it can only be supposed that you have met with some evil fate. There are others than Alec who will think that disaster has befallen you, and they will have uneasy souls, and Alec will look into their guilty faces with the eyes of a wrathful lover, which at such times can be superhuman, terrible, heart piercing. There is no knowing whose blood will stain his hands then; for he will accept from no one but yourself the assurance that you have left him of your own free will."

"That, at least, is true," she said wearily. "I shall write a letter which must be given to him when I am gone."

"Grand Dieu! what a resolute will is yours, Joan! Have you counted the cost? Leave Alec out of it; but do you think his hog of a father, his easily swayed mother, Stampoff, the short sighted and patriotic, or that scheming Greek and his puppet Marulitch, will gain the ends for which, between them, they have contrived your flight? Do you know Alec so little as to believe that he will leave the field clear to that crew? Why, dear heart, he will sweep them aside like an angry god! They have bewitched your brain with some tale of the evil that will accrue to the King if he weds the woman he loves. If that is all, it is a fiction fit only to frighten a child. Hear me, Joan! You are not helping Alec by tearing yourself away from Delgratz; but condemning to the deepest hell not him alone but some millions of people who have done no wrong. They gave their honest affections to this boy, because he strikes their imagination as a King sent straight from Heaven. It is a vile plot, dear heart, to drive Alec from Kosnovia. How can you, of all women, lend yourself to it?"

Felix could not guess how his words lacerated the unhappy girl's soul; but she did not falter in her purpose, and again endeavored to rush from the church. Poluski uttered a queer click with his tongue. It testified that he had done his uttermost and failed.

"Be it so, then!" he muttered. "Help me to pack up these masterpieces. I can plan and scheme with any man living; but I cannot cope with heavy parcels of holiness."

Joan, distraught though she was, felt that he had given way. Without another word she assisted in packing the carriage with their canvases and other belongings. The old Greek caretaker hobbled after them when he saw that they were going without depositing their paraphernalia in the lodge as usual.

"You will come back some day and copy another picture, I hope, Excellency," he cried, doffing his cap to Joan.

She opened her purse, since she did not understand what the old man was saying.

"No, no, Excellency," he protested. "The King himself told me you were not to be pestered by beggars. I have threatened to crack the skulls of one or two who persisted in annoying you, and it would ill become me to take a reward for doing what the King ordered."

"He will not accept anything," said Felix. "I may not tell you what else he said, since he only put my arguments in simpler words."

He shot a quick look at her, hoping to find some slight sign of weakening; but her marble face wore the expression of one who has suffered so greatly that the capacity for suffering is exhausted. From that instant Felix urged her no more. He obeyed her without question or protest, contriving matters so that when she quitted the palace, deeply veiled, to walk to the station, the soldiers on guard imagined she was a serving maid going into the town.

Pauline, though prepared to be faithful at any hazard, wept when she was told that she must stay in Delgratz and face the storm that would rage when she delivered into the King's own hand the letter Joan intrusted to her care. But even Pauline herself realized that if her mistress was to escape from Delgratz unnoticed, she, the maid, must remain there till the following day. By that time there would be no reason why Joan's maid should not leave openly for the west, and the Frenchwoman was only too thankful at the prospect of a speedy exit from "this city of brigands" to protest too strenuously against the r?le thrust upon her by Felix.

As events unrolled themselves, the two travelers encountered no difficulty in leaving Delgratz. It will be remembered that Beliani's foresight had provided them with return tickets to Paris, and this circumstance aided them greatly. In those closely guarded lands where keen eyed scrutineers keep watch and ward over a frontier, the production of the return half of a ticket issued in the same city as a passport at once lulls any doubt that might arise otherwise.

Moreover, Joan and Felix occupied separate carriages, and the Belgrade officials, concerned only with the examination of tickets, gave no heed to them, though one man seemed to recognize Felix and grinned in a friendly way. Passport formalities did not trouble them till the train had crossed the Tave River and was already in Austrian territory. The frontier officers could not possibly know them. Their papers were in order, and received only a passing glance. Even Joan, adrift in a sea of trouble, saw that it was a far easier matter to leave the Balkan area than to enter it.

They arranged to meet in the dining saloon, when all necessity for further precaution would have disappeared. Felix was astounded at the self possession Joan now displayed. She was pale but quite calm. Her eyes were clear and showed no traces of grief. Even her very manner was reverting to that good humored tone of frank camaraderie that the unavoidable ceremoniousness of the last fortnight had kept in subjection. Felix was secretly amazed at these things; but in the depths of his own complex nature were hidden away, wholly unknown to the little hunchback himself, certain feminine characteristics which enabled him dimly to understand that the woman who suffers most is she who has the strength and the courage to carry her head most proudly before the storm.

"Well," said he when the mail train had left Semlin far behind and they were speeding northward through the night to Budapest,-"well, Joan, now that the severance is complete, do you still refuse me your confidence?"

Her luminous eyes dwelt on his with a sad smile. She had closed the gates of her paradise, and there was to be no faint hearted looking backward.

"No," she said, "I have attained my end. It is due to you, my friend, that I should tell you why I have abandoned the only man I shall ever love. It lay with me to choose between his success or failure; perhaps there rested on my frail shoulders the more dreadful issues of life and death. If I had married Alec, I should have pulled him down to ruin, even to the grave. What else would you have me do but save him, no matter what the cost to myself?"

He propped his chin on his hands and surveyed her quizzically. Felix, despite his protests, was not enamoured of Delgratz, and his mercurial temperament rejoiced in the near approach of his beloved Paris.

"All this sounds heroic and therefore unconvincing," he said. "I do not want to condemn your motives before I know them, Joan; but I hope you will allow me to criticize false sentiment," he added, seeing the expression of pain that for an instant mastered her stoicism and threw its dull shadow across her face.

"Say what pleases you, Felix," she replied gently. "I shall not suffer more than I have already endured. I think I am benumbed now; but at least I am sure that I have acted right. There were influences at work in Delgratz of which even you had no cognizance. Popular as Alec seemed to be, every prejudice of the Serb was arrayed against him. He appealed to the imagination of the people as a brave and gallant figure; but he is and will ever remain a foreigner among them. They are a race apart, and Alec is not of them, and it would have been a fatal error to give them as a Queen another foreigner like himself.

"Alone, he will win his way. In the course of years he cannot fail to identify himself more and more with their interests; he will-some day-marry a Princess of the blood to which he belongs. That will help Kosnovia to forget that he was neither born nor bred in the country, and the presence of a Serbian consort will tend to consolidate his reign. It would have been quite different if he and I were married within a few weeks. Those who are opposed to him-and they are far more numerous than you may guess at this moment-would have been given a most powerful argument by the refusal of the Greek archimandrite to perform the ceremony. You see, Alec himself is not a member of the national church, nor am I, and a drawback that may be overlooked when a Slav Princess becomes Queen of Kosnovia would have been a fatal thing for me."

Poluski could not but admire Joan's splendid detachment in speaking of Alec's hypothetical wife. His thin lips creased in a satirical grin. "Is that it," said he, "the everlasting religious difficulty? No, my belle, tell that to the marines, or, at any rate, to some guileless person not versed in Kosnovian history! There never yet was bloodstained conqueror or evil living Prince in that unhappy city of Delgratz who failed to obtain the sanction of orthodoxy for his worst deeds, whether in beheading a rival or divorcing a wife."

Joan hesitated. She was obviously choosing her words; but the burden laid upon her was too great for the hour to prevent her from adopting a subterfuge that would surely be detected by her shrewd companion. "I do not wish to lay too much stress upon that particular phase of the matter," she said at last. "It was only one of many. In itself it might have been surmounted; but when the church, a large section of the army, and nearly all the higher officials of the State are ready to combine against Alec's uncompromising sincerity of purpose, it was asking too much of me knowingly to provide the special excuse for his downfall."

There was silence for a little while, and Poluski's keen gray eyes still dwelt searchingly on the girl's sorrow laden though resigned features. She did not flinch from the scrutiny, and there was a certain sadness in the Pole's next comment.

"What you say, ma petite, sounds very like the dry-as-dust utterances of some podgy Minister of State; they are far from being the words of a woman who loves, and so they are not yours."

"Perhaps you are right, Felix," she said wearily. "Perhaps, had I told Alec these things, he might have silenced my doubts and persuaded me to dare everything for his sake."

"Yet, knowing this, you are here!" he cried, his conscience stinging him at the memory of that forsaken King mourning his lost bride.

"Yes, and no consideration would induce me to return."

"Ah, then there is something that you have not yet told me."

"Yes, and it can never be told, Felix. Be content, my friend, with that assurance. There is nothing that can happen which has the power to change my decision. Heaven help me, I can never marry Alec!"

"The true cause must remain a secret!"

"Yes."

"A woman's secret?"

"Yes, my secret."

His eyes sparkled. He bent nearer and sank his voice to a deep whisper, for there were others in the carriage, and that which he had to say must reach her ears only.

"Not yours, Joan. Oh, no! Not yours. Another woman's. Ha! Blind that I was-now I have it! So that is why you are running away. They threatened to drag Alec headlong from the throne unless you agreed. My poor girl, you might have told me sooner. The knowledge has been here, lurking in the back of my head for years; but I never gave a thought to it. Why should I? Who would have dreamed of such a tragicomedy? Joan, to-day in the cathedral I could have bound you with ropes if that would have served to keep you in Delgratz; but now I kiss the hem of your dress. My poor girl, my own dear Joan, how you must have suffered! Yet I envy you-I do, on my soul! Life becomes ennobled by actions such as yours. And Alec must never know what you have done for him. That is both the grandeur and the pathos of it. Joan, my precious, your namesake was burnt on the pyre for a King's cause, yet her deed would rank no higher than yours if the world might be allowed to judge between you. But do not dream that your romance is ended. Saperlotte! Old Dame Nature is a better dramatist than that. If she has contrived so much for you in a little month, what can she not accomplish in a year?"

And, in a perfect frenzy of excitement, he threw himself back in his chair and amazed another group of cosmopolitan diners by singing.

But this time Joan did not care who stared or whispered. She sat there, a beautiful statue, sorely stricken, and not daring to believe that the hour of blessedness promised in Poluski's song would be vouchsafed after many years of pain.

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