Anthony Hope.

Sophy of Kravonia: A Novel



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"She won't leave him – or he'll follow her. The woman has infatuated him!" the Countess persisted.

"Pray, madame, let me think," said the harassed and sick King. "We must open communications with Baroness Dobrava."

"May I suggest that the matter might prove urgent, sir?" said Stenovics.

"Every hour is full of danger," declared the Countess.

The King held up his hand for silence. Then he took paper and pen, and wrote with his own hand some lines. He signed the document and folded it. His face was now firm and calmer. The peril to his greatest hopes – perhaps a sense of the precarious tenure of his power – seemed to impart to him a new promptness, a decision alien to his normal character. "Colonel Stafnitz!" he said in a tone of command.

The Colonel rose to his feet and saluted. From an adviser in council he became in a moment a soldier on duty.

"I am about to entrust to you a duty of great delicacy. I choose you because, short of General Stenovics himself, there is no man in whom I have such confidence. To-morrow morning you will go to Praslok and inform his Royal Highness that you have a communication from me for Baroness Dobrava. If the Prince is absent, you will see the Baroness herself. If she is absent, you will follow her and find her. The matter is urgent. You will tell her that it is my request that she at once accompany you back here to the Palace, where I shall receive her and acquaint her with my further wishes. If she asks of these, say that you are not empowered to tell her anything; she must learn them from myself. If she makes any demur about accompanying you immediately, or if demur is made or delay suggested from any quarter, you will say that my request is a command. If that is not sufficient, you will produce this paper. It is an order under my hand, addressed to you and directing you to arrest Baroness Dobrava and escort her here to my presence, notwithstanding any objection or resistance, which any person whatever will offer at his peril. You will be back here by to-morrow evening, with the Baroness in your charge. Do it without employing the order for arrest if possible, but do it anyhow and at all costs. Do you understand?"

"Perfectly, sir. Am I to take an escort?"

The answer to that question was anxiously considered – and awaited anxiously.

"Yes," said the King, "you will. The precise force I leave to your discretion. It should be large enough to make you secure from hinderance by any act short of open and armed resistance to my commands."

Stafnitz saluted again, and at a sign from the King resumed his seat. The King's manner relaxed as he turned to Stenovics. "When we've got her here, we'll reason with her – she'll hear reason – and persuade her that her health will benefit by a foreign trip. If necessary, I shall cause her to be deported. She must be out of Kravonia in three days unless she can clear herself from all suspicion. I'll arrange that the Prince sha'n't come for his audience until she is well out of Slavna.

It is, of course, absolutely essential that no word of this should pass the walls of this room. If once a hint of it reached Praslok, the task of laying our hands on the Baroness might become infinitely more difficult."

The three were well pleased. They had come to fear Sophy, and on that score alone would be right glad to see the last of her. And when she had gone, there was a fairer chance that the Prince, too, would go on his travels; whether he went after her or not they cared little, so that he went, and the recruiting and training at Volseni were interrupted.

Again, she was to go before the audience. That was another point. The peril of the audience remained, but they had improved their chances. Perhaps Stafnitz's brain was already busy with the possibilities of his mission and his escort. The latter was to be large enough to make him secure from hinderance by any act short of open and armed resistance to the King's commands. If it were impossible (as his Majesty obviously considered) to contemplate such resistance, it was evidently no less impossible to reckon what might happen as a consequence of it.

The King rang his bell impatiently. "I want my draught again. I'm very tired. Is there anything else which need detain us to-day?"

As he spoke, before Stenovics could answer, Lepage came in with the draught. The valet wore an even unusually demure and uninterested expression.

"There is one other matter, sir," said Stenovics.

The King paused in the act of drinking and listened with his glass in his hand, Lepage standing beside him.

"Your Majesty just now impressed on us the need of secrecy as to what passes between these walls. I think, sir, you would insist on the same thing with all who serve you confidentially. You haven't asked, sir, how the Prince became aware of the state of your Majesty's health."

The King started a little. "No, I forgot that. It was against my direct orders. How was it?"

Stenovics kept his eyes on the King; Markart and Stafnitz allowed themselves to study Lepage's features; he stood the scrutiny well.

"The news, sir, was betrayed by a man within these walls – a man in close touch with your Majesty."

"Natcheff!" exclaimed the King.

"Certainly not, sir. Another. This man, of whom I had suspicions, and whom I caused to be watched, went by night to the house of Monsieur Zerkovitch, who is, as you are aware, a close friend and (if I may use the word) an adherent of the Prince of Slavna. Their interview took place between nine and ten last night. At eleven Zerkovitch, having borrowed a horse from the Prince's stables, set out for Praslok. He rode hard through the night and reached the Castle, as Captain Markart has told us, in the small hours of the morning. There he had an interview with the Prince. He left Praslok between six and seven in the morning and arrived at his house on the south boulevard by eleven. At half-past eleven he walked up the Street of the Fountain, crossed St. Michael's Square, and entered a small inn in a little alley behind the Cathedral. Here the man I speak of was waiting for him. They were together half an hour. Zerkovitch then left. The man remained till one, then came out, and returned to the Palace by a circuitous route, arriving here about two o'clock. I venture to say that the meaning of all this is quite clear. This man is in communication with Praslok, using Zerkovitch as his intermediary. It's for your Majesty to say how far his disobedience in regard to acquainting the Prince with your condition is a serious offence. As to that I say nothing. But it will be obvious that this man should know nothing of any private measures undertaken or contemplated."

The King had listened carefully. "The case seems clear," he said. "This fellow's a traitor. He's done harm already, and may do more. What do you ask, General?"

"We might be content to let him know nothing. But who can be quite certain of insuring that? Sir, you have just arrived at a very important decision – to take certain action. Absolute secrecy is essential to its success. I've no wish to press hardly on this man, but I feel bound to urge that he should be put under arrest and kept in the charge of a person who is beyond suspicion until the action to which I refer has been successfully carried out."

"The precaution is an obvious one, and the punishment hardly sufficient." The King rose. "Do as you say, General. I leave you full discretion. And now I'll go to my room and rest. I'm very tired. Give me your arm, Lepage, and come and make me comfortable."

Lepage did not offer his arm. He was not looking at the King, nor listening to him; his eyes and his ears were for General Stenovics. Stenovics rose now and pointed his finger at Lepage.

"That, sir, is the man," said he.

"Lepage!" cried the King, and sank heavily into his seat with a bewildered face. Lepage – his familiar – the man he trusted!

XIV
HIS MAJESTY DIES – TO-MORROW!

The King's ambition and pride had quivered under the threat of a cruel blow; the charge against Lepage wounded him hardly less deeply. He regarded his body-servant with the trustful affection which grows on an indolent man in course of years – of countless days of consulting, trusting, relying on one ever present, ever ready, always trustworthy. Lepage had been with him nearly thirty years; there was hardly a secret of the King's manhood which he had not known and kept. At last had he turned traitor?

Stenovics had failed to allow for this human side of the matter; how much more alone the revelation would make the King feel, how much more exposed and helpless – just, moreover, when sickness made his invaluable servant more indispensable still. A forlorn dignity filled the King's simple question: "Is it true, Lepage?"

Lepage's impassivity vanished. He, too, was deeply moved. The sense of guilt was on him – of guilt against his master; it drove him on, beyond itself, to a fierce rage against those who had goaded him into his disobedience, whose action and plans had made his disobedience right. For right now he believed and felt it; his talks with Zerkovitch had crystallized his suspicions into confident certainty. He was carried beyond thinking of what effect his outburst might have on his own fortunes or how it might distress the already harassed King. He struck back fiercely at his accuser, all his national quickness of passion finding vent in the torrent of words he poured forth in excuse or justification. He spoke his native French, very quickly, one word jostling over another, his arms flying like windmills, and his hair bristling, as it seemed, with defiance.

"Yes, it's true, sir. I disobeyed your Majesty – for the first time in thirty years! For the first time in my life, sir, I did it! And why? Because it was right; because it was for honor. I was angry, yes! I had been scolded because Count Alexis bade me call him 'Prince,' and you heard me do it. Yes, I was angry. Was it my fault? Had I told him he was a prince? No! Who had told him he was a prince? Don't ask me, sir. Ask somebody else. For my part, I know well the difference between one who is a prince and one who is not. Oh, I'm not ignorant of that! I know, too, the difference between one who is a queen and one who is not – oh, with the utmost respect to Madame la Comtesse! But I know it – and I remember it. Does everybody else remember it?"

He stopped for a moment and clutched at his stiff, tight collar, as though to wrench it away from his neck, and let the stream of his words flow even more freely. While he paused, nobody spoke. Stenovics's heavy gaze was on the King, Stafnitz's eyes discreetly on the ceiling; the Countess looked scared. Had they made a mistake? Would it have been better to run the risk of what Lepage could do? The King's hands were on the table in front of him; they trembled where they lay.

"Why wasn't the Prince to know? Because then he wouldn't go on his journey! His journey after the German princess!" He faced Stenovics now, boldly and defiantly, pointing a forefinger at him. "Yes, they wanted him to go. Yes, they did! Why, sir? To marry a princess – a great princess? Was that what they wanted? Eh, but it would have been little use for Count Alexis to ask me to call him a prince then! And Madame la Comtesse – with the utmost respect to Madame la Comtesse – she wanted a great princess here? Oh, she wanted that mightily, to be sure!"

The King stirred uneasily in his chair.

"Sir, will you listen to him?" the Countess broke in.

His answer was cold: "I listen to every man before I order him to be punished."

"Yes, they wanted him to go. Yes, certainly! For he trains his men at Volseni, trains them for his big guns. When the men are trained and the guns have come – well, who'll call Count Alexis a prince then? Will even they who taught him to think himself a prince? Oh yes; they wanted him to go. And he wouldn't go if he knew your Majesty was ill. He loves your Majesty. Yes! But if he hated you, still would he go?" With a sudden turn he was round on Stenovics again, and threw out his arms as though to embrace a picture. "Look! The Prince is away, the guns are come, the King dies! Who commands in the Palace? Who governs Slavna?" He was back to the King with another swift turn. "May I answer, sir? May I tell you? The mother of Prince Alexis commands in the Palace; Slavna is ruled by the friends of Captain Mistitch!" His voice fell to an ironical murmur. "And the Prince is far off – seeking a great princess! Sir, do you see the picture?"

Stafnitz suddenly lowered his eyes from the ceiling and looked at the gesticulating little man with a smile.

"Such imagination in the servants' hall!" he murmured half under his breath.

The King neither rebuked his levity nor endorsed the insinuated satire. He took no notice at all. His eyes were fixed on his still trembling hands.

Stenovics spoke in a calm, smooth voice. "Absolutely, sir, I believe the man's honest!" he said, with an inflection of good-humored surprise. "One sees how he got the idea! I'm sure he's genuinely devoted to your Majesty, and to the Prince – as we all are. He sees something going on which he doesn't understand; he knows something more is going on that he's ignorant of. He knows the unfortunate condition of your Majesty's health. He's like a nurse – forgive me – in charge of a sick child; he thinks everybody but himself has designs on his charge. It's really natural, however absurd – but it surely makes the precaution I suggested even more necessary? If he went about spreading a tale like this!"

The line was clever – cleverer far than the Countess's rage, cleverer than Stafnitz's airily bitter sneer. But of it, too, the King took no notice. Lepage took no more than lay in a very scornful smile. He leaned down towards the motionless, dull-faced King, and said in his ear:

"They wanted him to go, yes! Did they want him to come back again, sir?" He bent a little lower, and almost whispered: "How long would his journey have taken, sir? How long would it have taken him to get back if – in case of need?" One more question he did not ask in words; but it was plain enough without them: "How long can your Majesty count on living?"

At last the King raised his head and looked round on them. His eyes were heavy and glassy.

"This man has been my trusted servant for many, many years. You, General Stenovics, have been my right hand, my other self. Colonel Stafnitz is high in my confidence. And Lepage is only my servant."

"I seek to stand no higher than any other of your Majesty's servants, except in so far as the nature of my services gives me a claim," said Stenovics.

"But there's one here who stands far nearer to me than any one, who stands nearer to me than any living being. She must know of this thing, if it's true; if it's being done, her hand must be foremost among the hands that are doing it." His eyes fixed themselves on the Countess's face. "Is it true?" he asked.

"Sir, how can you ask? How can you listen? True! It's a malignant invention. He's angry because I reproved him."

"Yes, I'm angry. I said so. But it's true for all that."

"Silence, Lepage! Am I to take your word against the Countess's?"

Markart, a silent listener to all this scene, thought that Lepage's game was up. Who could doubt what the Countess's word would be? Probably Lepage, too, thought that he was beaten, that he was a ruined man. For he played a desperate card – the last throw of a bankrupt player. Yet it was guided by shrewdness, and by the intimate knowledge which his years of residence in the Palace had given him. He knew the King well; and he knew Countess Ellenburg hardly less thoroughly.

"I speak truth, sir, as I believe it. But I can't expect you to take my word against the Countess's. I have too much respect for Madame la Comtesse to ask that."

Again he bent down towards the King; the King looked up at him; Stenovics's simile came back into the mind. In a low, soothing tone Lepage made his throw – his last suggestion. "Madame la Comtesse is of great piety. If Madame la Comtesse will take a solemn oath – well, then I'm content! I'll say I was mistaken – honest, I declare, sir, but mistaken."

Stenovics raised his head with a sharp jerk. Stafnitz smiled scornfully; he was thinking that Lepage was not, after all, a very resourceful fellow. An oath! Great Heavens! Oaths were in the day's work when you put your hand to affairs like this. But here Stenovics was wiser – and Lepage was shrewder. Stafnitz generalized from an experience rather one-sided; the other two knew the special case. When oaths were mentioned – solemn oaths – Stenovics scented danger.

The King knew his wife, too; and he was profoundly affected, convulsed to the depths of his mind. The thing sounded true – it had a horrible sound of truth. He craved the Countess's denial, solemn as it could be framed. That would restore the confidence which was crumbling from beneath his tormented, bewildered mind.

"Can anybody object to that," he asked slowly, "if I say it will relieve my mind?" He smiled apologetically. "I'm a sick man, you know. If it will relieve a sick man's mind, banish a sick man's fancies? If I shall sleep a little better – and old Lepage here be ashamed of himself?"

None of them dared to object. None could plausibly, unless the Countess herself – and she dared not. In his present mood the King would not accept the plea of her dignity; against it he would set the indulgence due to a sick man's rebellious fancies; could she, for her dignity's sake, deny him what would make him sleep?

He looked at her; something in her face appeared to strike him as strange. A sort of quiver ran through his body; he seemed to pull himself together with an effort; as he spoke to her, his voice sounded faint and ever so slightly blurred.

"You've heard Lepage, and I know that you'll speak the truth to me on your oath – the truth about the thing nearest to the heart of a dying man – nearest to the heart of your dying husband. You wouldn't lie on oath to a dying man, your husband and your King. For I am dying. You have years still; but they'll end. You believe that some day you and I will stand together before the Throne. As you shall answer to Heaven in that day, is this true? Was it in your heart, and in the heart of these men, to keep my son, the heir of my House, from his throne? Is it true? As you shall answer to God for your soul, is there any truth in it?"

The woman went gray in the face – a sheet of gray paper seemed drawn over her cheeks; her narrow lips showed a pale red streak across it. Her prayers – those laborious, ingenious, plausible prayers – helped her nothing here.

"I protest! At this time, sir! The Countess will be upset!"

Stenovics had been driven to this; he feared greatly. Not a soul heeded him; every eye now was on the woman. She struggled – she struggled to lie; she struggled to do what she believed would bring perdition to her soul. Her voice was forced and harsh when at last she broke silence.

"As I shall answer in that day – "

"As you shall answer to God for your soul in that day – " the King repeated.

She gave a wild glance at Stenovics, seeking succor, finding no refuge. Her eyes came back to the King's face. "As I shall answer – " Every word came forth by its own self, with its separate birth-pang – "As I shall answer to God for my soul – "

She stopped. There was silence while a man might count ten. She threw her hands above her head and broke into a violent torrent of sobs. "I can't! I can't!" they heard her say through her tumultuous weeping.

The King suddenly started back in his chair as though somebody had offered to strike him. "You – you – you, my wife! You, Stenovics! You, whom I trusted – trusted – trusted like – ! Ah, is that you, Lepage? Did I hear rightly – wouldn't she swear?"

"With the utmost respect to Madame la Comtesse, she could not swear, sir."

The King sprang to his feet. "Go!" he cried.

They all rose – the Countess shaken with unconquerable sobs. But the next moment the King made a quick in-drawing of the breath, like a man suddenly pricked by some sharp thing. He dropped back in his chair; his head fell to meet his hands on the table in front. The hands were palms downward, and his forehead rested on his knuckles.

There was a moment's pause. Then Lepage darted from the room, crying: "Dr. Natcheff! Dr. Natcheff!" Stenovics wiped his brow. Stafnitz raised his head with a queer look at the King, and his mouth shaped for a whistle. The Countess's sobs seemed as though frozen, her whole frame was rigid. The King did not move.

Natcheff came rushing in; Lepage, who followed closely, shut the door after him. They both went to the King. There was silence while Natcheff made his examination. In a couple of minutes he turned round to them.

"Something has caused his Majesty strong agitation?"

"Yes," answered Stenovics.

"Yes!" said Natcheff. He cleared his throat and glanced doubtfully at the Countess.

"Well?" asked Stenovics.

Natcheff threw out his hands, shrugging his shoulders ever so slightly:



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