Anthony Hope.

Sophy of Kravonia: A Novel



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VI
"IMPOSSIBLE" OR "IMMEDIATE"?

Stenovics was indeed in a quandary. Mistitch had precipitated an unwelcome and premature crisis. The Minister's deliberate, slow-moving game was brought to a sudden issue which he was not ready to face. It had been an essential feature – a governing rule – of his campaign to avoid any open conflict with the Prince of Slavna until an occasion arose on which both the army and the King would be on his side. The King was a power not merely by reason of his cheaply won popularity, but also because he was, while he lived, the only man who could crown Stenovics's operations with the consummation to which the Minister and his ally, Countess Ellenburg, looked forward with distant yet sanguine hope. The army was with him now, but the other factor was lacking. The King's pride, as well as his affection, was enlisted in his son's interest. Moreover, this occasion was very bad.

Mistitch was no better than an assassin; to take up arms on his behalf was to fight in a cause plainly disgraceful – one which would make success very difficult and smirch it forever and beyond remedy, even if it came. It was no cause in which to fight both Prince and King. That would be playing the big stake on a bad hand – as Stafnitz put it.

Yet the alternative? Stafnitz, again, had put that clearly. The army would have no more to do with the man who could not help it at the pinch, who could not save its favorite, who could not release Barabbas.

The Prince seemed to be in his most unyielding mood – the Bourbon in him was peeping out. For the honor of the Royal House, and for the sake of discipline, Mistitch must die. He had packed his court-martial with the few trustworthy friends he had among the officers, using the justification which jury-packers always use – and sometimes have. He had no fear of the verdict – and no heed for its unpopularity. He knew the danger – Stenovics made no secret about that – but said plainly that he would sooner be beaten by a mutiny than yield to the threat of one. The first meant for him defeat, perhaps death, but not dishonor, nor ignominy. The more Stenovics prophesied – or threatened – a revolt of the troops, the more the Commandant stiffened his neck.

Meanwhile, Slavna waited in ominous, sullen quiet, and the atmosphere was so stormy that King Alexis had no heart for fishing.

On Friday morning – the day before that appointed for Mistitch's trial – the names of the members of the Court were published; the list met with the reception which was, no doubt, anticipated even by the Prince himself. The streets began to fill with loiterers, talkers, and watchers; barrack-rooms were vociferous with grumbling and with speculation. Stafnitz, with Rastatz always at his heels, was busy with many interviews; Stenovics sat in his room, moodily staring before him, seeking a road out of his blind alley; and a carriage drew up before the sign of the Silver Cock as the Cathedral bells chimed noon.

It was empty inside, but by the driver sat Peter Vassip, the Prince's personal attendant, wearing the sheepskin coat, leather breeches, and high boots that the men of the hills wore. His business was to summon Sophy to Suleiman's Tower.

The Square of St. Michael was full of life and bustle, the Golden Lion did a fine trade. But the centre of interest was on the north wall and the adjacent quays, under the shadow of Suleiman's Tower. Within those walls were the two protagonists. Thence the Prince issued his orders; thither Mistitch had been secretly conveyed the night before by a party of the Prince's own guard, trustworthy Volsenians.

A crowd of citizens and soldiers was chattering and staring at the Tower when Sophy's carriage drew up at the entrance of the bridge which, crossing the North River, gave access to the fort. The mouth of the bridge was guarded by fifty of those same Volsenians. They had but to retreat and raise the bridge behind them, and Mistitch was safe in the trap. Only – and the crowd was quick enough to understand the situation – the prisoner's trap could be made a snare for his jailer, too. Unless provisions could be obtained from the country round, it would be impossible to hold the Tower for long against an enemy controlling the butchers' and bakers' shops of Slavna. Yet it could be held long enough to settle the business of Captain Hercules.

The shadow of the weeping woman had passed from Sophy's spirit; the sad impression was never the lasting one with her. An hour of crisis always found her gay. She entered the time-worn walls of Suleiman's Tower with a thrill of pleasure, and followed Peter Vassip up the narrow stair with a delighted curiosity. The Prince received her in the large round room, which constituted the first floor of the central tower. Its furniture was simple, almost rude, its massive walls quite bare save for some pieces of ancient armor. Narrow slits, deep-set in the masonry, served for windows and gave a view of the city and of the country round on every side; they showed the seething throng on the north wall and on the quays; the distant sound of a thousand voices struck the ear.

Zerkovitch and his wife were with the Prince, seated over a simple meal, at which Sophy joined them. Marie had watched Sophy's entrance and the Prince's greeting closely; she marked Sophy's excitement betrayed in the familiar signal on her cheek. But the journalist was too excited on his own account to notice other people. He was talking feverishly, throwing his lean body about, and dashing his hands up and down; he hardly paused to welcome the newcomer. He had a thousand plans by which the Prince was to overcome and hold down Slavna. One and all, they had the same defect; they supposed the absence of the danger which they were contrived to meet. They assumed that the soldiers would obey the Commandant, even with the sound of the rifles which had shot Mistitch fresh in their ears.

The Prince listened good-humoredly to his enthusiastic but highly unpractical adherent; but his mind did not follow the talk. Sophy hearkened with the eagerness of a novice – and he watched her face. Marie watched his, remembering how she had prayed Sophy not to come to Slavna. Sophy was here – and Fate had thrown her across the Prince's path. With a woman's preference for the personal, Marie was more occupied with this situation than with the temper of the capital or the measures of the Prince.

At last their host roused himself, and patted Zerkovitch's shoulder indulgently.

"Well, it's good not to fear," he said. "We didn't fear the other night, Mademoiselle de Gruche and I. And all ended well!"

"Ended?" Marie murmured, half under her breath.

The Prince laughed. "You sha'n't make me afraid," he told her, "any more than Zerkovitch shall make me trust Colonel Stafnitz. I can't say more than that." He turned to Sophy. "I think you'd better stay here till we see what's going to happen to-night – and our friends here will do the same. If all's quiet, you can go home to sleep. If not, we can give you quarters – rough ones, I'm afraid." He rose from the table and went to a window. "The crowd's thinner; they've gone off to eat and drink. We shall have one quiet hour, at all events."

An orderly entered and gave him a letter.

He read it, and said: "Tell General Stenovics I will receive him here at two o'clock." When the messenger had gone, he turned round towards the table. "A last appeal, I suppose! With all the old arguments! But the General has nothing to give in exchange for Mistitch. My price would be very high."

"No price! no price!" cried fiery Zerkovitch. "He raised his sword against you! He must die!"

"Yes, he must die." He turned to the window again. Sophy rose from the table and joined him there, looking over the city. Directly beneath was the great gate, flanked on either side by broad, massive walls, which seemed to grow out of the waters of the river. He was aware of her movement, though he had not looked round at her. "I've brought you, too, into this trouble – you, a stranger," he said.

"You don't think I'm sorry for that?"

"No. But it makes my impotence worse." He waved his arm towards the city. "There it is – here am I! And yet – I'm powerless!"

Sophy followed his gesture, and understood what was passing in his mind – the pang of the soldier without his armament, the workman without his tools. Their midnight talk flashed back into recollection. She remembered his bitter complaint. Under her breath, and with a sigh, she whispered: "If you had the big guns now!"

Low as the whisper was, he heard it – and it seemed to shoot through his brain. He turned sharply round on her and gazed full into her eyes. So he stood a moment, then quickly returned to the table and sat down. Sophy followed, her gaze fixed on his face. Zerkovitch ceased writing – he had been drawing up another plan; both he and Marie now watched the Prince. Moments went by in silence.

At last the Prince spoke – in a low voice, almost dreamy. "My guns for Mistitch! Mistitch against my guns! That would be a price – a fair price!"

The three sat silent. The Zerkovitches, too, had heard him talk of the guns: how on them hung the tranquillity of the city, and how on them might hang the country's honor and existence. Stenovics could give them, if he would, in return for Mistitch. But to give up Mistitch was a great surrender. Sophy's whisper, almost involuntary, the voicing of a regret, hardly even of a distant aspiration, had raised a problem of conduct, a question of high policy. The Prince's brain was busy with it, and his mind perplexed. Sophy sat watching him, not thinking now, but waiting, conscious only that by what seemed almost chance a new face had, through her, been put on the situation.

Suddenly Zerkovitch brought his clinched fist down on the table. "No!" he almost shouted. "They'll think you're afraid!"

"Yes, they'll think that – but not all of them. Stenovics will know better – and Stafnitz, too. They'll know I do it, not because I'm afraid, but in order that I never need be."

"Then Stenovics won't give them!" cried Marie.

"I think he must give anything or everything for Mistitch." He rose and paced restlessly about the room. Sophy still followed him with her eyes, but she alone of the three offered no argument and made no suggestion. The Prince stood still for a moment in deep thought. Then his face cleared. He came quickly up to Sophy, took her hand, and kissed it.

"Thank you," he said. "I don't know how it will turn out for me; the case is too difficult for me to be able to foresee that. For me it may be mastery – I always thought it would mean that. Or perhaps, somehow, it may turn to ruin." He pressed Sophy's hand now and smiled at her. She understood and returned his smile. "But the question isn't one of my interest. My duty is plain."

He walked quickly to his writing-table and unlocked a drawer. He returned to the table with an envelope in his hand, and sat down between Marie and Zerkovitch.

The orderly entered again, announcing Stenovics. "Let him come in here," said the Prince. His manner grew lighter, and the smile which had comforted Sophy remained on his face.

Stenovics came in; his air was nervous, and he looked at the Prince's three companions with a visible access of embarrassment. At a nod from the Prince, the orderly placed a chair for the General, and withdrew.

"The same matter we discussed last night, General?"

"There can be but one matter in the thoughts of all of us now, sir. Pardon me – I understood your Royal Highness would receive me alone."

The Prince gave a low laugh. "When one bargains, shouldn't one have witnesses?"

In an instant Stenovics laid hold of the significant word; it made him forget his request for privacy. An eager light came into his eyes.

"Bargains? You're ready now to – ?"

"La nuit porte conseil." He drew a paper from the envelope, unfolded it, and handed it across the table. "You remember that – a memorandum I sent to you three months ago – in my capacity as Commandant?"

Stenovics looked at the paper. "I remember, sir."

"It's indorsed in your hand?"

"Yes."

"The indorsement runs: 'Impossible.' Rather curt, General!"

"The note was for my private use, but your Royal Highness particularly pressed for the return of the document."

"I did. And, after all, why use more words than necessary? One will still be enough – but not that one."

"I'm not following you, sir," said Stenovics.

The Prince leaned across the table to him. "In our conversation, last night, you asked me to do a very remarkable thing, and to get this lady here" (he indicated Sophy) "to do it, too. You remember? We were to think that, at night, in the Street of the Fountain, in the light of the illuminations, Sergius Stefanovitch and Nikolas Stafnitz looked – and sounded – just the same. I didn't see my way to that, and I didn't think this lady would see hers. It seemed so difficult."

Stenovics was in a strain of close attention. The paper from the envelope crackled under the trembling of his hand.

"Now, if we had such a memory as Lieutenant Rastatz is happy enough to possess!" the Prince pursued. "Or if Colonel Stafnitz had taken us into his confidence about his quarrel with Captain Mistitch! All that was not so last night. Consequently, Captain Mistitch must be tried and shot, instead of suffering some not very severe disciplinary punishment, for brawling in the street and having a quarrel with his superior officer."

Stenovics marked every word, and understood the implied offer. The offer was good enough; Stafnitz himself would not and could not ask that no notice whatever should be taken. The trifling nature of the punishment would in itself be a great victory. But the price? He was to hear that in a moment.

"Sergius Stefanovitch – Nikolas Stafnitz! Which was it, General? It's only changing two words, yet what a difference it makes!"

"The difference of peace to-night or – " Stenovics waved his hand towards the city. But the Prince interrupted him.

"Never mind that," he said, rather sharply. "That's not first in my mind, or I should have left the matter where it rested last night. I was thinking of the difference to Captain Mistitch – and perhaps to you, General."

He looked full at Stenovics, and the General's eyes fell. The Prince pointed his finger across the table at the paper under Stenovics's hand.

"I'm a liberal bargainer," he said, "and I offer you a good margin of profit. I'll change two words if you'll change one – two for you against one for me! 'Sergius Stefanovitch' becomes 'Nikolas Stafnitz' if 'Impossible' becomes 'Immediate.'"

Stenovics gave one slight start, then leaned back in his chair and looked past the Prince out of the window opposite to him.

"Make that change, and we'll settle details afterwards. I must have full guarantees. I must see the order sent, and the money deposited in my name and at my disposal."

"This afternoon, sir?"

"Wouldn't it be well to release Captain Mistitch from Suleiman's Tower before to-night?"

"The money is difficult to-day."

"The release will be impossible to-morrow."

Again Stenovics's eyes wandered to the window, and a silence followed. Perhaps he saw the big guns already in position, dominating the city; perhaps he listened to the hum of voices which again began to swell in volume from the wall and from the quays. There are times when a man must buy the present with a mortgage on the future, however onerous the terms may be. It was danger against destruction. He put out his hand and took from Zerkovitch a quill which the journalist was twiddling in his fingers. He made a scratch and a scribble on the paper which the Prince had taken from the envelope.

"'Impossible' has become 'Immediate,' sir."

"And 'Sergius Stefanovitch' 'Nikolas Stafnitz,'" said the Prince. He looked at Sophy for confirmation, and she softly clapped her hands.

VII
THE BARONESS GOES TO COURT

The troops of the garrison and their allies, the scum of the streets, thought that they had scored a great victory and inflicted deep humiliation on the unpopular martinet who ruled and harried them. They celebrated the event with noisy but harmless revels, and when Captain Hercules was seen about again (he submitted to a fortnight's confinement to barracks with feelings in which thankfulness, though not gratitude, predominated), he found his popularity with them greater than ever. But in the higher circles – the inner ring – of the party he served, his reception was not so cordial. Stenovics would not see him; Stafnitz saw him only to express a most uncompromising judgment on his conduct.

Yielding in appearance, in point of substance the Prince of Slavna had scored heavily. The big guns were ordered from Germany. The Prince had the money to pay for them, and they were to be consigned to him; these were the guarantees which he had asked from Stenovics. When the guns came – and he had agreed to make an extra payment for early delivery – his situation would be very different. With trusty men behind them, it would go hard with him if he were not master of Slavna, and he had already obtained the King's sanction to raise and train a force of artillery from among his own men in Volseni and its neighborhood. The men of Volseni were proof against Mistitch's bragging and the subtle indulgence by which Stafnitz held his power over the rank and file of the army. They were true to the Prince.

The idle King's family pride was touched; it was the one thing which could rouse him. At his son's express request – and at that only – he acquiesced in the release of Mistitch and his satellite Sterkoff; but he was determined to make his own attitude clear and to do what he could to restore the prestige of his family. The Prince said dryly that the prestige would profit best of all by the big guns; the King was minded to supplement their effect by something more ornate. He created a new Order, and made his son Grand Master of it. There was no harm in that, and Stenovics readily consented. He declared that something more must be done for the lady to whom his son owed his life; to be made Keeper of the Tapestries might be a convenient recompense, but was not honor enough. Stenovics declared that any mark of favor which His Majesty designed for Mademoiselle de Gruche might most properly be hers. Finally, the King instructed Stenovics to concentrate all his energies on the matrimonial negotiations. A splendid marriage would enhance and strengthen the prestige more than anything else. Stenovics promised zealous obedience, and withdrew full of thought. The Order was an easy matter, and honors for Sophy did no harm. The marriage was ground much more delicate. It touched the "big stake" which Colonel Stafnitz had so emphatically warned the General not to play on the bad hand dealt to him by Mistitch's blundering. But with the big guns in position, and the sturdy men of Volseni behind them – would a good hand ever come?

There were but three in the inner secret of the scheme, but they were three of the longest heads in Kravonia. Countess Ellenburg was a pious woman and of exemplary demeanor; but (as Markart told Sophy) women are ambitious, and she had borne the King a son. Stenovics saw himself cast aside like an old glove if Prince Sergius came to the throne. Stafnitz was a born fisher in troubled waters, and threw a skilful net. Twice before in the country's history, intrigue had made revolution, and changed the order of succession in the House of Stefanovitch. The three waited on chance, but the chance was not yet. If the King were at enmity with his son, or if there were a demise of the Crown while the Prince was not on the spot to look after his interests, there might lie the opportunity. But now the King was all cordiality for his Heir Apparent, the Prince was on the spot; the guns and their Volsenian gunners threatened to be on the spot, too, ere long. It was not now the moment for the big stake.

King Alexis was delighted with his new Order, and the Grand Master's insignia were very handsome. In the centre of a five-pointed star St. Michael slew the Dragon – a symbol, perhaps, of Captain Mistitch! The broad ribbon was of virgin white; it would show up well against either the black sheepskin of the Volsenian tunic or the bright blue of the Prince's hussar uniform. There were, some day, to be five other Knights; with the Grand Master and the Sovereign himself the mystic number Seven would be reached – but it would never be exceeded; the Order would be most select. All this the King explained in a florid speech, gleeful with his new toy, while the serious folks listened with a respectful deference and a secret smile. "If he would make order, instead of Orders!" thought the Prince; and probably Colonel Stafnitz, in attendance as his Majesty's aide-de-camp, had thoughts not very different. Yet, even toys take on a significance when grown-up people play with them. Countess Ellenburg was not pleased that only one appointment should be made to the Order of St. Michael. Was it not time that the pretty boy Alexis wore a Star?



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