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Chapter 16 ON THE MOUNTAIN ROAD

  • The low gray car which carried the Chancellor was on its way through th_ountains. It moved deliberately, for two reasons. First, the Chancellor wa_fraid of motors. He had a horseman's hatred and fear of machines. Second, h_as not of a mind to rouse King Karl from a night's sleep, even to bring th_and of the Princess Hedwig. His intention was to put up at some inn in _illage not far from the lodge and to reach Karl by messenger early in th_orning, before the hunters left for the day.
  • Then, all being prepared duly and in order, Mettlich himself would arrive, an_hings would go forward with dignity and dispatch.
  • In the mean time he sat back among his furs and thought of many things. He ha_on a victory which was, after all, but a compromise. He had chosen the saf_ay, but it led over the body of a young girl, and he loathed it. Also, h_hought of Nikky, and what might be. But the car was closed and comfortable.
  • The motion soothed him. After a time he dropped asleep.
  • The valley of the Ar deepened. The cliff rose above them, a wall broken her_nd there by the offtake of narrow ravines, filled with forest trees. Ther_as a pause while the chains on the rear wheels were supplemented by others i_ront, for there must be no danger of a skid. And another pause, where th_oad slanted perilously toward the brink of the chasm, and caution dictate_hat the Chancellor alight, and make a hundred feet or so of dangerous curv_foot.
  • It required diplomacy to get him out. But it was finally done, and his heav_igure, draped in its military cape, went on ahead, outlined by the lamps o_he car behind him. The snow was hardly more than a coating, but wet an_lippery. Mettlich stalked on, as one who would defy the elements, or anythin_lse, to hinder him that night.
  • He was well around the curve, and the cliff was broken by a wedge of timber, when a curiously shaped object projected itself over the edge of the bank, an_olling down, lay almost at his feet. The lamps brought it into sharp relief—_an, gagged and tied, and rolled, cigar shaped, in an automobile robe.
  • The Chancellor turned, and called to his men. Then he bent over the bundle.
  • The others ran up, and cut the bonds. What with cold and long inaction, an_is recent drop over the bank, the man could not speak. One of the secret- service men had a flask, and held it to his lips. An amazing situation, indeed, increased by the discovery that under the robe he wore only hi_ndergarments, with a soldier's tunic wrapped around his shoulders. The_arried him into the car, where he lay with head lolling back, and his swolle_ongue protruding. Half dead he was, with cold and long anxiety. The brand_leared his mind long before he could speak, and he saw by the uniforms tha_e was in the hands of the enemy. He turned sulkily silent then, convince_hat he had escaped one death but to meet another. Twenty-four hours now h_ad faced eternity, and he was ready.
  • He preferred, however, to die fully clothed, and when, in response to hi_ointing up the bank and to his inarticulate mouthings, one of the secre_olice examined the bit of woodland with his pocket flash, he found a pair o_rousers where Nikky had left them, neatly folded and hung over the branch o_ tree. The brandy being supplemented by hot coffee from a patent bottle, th_an revived further, made an effort, and sat up. His tongue was still swollen, but they made out what he said. He had been there since the night before.
  • People had passed, a few peasants, a man with a cart, but he could not cr_ut, and he had hesitated to risk the plunge to the road. But at last he ha_ade it. He was of Karnia, and a King's messenger.
  • "I was coming back from the barrier," he said thickly, "where I had carrie_ispatches to the officer in charge. On my return a man hailed me from th_ide of, the road, near where you found me. I thought that he desired to b_aken on, and stopped my car. But he attacked me. He was armed and I was not.
  • He knocked me senseless, and when I awakened I was above the road, amon_rees. I gave myself up when the snow commenced. Few pass this way. But _eard your car coming and made a desperate effort."
  • "Then," asked one of the agents, "these are not your clothes?"
  • "They are his; sir."
  • The agent produced a flash-light and inspected the garments. Before th_hancellor's eyes, button by button, strap on the sleeve, star on the cuff, came into view the uniform of a captain of his own regiment, the Grenadiers.
  • Then one of his own men had done this infamous thing, one of his own officers, indeed.
  • "Go through the pockets," he continued sternly.
  • Came, into view under the flash a pair of gloves, a box of matches, a sil_andkerchief, a card-case. The agent said nothing, but passed a card to th_hancellor, who read it without comment.
  • There was silence in the car.
  • At last the Chancellor stirred. "This man—he took your car on?"
  • "Yes. And he has not returned. No other machine has passed."
  • The secret-service men exchanged glances. There was more to this tha_ppeared. Somewhere ahead, then, was Nikky Larisch, with a motor that did go_elong to him, and wearing clothing which his victim described as _hauffeur's coat of leather, breeches and puttees, and a fur greatcoat ove_ll.
  • "Had the snow commenced when this happened?"
  • "Not then; sir. Shortly after."
  • "Go out with the driver," the Chancellor ordered one of his men, "and watc_he road for the tracks of another car. Go slowly."
  • So it was that, after an hour or so, they picked up Nikky's trail, now twenty- four hours old but still clear, and followed it. The Chancellor was awak_nough by this time, and bending forward. The man they had rescued slep_eavily. As the road descended into the foothills, there were other tracks i_he thin snow, and more than once they roused Nikky's victim to pick out hi_wn tire marks. He obeyed dully. When at last the trail turned from th_ighway toward the shooting-box at Wedeling, Mettlich fell back with somethin_etween a curse and a groan.
  • "The fool!" he muttered. "The young fool! It was madness."
  • At last they drew up at an inn in the village on the royal preserve, and th_hancellor, looking rather gray, alighted. He directed that the man they ha_escued be brought in. The Chancellor was not for losing him just yet. He too_ room for him at the inn, and rather cavalierly locked him in it.
  • The dull-eyed landlord, yawning as he lighted the party upstairs with candles, apparently neither noticed nor cared that the three of them surrounded _ourth, and that the fourth looked both sullen and ill.
  • The car, with one of the secret-service men, Mettlich sent on to follo_ikky's trail, and to report it to him. The other man was assigned to custod_f the chauffeur. The Chancellor, more relieved than he would hav_cknowledged, reflected before a fire and over a glass of hot milk that he wa_ather unpropitiously bringing Karl a bride!
  • It was almost four in the morning when the police agent returned. The track h_ad followed apparently led into the grounds of Wedeling, but was there los_n many others. It did not, so far as he could discover, lead beyond the lodg_ates.
  • The Chancellor sipped his hot milk and considered. Nikky Larisch a prisoner i_arl's hands caused him less anxiety than it would have a month before. Bu_hat was behind it all?
  • The inn, grumbling at its broken rest, settled down to sleep again. The tw_ecret-service agents took turns on chairs outside their prisoner's door, glancing in occasionally to see that he still slept in his built-in bed.
  • At a little before five the man outside the prisoner's door heard somethin_nside the room. He glanced in. All was quiet. The prisoner slept heavily, genuine sleep. There was no mistaking it, the sleep of a man warm after lon_old and exhaustion, weary after violent effort. The agent went out again, an_ocked the door behind him.
  • And as the door closed, a trap-door from the kitchen below opened softly unde_he sleeping man's bed. With great caution came the landlord, head first, the_houlders. The space was cramped. He crawled up, like a snake out of a hole, and ducked behind the curtains of the bed. All was still quiet, save that th_an outside struck a match and lighted a pipe.
  • Half an hour later, the Chancellor's prisoner, still stiff and weak, wa_aking his way toward the hunting-lodge.
  • Kaiser saw him first, and found the story unenlightening. Nor could Karl, roused by a terrified valet, make much more of it. When the man had gone, Kar_ay back among his pillows and eyed his agent.
  • "So Mettlich is here!" he said. "A hasty journey. They must be eager."
  • "They must be in trouble," Kaiser observed dryly. And on that uncomplimentar_omment King Karl slept, his face drawn into a wry smile.
  • But he received the Chancellor of Livonia cordially the next morning, goin_imself to the lodge doorstep to meet his visitor, and there shaking hand_ith him.
  • "I am greatly honored, Excellency," he said, with his twisted smile.
  • "And I, sire."
  • But the Chancellor watched him from under his shaggy brows. The messenger ha_scaped. By now Karl knew the story, knew of his midnight ride over th_ountains; and the haste it indicated. He sheathed himself in dignity; did th_hancellor, held his head high and moved ponderously, as became one who cam_o talk of important matters, but not to ask a boon.
  • Karl himself led the way to his study, ignoring the chamberlain, and stoo_side to let Mettlich enter. Then he followed and closed the door.
  • "It is a long time since you have honored Karnia with a visit," Karl observed.
  • "Will you sit down?"
  • Karl himself did not sit. He stood negligently beside the mantel, an ar_tretched along it.
  • "Not since the battle of the Ar, sire," replied the Chancellor dryly. He ha_eaded an army of invasion then.
  • Karl smiled. "I hope that now your errand is more peaceful."
  • For answer the Chancellor opened a portfolio he carried, and fumbled among it_apers. But, having found the right one, he held it without opening it.
  • "Before we come to that, sire, you have here, I believe, detained for som_trange reason, a Captain Larisch, aide-de-camp"—he paused for effect—"to Hi_oyal Highness, the Crown Prince of Livonia."
  • Karl glanced up quickly. "Perhaps, if you will describe this—gentleman—"
  • "Nonsense," said the Chancellor testily, "you have him. We have traced hi_ere. Although by what authority you hold him I fail to understand. I am her_o find out what you have done with him." The paper trembled in the old man'_and. He knew very well Karl's quick anger, and he feared for Nikky feare_orribly.
  • "Done with him?" echoed Karl. "If as Captain Larisch you refer to a madman wh_he night before last—"
  • "I do, sire. Madman is the word."
  • Of course, it is not etiquette to interrupt a king. But kings were no novelt_o the Chancellor. And quite often, for reasons of state, he had foun_nterruptions necessary.
  • "He is a prisoner," Karl said, in a new tone, stern enough now. "He assaulte_nd robbed one of my men. He stole certain documents. That he has not suffere_or it already was because—well, because I believed that the unfortunat_istrust between your country and mine, Excellency, was about to end."
  • A threat that, undoubtedly. Let the arrangement between Karnia and Livonia b_ade, with Hedwig to seal the bargain, and Nikky was safe enough. But le_ivonia demand too much, or not agree at all, and Nikky was lost. Thus di_ikky Larisch play his small part in the game of nations.
  • "Suppose," said Karl unctuously, "that we discuss first another more importan_atter. I confess to a certain impatience." He bowed slightly.
  • The Chancellor hesitated. Then he glanced thoughtfully at the paper in hi_and.
  • Through a long luncheon, the two alone and even the servants dismissed, through a longer afternoon, negotiations went on. Mettlich fought hard on som_oints, only to meet defeat. Karl stood firm. The great fortresses on th_order must hereafter contain only nominal garrisons. For the seaport strip h_ad almost doubled his price. The railroad must be completed within two years.
  • "Since I made my tentative proposal," Karl said, "certain things have come t_y ears which must be considered. A certain amount of unrest we all have. I_s a part of the times we live in. But strange stories have reached us here, that your revolutionary party is again active, and threatening. This proposa_as made to avoid wars, not to marry them. And civil war—" He shrugged hi_houlders.
  • "You have said yourself, sire, that we all have a certain discontent."
  • "The Princess Hedwig," Karl said suddenly. "She has been told, of course?"
  • "Not officially. She knows, however."
  • "How does she regard it?"
  • The Chancellor hesitated. "Like most young women, she would prefer making he_wn choice. But that," he added hastily, "is but a whim. She is a lovable an_miable girl. When the time comes she will be willing enough."
  • Karl stared out through one of the heavily curtained windows. He was not s_ure. And the time had gone by when he would have enjoyed the taming of _irl. Now he wanted peace—was he not paying a price for it?—and children t_nherit his well-managed kingdom. And perhaps—who knows?—a little love. Hi_assionate young days were behind him, but he craved something that his unrul_ife had not brought him. Before him rose a vision of Hedwig her frank eyes, her color that rose and fell, her soft, round body.
  • "You have no reason to believe that she has looked elsewhere?"
  • "None, sire," said the Chancellor stoutly.
  • By late afternoon all was arranged, papers signed and witnessed, and the tw_ignatures affixed, the one small and cramped—a soldier's hand; the other bol_nd flowing—the scrawl of a king. And Hedwig, save for the ceremony, was th_ride of Karl of Karnia.
  • It was then that the Chancellor rose and stretched his legs. "And now, sire,"
  • he said, "since we are friends and no longer enemies, you will, I know, release that mad boy of mine."
  • "When do you start back?"
  • "Within an hour."
  • "Before that time," said Karl, "you shall have him, Chancellor."
  • And with that Mettlich was forced to be content. He trusted Karl no more no_han he ever had. But he made his adieus with no hint of trouble in his face.
  • Karl waited until the machine drove away. He had gone to the doorstep with th_hancellor, desiring to do him all possible honor. But Mettlich unaccustome_o democratic ways, disapproved of the proceeding, and was indeed extremel_ncomfortable, and drew a sigh of relief when it was all over. He was of th_ld order which would keep its royalties on gilded thrones and, havin_solated there in grandeur, have gone about the business of the kingdo_ithout them.
  • Karl stood for a moment in the open air. It was done, then, and well done. I_as hard to realize. He turned to the west, where for so long behind th_ountains had lurked an enemy. A new era was opening; peace, disarmament, _uiet and prosperous land. He had spent his years of war and women. That wa_ver.
  • From far away in the forest he heard the baying of the hounds. The crisp ai_illed his lungs. And even as he watched, a young doe, with rolling eyes, leaped across the drive. Karl watched it with coolly speculative eyes.
  • When he returned to the study the agent Kaiser was already there. In th_emocracy of the lodge men came and went almost at will. But Karl, big wit_lans for the future, would have been alone, and eyed the agent with disfavor.
  • "Well?" he demanded.
  • "We have been able to search the Chancellor's rooms, sire," the agent said,
  • "for the articles mentioned last night—a card-case, gloves, and a sil_andkerchief, belonging to the prisoner upstairs. He is Captain Larisch, aide- de-camp to the Crown Prince of Livonia."
  • He had, expected Karl to be, impressed. But Karl only looked at him. "I kno_hat," he said coldly. "You are always just a little late with you_nformation, Kaiser."
  • Something like malice showed in the agent's face. "Then you also know, sire, that it is this Captain Larisch with whom rumor couples the name of th_rincess Hedwig." He stepped back a pace or two at sight of Karl's face. "Yo_equested such information, sire."
  • For answer, Karl pointed to the door.
  • For some time after he had dismissed the agent, Karl paced his library alone.
  • Kaiser brought no unverified information. Therefore the thing was true.
  • Therefore he had had his enemy in his hand, and now was pledged to let him go.
  • For a time, then, Karl paid the penalty of many misdeeds. His triumph wa_shes in his mouth.
  • What if this boy, infatuated with Hedwig, had hidden somewhere on the roa_lga Loschek's letter? What, then, if he recovered it and took it to Hedwig?
  • What if— But at last he sent for the prisoner upstairs, and waited for hi_ith both jealousy and fear in his eyes.
  • Five minutes later Nikky Larisch was ushered into the red study, and havin_owed, an insolent young bow at that, stood and eyed the King.
  • "I have sent for you to release you," said Karl. Nikky drew a long breath. "_m grateful, sire."
  • "You have been interceded for by the Chancellor of Livonia, General Mettlich, who has just gone."
  • Nikky bowed.
  • "Naturally, since you said nothing, of your identity, we could not know tha_ou belonged to His Majesty's household. Under the circumstances, it is _leasure to give you your freedom."
  • Nikky, bowed again.
  • Karl fixed him with cold eyes. "But before you take leave of us," he sai_ronically, "I should like the true story of the night before last. Somehow, somewhere, a letter intended for me was exchanged for a blank paper. I wan_hat letter."
  • "I know no more than you, sire. It is not reasonable that I would have take_he risk I took for an envelope containing nothing."
  • "For that matter," said His Majesty, "there was nothing reasonable abou_nything you did!"
  • And now Karl played his trump card, played it with watchful eyes on Nikky'_ace. He would see if report spoke the truth, if this blue-eyed boy was i_ove with Hedwig. He was a jealous man, this Karl of the cold eyes, jealou_nd passionate. Not as a king, then, watching a humble soldier of Livonia, bu_s man to man, he gazed at Nikky.
  • "For fear that loyalty keeps you silent, I may say to you that the ol_roubles between Karnia and Livonia are over."
  • "I do not understand, sire."
  • Karl hesitated. Then, with his twisted smile, he cast the rigid etiquette o_uch matters to the winds. "It is very simple," he said. "There will be n_ore trouble between these two neighboring countries, because a marriage ha_o-day been arranged—a marriage between the Princess Hedwig, His Majesty'_randdaughter, and myself."
  • For a moment Nikky Larisch closed his eyes.