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The Puppet Crown

The Puppet Crown

Harold MacGrath

Update: 2020-04-22

Chapter 1 THE SCEPTER WHICH WAS A STICK

  • The king sat in his private garden in the shade of a potted orange tree, th_eaves of which were splashed with brilliant yellow. It was high noon of on_f those last warm sighs of passing summer which now and then lovingly stea_n between the chill breaths of September. The velvet hush of the mid-day hou_ad fallen.
  • There was an endless horizon of turquoise blue, a zenith pellucid as glass.
  • The trees stood motionless; not a shadow stirred, save that which was cast b_he tremulous wings of a black and purple butterfly, which, near to hi_ajesty, fell, rose and sank again. From a drove of wild bees, swimming hithe_nd thither in quest of the final sweets of the year, came a low murmurou_um, such as a man sometimes fancies he hears while standing alone in the vas_uditorium of a cathedral.
  • The king, from where he sat, could see the ivy-clad towers of the archbishop'_alace, where, in and about the narrow windows, gray and white doves fluttere_nd plumed themselves. The garden sloped gently downward till it merged into _eautiful lake called the Werter See, which, stretching out several miles t_he west, in the heart of the thick-wooded hills, trembled like a thin shee_f silver.
  • Toward the south, far away, lay the dim, uneven blue line of the Thalian Alps, which separated the kingdom that was from the duchy that is, and the duke fro_is desires. More than once the king leveled his gaze in that direction, as i_o fathom what lay behind those lordly rugged hills.
  • There was in the air the delicate odor of the deciduous leaves which, ever_ittle while, the king inhaled, his eyes half-closed and his nostril_istended. Save for these brief moments, however, there rested on hi_ountenance an expression of disenchantment which came of the knowledge of _art ill-played, an expression which described a consciousness of hi_nfitness and inutility, of lethargy and weariness and distaste.
  • To be weary is the lot of kings, it is a part of their royal prerogative; bu_t is only a great king who can be weary gracefully. And Leopold was not _reat king; indeed, he was many inches short of the ideal; but he wa_hilosophical, and by the process of reason he escaped the pitfalls which lur_n the path of peevishness.
  • To know the smallness of the human atom, the limit of desire, the existence o_ther lives as precious as their own, is not the philosophy which makes grea_ings. Philosophy engenders pity; and one who possesses that can not rid_oughshod over men, and that is the business of kings.
  • As for Leopold, he would rather have wandered the byways of Kant than studie_oyal etiquette. A crown had been thrust on his head and a scepter into hi_and, and, willy-nilly, he must wear the one and wield the other. Th_onfederation had determined the matter shortly before the Franco-Prussia_ar.
  • The kingdom that was, an admixture of old France and newer Austria, was _ateway which opened the road to the Orient, and a gateman must be place_here who would be obedient to the will of the great travelers, were the_inded to pass that way. That is to say, the confederation wanted a puppet, and in Leopold they found a dreamer, which served as well. That glitterin_ait, a crown, had lured him from his peaceful Osian hills and valleys, an_ow he found that his crown was of straw and his scepter a stick.
  • He longed to turn back, for his heart lay in a tomb close to his castle keep, but the way back was closed. He had sold his birthright. So he permitted hi_inisters to rule his kingdom how they would, and gave himself up to dreams.
  • He had been but a cousin of the late king, whereas the duke of the duchy tha_s had been a brother. But cousin Josef was possessed of red hair and a tempe_hich was redder still, and, moreover, a superlative will, bending to none, and laughing at those who tried to bend him.
  • He would have been a king to the tip of his fiery hair; and it was for thi_ery reason that his subsequent appeals for justice and his rights fell o_nheeding ears. The confederation feared Josef; therefore they dispossesse_im. Thus Leopold sat on the throne, while his Highness bit his nails an_wore, impotent to all appearances.
  • Leopold leaned forward from his seat. In his hand he held a riding stick wit_hich he drew shapeless pictures in the yellow gravel of the path. His brow_ere drawn over contemplative eyes, and the hint of a sour smile lifted th_orners of his lips. Presently the brows relaxed, and his gaze traveled to th_pposite side of the path, where the British minister sat in the full glare o_he sun.
  • In the middle of the path, as rigid as a block of white marble, reposed _oung bulldog, his moist black nose quivering under the repeated attacks of _ersistent insect. It occurred to the king that there was a resemblanc_etween the dog and his master, the Englishman. The same heavy jaws wer_here, the same fearless eyes, the same indomitable courage for th_rosecution of a purpose.
  • A momentary regret passed through him that he had not been turned from a lik_old. Next his gaze shifted to the end of the path, where a young Lieutenan_tood idly kicking pebbles, his cuirass flaming in the dazzling sunshine. Soo_he drawing in the gravel was resumed.
  • The British minister made little of the three-score years which were closin_n on him, after the manner of an army besieging a citadel. He was full o_nimal exuberance, and his eyes, a trifle faded, it must be admitted, wer_till keenly alive and observant. He was big of bone, florid of skin, and hi_air—what remained of it—was wiry and bleached. His clothes, possibly cut fro_n old measure, hung loosely about the girth—a sign that time had taken it_ithe. For thirty-five years he had served his country by cunning speeches an_ursts of fine oratory; he had wandered over the globe, lulling suspicion_ere and arousing them there, a prince of the art of diplomacy.
  • He had not been sent here to watch this kingdom. He was touching a deepe_ndercurrent, which began at St. Petersburg and moved toward Central Asia, Turkey and India, sullenly and irresistibly. And now his task was done, an_nother was to take his place, to be a puppet among puppets. He feared no ma_ave his valet, who knew his one weakness, the love of a son on whom he ha_hut his door, which pride forbade him to open. This son had chosen the army, when a fine diplomatic career had been planned—a small thing, but it sufficed.
  • Even now a word from an humbled pride would have reunited father and son, bu_oth refused to speak this word.
  • The diplomat in turn watched the king as he engaged in the aimless drawing.
  • His meditation grew retrospective, and his thoughts ran back to the days whe_e first befriended this lonely prince, who had come to England to learn th_anguage and manners of the chill islanders. He had been handsome enough i_hose days, this Leopold of Osia, gay and eager, possessing an indefinabl_harm which endeared him to women and made him respected of men. To have know_im then, the wildest stretch of fancy would never have placed him on thi_uppet throne, surrounded by enemies, menaced by his adopted people, rudderless and ignorant of statecraft.
  • "Fate is the cup," the diplomat mused, "and the human life the ball, and it'_oss, toss, toss, till the ball slips and falls into eternity." Aloud he said,
  • "Your Majesty seems to be well occupied."
  • "Yes," replied the king, smiling. "I am making crowns and scratching them ou_gain—usurping the gentle pastime of their most Christian Majesties, th_onfederation. A pretty bauble is a crown, indeed—at a distance. It is a fin_hing to wear one—in a dream. But to possess one in the real, and to wear i_ay by day with the eternal fear of laying it down and forgetting where yo_ut it, or that others plot to steal it, or that you wear it dishonestly—Well, well, there are worse things than a beggar's crust."
  • "No one is honest in this world, save the brute," said the diplomat, touchin_he dog with his foot. "Honesty is instinctive with him, for he knows n_ritten laws. The gold we use is stamped with dishonesty, notwithstanding th_eautiful mottoes; and so long as we barter and sell for it, just so long w_emain dishonest. Yes, you wear your crown dishonestly but lawfully, which i_ nice distinction. But is any crown worn honestly? If it is not bought wit_old, it is bought with lies and blood. Sire, your great fault, if I ma_peak, is that you haven't continued to be dishonest. You should have fille_our private coffers, but you have not done so, which is a strange preceden_o establish. You should have increased taxation, but you have diminished it; you should have forced your enemy's hand four years ago, when you ascended th_hrone, but you did not; and now, for all you know, his hand may be to_trong. Poor, dishonest king! When you accepted this throne, which belongs t_nother, you fell as far as possible from moral ethics. And now you would b_onest and be called dull, and dream, while your ministers profit and smil_ehind your back. I beg your Majesty's pardon, but you have always requeste_hat I should speak plainly."
  • The king laughed; he enjoyed this frank friend. There was an essence of trut_nd sincerity in all he said that encouraged confidence.
  • "Indeed, I shall be sorry to have you go tomorrow," he said, "for I believe i_ou stayed here long enough you would truly make a king of me. Be frank, m_riend, be always frank; for it is only on the base of frankness that tru_riendship can rear itself."
  • "You are only forty-eight," said the Englishman; "you are young."
  • "Ah, my friend," replied the king with a tinge of sadness, "it is not th_ears that age us; it is how we live them. In the last four years I have live_en. To-day I feel so very old! I am weary of being a king. I am weary o_eing weary, and for such there is no remedy. Truly I was not cut from th_attern of kings; no, no. I am handier with a book than with a scepter; I'_iever be a man than a puppet, and a puppet I am—a figurehead on the prow o_he ship, but I do not guide it. Who care for me save those who have thei_nds to gain? None, save the archbishop, who yet dreams of making a king o_e. And these are not my people who surround me; when I die, small care. _hall have left in the passing scarce a finger mark in the dust of time."
  • "Ah, Sire, if only you would be cold, unfriendly, avaricious. Be stone an_ule with a rod of iron. Make the people fear you, since they refuse to lov_ou; be stone."
  • "You can mold lead, but you can not sculpture it; and I am lead."
  • "Yes; not only the metal, but the verb intransitive. Ah, could the fires o_mbition light your soul!"
  • "My soul is a blackened grate of burnt-out fires, of which only a coa_emains."
  • And the king turned in his seat and looked across the crisp green lawns to th_eds of flowers, where, followed by a maid at a respectful distance, a sli_oung girl in white was cutting the hardy geraniums, dahlias and seed poppies.
  • "God knows what her legacy will be!"
  • "It is for you to make it, Sire."
  • Both men continued to remark the girl. At length she came toward them, he_rms laden with flowers. She was at the age of ten, with a beautiful, seriou_ace, which some might have called prophetic. Her hair was dark, shining lik_oal and purple, and gossamer in its fineness; her skin had the blue-whitenes_f milk; while from under long black lashes two luminous brown eyes looke_houghtfully at the world. She smiled at the king, who eyed her fondly, an_ave her unengaged hand to the Englishman, who kissed it.
  • "And how is your Royal Highness this fine day? he asked, patting the han_efore letting it go.
  • "Will you have a dahlia, Monsieur?" With a grave air she selected a flower an_lipped it through his button-hole.
  • "Does your Highness know the language of the flowers?" the Englishman asked.
  • "Dahlias signify dignity and elegance; you are dignified, Monsieur, an_ignity is elegance."
  • "Well!" cried the Englishman, smiling with pleasure; "that is turned a_droitly as a woman of thirty."
  • "And am I not to have one?" asked the king, his eyes full of paternal love an_ride.
  • "They are for your Majesty's table," she answered.
  • "Your Majesty!" cried the king in mimic despair. "Was ever a father treate_hus? Your Majesty! Do you not know, my dear, that to me 'father' is th_randest title in the world?"
  • Suddenly she crossed over and kissed the king on the cheek, and he held her t_im for a moment.
  • The bulldog had risen, and was wagging his tail the best he knew how. If ther_as any young woman who could claim his unreserved admiration, it was th_rincess Alexia. She never talked nonsense to him in their rambles together, but treated him as he should be treated, as an animal of enlightenment.
  • "And here is Bull," said the princess, tickling the dog's nose with a scarle_eranium.
  • "Your Highness thinks a deal of Bull?" said the dog's master.
  • "Yes, Monsieur, he doesn't bark, and he seems to understand all I say to him."
  • The dog looked up at his master as if to say: "There now, what do you think o_hat?"
  • "To-morrow I am going away," said the diplomat, "and as I can not very wel_ake Bull with me, I give him to you."
  • The girl's eyes sparkled. "Thank you, Monsieur, shall I take him now?"
  • "No, but when I leave your father. You see, he was sent to me by my son who i_n India. I wish to keep him near me as long as possible. My son, you_ighness, was a bad fellow. He ran away and joined the army against my wishes, and somehow we have never got together again. Still, I've a sneaking regar_or him, and I believe he hasn't lost all his filial devotion. Bull is, in _ay, a connecting link."
  • The king turned again to the gravel pictures. These Englishmen were beyond hi_n the matter of analysis. Her Royal Highness smiled vaguely, and wondere_hat this son was like. Once more she smiled, then moved away toward th_alace. The dog, seeing that she did not beckon, lay down again. An interva_f silence followed her departure. The thought of the Englishman had travele_o India, the thought of the king to Osia, where the girl's mother slept. Th_ormer was first to rouse.
  • "Well, Sire, let us come to the business at hand, the subject of my las_nformal audience. It is true, then, that the consols for the loan of fiv_illions of crowns are issued to-day, or have been, since the morning i_assed?"
  • "Yes, it is true. I am well pleased. Jacobi and Brother have agreed to plac_hem at face value. I intend to lay out a park for the public at the foot o_he lake. That will demolish two millions and a half. The remainder is to b_sed in city improvements and the reconstruction of the apartments in th_alace, which are too small. If only you knew what a pleasure this affords me!
  • I wish to make my good city of Bleiberg a thing of beauty—parks, fountains, broad and well paved streets."
  • "The Diet was unanimous in regard to this loan?"
  • "In fact they suggested it, and I was much in favor."
  • "You have many friends there, then?"
  • "Friends?" The king's face grew puzzled, and its animation faded away. "Non_hat I know. This is positively the first time we ever agreed about anything."
  • "And did not that strike you as rather singular?"
  • "Why, no."
  • "Of course, the people are enthusiastic, considering the old rate of taxatio_ill be renewed?" The diplomat reached over and pulled the dog's ears.
  • "So far as I can see," answered the king, who could make nothing of thi_nterrogatory.
  • "Which, if your Majesty will pardon me, is not very far beyond your books."
  • "I have ministers."
  • "Who can see farther than your Majesty has any idea."
  • "Come, come, my friend," cried the king good-naturedly; "but a moment gone yo_ere chiding me because I did nothing. I may not fill my coffers as yo_uggested, but I shall please my eye, which is something. Come; you hav_omething to tell me."
  • "Will your Majesty listen?"
  • "I promise."
  • "And to hear?"
  • "I promise not only to listen, but to hear," laughing; "not only to hear, bu_o think. Is that sufficient?"
  • "For three years," began the Englishman, "I have been England's representativ_ere. As a representative I could not meddle with your affairs, though it wa_ossible to observe them. To-day I am an unfettered agent of self, and wit_our permission I shall talk to you as I have never talked before and neve_hall again."
  • The diplomat rose from his seat and walked up and down the path, his hand_lasped behind his back, his chin in his collar. The bulldog yawned, stretche_imself, and followed his master, soberly and thoughtfully. After a while th_nglishman returned to his chair and sat down. The dog gravely imitated him.
  • He understood, perhaps better than the king, his master's mood. This pacin_ackward and forward was always the forerunner of something of grea_mportance.
  • During the past year he had been the repository of many a secret. Well, h_new how to keep one. Did not he carry a secret which his master would hav_iven much to know? Some one in far away India, after putting him into th_hip steward's care, had whispered: "You tell the governor that I think jus_s much of him as ever." He had made a desperate effort to tell it the momen_e was liberated from the box, but he had not yet mastered that particula_anguage which characterized his master's race.
  • "To begin with," said the diplomat, "what would your Majesty say if I shoul_sk permission to purchase the entire loan?"