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   Chapter 13 WHEREIN A REASON IS GIVEN FOR JOAN'S FLIGHT

A Son of the Immortals By Louis Tracy Characters: 28766

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


A knock sounded on the door. "Their Excellencies the Prince and Princess Delgrado," announced Bosko, whose jaws underwent strange contortions at being compelled to utter so many syllables consecutively.

Alec thrust the sword into its scabbard. He did not put the weapon in its accustomed place; but hid it behind a fold of one of the heavy curtains that shrouded the windows.

"On the arrival of the others whom I have summoned you can usher them in without warning," he said to Bosko. "As soon as General Stampoff comes let no other person enter, and remain near the door until I call you."

"Oui, monsieur," said Bosko. King or no King, he was faithful to his scanty stock of French.

Prince Michael had dined well, having induced his host to depart from the King's injunctions as to the wine supplied at meals. His puffed face shone redly. It looked so gross and fat, perched on such a slender frame, that he resembled one of those diminutive yet monstrous caricatures of humanity seen on the pantomime stage.

"What is the trouble now, Alec?" he asked, glancing quickly round the spacious ill lighted apartment. "Your man came to me most mysteriously. His manner suggested treasons, spoils, and stratagems. I met your mother on the stairs. She too, it seems, is in demand."

Alec looked at the strange little creature whom he called father, and from the Prince's gargoyle head his gaze dwelt on his mother. She had uttered no word. Her eyes met his furtively for a second and then dropped. She was disturbed, obviously alarmed, and, with a curiously detached feeling of surprise, he guessed that she knew of Joan's departure. Well, he would bide his time until all possible conspirators were present. Then, by fair means or foul, he would wring the truth from them.

"I want to consult my mother and you as to a certain matter," he said, answering Prince Michael with apparent nonchalance. "I shall not detain you very long. Beliani, Julius, and Monsieur Nesimir are in the building, and then we only await Stampoff-with whom, by the way, I almost succeeded in quarreling to-day."

"A quarrel with Stampoff!" exclaimed the elder Delgrado, preening his chest and sticking out his chin in the exaggerated manner that warned those who knew him best of the imminent expression of a weighty opinion. "That will never do. Stampoff is the backbone of your administration. Were it not for our dear Paul, nothing would have been heard of a Delgrado in Kosnovia during the last quarter of a century. My dear boy, he has kept us alive politically. On no account can you afford to quarrel with Stampoff!"

Michael's big head wagged wisely; for champagne invariably made him talkative. Nesimir entered; with him came Count Julius and the Greek.

"Nice thing his Majesty has just told me!" cried Prince Michael, with owl-like gravity. "He says that Stampoff and he have disagreed. What has gone wrong? Have you heard of this most unfortunate estrangement, Monsieur Nesimir?"

The President, of course, assumed that some allusion had been made already to the scene in the Council chamber.

"A serious position has undoubtedly arisen," he said blandly. "His Majesty did not see his way clear to adopt certain recommendations put forward by his Ministers to-day,-by myself, I may say, acting on behalf of my colleagues," and he coughed deferentially,-"and General Stampoff took an active part in the debate. He set forth his views with-er-what I considered to be-er-unnecessary vehemence. But there," and a flourish of his hand indicated the nebulous nature of the dispute, "nothing was said that cannot be mended. His Majesty himself had the tact to adjourn the discussion till to-morrow, and I have little doubt that we shall all be prepared to consider the matter then like reasonable men."

"But what was it about?" broke in the Prince testily. "Was it with reference to Monsieur Beliani? I understood that his appointment to the Ministry of Finance was agreed to unanimously."

Beliani coughed, with the modesty of a man who might not discuss his own merits. The President hesitated before he answered this direct question. He cast a doubtful glance on the King, who had turned to the window again and seemed to give little heed to the conversation. But Alec wheeled round. He had heard every word, and, oddly enough in his own estimation, was already drawing conclusions that were not wholly unfavorable to Prince Michael.

"I have sent for Stampoff," he said, exercising amazing self control in concealing his fierce desire to have done with subterfuge, "and my message was couched in such terms that he will hardly refuse to honor us with his presence. Meanwhile, let me rescue you, Monsieur Nesimir, from the embarrassment of explaining away the difficulty you yourself brought about at to-day's meeting of the Cabinet. Monsieur Beliani had no rival; no one doubted his ability as a financier.

"The dispute arose in connection with my forthcoming marriage. It was suggested that I should contract an alliance with a Princess of some reigning house in the Balkans. The obvious corollary of that view was that Miss Joan Vernon could not be regarded as a suitable bride for the King of Kosnovia. I declined to accept the recommendation put forward by Monsieur Nesimir,-to whom, by the way, I attribute the utmost good faith,-and Stampoff, whose patriotic ardor halts at nothing, practically threatened me with the loss of my Kingdom as the penalty of disobedience. I said that I was quite willing to leave the whole matter to the arbitrament of the people. If they decide against my choice of a wife, it follows that there will be a vacancy in the Delgrado succession."

Princess Delgrado uttered a sigh that was almost a groan. She sank into the chair that her son had offered her when she entered the room, but rose to her feet again in manifest anxiety when her husband thrust himself in front of Alec.

"Are we to credit," he broke in furiously, "that you have actually placed your marriage with this girl before every tie of family and patrimony?"

"That is hardly a fair statement of the facts," said Alec coldly, though it cost him a violent effort to sustain this unnatural calm when he was aflame with desire to ascertain Joan's motive; "but it will serve. At any rate, we can defer discussion of that point for the present. We are gathered here to deal with quite another phase of the dispute, and, with your permission, I shall leave any further explanation until General Stampoff has arrived."

Although his utterance was measured and seemingly devoid of any excess of feeling, three, at least, of those in the room were not deceived by his attitude. Princess Delgrado seemed to be profoundly disquieted, while Beliani and Marulitch strove, not altogether with success, to carry themselves with the indifference that cloaks uneasiness. Alec turned again to the window and looked out.

A carriage drove into the courtyard and, though its occupant was invisible, he guessed rightly that Stampoff had not failed him. Some low conversation went on behind his back, and, although he was now marshaling his forces for the impending struggle, he became aware that the President was giving in greater detail an account of the afternoon's proceedings. But he listened only for the opening of the door. From that instant war should be declared, ruthless war on each and every person present who had reft him of his promised bride.

Stampoff entered. His keen old eyes instantly took in the significance of the gathering; but he saluted the King in silence, bowed to Princess Delgrado, and stood stockstill, not a yard from the door, in the attitude of one who awaits an order, or, it might be, a denunciation.

Alec approached, and the others, including Stampoff himself, thought that he meant to make some private communication to the newcomer before beginning a debate in which all might share. But he walked past Stampoff, locked the door, and put the key in his pocket.

Stampoff saluted the King in silence

Page 268

"Now," he said, "I am free to explain why we seven are gathered here to-night. Joan Vernon, who was to have become my wife within a few days, left Delgratz two hours ago by the mail train for Paris. She was accompanied by Felix Poluski, and the only reason for this clandestine journey is contained in a few lines of farewell addressed to me by the lady herself. In that letter she speaks of a barrier that renders impossible a marriage between her and me. I want to know what that barrier is and who erected it, and I shall discover both those things here and now, if I have to tear the knowledge from the heart of each man present!"

"A strange threat, Alec," panted Prince Michael, whose prominent eyes were bulging in semi-intoxication, though indeed he seemed suddenly to have realized the tremendous import of the King's statement,-"a strange threat to be uttered before your mother!"

"My mother loved Joan," came the impassioned cry. "She took her to her heart from the first hour, and she will bear with me now in my agony. Yet it may be that even my mother has deceived me. I cannot tell. Some of you here know, perhaps all; but I vow to Heaven I shall not flinch from my resolve to extract the truth, no matter with whom the responsibility rests!"

Princess Delgrado, trembling and ghastly pale, tottered to the chair again and gripped its back to prevent herself from falling. Under less strained conditions, it must have seemed bizarre in a company of men for whom polite attentions to the opposite sex were a fixed convention, that she should seek such support when her husband was standing by her side; but in that startled gathering small heed was given to aught else than the King's thrilling statement.

Though aware of his mother's distress, Alec did not move from the position he had taken up, facing all of them, and with that hidden sword within easy reach. Ever a dutiful and devoted son, he continued now to glower at the half-fainting woman as though she alone held the key of the mystery that resulted in Joan's disappearance. His impassioned eyes sought to peer into her very soul, and his nostrils quivered with the frenzied eagerness of one who awaited an answer to the implied question. In some indefinable way he had already begun to suspect the truth; for when the poor woman made no reply, though more than once her terror laden eyes met his in mute appeal, he whirled round on Marulitch.

"Perhaps this is an occasion when it is a woman's privilege to remain silent," he said bitterly. "So I begin with you, Julius. Save myself, you are the youngest here, and it would be fitting that you and I should determine this business. I warn you there will be no half measures! My life, at least, goes into the scale, and I care not who else adjusts the balance."

The pink and white tints had long fled from the Parisian dandy's complexion. In the dim light he looked livid, and his forehead bore bright beads of perspiration. But even Alec's fiery eyes discerned that he was not only afraid, but bewildered, and his voice cracked with excitement when he spoke.

"I declare by everything I hold sacred that I had no hand in this affair!" he said shrilly. "It is natural perhaps that you should suspect me, since I seem to have most to gain by any ill that befalls you; but, even in your anger, Alec, you should be just. No matter how fierce your emotions, you ought to realize that Miss Vernon's departure from Delgratz retards rather than helps any possible scheming on my part to succeed you on the throne."

"Now you, Beliani!" said Alec, striving to penetrate the mask that covered the one impassive face in the room. "It was you who contrived that my promised wife should come here from Paris. I can see your purpose now. At to-day's meeting of the Cabinet, while I was urging your advancement to power and dignity in the State, your hand was revealed in the opposition manifested to my marriage. Your cunning brain conceived the notion that I would not abandon the woman I loved for the sake of fifty Kingdoms. You read my mind aright; but, if it was you who brought about her flight, for what devilish reason did you depart from the subtle plot that might well have achieved your ends by means which you, at least, would consider fair?"

The Greek spread wide his hands in that characteristic gesture of his. As it happened, for once in his life he could afford to be sincere. "I can only assure your Majesty in the plainest possible terms," he said, "that until I heard the news from your own lips, I had no knowledge whatsoever of Miss Vernon's journey. Were I asked outside that locked door to state to the best of my belief where she might be found, I should have said that the slight illness of which she complained this morning had probably confined her to her room."

For an instant Alec scowled at the President; but Sergius Nesimir's vacuous features so obviously revealed his condition of speechless surprise and distress that there remained only Stampoff, Prince Michael-and his mother.

Adhering rigidly to his scheme of narrowing the field of inquiry by putting the same straight question to each individual in turn, Alec next appealed to the man who had helped him to gain a throne.

"Paul," he said, "you who were my friend and have become my enemy, you, at least, will speak the truth. Tell me, then, who has done this thing!"

Stampoff strode forward. He feared no one, this determined advocate of his country's cause, and he alone knew the real menace of the impending tornado. "Your mother ought not to be here, Alec," he muttered. "A little more of this and she will faint. Look at her! Have you no pity in your heart? This is no place for a woman. Unlock the door and let her be taken away!"

Alec moistened his dry lips with his tongue. He felt that he was finally touching sure ground in the morass through which he was floundering. "She and all of you must remain!" was his grim reply. "Answer my question! Was it you who drove Joan from Delgratz?"

"I counseled it," said Stampoff, folding his arms defiantly, and apparently careless whether or not the King sprang at his throat the next instant.

"Ah! At last! Thank God for one man who is honest, though he seems to have acted like a fiend! To whom did you counsel it?

To Joan herself?"

"No."

"Tell me, then, to whom?"

"I refuse."

"Stampoff, I shall draw a confession from you even though you die under my hands."

"I have faced death many times for the King of Kosnovia," said the harsh Serbian voice, "and I shall not shrink from it now, whether at the hands of the King or his foes. Send your mother away; then, perhaps, I may tell you what you want to know. The thing is done, and I, for one, shall not shirk the consequences."

"My mother again! Must she be spared though you have sacrificed her son?"

With a quick movement that sent tremors through Julius and the Greek, since he was compelled to pass close to both, he strode to the quaking Princess and caught her almost roughly by the shoulder.

"I feared this from the outset," he cried. "Did Stampoff make you the agent of his hellish work? Joan would trust you. Speak to me, mother! Was it you who wrought this evil?"

Her head was bent low, and she gasped something that sounded like an excuse. Alec recoiled from her in sudden horror. His hands were pressed feverishly to his forehead, and a hoarse cry of anguish came from his panting breast.

"I think I shall go mad!" he almost sobbed. "My own mother enter into this league against me! My mother--Oh, it cannot be! Stampoff, you, I know, would not scruple to sacrifice my dearest hopes to further your designs. Could you find none but my mother to aid you?"

He reeled as under a blow from an unseen hand, and at that unfortunate moment Prince Michael Delgrado thought fit to assert his authority.

"This ridiculous scene has gone far enough," he cried. "I was not aware that your pretty artist had quitted Delgratz; but it is quite evident that her departure is the best thing that could possibly happen for the good of the Kingdom. If Stampoff advised it, and your mother saw fit to point out to the girl the danger she was bringing to you and the monarchy, such action on their part has my complete approval."

Alec gazed blankly at the pompous little man. It needed but Prince Michael's outburst to stamp the whole episode with the seal of ineffable meanness and double dealing. He recalled the cowardice displayed by the Prince when Stampoff urged him to seize the vacant throne, and his gorge rose at the thought that Joan had been driven from his arms in order that this pygmy might secure the annual pittance that would supply his lusts in Paris. At that moment Alec was Berserk with impotent rage. His mother's complicity in the banishing of Joan denied him a victim on whom to wreak his wrath.

But there still remained a vengeance, dire and far reaching, which would teach a bitter lesson to those who had entered into so unworthy a conspiracy.

Leaping to the curtain which concealed the sword, he snatched it up and smashed it across his knee. "See, then, how I treat the symbol of my monarchy," he cried with a terrible laugh. "I shall soon demonstrate to you what a pricked balloon is this Kingship of which you prate. I believe that you, my own father, are ready to supplant me, I know that Julius, my cousin, is straining every nerve to procure my downfall; but you shall learn how a man who despises the pinchbeck honors of a throne can defeat your petty malice and miserable scheming. Monsieur Nesimir, I proclaim Kosnovia a Republic from this hour! Here and now I abdicate! Summon a meeting of the Assembly to-morrow, and I shall give its members the best of reasons why the State will prosper more under the people's rule than under that of either of the men who are so anxious to succeed me."

"Abdicate! Republic! What monstrous folly!" cried Prince Michael, his plethoric face convulsed with anger at this unexpected counterstroke.

"I am saying that which, with God's help, I shall perform!" cried Alec, despair falling from him like a discarded garment as he realized what his project would mean to Joan and himself.

"You may abdicate, of course, if you choose," came the scornful retort; "but you have no power to break the Delgrado line."

"My power will be put to the test to-morrow," said Alec. "I am not afraid to measure my strength against the pitiful cowards who struck at me through a woman's love."

"Pay no heed to him, Monsieur Nesimir!" piped Prince Michael, whose voice rose to a thin falsetto. "He is beside himself. If he chooses to vacate the throne, it reverts to me."

"A Republic in Kosnovia!" snarled Stampoff. "That, indeed, will mark the beginning of the end for the Slav race. A single year would wipe us out of existence. What say you, Beliani, and you, Marulitch? Why are you dumb? Was it for this that we have striven through so many years? Shall our country be wrecked now because a hot headed youth puts his vows to a woman before every consideration of national welfare?"

"The notion is preposterous!" growled Julius, gaining courage from Stampoff's bold denunciation; but Beliani tried to temporize.

"We are far too excited to deal with this vexed affair to-night," he said. "The King is naturally aggrieved by a trying experience, and is hardly in a fit state of mind to consider the grave issues raised by his words. Let us forget what we have just heard. To-morrow we shall all be calmer and saner."

"Monsieur Nesimir," said Alec sternly, fixing the hapless President with his masterful eye, "while I remain King you must obey my orders. See to it that notices are despatched to-night to the members of the National Assembly summoning a special meeting for an early hour to-morrow."

"Monsieur Nesimir will do nothing of the kind!" shrieked the infuriated Prince Michael. "I forbid it!"

"And I command it," cried Alec. "If he refuses, I shall take other steps to insure my wishes being fulfilled."

"Then I will tell you why your Joan has gone!" bellowed the Prince. "No, Marie, I will not be restrained!" he shouted to his wife, who had rushed to him in a very frenzy of alarm. She clutched at his shoulder; but he shook himself free brutally.

"It is full time you knew what I have done for you," he hissed venomously at Alec. "Stampoff and your mother and I, alone of those in this room, are aware of the fraud that has been perpetrated on the people of this country. You are not King of Kosnovia. You are not my son. Your father was a Colorado gold miner to whom your mother was married before I met her, and who died before you were born. For the sake of his widow's money I gave her my name, and was fool enough to fall in with her whim of pride that you should be brought up as a Prince Delgrado. I suppose Stampoff urged your mother to reveal the facts to that chit of a girl who has addled your brain, and she, fortunately, had sense enough to see that you can not continue to occupy the throne five seconds after it becomes known that you are a mere alien, that your name is Alexander Talbot, and that I, Michael Delgrado, who married a foreigner in order that I might live, and permitted an American child to be reared as a lawful Prince of my house, am the lawful King."

The little man strutted up and down the room in a fume of indignation, and evidently felt fully justified in his own esteem. Ever selfish and vain, he fancied that he had been the victim of a cruel fate, and he read the sheer bewilderment in Alec's face as a tribute to the master stroke he had just delivered.

But his self conceit wilted under the contemptuous scorn of his wife's gaze, which he chanced to meet when his posturing ceased.

Alec looked to his mother for some confirmation or denial of the astounding statement blurted forth by her husband. But she had no eyes for her son then. The wrongs and sufferings of a lifetime were welling up from her heart to her lips. The agonized suspense of the last few minutes had given way to the frenzy of a woman outraged in her deepest sentiments.

She relinquished the chair to which she had been clinging, and faced the diminutive Prince with a quiet dignity that overawed him.

"So that is how you keep your oath, Michael!" she said. "When I forgave your infidelities, when I pandered to your extravagance, when I allowed you to fritter away the wealth bequeathed to me by a man whose fine nature was so far removed from yours that I have often wondered why God created two such opposite types of humanity, time and again you vowed that the idle folly of my youth would never be revealed by you. Twice you swore it on your knees when I was stung beyond endurance by your baseness. No, Michael," and her voice rose almost to a scream when her husband tried to silence her with a curse, "you shall hear the truth now, if I have to ask my son as a last favor to his unhappy mother to still that foul tongue of yours by force!"

For an instant, she made a wild appeal to Alec. "Your father was an honorable man," she cried. "For his sake, if not for mine, since I have forfeited all claim to your love, compel this man to be silent!"

The belief was slowly establishing itself in her son's mind that the incredible thing he was hearing was actually true. Nevertheless, he was temporarily bereft of the poise and balance of judgment that might have enabled him to adjust the warring elements in his bewildered brain. It was a new and horrible experience to be asked by his mother to use physical violence against the man he had been taught to regard as his father.

He had never respected Michael Delgrado,-he could acknowledge that now without the twinge of conscience that had always accompanied the unpleasing thought in the past,-yet, despite the gulf already yawning wide between them, his soul revolted against the notion of laying a hand on him in anger.

But he did stoop over the spluttering little Prince and said sternly, "You must not interrupt my mother again! You must not, I tell you!"

Such was the chilling emphasis of his words that Delgrado's loud objurgations died away in his throat, and the distraught Princess, with one last look of unutterable contempt at her royal spouse, faced the other occupants of the room.

"I did harm to none by my innocent deception," she pleaded. "I was very young when I married Alec's father, who was nearly twenty years older than I. We were not rich, and we were compelled to live in a rude mining camp, where my husband owned some claims that seemed to be of little value. But from the day of our wedding our fortunes began to improve, and, in the year before my son was born, money poured in on us. That small collection of wooden shanties has now become a great city. The land my husband owned is worth ten thousand times its original value; but, unfortunately, when wealth came, I grew dissatisfied with my surroundings. I wanted to travel, to mix in society, to become one of the fashionable throng that flocks to Paris and London and the Riviera in their seasons. My husband refused to desert the State in which his interests were bound up.

"We quarreled-it was all my fault-and then one day he was killed in a mine accident, and I, scarce knowing what I was doing, fled to New York for distraction from my grief and self condemnation. My son was born there, and in that same year I met Prince Michael Delgrado in a friend's house. To me in those days a Prince was a wonderful creature. He quickly saw that I was a prize worth capturing, and not many months elapsed before we were married. I had all the foolish vanity of a young woman, unused to the world, who was entitled to call herself a Princess, and it seemed to my flighty mind that the fact of my son bearing a different name to my own would always advertise my plebeian origin; for I was quite a woman of the people, the daughter of a storekeeper in Pueblo. I cast aside my old and tried acquaintances, placed my affairs in trustworthy hands, and, when we set up an establishment in Paris, my infant son came to be known as a Prince of the Delgrado family.

"Once such a blunder is made it is not easily rectified; but during many a sad hour have I regretted it, for Michael Delgrado did not scruple to use it as a threat whenever I resented his ill conduct. At first a trivial thing, in time it became a millstone round my neck. As Alec grew up, it became more and more difficult to announce that he was not Prince Alexis Delgrado, but a simple commoner, Alexander Talbot by name.

"There, then, you have the measure of my transgression. It was the knowledge of the truth that drove that dear girl, Joan Vernon, from Delgratz this evening, because General Stampoff would not scruple to reveal the imposture if he failed to secure the King's adherence to his projects."

"God's bones!" broke in Stampoff. "I made him King, though I was aware from the day of your wedding that he was not Michael's son. King he is, and King he will remain if he agrees to my terms."

"Go on with your story, mother," said Alec softly. "I think I am beginning to understand now."

"What more need I say?" wailed the Princess in a sudden access of grief. "I have squandered your love, Alec, I have ruined my own life, I have devoted all these wretched years to a man who is the worst sort of blackmailer,-a husband who trades on his wife's weakness."

She turned on Prince Michael with a last cry. "I am done with you now forever!" she sobbed. "I have borne with you for my son's sake; but now you and I must dwell apart, for my very soul loathes you!"

She sank into a chair in a passion of tears, and Alec bent over her. He spoke no word to her; but his hand rested gently around her neck while his eyes traveled from Michael's gray-green face to Julius Marulitch's white one.

"I think we have all heard sufficient of the Delgrado history to render unnecessary any further comment on my decision to relinquish an honor that, it would appear, I had no right to accept," he said. "I have gained my end, though by a strange path. Will you please leave me with my mother?"

The one man present who felt completely out of his depth in this sea of discord took it upon himself to cry pathetically:

"The door is locked, your-your Majesty!"

"Ah, forgive me, Monsieur Nesimir," said Alec, with a friendly smile. "I had forgotten that. And, now that I come to think of it, I still have something to say; but we need not detain my mother to hear an uninteresting conversation. Pardon me one moment, while I attend to her."

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