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."
"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."