On the evening of the annual day of mourning, the party returned from th_ortress. The Archduchess slept. The Crown Prince talked, mostly to Hedwig, and even she said little. After a time the silence affected the boy's hig_pirits. He leaned back in his chair on the deck of the launch, and watche_he flying landscape. He counted the riverside shrines to himself. There were, he discovered, just thirteen between the fortress and the city limits.
Old Father Gregory sat beside him. He had taken off his flat black hat, and i_ay on his knee. The ends of his black woolen sash fluttered in the wind, an_e sat, benevolent hands folded, looking out.
From guns to shrines is rather a jump, and the Crown Prince found i_ifficult.
"Do you consider fighting the duty of a Christian?" inquired the Crown Princ_uddenly.
Father Gregory, whose mind had been far away, with his boys' school at Etzel, started.
"Fighting? That depends. To defend his home is the Christian duty of ever_an."
"But during the last war," persisted Otto, "we went across the mountains an_illed a lot of people. Was that a Christian duty?"
Father Gregory coughed. He had himself tucked up his soutane and walked fort_iles to join the army of invasion, where he had held services, cared for th_ounded, and fired a rifle, all with equal spirit. He changed the subject t_he big guns at the fortress.
"I think," observed the Crown Prince, forgetting his scruples, "that if yo_ave a pencil and an old envelope to draw on, I'll invent a big gun myself."
Which he proceeded to do, putting in a great many wheels and levers, an_dding, a folding-table at the side on which the gunners might have afternoo_ea—this last prompted by the arrival just then of cups and saucers and a te_ervice.
It was almost dark when the launch arrived at the quay. The red carpet wa_till there, and another crowd. Had Prince Ferdinand William Otto been les_aken up with finding one of his kid gloves, which he had lost, he would hav_oticed that there was a scuffle going on at the very edge of the red carpet, and that the beggar of the morning was being led away, between two policemen, while a third, running up the river bank, gingerly deposited a small roun_bject in the water, and stood back. It was merely one of the small incident_f a royal outing, and was never published in the papers. But Father Gregory, whose old eyes were far-sighted, had seen it all. His hand—the hand of th_hurch—was on the shoulder of the Crown Prince as they landed.
The boy looked around for the little girl of the bouquet. He took an immens_nterest in little girls, partly because he seldom saw any. But she was gone.
When the motor which had taken them from the quay reached the Palace, Hedwi_oused the Archduchess, whose head had dropped forward on her chest. "Here w_re, mother," she said. "You have had a nice sleep."
But Annunciata muttered something about being glad the wretched day was over, and every one save Prince Ferdinand William Otto seemed glad to get back. Th_oy was depressed. He felt, somehow, that they should have enjoyed it, an_hat, having merely endured it, they had failed him again.
He kissed his aunt's hand dutifully when he left her, and went with a laggin_tep to his own apartments. His request to have Hedwig share his supper ha_et with a curt negative.
The Countess, having left her royal mistress in the hands of her maids, wen_lso to her own apartment. She was not surprised, on looking into her mirror, to find herself haggard and worn. It had been a terrible day. Only a secon_ad separated that gaping lens in her bag from the eyes of the officers about.
Never, in an adventurous life, had she felt so near to death. Even now it_old breath chilled her.
However, that was over, well over. She had done well, too. A dozen pictures o_he fortress, of its guns, of even its mine chart as it hung on a wall, wer_n the bag. Its secrets, so securely held, were hers, and would be Karl's.
It was a cunningly devised scheme. Two bags, exactly alike as to appearance, had been made. One, which she carried daily, was what it appeared to be. Th_ther contained a camera, tiny but accurate, with a fine lens. When a knob o_he fastening was pressed, the watch slid aside and the shutter snapped. Th_ictures when enlarged had proved themselves perfect.
Pleading fatigue, she dismissed her maid and locked the doors. Then she opene_he sliding panel, and unfastened the safe. The roll of film was in her hand, ready to be deposited under the false bottom of her jewel-case.
Within the security of her room, the Countess felt at ease. The chill of th_ay left her, to be followed by a glow of achievement. She even sang a little, a bit of a ballad from her native mountains:
He has gone to the mountains, The far green mountains. (Hear the cattle lowin_s they drive them up the hill!) When he comes down he'll love me; When h_omes down he'll marry me. (But what is this that touches me with fingers dea_nd chill?)
Still singing, she carried the jewel-case to her table, and sat down befor_t. Then she put a hand to her throat.
The lock had been forced.
A glance about showed her that her code-book was gone. In the tray above, he_ewels remained untouched; her pearl collar, the diamond knickknacks th_rchduchess had given her on successive Christmases, even a handful of gol_oins, all were safe enough. But the code-book was gone.
Then indeed did the Countess look death in the face and found it terrible. Fo_ moment she could not so much as stand without support. It was then that sh_aw a paper folded under her jewels and took it out with shaking fingers. I_ine, copperplate script she read:
> MADAME,—To-night at one o'clock a closed fiacre will await you in the Stree_f the Wise Virgins, near the church. You will go in it, without fail, t_herever it takes you.
> (Signed)THE COMMITTEE OF TEN
The Committee of Ten! This thing had happened to her. Then it was true tha_he half-mythical Committee of Ten existed, that this terror of Livonia was _eal terror, which had her by the throat. For there was no escape. None. No_ndeed she knew that rumor spoke the truth, and that the Terrorists wer_verywhere. In daylight they had entered her room. They had known of the safe, known of the code. Known how much else?
Wild ideas of flight crossed her mind, to be as instantly abandoned for thei_utility. Where could she go that they would not follow her? When she ha_eacted from her first shock she fell to pondering the matter, pro and con.
What could they want of her? If she was an enemy to the country, so were they.
But even that led nowhere, for after all, the Terrorists were not enemies t_ivonia. They claimed indeed to be its friends, to hold in their hands it_uture and its betterment. Enemies of the royal house they were, of course.
She was nearly distracted by that time. She was a brave woman, physically an_entally of hard fiber, but the very name signed to the paper set her nerve_o twitching. It was the Committee of Ten which had murdered Prince Hubert an_is young wife; the Committee of Ten which had exploded a bomb in the ver_alace itself, and killed old Breidau, of the King's Council; the Committee o_en which had burned the Government House, and had led the mob in the studen_iots a year or so before.
Led them, themselves hidden. For none knew their identity. It was said tha_hey did not even know each other, wearing masks and long cloaks at thei_eetings, and being designated by numbers only.
In this dread presence, then, she would find herself that night! For she woul_o. There was no way out.
She sent a request to be excused from dinner on the ground of illness, an_as, as a result, visited by her royal mistress at nine o'clock. The honor wa_nexpected. Not often did the Archduchess Annunciata so favor any one. Th_ountess, lying across her bed in a perfect agony of apprehension, staggere_nto her sitting-room and knelt to kiss her lady's hand.
But the Archduchess, who had come to scoff, believing not at all in th_llness, took one shrewd glance at her, and put her hands behind her.
"It may be, as you say, contagious, Olga," she said. "You would better go t_ed and stay there. I shall send Doctor Wiederman to you."
When she had gone the Countess rang for her maid. She was cool enough now, an_hite, with a cruel line about her mouth that Minna knew well. She went to th_oor into the corridor, and locked it.
Then she turned on the maid. "I am ready for you, now."
"Madame will retire?"
"You little fool! You know what I am ready for!"
The maid stood still. Her wide, bovine eyes, filled with alarm, watched th_ountess as she moved swiftly across the room to her wardrobe. When she turne_bout again, she held in her hand a thin black riding-crop. Minna's rudd_olor faded. She knew the Loscheks, knew their furies. Strange stories o_nbridled passion had oozed from the old ruined castle where for so long the_ad held feudal sway over the countryside.
"Madame!" she cried, and fell on her knees. "What have I done? Oh, what have _one?"
"That is what you will tell me," said the Countess, and brought down the crop.
A livid stripe across the girl's face turned slowly to red.
"I have done nothing, I swear it. Mother of Pity, help me! I have don_othing."
The crop descended again, this time on one of the great sleeves of her peasan_ostume. So thin it was, so brutal the blow, that it cut into the muslin.
Groaning, the girl fell forward on her face. The Countess continued to strik_itiless blows into which she put all her fury, her terror, her frayed an_agged nerves.
The girl on the floor, from whimpering, fell to crying hard, with grea_oiseless sobs of pain and bewilderment. When at last the blows ceased, sh_ay still.
The Countess prodded her with her foot. "Get up," she commanded.
But she was startled when she saw the girl's face. It was she who was th_ool. The welt would tell its own story, and the other servants would talk. I_as already a deep purple, and swollen. Both women were trembling. Th_ountess, still holding the crop, sat down.
"Now!" she said. "You will tell me to whom you gave a certain small book o_hich you know."
"But what book? I have given nothing, madame. I swear it."
"Then you admitted some one to this room?"
"No one, madame, except—" She hesitated.
"There came this afternoon the men who clean madame's windows. No one else, madame."
She put her hand to her cheek, and looked furtively to see if her fingers wer_tained with blood. The Countess, muttering, fell to furious pacing of th_oom. So that was it, of course. The girl was telling the truth. She was to_tupid to lie. Then the Committee of Ten indeed knew everything—had known tha_he would be away, had known of the window cleaners, had known of the safe, and her possession of the code.
Cold and calculating rage filled her. Niburg had played her false, of course.
But Niburg was only a go-between. He had known nothing of the codebook. He ha_iven the Committee the letter, and by now they knew all that it told. Wha_id it not know?
She dismissed the girl and put away the riding-crop, then she smoothed th_isorder of her hair and dress. The court physician, calling a half hou_ater, found her reading on a chaise longue in her boudoir, looking pale an_andsome; and spent what he considered a pleasant half-hour with her. He love_ossip, and there was plenty just now. Indications were that they would have _edding soon. An unwilling bride, perhaps, eh? But a lovely one. For him, h_as glad that Karnia was to be an ally, and not an enemy. He had seen enoug_f wars. And so on and on, while the Countess smiled and nodded, and shivere_n her very heart.
At eleven o'clock he went away, kissing her hand rather more fervently tha_rofessionally, although his instinct to place his fingers over the puls_ather spoiled the effect. One thing, however, the Countess had gained by hi_isit. He was to urge on the Archduchess the necessity for an immediat_acation for her favorite.
"Our loss, Countess," he said, with heavy gallantry.. "But we cannot allo_eauty to languish for need of mountain air."
Then at last he was gone, and she went about her heavy-hearted preparation_or the night. From a corner of her wardrobe she drew a long peasant's cape, such a cape as Minna might wear. Over her head, instead of a hat, she threw _ray veil. A careless disguise, but all that was necessary. The sentrie_hrough and about the Palace were not unaccustomed to such shrouded figure_lipping out from its gloom to light, and perhaps to love.
Before she left, she looked about the room. What assurance had she that thi_ery excursion was not a trap, and that in her absence the vault would not h_ooted again? It contained now something infinitely valuable—valuable an_ncriminating—the roll of film. She glanced about, and seeing a silver vase o_oses, hurriedly emptied the water out, wrapped the film in oiled paper, an_ropped it down among the stems.
The Street of the Wise Virgins was not near the Palace. Even by walkin_riskly she was in danger of being late. The wind kept her back, too. Th_loak twisted about her, the veil whipped. She turned once or twice to see i_he were being followed, but the quiet streets were empty. Then, at last, th_treet of the Wise Virgins and the fiacre, standing at the curb, with a drive_rapped in rugs against the cold of the February night, and his hat pulle_own over his eyes. The Countess stopped beside him.
"You are expecting a passenger?"
With her hand on the door, the Countess realized that the fiacre was alread_ccupied. As she peered into its darkened interior, the shadow resolved itsel_nto a cloaked and masked figure. She shrank back.
"Enter, madame," said a voice.
The figure appalled her. It was not sufficient to know that behind th_orrifying mask which covered the entire face and head, there was a huma_igure, human pulses that beat, human eyes that appraised her. She hesitated.
"Quickly," said the voice.
She got in, shrinking into a corner of the carriage.
Her lips were dry, the roaring of terror was in her ears. The door closed.
Then commenced a drive of which afterward the Countess dared not think. Th_igure neither moved nor spoke. Inside the carriage reigned the most complet_ilence. The horse's feet clattered over rough stones, they turned throug_arrow, unfamiliar streets, so that she knew not even the direction they took.
After a time the noise grew less. The horse padded along dirt roads, i_arkness. Then the carriage stopped, and at last the shrouded figure moved an_poke.
"I regret, Countess, that my orders are to blindfold you."
She drew herself up haughtily.
"That is not necessary, I think."
"Very necessary, madame."
She submitted ungracefully, while he bound a black cloth over her eyes. H_rew it very close and knotted it behind. In the act his—fingers touched he_ace, and she felt them cold and clammy. The contact sickened her.
"Your hand, madame."
She was led out of the carriage, and across soft earth, a devious cours_gain, as though they avoided small obstacles. Once her foot touched somethin_ow and hard, like marble. Again, in the darkness, they stumbled over a mound.
She knew where she was, then—in a graveyard. But which? There were many abou_he city.
An open space, the opening of a gate or door that squealed softly, a flight o_teps that led downward, and a breath of musty, cold air, damp and cellar- like.
She was calmer now. Had they meant to kill her, there had been already _undred chances. It was not death, then, that awaited her—at least, no_mmediate death. These precautions, too, could only mean that she was to b_reed again, and must not know where she had been.
At last, still in unbroken silence, she knew that they had entered a larg_pace. Their footsteps no longer echoed and re-echoed. Her guide walked mor_lowly, and at last paused, releasing her hand. She felt again the touch o_is clammy fingers as he untied the knots of her bandage. He took it off.
At first she could see little. The silence remained unbroken, and only th_enter of the room was lighted. When her eyes grew accustomed, she made ou_he scene slowly.
A great stone vault, its walls broken into crypts which had contained casket_f the dead. But the caskets had been removed; and were piled in a corner, an_n the niches were rifles. In the center was a pine table, curiousl_ncongruous, and on it writing materials, a cheap clock, and a pile o_ocuments. There were two candles only, and these were stuck in skulls—ol_rown skulls so infinitely removed from all semblance to the human that the_ere not even horrible. It was as if they had been used, not to inspir_error, but because they were at hand and convenient for the purpose. In th_hadow, ranged in a semicircle, were nine figures, all motionless, all masked, and cloaked in black. They sat, another incongruity, on plain wooden chairs.
But in spite of that they were figures of dread. The one who had brought he_ade the tenth.
Still the silence, broken only by the drip of water from the ceiling into _in pail.
Had she not known the past record of the men before her, the rather oper_ouffe setting with which they chose to surround themselves might have arouse_er scorn. But Olga Loschek knew too much. She guessed shrewdly that, with th_lass of men with whom they dealt, it was not enough that their name spelle_error. They must visualize it. They had taken their cue from that ver_hurch, indeed, beneath which they hid. The church, with its shrines an_mages, appealed to the eye. They, too, appealed to the eye. Their masks, th_arefully constructed and upheld mystery of their identity, the trappings o_eath about them—it was skillfully done.
Not that she was thinking consecutively just then. It was a mental flash, eve_s her eyes, growing accustomed to the darkness made out the white numeral, from one to ten, on the front of each shroud-like cloak.
Still no one spoke. The Countess faced them.
Only her eyes showed her nervousness; she stood haughtily, her head held high.
But like most women, she could not endure silence for long, at least th_ilence of shrouded figures and intent eyes.
"Now that I am here," she demanded, "may I ask why I have been summoned?"
It was Number Seven who replied. It was Number Seven who, during the hour tha_ollowed, spoke for the others. None moved, or but slightly. There was n_utting together of heads, no consulting. Evidently all had been carefull_rearranged.
"Look on the table, Countess. You will find there some papers you will perhap_ecognize."
She took a step toward the table and glanced down. The code-book lay there.
Also the letter she had sent by Peter Niburg. She made no effort to disclai_hem.
"I recognize them," she said clearly.
"You acknowledge, then, that they are yours?"
"I acknowledge nothing."
"They bear certain indications, madame."
"Do you realize what will happen, madame, if these papers are turned over t_he authorities?"
She shrugged her shoulders. And now Number Seven rose, a tall figure o_ystery, and spoke at length in a cultivated, softly intoned voice. Th_ountess, listening, felt the voice vaguely familiar, as were the burning eye_ehind the mask.
"It is our hope, madame," he said, "that you will make it unnecessary for th_ommittee of Ten to use those papers. We have no quarrel with women. We wis_ather a friend than an enemy. There be those, many of them, who call us poo_atriots, who would tear down without building up. They are wrong. Th_ommittee of Ten, to those who know its motives, has the highest and mos_oyal of ideals—to the country."
His voice took on a new, almost a fanatic note. He spoke as well to the othe_hrouded figures as to his comrades. No mean orator this. He seldom raised hi_oice, he made no gestures. Almost, while she listened, the Countes_nderstood.
They had watched the gradual decay of the country, he said. Its burden o_axation grew greater each year. The masses sweated and toiled, to carry o_heir backs the dead weight of the aristocracy and the throne. The iron han_f the Chancellor held everything; an old King who would die, was dying now, and after that a boy, nominal ruler only, while the Chancellor continued hi_ard rule. And now, as if that were not enough, there was talk of an allianc_ith Karnia, an alliance which, carried through, would destroy the hope of _epublic.
The Countess stared.
"No wall is too thick for our ears," he continued. "Our eyes see everywhere.
And as we grow in strength, they fear us. Well they may."
He grew scornful then. To gain support for the tottering throne the Chancello_ould unite the two countries, that Karl's army, since he could not trust hi_wn, might be called on for help. And here he touched the Countess's ra_erves with a brutal finger.
"The price of the alliance, madame, is the Princess Hedwig in marriage. Th_ommittee, which knows all things, believes that you have reason to dislik_his marriage."
Save that she clutched her cloak more closely, the Countess made no move. Bu_here was a soft stir among the figures. Perhaps, after all, the Committee a_ whole did not know all things.
"To prevent this alliance, madame, is our first aim. There are others t_ollow. But"—he bent forward—"the King will not live many days. It is our hop_hat that marriage will not occur before his death."
By this time Olga Loschek knew very well where she stood. The Committee wa_ropitiatory. She was not in danger, save as it might develop. They were, in _easure, putting their case.
She had followed the speaker closely. When he paused, she was ready for him.
"But, even without a marriage, at any time now a treaty based on the marriag_ay be signed. A treaty for a mutually defensive alliance. Austria encroache_aily, and has Germany behind her. We are small fry, here and in Karnia, an_e stand in the way."
"King Karl has broken faith before. He will not support Livonia until he ha_eceived his price. He is determined on the marriage."
"A marriage of expediency," said the Countess, impatiently.
The speaker for the Committee shrugged his shoulders. "Perhaps," he replied.
"Although there are those of us who think that in this matter of expediency, Karl gives more than he receives. He is to-day better prepared than we are fo_ar. He is more prosperous. As to the treaty, it is probably already signed, or about to be. And here, madame, is the reason for our invitation to you t_ome here.
"I have no access to state papers," the Countess said impatiently.
"You are too modest," said Number Seven suavely, and glanced at the letter o_he table.
"The matter lies thus, madame. The Chancellor is now in Karnia. Doubtless h_ill return with the agreement signed. We shall learn that in a day or so. W_o not approve of this alliance for various reasons, and we intend to tak_teps to prevent it. The paper itself is nothing. But plainly, Countess, th_eed a friend in the Palace, one who is in the confidence of the roya_amily."
"And for such friendship, I am to secure safety?"
"Yes, madame. But that is not all. Let me tell you briefly how things stan_ith us. We have, supporting us, certain bodies, workingmen's guilds, a par_f the student body, not so much of the army as we would wish. Dissatisfie_olk, madame, who would exchange the emblem of tyranny for freedom. On th_nnouncement of the King's death, in every part of the kingdom will go up th_ry of liberty. But the movement must start here. The city must rise agains_he throne. And against that there are two obstacles." He paused. The cloc_icked, and water dripped into the tin pail with metallic splashes. "The firs_s this marriage. The second—is the Crown Prince Ferdinand William Otto."
The Countess recoiled. "No!"
"A moment, madame. You think badly of us." Under his mask the Countess divine_ cold smile. "It is not necessary to contemplate violence. There are othe_ethods. The boy could be taken over the border, and hidden until the Republi_s firmly established. After that, he is unimportant."
The Countess, still pale, looked at him scornfully. "You do my intelligenc_mall honor."
"Where peaceful methods will avail, our methods are peaceful, madame."
"It was, then, in peace that you murdered Prince Hubert?"
"The errors of the past are past." Then, with a new sternness: "Make n_istake. Whether through your agency or another, Countess, when the Cathedra_ell rouses the city to the King's death, and the people wait in the Place fo_heir new King to come out on the balcony, he will not come."
The Countess was not entirely bad. Standing swaying and white-faced before th_ribunal, she saw suddenly the golden head of the little Crown Prince, saw hi_miling as he had smiled that day in the sunlight, saw him troubled an_orlorn as he had been when, that very evening, he had left them to go to hi_onely rooms. Perhaps she reached the biggest moment of her life then, whe_he folded her arms and stared proudly at the shrouded figures before her.
"I will not do it," she said.
Then indeed the tribunal stirred, and sat forward. Perhaps never before had i_een defied.
"I will not," repeated the Countess.
But Number Seven remained impassive. "A new idea, Countess!" he said suavely.
"I can understand that your heart recoils. But this thing is inevitable, as _ave said. Whether you or another but perhaps with time to think you may com_o another conclusion. We make no threats. Our position is, however, one o_esponsibility. We are compelled to place the future of the Republic befor_very other consideration."
"That is a threat."
"We remember both our friends and our enemies, madame. And we have onl_riends and enemies. There is no middle course. If you would like time t_hink it over—"
"How much time?" She clutched at the words.
With time all things were possible. The King might die soon, that night, th_ext day. Better than any one, save his daughter Annunciata and th_hysicians, she knew his condition. The Revolutionists might boast, but the_ere not all the people. Once let the boy be crowned, and it would take mor_han these posing plotters in their theatrical setting to overthrow him.
"How much time may I have?"
"Women vary," said Number Seven mockingly. "Some determine quickly. Others—"
"May I have a month?"
"During which the King may die! Alas, madame, it is now you who do us to_ittle honor!"
"A week?" begged the Countess desperately.
The leader glanced along the line. One head after another nodded slowly.
"A week it is, madame. Comrade Five!"
The one who had brought her came forward with the bandage.
"At the end of one week, madame, a fiacre will, as to-night, be waiting in th_treet of the Wise Virgins."
"And these papers?"
"On the day the Republic of Livonia is established, madame, they will b_eturned to you."
He bowed, and returned to his chair. Save for the movements of the man wh_laced the bandage over her eyes; there was absolute silence in the room.