Anthony Hope.

Sophy of Kravonia: A Novel



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"What is it, Lukovitch?" asked the Prince.

"Make the lady of our company, Bailiff." New cheers were raised. "Make her a lieutenant of our artillery."

Sophy laughed gayly.

"I have His Majesty's authority to choose my officers," said the Prince, smiling. "Baroness, will you be a lieutenant, and wear our sheepskins in place of your sables there?"

"It is your uniform, Monseigneur," Sophy answered, bowing her head.

Lukovitch sprang forward and kissed her hand.

"For our Bailiff's preserver as for our Bailiff, men of Volseni!" he cried, loudly. The answering cheer brought tears to Sophy's sparkling eyes. For a moment she could not see her Prince nor the men who thus took her to their hearts.

Suddenly, in the midst of her exultation, she saw a face on the outskirts of the throng. A small, spare man stood there, dressed in unobtrusive tweeds, but making no effort to conceal himself; he was just looking on, a stranger to the town, interested in the picturesque little scene. The face was that of Lieutenant Rastatz.

She watched the drilling of the gunners, and then rode back with the Prince, escorted beyond the gates by a cheering throng, which had now been joined by many women. Dusk was falling, and the old, gray city took on a ghostly look; the glory of the sunshine had departed. Sophy shivered a little beneath her furs.

"Monseigneur, did you see Rastatz?" she asked.

"No, I didn't see him; but I knew he was here. Lukovitch told me yesterday."

"And not in uniform!"

"He has leave, no doubt, and his uniform wouldn't make his stay in Volseni any more pleasant."

"What's he there for?" she asked, fretfully.

"Ah, Baroness, you must inquire of those who sent him, I think." His tone was light and merry.

"To spy on you, I suppose! I hate his being there. He – he isn't worthy to be in dear Volseni."

"You and Volseni have fallen in love with each other, I see! As for spying, all I'm doing I do openly, and all I shall do. But I don't blame Stenovics for keeping an eye on me, or Stafnitz either. I do my best to keep an eye on them, you know. We needn't be afraid of Rastatz, we who have beaten Hercules Mistitch in open fight!"

"Oh, well, away with him!" cried Sophy. "The snow's not frozen – shall we canter home, Monseigneur?"

Merrily they cantered through the fast falling evening, side by side. Rastatz was out of mind now; all was out of mind save the fascination of the crisp air, the silent suggestion of gathering night, her Prince who rode beside her. The dark mass of the tower of Praslok rose too soon before her unwilling eyes. She drew rein, sighing.

"If life were just all that and nothing else!" she said, as he helped her to dismount and the grooms took the horses. She stopped half-way up the steep wooden causeway and turned to look back towards Volseni. The Prince stood close by her.

"That's good, but life has better things," he said, softly.

"To ride together is good, and to play together. But to work together is better still, Baroness."

For a moment Sophy was silent. Then she laughed in joy.

"Well, I'm to wear your uniform henceforth, Monseigneur!"

He took her hand and kissed it. Very slowly and gradually she drew it away, her eyes meeting his as he raised his head. The heavy door at the top of the causeway opened; Marie Zerkovitch stood there, holding a lamp high in her hand; the sudden light flooded their faces. For a moment more he looked at her, then went down again on his way to the stables. Sophy ran up to where Marie Zerkovitch stood.

"You heard our horses?" she asked, gayly.

But there was no responsive smile on Marie's lips. For her, too, the light had shone on those two faces, and she was sorely troubled.

The next day again they rode together, and the next. On the third day, Sophy rode into Volseni in the sheepskin cap and tunic, a short habit of blue hiding her leather breeches and coming half-way over her long boots. The Prince gave her his hand as they rode into the market-place.

Marie Zerkovitch trembled, Max von Hollbrandt shrugged his shoulders with a laugh – and little Rastatz drove back to Slavna through the night. He thought that he had seen enough for his purposes; his report might be useful in the city on the Krath.

IX
COUNTESS ELLENBURG PRAYS

In Slavna, Dr. Natcheff continued his reassuring reports until the public at large was so reassured as to ask for no more reports even of the most optimistic description. But the state of mind of the few people behind the scenes was very different. Stafnitz's conclusion held sway there. The time was short! That was the ruling thought and the governing fact. It might be very short; and the end might come without warning. The secret was well kept, but to those to whom he spoke at all Natcheff spoke openly. The King's life hung on a thread, which the least accident might break. With perfect quiet and tranquillity he might live a year, possibly two years; any shock or overstrain would precipitate the end. Countess Ellenburg and her confidential friends knew this, the King knew it himself, and Lepage his valet, knew it. There the possession of the secret stopped.

The King was gay and courageous; courage, at least, he had never lacked. He seemed almost indifferent. The best years were over, he said, and why not an end? An end swift, without pain, without waiting! There was much to be said for it. Lepage agreed with his master and told him so in his usual blunt fashion; they agreed together not to cry about it, and the King went fishing still. But the time was short, and he pushed on his one great idea with a zeal and an earnestness foreign to his earlier habit. He would see his son married, or at least betrothed, before he died; he would see the great marriage in train – the marriage which was to establish forever the rank and prestige of the House of Stefanovitch. The Prince of Slavna must set forth on his travels, seeking a wife; the King even designated a Princess of most unquestionable exaltedness, as the first object of his son's attentions or pursuit. With an unusual peremptoriness, and an unusual independence, he sent Stenovics orders to communicate his wishes directly to the Prince. Stenovics received the royal memorandum on the day on which Lieutenant Rastatz returned to Slavna with the fruits of his observation at Volseni in his hand.

At first sight the King's commands were totally at variance with the interests of the Ellenburg coterie, and with the progress of their great plan. They did not want the House of Stefanovitch strengthened and glorified in the person of its present Heir Apparent. But the matter was more complicated than a first glance showed. There were the guns to be considered as well – and the gunners training at Volseni; these would be sources of strength and prestige to the Prince, not less valuable, more tangible, than even a great match. And now the Prince was on the spot. Send him on his travels! The time was short; when the short time ended, he might be far away. Finally, he might go and yet take nothing by his journey; the exalted Princess would be hard to win; the King's family pride might defeat itself by making him pitch his hopes and his claims too high.

On the whole the matter was difficult. The three chief conspirators showed their conviction of this in their characteristic ways. Countess Ellenburg became more pious than ever; General Stenovics more silent – at least more prone to restrict his conversation to grunts; Colonel Stafnitz more gay and interested in life; he, too, was fishing, and in his favorite waters, and he had hopes of a big rise.

There was one contingency impossible to overlook. In spite of his father's orders, the Prince might refuse to go. A knowledge of the state of the King's health would afford him a very strong excuse, a suspicion of the plans of the coterie an overpowering motive. The King himself had foreseen the former danger and feared its effect on his dominant hopes; by his express command the Prince was kept in ignorance; he had been amply reassured by Dr. Natcheff. On the latter point the coterie had, they flattered themselves, nothing to fear. On what ground, then, could the Prince justify a refusal? His gunners? That would be unwarrantable; the King would not accept the plea. Did Rastatz's report suggest any other ground for refusal? If it did, it was one which, to the King's mind, would seem more unwarrantable still.

There is no big game without its risk; but after full consideration, Stenovics and Stafnitz decided that the King's wishes were in their interest, and should be communicated to the Prince without delay. They had more chances for them than against them. If their game had its dangers – well, the time might be very short.

In these days Countess Ellenburg made a practice of shutting herself up in her private rooms for as much as two additional hours every day. She told the King that she sought a quiet time for meditation and prayer. King Alexis shrugged his shoulders; meditation wouldn't help matters, and, in face of Dr. Natcheff's diagnosis of the condition of his heart, he must confess to a serious doubt even about prayer. He had outlived his love for the Countess, but to the end he found in her a source of whimsical amusement; divining, if not her ambitions, at least her regrets; understanding how these regrets, when they became very acute, had to be met by an access of piety. Naturally they would be acute now, in view of Natcheff's diagnosis. He thanked her for her concern, and bade her by all means go and pray.

What was the stuff of her prayers – the stuff behind the words? No doubt she prayed for her husband's life. No doubt she prayed for her son's well-being. Very likely she even prayed that she might not be led into temptation, or to do anything wrong, by her love for her son; for it was her theory that the Prince himself would ruin his own chances, and throw the Crown away. It is not easy always to be sure of conscious insincerity.

Yet the devil's advocate would have had small difficulty in placing a fresh face on her prayers, in exhibiting what lay below the words, in suggesting how it was that she came forth from her secret devotions, not happy and tranquillized, but with weary eyes, and her narrow lips close-set in stern self-control. Her prayer that she might do nothing wrong was a prayer that the Prince might do nothing right. If that prayer were granted, sin on her part would become superfluous. She prayed not to be led into temptation – that sounded quite orthodox; was she to presume to suggest to Heaven the means by which temptation should be avoided?

Stenovics skilfully humored this shade of hypocrisy. When he spoke to her, there were in his mouth no such words as plans or schemes or hopes or ambitions – no, nor claims nor rights. It was always, "the possibilities we are compelled to contemplate" – "the steps we may be forced into taking" – "the necessities of mere self-defence" – "the interests of the kingdom" – "the supreme evil of civil strife" – which last most respectable phrase meant that it was much better to jockey the Prince out of his throne than to fight him for it. Colonel Stafnitz bit his lip and gnawed his mustache during these interviews. The Countess saw – and hated him. She turned back to Stenovics's church-going phrases and impassive face. Throughout the whole affair the General probably never once mentioned to her in plain language the one and only object of all their hopes and efforts. In the result business took rather longer to transact – the church-going phrases ran to many syllables; but concessions must be made to piety. Nor was the Countess so singular; we should often forego what we like best if we were obliged to define it accurately and aloud.

After one of these conferences the Countess always prayed; it may be presumed that she prayed against the misfortune of a cast-iron terminology. Probably she also urged her views – for prayer is in many books and mouths more of an argument than a petition – that all marriages were on one and the same footing, and that Heaven knew naught of a particular variety named in some countries morganatic. Of the keeping of contracts, made contrary to the presumed views of Heaven, we are all aware that Churches – and sometimes States, too – are apt to know or count nothing.

Such were the woman and her mind. Some pity may go out to her. In the end, behind all her prayers, and inspiring them – nay, driving her to her knees in fear – was the conviction that she risked her soul. When she felt that, she pleaded that it was for her son's sake. Yet there lay years between her son and man's estate; the power was for some one during those years.

"If I had the Countess's views and temperament, I should grow potatoes – and, if possible, grow them worse than my neighbors," said Colonel Stafnitz. "If I lived dully, I should at least die in peace!"

The King held a very confidential conference. It was to sign his will. The Countess was there; the little boy, who moved in happy unconsciousness of all the schemes which centred round him, was sent into the next room to play with Lepage. Stenovics and Stafnitz were present as witnesses, and Markart as secretary. The King touched lightly on his state of health, and went on to express his conviction of the Prince of Slavna's distinguished consideration for Countess Ellenburg and fraternal affection for little Alexis. "I go the happier for being sure of this, gentlemen," he said, to his two counsellors. "But in any case the Countess and my son are well secured. There will be enough for you, Charlotte, to live in suitable style, here or abroad, as you please. My son I wish to stay here and enter my army. I've settled on him the estate of Dobrava, and he will have means equal to his station. It's well to have this arranged; from day to day I am in the hands of God."

As with another King, nothing in life became him like the leaving of it. There was little more work to do – he had but to wait with courage and with dignity. The demand now was on what he had in abundance, not on a faculty which he had always lacked. He signed the document, and bade the General and Stafnitz witness it. In silence they obeyed him, meaning to make waste-paper of the thing to which they set their names.

That business done – and the King alone seemed happy in the doing of it (even Stafnitz had frowned) – the King turned suddenly to Stenovics.

"I should like to see Baroness Dobrava. Pray let her be sent for this afternoon."

The shock was sudden, but Stenovics's answer came steady, if slow.

"Your Majesty desires her presence?"

"I want to thank her once again, Stenovics. She's done much for us."

"The Baroness is not in Slavna, sir, but I can send for her."

"Not in Slavna? Where is she, then?"

He asked what the whole kingdom knew. Save himself, nobody was ignorant of Sophy's whereabouts.

"She is on a visit to his Royal Highness at Praslok, sir." Stenovics's voice was a triumph of neutrality.

"On a visit to the Prince?" Surprise sounded in his voice.

"Madame Zerkovitch is there too, sir," Stenovics added. "The ladies have been there during the whole of the Prince of Slavna's stay."

The King shot a glance at Countess Ellenburg; she was looking prim and grim. He looked, also, at Stafnitz, who bit his mustache, without quite hiding an intentional but apparently irrepressible smile. The King did not look too grave – and most of his gravity was for Countess Ellenburg.

"Is that – hum – at this moment, quite desirable?" he asked.

His question met with silence; the air of all three intimated that the matter was purely one for His Majesty. The King sat a moment with a frown on his brow – the frown which just supplants a smile when a thing, generally amusing and not unnatural, happens by chance to occur inconveniently.

Across this silence came a loud voice from the next room – Lepage's voice. "Take care, take care! You'll upset the flowers, Prince!"

The King started; he looked round at his companions. Then he struck a hand-bell on the table before him. Lepage appeared.

"Lepage, whom did you address as 'Prince' just now?"

"Count Alexis, sir."

"Why?"

"The Count insisted."

"Don't do it again. It's absurd! Go away!"

A dull red patched Countess Ellenburg's cheeks. Lids brooded low over the eyes of Stafnitz and of Stenovics. It was a very awkward little scene – the King's irritation had got the better of him for the moment. What would the kindred of the exalted Princess have said? The King turned to Countess Ellenburg and forced a smile.

"The question of reproof is one for you, Countess," he said, frigidly. "And now about the Baroness – No, I mean, I wanted to ask if my wishes have been communicated to the Prince of Slavna."

"The Prince has received them, sir. He read them in the presence of my messenger, and requested leave to send his answer in writing, unless he might wait on Your Majesty."

"There are reasons why I had better not see him just now. Ask him to write – but very soon. The matter isn't one for delay." The King rose from his seat.

"Your Majesty still wishes me to send for Baroness Dobrava?"

The King reflected for a moment, and answered simply: "No."

His brief word broke up the conference – it had already lasted longer than suave and reassuring Dr. Natcheff would have advised. The men went away with a smile, all of them – the King, Stenovics, Stafnitz, round-faced Markart – each smiling according to the quality of each, their smiles answering to Max von Hollbrandt's shrug of the shoulders. There are things which bring men to what painful youth was taught to call the least common denominator. A horse-race does it, a prize-fight, a cricket-match, a battle, too, in some sort. Equally efficacious, very often, though it is to be recorded with reluctance, is a strong flirtation with no proper issue obvious.

The matter was grave, yet all the men laughed. The matter was grave, and Countess Ellenburg did not laugh. Was that what Stafnitz called her views and her temperament? In part, no doubt. Besides, men will laugh at the side-issues of the gravest affairs; it is not generally the case with woman. Added again to this, perhaps Countess Ellenburg knew more, or divined more. Among glaring diversity there was, perhaps, something – an atom – of similarity between her and Sophy – not the something which refuses, but the something which couples high conditions with assent. The thousandth chance is to most men negligible; to most women it is no worse than the tenth; their sense of mathematical odds is sorely – and sometimes magnificently – imperfect.

It had flashed across Countess Ellenburg's mind that maybe Sophy, too, played for a big stake – or, rather, lived for it and so would die. The men had not thought of that; to them, the violent flirtation had its obvious end and its passing inconvenience. It might delay the Prince's departure for a while; it might make his marriage more entirely an affair of duty and of state. With this idea they smiled and shrugged; the whole business came under the head which, in their thoughts and their confidential conversations, they would style nonsense.

It was not so with the Countess. Disconcerted by that episode of Lepage and young Alexis, more moved by the sudden appearance of Baroness Dobrava as a factor in the game, she returned to prayer.

What now was the form and matter of her prayer? The form must go unformulated – and the words unconjectured. Yet she prayed so long that she must have succeeded in putting a good face on her petitions. Without a plausible plea nobody could have rested on their knees so long.

It is probable that she prayed for others as she prayed for herself – she prayed that the Prince of Slavna and the Baroness Dobrava might escape temptation.

Or that, if they fell – ? Again it was not for her to dictate to Heaven. Heaven had its ways of dealing with such sinners.

Yet through all her prayers must have echoed the words: "It's absurd!" She prayed again, most likely, against being suspected of wishing that the man who uttered them – her husband – might soon be dead.

The King dead – and the Prince a slave to love – to the idle hours of an unprofitable love! It was a fine vision, and needed a vast deal of covering with the veil of prayer.



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