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   Chapter 12 THE STORM BREAKS

A Son of the Immortals By Louis Tracy Characters: 30397

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The King reached his temporary residence hot and tired after an exhausting day. It chanced that at a meeting of the Ministry, which he attended late in the afternoon, the question of Beliani's appointment as Minister of Finance came up for settlement. It was not determined without some bickering, and an undercurrent of dislike if not of positive hatred of the man quickly made itself apparent.

The Serb and the Greek differ in most essentials. The one is by habit and training a good soldier, a proverbial idler, an easygoing optimist endowed with genial temper and a happy-go-lucky nature, capable indeed of extremes, yet mostly inclined to the tolerant indifference that leaves things as they are; the other, whose martial qualities have vanished in the melting pot of time, has developed the defensive traits that come to the aid of all races who can no longer maintain their cause in the tented field. The Greek is the usurer of the East. He wins his way by using his subtle wits, and the less adroit people on whom he preys soon learn to regard him with distrust that often culminates in personal violence in those half-civilized communities where law and order are not maintained with a heavy hand.

The Kosnovian Ministry, of course, consisted of men of a much higher type than the rude peasantry that made up the bulk of the nation. But at heart they were anti-Greek, and some among them retained lively memories of Beliani's methods when he was in power a decade earlier. No one disputed his ability, yet none, save the King, had a good word for him. It was recognized, however, that under the new dominion his opportunities for peculation at the expense of the public would be few and far between.

Alexis III. had already made his influence felt in each department of State. He was ready to listen to every man's grievances, and to adjust them if possible; he held the scales evenly between the bureaucracy and the people. The official element knew full well that it had nothing to fear from the King's anger if a disputed action could be justified, while those traders and others who had occasion to deal with any of the great departments were beginning to understand that they need not dread the vengeance of an executive against whose exactions they had cause to complain.

After some discussion, therefore, a guarded sanction was given to Beliani's appointment. It was probable that each man in the Council had already been approached in the Greek's behalf, and that the protests uttered were rather by way of safety valves in view of possible criticism in the future than intended to exclude this dreaded candidate from office.

The matter might have ended there for the moment had not the President of the Assembly given a somewhat maladroit twist to the discussion when the King mentioned Beliani's efforts with regard to an Austrian loan.

"That, at least, we should oppose most bitterly," said Nesimir. "We of the Balkans should never accept favors from the hand of Austria. Our true ally is Russia, and any outside aid received by Kosnovia should come from Russia alone."

Alec had learned the value of patience with mediocrities such as Sergius Nesimir. He never argued with them. He contented himself with pointing out the facts, and left the rest to time; for he had soon discovered that the weak man talks himself into agreement with the strong one.

"I would remind you that in this matter we are merely entering into an ordinary business arrangement," he said. "I have heard of no concessions attached to the loan. We are merely going into the money market like any other borrower, and will undertake to pay such reasonable interest as the lenders deem compatible with the security we offer."

"I think your Majesty will find that Austria will impose her own terms," persisted the President.

"Why do you harp on Austria in this connection?" asked the King. "Monsieur Beliani spoke of Viennese bankers. They are not Austria. This loan is not so much a matter of State as of sound finance."

"I hope your Majesty is right in that assumption," was the stubborn answer; "but I have reason to believe that, under certain contingencies, not only would Russia assist us in this respect, but she would at once take steps toward recognizing your Majesty's accession to the throne."

"Contingencies!" cried Alec, forced for the nonce to maintain the discussion. "What are they? What is the difference between your suspected Austrian terms and your Russian contingencies?"

"In the first place, your Majesty, Russia is anxious to consolidate the good feeling that exists among the Slav nations by following a settled policy in the matter of railway communication. Your Majesty's own projects favor the Russian proposals, whereas Austria will surely stipulate that any money of hers expended on railways shall be devoted to her rival plans. In the second--"

The President paused and looked round among his colleagues as though to seek their encouragement. He knew he was about to utter words of daring significance, and his nerve failed. An appreciative murmur ran through the room. It seemed to give the stout President a degree of confidence.

"Well?" said the King, who noted the glance and the hum of approval, and wondered what lay behind it all.

"The really vital question before us to-day is your Majesty's marriage," exclaimed the other, paling somewhat, now that the fateful topic was broached.

"I agree with you," said Alec, smiling. "Its importance to myself is self evident; but I fail utterly to see how the appearance of a Queen in Delgratz will affect our political relations with our neighbors. I do not propose to borrow money from Austria to pay for my wife's wedding presents."

Nesimir was long in answering. He seemed to be waiting for some other member of the Council to take part in the discussion; but each man sat silent and embarrassed, and it was incumbent on their leader to declare himself anew.

"It is far from my thoughts to wish to give any offense to your Majesty; but I am constrained to tell you," he said, "that there is a growing sentiment among all classes of your subjects that when you look for a consort you should seek her among our kith and kin."

"Am I to understand, then, that the lady whom I am about to marry has not found favor among you?"

Alec spoke quietly; but there was a ring of steel in his voice that might have warned a bolder man than the President. His stern glance traveled round the Council table; but he saw only downcast and somber faces. One thing was abundantly clear,-this attack on Joan was premeditated. He wondered who had contrived it.

"It is not that the lady does not command our favor," declared the spokesman, very pale now and drumming nervously with his fingers on the edge of a blotting pad. "Those of us who have met her are charmed with her manners and appearance, and our only regret is that Providence did not ordain that her birthplace should be on the right side of the Danube."

"Oddly enough, I was born in New York," interrupted Alec, with a touch of sarcasm that was not lost on his hearers.

"Your Majesty was born a Delgrado," said the President, "and if Miss Joan Vernon could claim even the remotest family connection with one of the leading houses of Kosnovia, Montenegro, or even Bulgaria, every man here would hail your Majesty's choice in a chorus of approval."

"Since when has the supposed drawback of my intended wife's nationality come into such prominence?" demanded the King sharply.

"Since it became known that your Majesty meant to marry a lady whose avowed object in coming to Delgratz was to follow her occupation as an artist."

Stampoff's harsh accents broke in roughly on a discussion which had hitherto been marked by polite deference on the part of its originator.

"What! are you too against me, General?" cried Alec, wheeling round and meeting the fierce eyes of the old patriot who sat glaring at him across the Council table.

"Yes, in that matter," was the uncompromising answer. "We feel that our King must be one of ourselves, and he can never be that if his wife differs from us in race, in language, in religion, in everything that knits a ruler to his subjects."

Alec arose with a good natured laugh. "Monsieur Nesimir spoke of contingencies," he said, "and the word seems to imply that counter proposals to those of Monsieur Beliani have already been put forward. Has the Russian Ambassador been conducting negotiations with my Ministers without my knowledge-behind my back, as it were?"

"There is no taint of Muscovite intrigue about my attitude!" exclaimed Stampoff with a vehemence that showed how deeply he was moved. "I have given the best years of my life to my country, and I am too old now to be forced to act against my principles. Every man in this room is a Slav, and we Slavs must pull together or we are lost. I, at any rate, am not afraid to register an emphatic protest against my King's marriage with a lady, no matter how estimable personally, whose presence in Delgratz as our Queen would be a national calamity. If I speak strongly, it is because I feel so strongly in this matter. The rulers of States such as ours cannot afford to be swayed by sentiment. When your Majesty weds, you ought to choose your wife among the Princesses of Montenegro. Had I the slightest inkling of any other design on your part, I should have stipulated this before we left Paris."

"Ah," said Alec thoughtfully, "it is too late now, General, to talk of stipulations that were not made. And, indeed, one might reasonably ask who empowered you to make them?"

"God's bones! who should speak for Kosnovia if not I?"

"Your patriotism has never been questioned, General," said Alec with a friendly smile; but Stampoff was not to be placated, being of the fiery type of reformer who refuses to listen to any opinion that runs counter to his own.

He too rose and faced the Council. "What has palsied your tongues?" he cried. "You were all ready enough to declare your convictions before the King arrived. He is here now. Tell him, then, do you approve of his proposed marriage-yes or no!"

Heads were shaken. A few cried "No." Alec saw clearly that he could not count on the support of one among those present. He did not shirk the issue. He determined that it should be dealt with at once if possible. If not, he had already decided on his own line of action.

"I am sorry that in such a matter, affecting, as it does, the whole of my future life," he said, "I should be so completely at variance with what is evidently the common view of my trusted friends in this Council; but I cannot forget that, for good or ill, I am King of Kosnovia, while you may rest assured, gentlemen, that no consideration you can urge will prevent me from marrying the lady of my choice. Of course, it is conceivable that my kingship and my marriage may clash. In that event I shall take the consequences of my action; I must even justify myself to the Assembly, if need be. It is well that the President should have made me acquainted with the views you all hold with such apparent unanimity. It is also well that you should be aware of my decision. Very often, when men think they have reached absolute disagreement, a way opens itself unexpectedly whereby the difficulties vanish. In this instance, certainly, it is hard to see how any solution of our dispute can be attained that shall satisfy both you and me.

"I shall marry Miss Vernon, probably within a fortnight. I shall marry her, gentlemen, even though it costs me my throne; but I would remind you that we in this room are not Kosnovia. Let us keep our heads and guard our tempers. If an appeal is to be made to the nation, let it be by votes rather than by swords. I have never deviated from my fixed principle that I would sooner pass the remainder of my life poor and unknown than obtain an hour's extension of my rule by spilling the blood of an unoffending people. But I ask from you the same concession that I am willing to make myself. Until deposed, I retain the privilege of a King. Is this matter to be regarded as a test of ministerial confidence? Do all you gentlemen resign your portfolios?"

The President, agitated and stuttering, sprang to his feet. "For my part," he declared, "I expressed my views in an informal manner."

"Yes, yes," agreed several voices. The turn given to the discussion by Alec was quite unforeseen and far from their liking.

"It has ever been your Majesty's wish that we should state our opinions fully and freely," continued the agitated Nesimir. "I, for one, was only anxious to make known to you the sentiments that obtain currency in my own circle. I may be wrong. Delgratz is not Kosnovia--"

"Rubbish!" shouted Stampoff, hammering the table with a clenched fist. "That which has been said here to-day will be heard openly in the streets of the capital to-night. To-morrow it will be preached far and wide throughout the confines of the country by every man who has its welfare at heart. This marriage must not take place, I say! I came here from exile with the King and was prepared to give my life to establish him on the throne. I am prepared now to offer the same poor sacrifice if it will save my beloved land from a catastrophe-and this proposed mesalliance is nothing less!"

A curious thrill convulsed the Council. Every Serb there was stirred by the General's bold avowal; but Alec stilled the rising storm by a calm announcement:

"I suggest that we defer this discussion till to-morrow morning," he said. "It has found me unprepared, and, if I am not very much mistaken, many of the gentlemen here did not anticipate that the question would be raised to-day in its present acute form."

It was evident that the majority of ministers favored the adoption of the King's proposal; but Stampoff scowled at them angrily and drowned their timorous agreement by his resentful cry:

"God's bones! Why wait till to-morrow?"

Then, indeed, Alec was stung beyond endurance. "Perhaps, in the circumstances, General," he said, "it would be advisable that you should absent yourself from to-morrow's Council."

"Not while I am Minister for War!" came the fiery response.

"That is for you to decide," said the King.

"Then I decide now! I resign!"

"Excellent! By that means you salve your conscience; whereas I hope still to retain the friendship of Kosnovia's most faithful son by refusing to accept your resignation."

A shout of applause drowned Stampoff's vehement protest, and Alec seized the opportunity to hurry from the Council chamber. He did not try to conceal from himself the serious nature of this unexpected crisis, though he was far from acknowledging that the people at large attached such significance to his wife's nationality as Stampoff and the others professed to believe. Puzzle his wits as he might, and did, he failed utterly to account for Stampoff's uncompromising tone. The old Serb and he were the best of friends. He had taken no single step without first consulting the man who had been his political tutor since his boyhood. Even w

hen he ran counter to Stampoff's advice, he had always listened to it eagerly, and he invariably took the utmost pains to show why he had adopted another course.

Till that day there had never been the shadow of a breach between them. How, then, was the War Minister's irreconcilable attitude to be explained? Was Cousin Julius pulling the strings in some unrecognized manner? Was Beliani a party to the scheme? These questions must be answered, and speedily. Meanwhile, by hook or by crook, he must keep all knowledge of the dispute from Joan's ears until after the wedding.

In the palace courtyard a man standing near the gates tried to pass the sentries when the King arrived. He was instantly collared. Undersized, poorly clad, and poverty stricken in appearance, he was hustled unmercifully by a stalwart Albanian policeman until Alec's attention was drawn to the scuffle.

A white despairing face became visible for a moment, and a choking voice cried, "Save me, your Majesty! I am John Sobieski!"

"Sobieski!" thought Alec, ordering his carriage to stop and alighting quickly. "That is the Polish hotel waiter of whom Felix spoke to me some few days ago. He said the man had done his best to bring assistance; but his efforts were frustrated by some stupid blunder here, and he thought something ought to be done for him. I promised to attend to it; but the thing slipped my mind."

By this time he had reached the policeman, who, assisted by a soldier, was dragging the protesting waiter to the guardroom.

"Release that man!" he said.

The man saluted, and the trembling Sobieski fell on his knees on the pavement.

"Oh, get up," said the King, who felt a special aversion to such a display of abasement. "Recover your wits, man, and tell me what you want!"

"I ask protection, your Majesty," murmured the desperate Sobieski. "My life is in danger. I came here to see Monsieur Poluski; but they told me he was not at home. I have been turned out of my situation; so I have nowhere to go. If I am found wandering in the streets to-night, I shall be killed."

"At any rate, you seem to be thoroughly frightened," cried Alec with a reassuring smile. "Take charge of him," he said to the pandur, "and have him sent to my bureau in five minutes!"

The bureau in question was that apartment on the first floor overlooking the courtyard, in which Alec had preferred his claim to the throne of Kosnovia to the perplexed President of the embryo Republic. It was there, too, that Felix Poluski had spoken those plain words to Prince Michael Delgrado, and its situation was so convenient for the King's daily comings and goings that he had utilized it temporarily as an office and private audience chamber.

At the top of the stairs he happened to catch sight of Pauline, Joan's staid looking maid. Though he obtained only a casual glimpse of her, he fancied that she was distressed about something, and it occurred to him after he was in the room and the door was closed that perhaps she wished to give him a message. Bosko, the taciturn Albanian whom he had now definitely appointed as his confidential attendant, was standing near the table with a bundle of documents that demanded the King's signature.

Realizing that the Frenchwoman would meet Bosko in a minute or two when he went out with the signed papers, and could then make known her wish to speak to the King if such was her intention, Alec bent over the table and began to peruse several departmental decrees hurriedly. He made it a rule never to append his name to any State paper without mastering its contents, and one of the palace guards brought in Sobieski before Alec had concluded his self imposed task. As it happened, the various items were mere formalities, and when he wrote "Alexis R." for the last time, Bosko and the soldier left the room, and the frightened little Pole found himself alone with the King.

"Now," said Alec kindly, "tell me what you want and why you are so afraid?"

Sobieski at once plunged into a rambling statement. He spoke the Kosnovian language with the fluent inaccuracy of his class; but Alec's alert ears had no difficulty in following his meaning. His story was that several customers of the café had denounced him to the proprietor as a spy in the King's service, while some of them went so far as to charge him with responsibility for the deaths of those thirty-one heroes of the Seventh Regiment whose bodies had been found on the stairs and first floor landing of the hotel. His master had no option but to discharge him, and Sobieski felt that he had good reason to fear that his life was in danger. Alec pooh-poohed the notion; but the timid little waiter was so woebegone that the King pitied him.

"Tell me exactly what you did on the day of the revolt," he said. "You came here, I understand. How was it that no one listened to you?"

"Oh, they did, your Majesty," protested Sobieski. "Your Majesty's own father brought me into the hall and kept me there nearly five minutes. He did not believe a word I said, and was very angry with me for bringing such an alarming story to the palace. At last, by good fortune, Monsieur Nesimir appeared; but even then I should have been taken away in custody if Monsieur Poluski had not caused me to be released."

Despite its sinister significance, Alec could not choose but credit this amazing statement. He wondered why Felix had not told him the facts in detail afterward; but he knew that the hunchback's mind worked in strange grooves, and it was probable that his silence was dictated by some powerful motive. In any event, the incident was an unpleasant reminder of certain nebulous doubts that he had striven to crush, and it was better that this scared rabbit of a man should not remain in Delgratz and become the victim of some vendetta which might bring the whole odd story into prominence.

"You want to leave the city, I take it?" said he after a thoughtful pause, in which he took a slow turn up and down the room.

"I dare not remain here any longer, your Majesty. I came to-night to ask Monsieur Poluski to be good enough to give me money to take me to Warsaw."

"I think," said Alec, smiling, "he promised you, in my name, the wherewithal to buy a café."

"I fear I did not earn my reward, your Majesty," stuttered the other.

"Are cafés dear in Warsaw?" said the King, unlocking a drawer and producing roubles to the equivalent of five hundred dollars. "Here, this sum should give you a fresh start in life. All I ask in return is that you shall keep a still tongue about your recent share in local events."

Poor Sobieski's gratitude grew incoherent, especially when the King handed him over to the care of the attendant who had brought him to the bureau, with instructions that he was to be taken to the railway station and safeguarded there till the departure of the next train that crossed the frontier.

By that time the dinner hour was long past. Alec was disinclined for a heavy meal; so he went to his private suite, where he changed his clothes, contenting himself with some sandwiches, which he ate in a hurry and washed down with a glass of red wine.

Coming down stairs about an hour later, he passed the smoking-room. The door was open, and he saw that the men had already ended dinner. He was about to enter the music salon, to which his mother and Joan usually retired with the President's wife and daughter, when he met Pauline for the second time, and the Frenchwoman now approached him with the same marked nervousness in her demeanor that he had noticed when he saw her standing in the lobby.

"May I have a word with your Majesty in private?" she asked.

He was surprised; but again he believed she was probably bringing a message from Joan. He threw open the door of his office. "Come in here," he said. "What is it?"

She held out a letter, and he saw that her hand shook. "Mademoiselle asked me to give you this, your Majesty," she said. "I was to take care that you were alone when you received it."

"Something important then," he said with a laugh.

Crossing the room to the table on which stood the lamp by whose light he had scribbled "Alexis R." on the papers intrusted to Bosko, he opened the envelop, which bore in Joan's handwriting the simple superscription, "Alec," and began to read:

My Dear One:-When Pauline gives you this, I shall have left you forever. I am going from Delgratz, and I shall never see you again. I cannot marry you-but oh, my dear, my dear, I shall love you all my life! Try and forget me. I am acting for the best. Do not write to Paris or endeavor to find me. If it is God's will, we shall never meet again. I can scarcely see what I am writing for my tears. So good-by, my Alec! Be brave! Forgive me, and, in the years to come, try to forget our few days of happiness together.

Yours ever,

Joan.

He stood there stricken, almost paralyzed with the suddenness of the blow, wondering dumbly why Joan's hand should have inflicted it. The frightened Frenchwoman dared not speak or move. She watched him with that impersonal fear so readily aroused in one of her class by the terrifying spectacle of a strong man in his agony. At last he moved listlessly, as though his limbs had just been released from the rack. He held the letter under the lamp again and read it a second time, word for word. He seemed to be forcing himself to accept it as truth. This young King, so valiant, so resourceful, so prompt in action and judgment, could devise no plan, no means of rescue from the abyss. After an interval that neither the man nor the woman could measure, he turned his strained, staring eyes on the shrinking Pauline.

"Have I ever done you any harm?" he said in the low voice of utmost despair.

"Me, monsieur?" she gasped. "You harm me? No, indeed, I was only too proud to think my dear mistress should have won such a husband."

"Then you will answer my questions truly," he went on, his eyes devouring the woman's homely features as though he would fain seek some comfort therein.

"Oh yes, indeed, monsieur. Ask me anything. It is not that I have much to tell. Mademoiselle said, 'Give this letter to the King himself. Let it touch no other hand.' That is all, monsieur. She was weeping when she wrote it. Monsieur Poluski told me what to do to-morrow about my own journey. See, here are my tickets."

"Poluski!" said Alec, and the words came dully. "Has he too betrayed me?"

"He has gone with my mistress," sobbed Pauline. "It is not that they have betrayed you, monsieur; for mademoiselle looked like to die, and I have never seen any one more disturbed than Monsieur Poluski. He raved like a maniac when I asked him for one word of explanation."

"But what does it mean, woman? Do you understand what has happened? My promised wife has fled, bidding me not to dream of seeing her again, and with her has gone one of the few men alive in whom I had confidence. What is that but betrayal?"

"I do not profess to understand the ways of courts, monsieur," said Pauline, gathering a little courage, since the King appealed to her as a fellow mortal. "But in your case I do not think I should blame Mademoiselle Joan. She did not go because she had ceased to love you, monsieur. Sometimes a woman can love a man so well that she will leave him if she thinks it is for his good."

A light broke in on the darkness. Was Joan the victim of some deadly intrigue such as had sullied too often the records of the Kosnovian monarchy? How strange it was that he should come from that eventful meeting of the Cabinet and receive within the hour Joan's pathetic message of farewell! He stood and thought deeply again for many minutes, striving to conquer his laboring heart and throbbing brain, exerting manfully all his splendid resources of mind and body. Then he turned to the trembling Frenchwoman and said with almost uncanny gentleness:

"You have done what your mistress asked, Pauline. Come to me to-morrow before you go, and I will reward you for your faithful service. Leave me now; but tell none what has happened. I must have time to think, and it would help me if no other person in this house but you shares with me the knowledge of mademoiselle's departure."

Pauline went out, glad of her dismissal, yet sobbing with sympathy. Alec began to pace the length of the long dimly lighted room. Back and forth he went, thinking, knitting his brows in fierce effort to subdue his stunned faculties. By degrees the sad significance of Joan's words and actions during their visit that morning to the New Konak began to establish itself. He saw now that she was bidding farewell to her dream of happiness, deliberately torturing herself with a burden of memories. Even their parting kiss must have given her a twinge of direst agony; for the one thing he would never believe of Joan was that she had sacrificed him to some feminine whim, made him the sport of a woman's caprice.

She had been driven from him! By whom? He must discover that, and he gloated with almost insensate rage at the thought of strangling with his hands the wretch who had done this callous deed. Physical passion mastered him again, and it was not until he realized the folly of merely dreaming of vengeance that he forced himself anew into a semblance of calm. He knew that a man blinded with rage could not deal sanely with this problem of love and statecraft. At first he thought of questioning individually each person who, by the remotest chance, might be responsible for Joan's flight. But not only did his impatient heart spurn that slower method of inquisition; but he realized that he was more likely to discover the truth by gathering instantly in one room all those persons whose self interest pointed to his undoing. Somehow, Sobieski's disjointed narrative aroused a dreadful suspicion that was not to be quelled.

He summoned an attendant. "Ask Prince and Princess Delgrado to come here," he said. "Send to General Stampoff and tell him that the King urgently desires his presence. I believe that Monsieur Beliani and Count Julius Marulitch are in the smoking-room with Monsieur Nesimir. Ask those three gentlemen also to join me."

The attendant saluted and withdrew. Alec examined the door to make sure that the key was in the lock. Hardly conscious of his own purpose, he looked about for a weapon. In the place of honor, above the fireplace, hung the sword given him by his father in the Rue Boissière. It evoked bitter memories, and he swung on his heel with a curse, going to the window and staring out into the night. His brain seethed with strange imaginings, and his breast was on fire. The sight of that ridiculous sword lying in its sheath of velvet and gold seemed to reveal the hollowness of life, its mock tragedies, its real agony of tears. All at once the impulse seized him to look at the bright steel. With a savage laugh he sprang back across the room and took down the sword. The blade leaped forth at his clutch, and he kissed it in a frenzy.

"You weep, my Joan," he cried. "I know that you weep; but your tempter's lying heart shall shed drop for drop!"

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