Anthony Hope.

Sophy of Kravonia: A Novel



скачать книгу бесплатно

"I regret to say that the effect is the worst possible. His Majesty is dead."

Silence again – a silence strangely broken. Stafnitz sprang across the room with a bound like a cat's, and caught the physician by the shoulder.

"No!" he said. "Not for twenty-four hours yet! His Majesty dies – to-morrow!"

XV
A JOB FOR CAPTAIN HERCULES

"His Majesty dies – to-morrow!"

Stafnitz's words seemed to freeze them all stiff where they stood; even Countess Ellenburg's sobs, which had threatened to break forth again, were arrested in their flow.

"Markart, lock the door leading to the King's apartments. Natcheff and Lepage, carry the King into his bedroom; lay him on the bed; stay there till I call you. Countess, General, I invite your earnest attention."

Stenovics's mind excelled in the waiting game, the slow, tortuous approach, the inch-by-inch advance of leisurely diplomacy. For him this crisis was at first too sudden. The swift and daring intellect of Stafnitz naturally and inevitably took the lead; his strong will fascinated his confederates.

"Is this to be the beginning or the end?" he asked. "For us and our friends – which? If we send a courier to Praslok to call King Sergius to his capital – what then? For you, Countess, and your son, oblivion and obscurity at Dobrava – for all the rest of your life, just that! For you, General, and for me, and our friends – yes, you too, Markart! – our cong?, more or less civilly given. There won't be more insignificant men in all Slavna on the day King Sergius enters. But there's no King Sergius yet!"

Stenovics was regaining the use of his brain; his eyes grew distant in deep meditation. Countess Ellenburg looked eager and grim; her lips could not swear a false oath – well, she was not asked to swear any oath now. Markart could not think; he stood staring at Stafnitz.

"In half an hour that courier must start for Praslok, if he starts at all. Of all things, we mustn't hesitate."

He had painted the result to them of the coming of King Sergius; it meant the defeat of years of effort; it entailed the end of hopes, of place, of power or influence. There was no future for those three in Kravonia if King Sergius came. And Markart, of course, seemed no more than one of Stenovics's train.

"And if the courier doesn't start?" asked Stenovics. He took out and lit a cigar, asking no leave of the Countess; probably he hardly knew that he was smoking it.

Stafnitz looked at his watch. "Five o'clock! We have twenty-four hours – it would be risky to keep the secret longer. There's not much time; we must be prompt. But we mustn't sacrifice anything to hurry. For instance, it would look odd to present the King's orders to Baroness Dobrava in the middle of the night! She'd smell a rat, if she's as clever as they say. And so would the Prince, I think. I could have a hundred men at Praslok by midnight, but I shouldn't propose to have them there before eleven o'clock to-morrow.

Well, they could be back here by five in the afternoon! In the course of the day we'll occupy all the important points of the city with troops we can trust. Then, in the evening – as soon as we see how matters have gone at Praslok – we proclaim King Alexis!"

The Countess gave a little shiver – whether of fear or of eagerness it was impossible to tell. Stenovics drummed his fingers on the table and turned his cigar quickly round and round in his mouth. Markart had recovered his clearness of mind and closely watched all the scene.

The Countess rose suddenly – in strong agitation. "I – I can't bear it," she said. "With him lying there! Let me go! Presently – presently you shall tell me – anything."

Stenovics laid down his cigar and went to her. "Wait in there" – he pointed to Natcheff's room – "till you're quite composed. Then go to your own room and wait till I come. Mind, Countess, no sign of agitation!" He led her out. Stafnitz shrugged his shoulders.

"She'll be all right," he said to Markart with a passing smile.

"I think she was fond of the King," said Markart.

Stenovics returned. "Now!" he said, seating himself again and resuming his cigar. "You suggest that we still use that order – for the arrest of Baroness Dobrava?"

"It's signed 'Alexis,' and King Alexis lives till five to-morrow. Moreover, if all goes well, King Alexis lives again for many years after that."

Stenovics nodded slightly. "The Baroness comes willingly – or you bring her? At any rate, one way or the other, she's in our hands by this time to-morrow?"

"Exactly, General. I fail to perceive that this lamentable event" – he waved his hand towards the King's empty chair – "alters the case as regards the Baroness one jot."

"Not the least – unless you consider that risking our heads on the throw has any such effect," replied Stenovics; and for the first time he smiled.

"Once you wanted to play the big stake on a bad hand, General. Won't you put it on the table now, when you've a good one?"

"I'm thinking of a certain strong card in the other hand which you haven't mentioned yet. Baroness Dobrava is to be in our power by this time to-morrow. But what will the Prince of Slavna be doing? Still drilling his men at Volseni, still waiting for his guns?"

Stafnitz looked him full in the face. "No," he said. "The Prince had better not still be drilling his men at Volseni, nor waiting for his guns."

"I think not, too," Stenovics agreed, twisting his cigar round again.

"General, do you think the Prince will let Baroness Dobrava come to Slavna without him?"

"I don't know. He might have confidence enough in you; he wouldn't wish to annoy or agitate the King. He might await his summons to an audience. On the whole, I think he would submit – and rely on being able to induce the King to alter his mind when they met. I'm not sure he wouldn't advise her to go with you."

"Well, yes, I confess that struck me, too, as rather likely – or at least possible."

"If it happened, it wouldn't be convenient," said Stenovics, with a patient sigh. "Because he would come after her in a day or two."

"But if I were detained by urgent business in Slavna – and we've agreed that there's work to be done to-morrow in Slavna – another officer would go to Praslok. The order, which I have here, mentions no name, although the King designated me by word of mouth."

"The order mentions no name?"

"No; it directs the Baroness to accompany the bearer. True, at the foot my name is written – 'Entrusted to Colonel Stafnitz.' But with care and a pair of scissors – !" He smiled at Markart again, as though taking him into the joke.

"Well, well, suppose another officer goes to Praslok – why shouldn't the Prince trust the Baroness to the care of that officer as readily as to you? You don't – how shall I put it? – monopolize his confidence, Colonel."

Stafnitz still wore his easy, confidential smile, as he answered with an air of innocent slyness: "Suppose the officer were – Captain Mistitch? I think it's just the job for Captain Hercules!"

Even Stenovics started a little at that. He laid down his cigar and looked at his friend the Colonel for some seconds. Then he looked at Markart, smiling, seeming to ponder, to watch how Markart was taking it, even to sympathize with Markart on having to consider a rather startling proposal, on having, possibly, to do some little violence to his feelings. Certainly Captain Markart gathered the impression that Stenovics was doubtful how he would stand this somewhat staggering suggestion. At last the General turned his eyes back to Stafnitz again.

"That's as ingenious a bit of deviltry as I ever heard, Colonel," he remarked quietly.

"Captain Mistitch is restored to duty. He's of proper rank to perform such a service, and to command an escort of a hundred men. After all, an officer of my rank made a certain concession in accepting so small a command."

"Of course, if the Prince knew you as I do, my dear Colonel, he'd trust her to a thousand Mistitches sooner than to you – "

"But then – he doesn't!" the Colonel smiled.

"He'd regard the sending of Mistitch as a deliberate insult."

"I'm afraid he would."

"He's hot-tempered. He'd probably say as much."

"Yes. And Mistitch is hot-tempered. He'd probably resent the observation. But you'll remember, General, that the escort is to be large enough to make the officer commanding it secure against hinderance by any act short of open and armed resistance to the King's command."

"He'll never believe the King would send Mistitch!"

"Will that make his peaceable obedience more likely?"

"In a moment they'd be at each other's – " He stopped. "Markart, go and see if they need anything in there." He pointed to the King's bedroom, where Natcheff and Lepage were.

Markart rose and obeyed. His head was swimming; he hardly yet understood how very ingenious the ingenious deviltry was, how the one man was to be sent whose directions the Prince could not submit to, whose presence was an insult, to whom it was impossible to entrust Baroness Dobrava. He was very glad to get out of the room. The last he saw was Stafnitz drawing his chair close up to Stenovics and engaging in low-voiced, earnest talk.

The King's body lay on the bed, decently disposed, and covered with a large fur rug. Lepage sat on a chair near by, Natcheff on another in the window. Both looked up for a moment as Markart entered, but neither spoke. Markart found a third chair and sat down. Nobody said anything; the three were as silent and almost as still as the fourth on the bed. A low murmur of voices came from the next room; the words were indistinguishable. So passed full half an hour – a strange and terrible half-hour it seemed to Markart.

The door opened, and Stafnitz called Natcheff. The physician rose and followed him. Another twenty minutes went by, still in silence; but once Markart, looking for a moment at his mute companion, saw a tear rolling slowly down Lepage's wrinkled cheek. Lepage saw him looking and broke the silence:

"I suppose I helped to kill him!"

Markart shrugged his shoulders helplessly. Silence came again. Very long it seemed; but, on looking at his watch, Markart found that it was not yet half-past six.

Again the door opened, and Stafnitz called to them both. They followed him into the next room. Stenovics was sitting at the table with his hands clasped on it in front of him. Stafnitz took up a position by his side, standing as though on duty. Natcheff had disappeared. Stenovics spoke in calm, deliberate tones; he seemed to have assumed command of the operations again.

"Captain Markart, I'm about to entrust to you an important and responsible duty. For the next twenty-four hours, and afterwards until relieved by my orders, you will be in charge of this man Lepage, and will detain him in these apartments. His own room and this room will be at the disposal of yourself and your prisoner, but you must not let the prisoner out of your sight. Dr. Natcheff remains in his room. He will have access to the King's room when he desires, but he will not leave the suite of apartments. Beyond seeing to this, you will have no responsibility for him. The door leading to the suite will be locked by me, and will be opened only by me, or by my orders. I remain at the Palace to-night; under me Captain Sterkoff will be the officer on guard. He will himself supply you with any meals or other refreshments which you may require. Ring this hand-bell on the table – no other bell, mind – and he will be with you immediately. Do you understand your orders?"

Markart understood them very well; there was no need of Stafnitz's mocking little smile to point the meaning. Markart was to be Lepage's jailer, Sterkoff was to be his. Under the most civil and considerate form he was made as close a prisoner as the man he guarded. Evidently, Stenovics had come to the conclusion that he could not ask Markart to put too great a strain on his conscience! The General, however, seemed very kindly disposed towards him, and was, indeed, almost apologetic:

"I've every hope that this responsible and, I fear, very irksome duty may last only the few hours I mentioned. You put me under a personal obligation by undertaking it, my dear Markart."

In the absence of any choice, Markart saluted and answered: "I understand my orders, General."

Stafnitz interposed: "Captain Sterkoff is also aware of their purport."

Stenovics looked vexed. "Yes, yes, but I'm sure Markart himself is quite enough." It seems odd that, in the midst of such a transaction as that in which he was now engaged, Stenovics should have found leisure – or heart – to care about Markart's feeling. Yet so it was – a curiously human touch creeping in! He shut Markart up only under the strongest sense of necessity and with great reluctance. Probably Stafnitz had insisted, in the private conversation which they had held together: Markart had shown such evident signs of jibbing over the job proposed for Captain Hercules!

Lepage's heart was wrung, but his spirit was not broken. Stafnitz's ironical smile called an answering one to his lips.

"It would console my feelings if I also were put in charge of somebody, General," he said. "Shall I, in my turn, keep an eye on Dr. Natcheff, or report if the Captain here is remiss in the duty of keeping himself a prisoner?"

"I don't think you need trouble yourself, Monsieur Lepage. Captain Sterkoff will relieve you of responsibility." To Lepage, too, Stenovics was gentle, urbane, almost apologetic.

"And how long am I to live, General?"

"You're in the enviable position, Monsieur Lepage, of being able, subject to our common mortality, to settle that for yourself. Come, come, we'll discuss matters again to-morrow night or the following morning. There are many men who prefer not to do things, but will accept a thing when it's done. They're not necessarily unwise. I've done no worse to you than give you the opportunity of being one of them. I think you'll be prudent to take it. Anyhow, don't be angry; you must remember that you've given us a good deal of trouble."

"Between us we have killed the King."

Stenovics waved his hands in a commiserating way. "Practical men mustn't spend time in lamenting the past," he said.

"Nor in mere conversation, however pleasant," Stafnitz broke in with a laugh. "Captain Markart, march your prisoner to his quarters."

His smile made the order a mockery. Markart felt it, and a hatred of the man rose in him. But he could do nothing. He did not lead Lepage to his quarters, but followed sheepishly in his prisoner's wake. They went together into the little room where Lepage slept.

"Close quarters too, Captain!" said the valet. "There is but one chair – let me put it at your service." He himself sat down on the bed, took out his tobacco, and began to roll himself a cigarette.

Markart shut the door and then threw himself on the solitary chair, in a heavy despondency of spirit and a confused conflict of feelings. He was glad to be out of the work, yet he resented the manner in which he was put aside. There were things going on in which it was well to have no hand. Yet was there not a thing going on in which every man ought to have a hand, on one side or the other? Not to do it, but to be ready to accept it when done! He was enough of a soldier to feel that there lay the worst, the meanest thing of all. Not to dare to do it, but to profit by the doing! Stenovics had used the words to Lepage, his prisoner. By making him in effect a prisoner, too, the General showed that he applied them to the Captain also. Anything seemed better than that – ay, it would be better to ride to Praslok behind Captain Hercules! In that adventure a man might, at least, risk his life!

"An odd world!" said the valet, puffing out his cigarette smoke. "Honest men for prisoners, and murderers for jailers! Are you a prisoner or a jailer, Captain Markart?"

XVI
A FRENCHMAN AND A MATTRESS

To say the truth, the word "murderers" seemed to Captain Markart more than a little harsh. To use it was to apply to Kravonian affairs the sterner standards of more steady-going, squeamish countries. A coup d'?tat may well involve fighting; fighting naturally includes killing. But are the promoters of the coup therefore murderers? Murderers with a difference, anyhow, according to Kravonian ideas, which Captain Markart was inclined to share. Moreover, a coup d'?tat is war; the suppression of information is legitimate in war. If the Prince of Slavna could not find out for himself what had happened in the Palace, were his opponents bound to tell him? In fact, given that an attempt to change the succession in your own interest was not a crime, but a legitimate political enterprise, the rest followed.

Except Mistitch! It was difficult to swallow Mistitch. There was a mixture of ingenuity and brutality about that move which not even Kravonian notions could easily accept. If Stafnitz had gone – nay, if he himself had been sent – probably Markart's conscience would not have rebelled. But to send Captain Hercules – that was cogging the dice! Yet he was very angry that Stenovics should have divined his feelings and shut him up. The General distrusted his courage as well as his conscience – there lay the deepest hurt to Markart's vanity; it was all the deeper because in his heart he had to own that Stenovics read him right. Not only the brazen conscience was lacking, but also the iron nerve.

Getting no answer to his unpleasantly pointed question, Lepage relapsed into silence. He stood by the window, looking out on the lawn which sloped down to the Krath. Beyond the river the lights of Slavna glowed in the darkening sky. Things would be happening in Slavna soon; Lepage might well look at the city thoughtfully. As a fact, however, his mind was occupied with one problem only – where was Zerkovitch and how could he get at him? For Lepage did not waver – he had taken his line.

Presently, however, his professional instincts seemed to reassert themselves. He opened a cupboard in the room and brought out a clean pair of sheets, which he proceeded to arrange on the bed. Busy at this task, he paused to smile at Markart and say: "We must do the best we can, Captain. After all, we have both camped, I expect! Here's the bed for you – you'll do finely." He went back to the cupboard and lugged out a mattress. "And this is for me – the shake-down on the floor which I use when I sleep in the King's room – or did use, I should say. In my judgment, Captain, it's comfortable to go to bed on the floor – at least, one can't fall."

It was eight o'clock. They heard the outer door of the suite of rooms open and shut. A man was moving about in the next room; if they could judge by the sound of his steps, he also paid Dr. Natcheff a brief visit. They heard the clink of dishes and of glass.

"Dinner!" said Lepage. "Ah, that's not unwelcome! Have I permission?" Markart nodded, and he opened the door. On the table in the sitting-room was a savory dish, bread, and two bottles of wine. Captain Sterkoff was just surveying the board he had spread, with his head on one side. There was nothing peculiar in that; his head was permanently stuck on one side – a list to starboard – since the Virgin with the lamp had injured the vertebr? of his neck. But the attitude, together with his beaked nose, made him look like a particularly vicious parrot. Markart saw him through the open door and could not get the resemblance out of his mind.

"Supper, gentlemen!" said Sterkoff with malevolent mirth. "The Doctor can't join you. He's a little upset and keeps his bed. A good appetite! I trust not to be obliged to disturb you again to-night."

Markart had come in by now, but he was too surly and sore to speak. Without a word he plumped down into a chair by the table and rested his chin on his hands, staring at the cloth. It was left to Lepage to bow to Sterkoff, and to express their joint thanks. This task he performed with sufficient urbanity. Then he broke into a laugh.

"They must think it odd to see you carrying dishes and bottles about the Palace, Captain?"

"Possibly," agreed Sterkoff. "But you see, my friend, what they think in the Palace doesn't matter very much, so long as none of them can get outside."

"Oh, they none of them spend the evening out?"

"Would they wish to, when the King has an attack of influenza, and Dr. Natcheff is in attendance? It would be unfeeling, Lepage!"

"Horribly, Captain! Probably even the sentries would object?"

"It's possible they would," Sterkoff agreed again. He drew himself up and saluted Markart, who did not move or pay any attention. "Good-night, Lepage." He turned to the door; his head seemed more cocked on one side than ever. Lepage bade him "Good-night" very respectfully; but as the key turned in the door, he murmured longingly: "Ah, if I could knock that ugly mug the rest of the way off his shoulders!"

He treated Markart with no less respect than he had accorded to Sterkoff; he would not hear of sitting down at table with an officer, but insisted on handing the dish and uncorking the wine. Markart accepted his attentions and began to eat languidly, with utter want of appetite.



скачать книгу бесплатно

страницы: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24