Anthony Hope.

Sophy of Kravonia: A Novel



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"Since I'm party to the crime, I'll keep the secret," she promised with a decidedly kindly glance. To Sophy, admiration of herself always argued something good in a man; she had none of that ungracious scorn which often disfigures the smile of beauty. She gave a little sigh, followed quickly by a smile.

"We've said all we possibly can to one another, you and I; more than we could, perhaps! And now Ц to duty!" She pointed to the door of the Castle.

The Prince was coming down the wooden causeway. He, too, wore the Volseni sheepskins. In his hand he carried a sealed letter. Almost at the same moment a groom led Markart's horse from the stables. The Prince joined them and, after a bow to Sophy, handed the letter to Markart.

"For his Majesty. And you remember my message to General Stenovics?"

"Accurately, sir."

"Good!" He gave Markart his hand. "Good-bye Ц a pleasant ride to you, Captain Ц pleasanter than last night's." His grave face broke into a smile.

"I'm not to have Monsieur Zerkovitch's company this time, sir?"

"Why, no, Captain. You see, Zerkovitch left the Castle soon after six o'clock. Rather a short night, yes, but he was in a hurry."

Sophy burst into a laugh at the dismay on Markart's face. "We neither of us knew that, Captain Markart, did we?" she cried. "We thought he was sleeping off the fright you'd given him!"

"Your Royal Highness gives me leave Ц ?" stammered Markart, his eye on his horse.

"Certainly, Captain. But don't be vexed, there will be no invidious comparisons. Zerkovitch doesn't propose to report himself to General Stenovics immediately on his arrival."

Good-natured Markart joined in the laugh at his own expense. "I'm hardly awake yet; he must be made of iron, that Zerkovitch!"

"Quicksilver!" smiled the Prince. As Markart mounted, he added: "Au revoir!"

Markart left the two standing side by side Ц the Prince's serious face lit up with a rare smile, Sophy's beauty radiant in merriment. His own face fell as he rode away. "I half wish I was in the other camp," he grumbled. But Stenovics's power held him Ц and the fear of Stafnitz. He went back to a work in which his heart no longer was; for his heart had felt Sophy's spell.

"You can have had next to no sleep all night, Monseigneur," said Sophy in reproach mingled with commiseration.

"I don't need it; the sight of your face refreshes me. We must talk. Zerkovitch brought news."

In low, grave tones he told her the tidings, and the steps which he and Zerkovitch had taken.

"I understand my father's reasons for keeping me in the dark; he meant it well, but he was blinded by this idea about my marriage. But I see, too, how it fitted in with Stenovics's ideas. I think it's war between us now Ц and I'm ready."

Sophy was almost dazed. The King's life was not to be relied on for a week Ц for a day Ц no, not for an hour! But she listened attentively. Zerkovitch had gone back to Slavna on a fresh horse and at top speed; he would have more than two hours' lead of Markart.

His first duty was to open communications with Lepage and arrange that the valet should send to him all the information which came to his ears, and any impressions which he was able to gather in the Palace. Zerkovitch would forward the reports to Praslok immediately, so long as the Prince remained at the Castle. But the Prince was persuaded that his father would not refuse to see him, now that he knew the true state of the case. "My father is really attached to me," he said, "and if I see him, I'm confident that I can persuade him of the inexpediency of my leaving the kingdom just now. A hint of my suspicions with regard to the Countess and Stenovics would do it; but I'm reluctant to risk giving him such a shock. I think I can persuade him without."

"But is it safe for you to trust yourself at Slavna Ц in the Palace? And alone?"

"I must risk the Palace alone Ц and I'm not much afraid. Stenovics might go to war with me, but I don't think he'd favor assassination. And to Slavna I sha'n't go alone. Our gunners will go with us, Sophy. We have news of the guns being on the way; there will be nothing strange in my marching the gunners down to meet them. They're only half-trained, even in drill, but they're brave fellows. We'll take up our quarters with them in Suleiman's Tower. I don't fear all Slavna if I hold Suleiman's Tower with three hundred Volsenians. Stafnitz may do his worst!"

"Yes, I see," she answered, thoughtfully. "I can't come with you to Suleiman's Tower, though."

"Only if there are signs of danger. Then you and Marie must come; if all is quiet, you can stay in her house. We can meet often Ц as often as possible. For the rest, we must wait."

She saw that they must wait. It was impossible to approach the King on the matter of Sophy. It cut dead at the heart of his ambition; it would be a shock as great as the discovery of Countess Ellenburg's ambitions. It could not be risked.

"But if, under Stenovics's influence, the King does refuse to see you?" she asked Ц "Refuses to see you, and repeats his orders?"

The Prince's face grew very grave, but his voice was firm.

"Not even the King Ц not even my father Ц can bid me throw away the inheritance which is mine. The hand would be the King's, but the voice the voice of Stenovics. I shouldn't obey; they'd have to come to Volseni and take me."

Sophy's eyes kindled. "Yes, that's right!" she said. "And for to-day?"

"Nothing will happen to-day Ц unless, by chance, the thing which we now know may happen any day; and of that we shouldn't hear till evening. And there's no drill even. I sent the men to their homes on forty-eight hours' furlough yesterday morning." His face relaxed in a smile. "I think to-day we can have a holiday, Sophy."

She clapped her hands in glee. "Oh, Monseigneur, a holiday!"

"It may be the last for a long time," he said; "so we must enjoy it."

This day Ц this holiday which might be the last Ц passed in a fine carelessness and a rich joy in living. The cloudless sky and the glittering waters of Lake Talti were parties to their pleasure, whether as they rode far along the shore, or sat and ate a simple meal on the rock-strewn margin. Hopes and fears, dangers and stern resolves, were forgotten; even of the happier issues which the future promised, or dangled before their eyes, there was little thought or speech. The blood of youth flowed briskly, the heart of youth rose high. The grave Prince joked, jested, and paid his court; Sophy's eyes gleamed with the fun as not even the most exalted and perilous adventure could make them sparkle.

"Oh, it's good," she cried Ц "good to live and see the sun! Monseigneur, I believe I'm a pagan Ц a sun-worshipper! When he's good enough to warm me through, and to make the water glitter for me, and shadows dance in such a cunning pattern on the hills, then I think I've done something that he likes, and that he's pleased with me!" She sprang to her feet and stretched out her hands towards the sun. "In the grave, I believe, I shall remember the glorious light; my memory of that could surely never die!"

His was the holiday mood, too. He fell in with her extravagance, meeting it with banter.

"It's only a lamp," he said, "just a lamp; and it's hung there for the sole purpose of showing Sophy's eyes. When she's not there, they put it out Ц for what's the use of it?"

"They put it out when I'm not there?"

"I've noticed it happen a dozen times of late."

"It lights up again when I come, Monseigneur?"

"Ah, then I forget to look!"

"You get very little sun anyhow, then!"

"I've something so much better."

It is pathetic to read Ц pathetic that she should have set it down as though every word of it were precious Ц set it down as minutely as she chronicled the details of the critical hours to which fate was soon to call her.

Yet, was she wrong? Days of idleness are not always the emptiest; life may justify its halts; our spirits may mount to their sublimest pitch in hours of play. At least, the temper of that holiday, and her eager prizing and recording of it, show well the manner of woman that she was Ц her passionate love of beauty, her eager stretching out to all that makes life beautiful, her spirit, sensitive to all around, taking color from this and that, reflecting back every ray which the bounty of nature or of man poured upon it, her great faculty of living. She wasted no days or hours. Ever receiving, ever giving, she spent her sojourn in a world that for her did much, yet never could do enough, to which she gave a great love, yet never seemed to herself to be able to give enough. Perhaps she was not wrong when she called herself a pagan. She was of the religion of joy; her kindest thought of the grave was that haply through some chink in its dark walls there might creep one tiny sunbeam of memory.

They rode home together as the sun was setting Ц a sun of ruddy gold, behind it one bright, purple cloud, the sky beyond blue, deepening almost into black. When Praslok came in sight, she laid her hand on his with a long-drawn sigh.

"We have been together to-day," she said. "That will be there always. Yes, the sun and the world were made for us this day Ц and we have been worthy."

He pressed her hand. "You were sent to teach me what joy is Ц the worth of the world to men who live in it. You're the angel of joy, Sophy. Before you came, I had missed that lesson."

"I'm very glad" Ц thus she ends her own record of this day of glory Ц "that I've brought joy to Monseigneur. He faces his fight joyful of heart." And then, with one of her absurd, deplorable, irresistible lapses into the merest ordinary feminine, she adds: "That red badge is just the touch my sheepskin cap wanted!"

Oh, Sophy, Sophy, what of that for a final reflection on the eve of Monseigneur's fight?

XIII
A DELICATE DUTY

There was a stir in Slavna; excitement was gradually growing, not unmixed with uneasiness; gossip was busy at the H?tel de Paris and at the Golden Lion. Men clustered in groups and talked, while their wives said that they would be better at home, minding their business and letting politics alone. Knowledge was far to seek; rumors were plentiful. Dr. Natcheff might be as reassuring as he pleased Ц but he had spent the night at the Palace! All was quiet in the city, but news came of the force that was being raised in Volseni, and the size of the force lost nothing as the report passed from mouth to mouth. Little as Slavna loved the Prince, it was not eager to fight him. A certain reaction in his favor set in. If they did not love him, they held him in sincere respect; if he meant to fight, then they were not sure that they did!

Baroness Dobrava's name, too, was much on men's lips; stories about Sophy were bandied to and fro; people began to remember that they had from the beginning thought her very remarkable Ц a force to be reckoned with. The superstitious ideas about her made their first definite appearance now. She had bewitched the Prince, they said, and the men of the hills, too; the whole mountain country would rise at her bidding and sweep down on Slavna in rude warfare and mad bravery. The Sheepskins would come, following the Red Star!

The citizens of Slavna did not relish the prospect; at the best it would be very bad for trade; at the worst it would mean blood and death let loose in the streets. A stern ruler was better than civil war. The troops of the garrison were no longer such favorites as they had been; even Captain Hercules subdued his demeanor (which, indeed, had never quite recovered from the chastisement of the Prince's sword) to a self-effacing discretion. He, too, in his heart, and in his heavy, primitive brain, had an uneasy feeling about the witch with the Red Star; had she not been the beginning of trouble? But for her, Sterkoff's long knife would have set an end to the whole chapter long ago!

The time was short and the omens doubtful. It was the moment for a bold stroke, for a forcing game. The waverers must be shown where power lay, whose was the winning side.

Captain Markart arrived at Slavna at one o'clock. Zerkovitch had used his start well and reached the city nearly three hours earlier. When Markart told Stenovics (he reported himself at once to the General) how he had been outwitted, Stenovics smiled, saying: "I know, and I know what he has done since he got here. They stole a march on you, but not on me, Captain. And now Ц your story!" He listened to Markart's tale with a frowning brow, and then dismissed him, saying: "You will meet me at the Palace. We meet the King in conference at four o'clock." But the General himself went to the Palace long before four, and he and Stafnitz were closeted with Countess Ellenburg. Lepage, returning from a walk to the city at two o'clock, saw the General arrive on horseback. Lieutenant Rastatz saw Lepage arrive Ц ay, and had seen him set out, and marked all his goings; but of this Lepage was unconscious. The little lieutenant was not much of a soldier, but he was an excellent spy. Lepage had been with Zerkovitch.

The King was confined to his apartments, a suite of six rooms on the first floor, facing the river. Here he had his own sitting-room, dressing, and bedrooms. Besides these there were the little cupboard Lepage slept in, and a spare room, which at present accommodated Dr. Natcheff. The sixth room was occupied by odds and ends, including the tackle, rods, and other implements of his Majesty's favorite pastime. The council was held in the sitting-room. Natcheff and Lepage were not present, but each was in his own room, ready for any possible call on his services. Markart was there, first to tell his story and deliver his letter, secondly in his capacity as secretary to General Stenovics. The Countess and Stafnitz completed the party.

The King was anxious, worried, obviously unwell; his voice trembled as he read aloud his son's letter. It was brief but dutiful, and even affectionate. After a slight reproach that he should have been kept in ignorance of the apprehensions entertained about the King's health, the Prince requested an audience within the next two days; he had considerations which it was his duty to lay before his Majesty, and he firmly but respectfully claimed the right of confidential communication with his father; that was essential to his Majesty's obtaining a true appreciation of his views. The hit at Stenovics was plain enough, and the Prince did not labor it. The letter ended there, with an expression of earnest concern for the King's health. There was no word in it about starting on his journey.

Then Markart told his story Ц not that he had much to tell. In essence he added only that the Prince proposed to await the King's answer at Praslok. Neither to him had the Prince said a word about starting on his journey.

On this point Stenovics seized, pursuant, no doubt, to the plan devised in that preliminary discussion with the other two members of the little coterie.

"It is remarkable, sir Ц even more than remarkable Ц that his Royal Highness makes no reference at all to the direct command which your Majesty was pleased to issue to him," he observed.

The King listened, puzzled and rather distressed. "Yes, it isn't proper, it isn't respectful. But now that my son knows of the state of my health, I think I must see him. It seems unnatural to refuse. After all, it may be the last time Ц since he's going on this journey."

"But is the Prince going on his journey, sir?" asked Stenovics. "Does the studied silence of his letter augur well for his obedience? Doesn't he seek an interview in order to persuade your Majesty against your better judgment? I must be pardoned freedom of speech. Great interests are at stake." The last words were true enough, though not in the sense in which the King was meant to understand them.

"My son knows how near this matter is to my heart. I shall be able to persuade him to do his duty," said the King.

The first round of the fight was going against the coterie. They did not want the King to see his son. Danger lay there. The Prince's was the stronger character; it might well prevail; and they were no longer certain that the Prince knew or guessed nothing of their hopes and intentions; how much news had Zerkovitch carried to Praslok the night before? Stenovics addressed the King again.

"Captain Markart gathered that the Prince was reluctant to interrupt the military training on which he is engaged at Volseni, sir."

"A very excellent thing, that; but the other matter is more urgent. I shouldn't change my mind on account of that."

"A personal interview might be trying to your Majesty."

The King looked annoyed, possibly a little suspicious. "You've no other objection than that to urge, General Stenovics?"

Stenovics had none other which he could produce. "No, sir," he said.

"While I'm here I must do my duty Ц and I shall induce my son to do his. I'll receive the Prince of Slavna in private audience to-morrow or next day. I'll fix the precise time later, and I'll write the letter myself."

The decision was final Ц and it was defeat so far. There was a moment's silence. Markart saw Colonel Stafnitz nod his head, almost imperceptibly, towards Countess Ellenburg. The need and the moment for reinforcements had come; the Colonel was calling them up. The order of battle had been well considered in Countess Ellenburg's apartments! The second line came into action. The Countess began with a question, put with a sneer:

"Did no other reason for the Prince's unwillingness to set out on his journey suggest itself to Captain Markart from what he saw at Praslok?"

The King turned sharply round to her, then to Markart. "Well?" he asked the latter.

Markart was sadly embarrassed.

"Who was at Praslok?" asked the Countess.

"Madame Zerkovitch, and her husband for one night, and Baroness Dobrava."

"Yes, Baroness Dobrava!"

"She's still there?" asked the King. He looked perplexed, even vexed, but again he smiled. He looked at Stenovics and Stafnitz, but this time he found no responsive smiles. Their faces were deadly serious. "Oh, come, well Ц well, that's not serious. Natural, perhaps, but Ц the Prince has a sense of duty. He'll see that that won't do. And we'll send the Baroness a hint Ц we'll tell her how much we miss her at Slavna." He tried to make them answer his smile and accept his smoothing away of the difficulty. It was all a failure.

"I'm bound to say, sir, that I consider Baroness Dobrava a serious obstacle to his Royal Highness's obeying your wishes Ц a serious obstacle," said Stenovics.

"Then we must get her away, General."

"Will he let her go?" snapped the Countess.

"I must order it, if it comes to that," said the King. "These little Ц er Ц affairs Ц these Ц what?†Ц holiday flirtations Ц "

The Countess lost Ц or appeared to lose Ц control of herself suddenly. "Little affairs! Holiday flirtations! If it were only that, it would be beneath your notice, sir, and beneath mine. It's more than that!"

The King started and leaned forward, looking at her. She rose to her feet, crying: "More than that! While we sit talking here, he may be marrying that woman!"

"Marrying her?" cried the King; his face turned red, and then, as the blood ebbed again, became very pale.

"That's what she means Ц yes, and what he means, too!"

The King was aghast. The second assault struck home Ц struck at his dearest hopes and wounded his most intimate ambitions. But he was still incredulous. He spread out trembling hands, turning from the vehement woman to his two counsellors.

"Gentlemen!" he said, imploringly, with out-stretched hands.

They were silent Ц grave and silent.

"Captain Markart, you Ц you saw anything to suggest this Ц this terrible idea?"

The fire was hot on poor Markart again. He stammered and stuttered.

"The Ц the Baroness seemed to have much influence, sir; to Ц to hold a very high position in the Prince's regard; to Ц to be in his confidence Ц "

"Yes!" struck in the Countess. "She wears the uniform of his artillery! Isn't that a compliment usually reserved for ladies of royal rank? I appeal to you, Colonel Stafnitz!"

"In most services it is so, I believe, Countess," the Colonel answered gravely.

"But I should never allow it Ц and without my consent Ц "

"It might be invalid, sir, though there's some doubt about that. But it would be a fatal bar to our German project. Even an influence short of actual marriage Ц "

"She means marriage, I say, marriage!" The Countess was quite rudely impatient of her ally Ц which was very artistic. "An ambitious and dangerous woman! She has taken advantage of the favor the King showed her."

"And if I died?" asked the King.

Stenovics shrugged his shoulders. "Of course, there would be no control then," said he.

The King looked round. "We must get her away from Praslok."

"Will she come?" jeered the Countess. "Not she! Will he let her go? Not he!"

The King passed his hand weakly across his brow. Then he rang a bell on the table. Lepage entered, and the King bade him bring him the draught which Natcheff had prescribed for his nerves. Well might the unfortunate man feel the need of it, between the Countess's open eruption and the not less formidable calm of Stenovics and Stafnitz! And all his favorite dreams in danger!



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