Anthony Hope.

Sophy of Kravonia: A Novel



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"He's on his promotion, too," continued the loquacious and irreverent Captain, as he resumed his seat. "They want a big fish for him – something German, with a resounding name. Poor fellow!"

"Well, it's his duty," said Sophy.

"Somebody who'll keep the Countess in order, eh?" smiled Markart, twirling his mustache. "That's about the size of it, I expect, though naturally the General doesn't show me his hand. I only tell you common gossip."

"I think you hardly do yourself justice. You've been very interesting, Captain Markart."

"I tell you what," he said, with an engaging candor, "I believe that somehow the General makes me chatter just to the extent he wants me to, and then stops me. I don't know how he does it; it's quite unconscious on my part. I seem to say just what I like!"

They laughed together over this puzzle. "You mean General Stenovics?" asked Sophy.

"Yes, General Stenovics. Ah, here he is!" He sprang up again and made a low bow to Sophy. "Au revoir, mademoiselle. A thousand thanks!"

He saluted her and hurried to the side of the pavement. General Stenovics rode up, with two orderlies behind him. Saluting again, Markart mounted his horse. The General brought his to a stand and waited the necessary moment or two with a good-humored smile. His eye wandered from the young officer to the presumable cause of his lack of vigilance. Sophy felt the glance rest on her face. In her turn she saw a stout, stumpy figure, clad in a rather ugly dark-green uniform, and a heavy, olive-tinted face adorned with a black mustache and a stubbly gray beard. General Stenovics, President of the Council of Ministers, was not an imposing personage to the outward view. But Sophy returned the regard of his prominent pale-blue eyes (which sorted oddly with the complexion of his face) with vivid attention. The General rode on, Markart following, but turning in his saddle to salute once more and to wave his hand in friendly farewell.

For the first time since her arrival in Slavna, Sophy was conscious of a stir of excitement. Life had been dull and heavy; the mind had enjoyed little food save the diet of sad memories. To-day she seemed to be brought into sight of living interests again. They were far off, but they were there; Markart's talk had made a link between them and her. She sat on for a long while, watching the junction of the streams and the broad current which flowed onward past the Palace, on its long journey to the sea. Then she rose with a sigh; the time drew near for a French lesson. Marie Zerkovitch had already got her two pupils.

When General Stenovics had ridden three or four hundred yards, he beckoned his aide-de-camp and secretary – for Markart's functions were both military and civil – to his side.

"We're last of all, I suppose?" he asked.

"Pretty nearly, sir."

"That must be his Royal Highness just crossing the bridge?"

"Yes, sir, that's his escort."

"Ah, well, we shall just do it! And who, pray" – the General turned round to his companion – "is that remarkable-looking young woman you've managed to pick up?"

Markart told what he knew of Mademoiselle de Gruche; it was not much.

"A friend of the Zerkovitches? That's good.

A nice fellow, Zerkovitch – and his wife's quite charming. And your friend – ?"

"I can hardly call her that, General."

"Tut, tut! You're irresistible, I know. Your friend – what did you tell her?"

"Nothing, on my honor." The young man colored and looked a trifle alarmed. But Stenovics's manner was one of friendly amusement.

"For an example of your 'nothing,'" he went on, "you told her that the King was an amiable man?"

"Oh, possibly, General."

"That the Countess was a little – just a little – too scrupulous?"

"It was nothing, surely, to say that?"

"That we all wanted the Prince to marry?"

"I made only the most general reference to that, sir."

"That – " he looked harder at his young friend – "the Prince is not popular with the army?"

"On my honor, no!"

"Think, think, Markart."

Markart searched his memory; under interrogation it accused him; his face grew rueful.

"I did wish he was more like his Majesty. I – I did say he was a Tartar."

Stenovics chuckled in apparent satisfaction at his own perspicacity. But his only comment was: "Then your remarkably handsome young friend knows something about us already. You're an admirable cicerone to a stranger, Markart."

"I hope you're not annoyed, sir. I – I didn't tell any secrets?"

"Certainly not, Markart. Three bits of gossip and one lie don't make up a secret between them. Come, we must get along."

Markart's face cleared; but he observed that the General did not tell him which was the lie.

This day Sophy began the diary; the first entry is dated that afternoon. Her prescience – or presentiment – was not at fault. From to-day events moved fast, and she was strangely caught up in the revolutions of the wheel.

II
AT THE GOLDEN LION

It was the evening of the King's name-day. There was a banquet at the Palace, and the lights in its windows twinkled in sympathetic response to the illuminations which blazed on the public buildings and principal residences of Slavna. Everywhere feasting and revelry filled the night. The restaurant of the H?tel de Paris was crowded, every seat on its terrace occupied; the old Inn of the Golden Lion, opposite the barracks in the Square of St. Michael, a favorite resort of the officers of the garrison, did a trade no less good; humbler hostelries were full of private soldiers, and the streets themselves of revellers male and female, military and civil, honest and dishonest, drunk and sober. Slavna had given itself up to a frolic; for, first, a f?te is a f?te, no matter what its origin; secondly, King Alexis was the most popular man in his dominions, though he never did a decent day's work for them; lastly, there is often no better way to show how much you hate one man than by making a disproportionate fuss about another. It was well understood that by thus honoring King Alexis, its Monarch, by thus vociferously and untiringly wishing him the longest of reigns, Slavna was giving a stinging back-hander to Prince Sergius, its titular Prince and Commandant. You would see the difference when the Prince's day came round! When General Stenovics pointed to the lights gleaming across the Krath from the Palace windows and congratulated his Royal Highness on the splendid popularity of the reigning House, the Prince's smile may well have been ironical.

"I shall go and see all this merriment for myself at close quarters presently, General," said he. "I think the Commandant had best return to the city to-night as early as the King will allow."

"An admirable devotion to duty, sir," answered the General gravely, and without any effort to dissuade the zealous Prince.

But even in this gay city there was one spot of gloom, one place where sullen rancor had not been ousted by malicious merriment. The first company of his Majesty's Guards was confined to its barracks in the Square of St. Michael by order of the Commandant of Slavna; this by reason of high military misdemeanors – slackness when on duty, rioting and drunkenness when on leave; nor were the officers any better than the men. "You are men of war in the streets, men of peace in the ranks," said the Commandant to them that morning in issuing his decree. "You shall have a quiet evening to think over your short-comings." The order was reported to the King; he sighed, smiled, shook his head, said that, after all, discipline must be vindicated, and looked at his son with mingled admiration and pity. Such a faculty for making himself, other people, and things in general uncomfortable! But, of course, discipline! The Commandant looked stern, and his father ventured on no opposition or appeal. General Stenovics offered no remonstrance either, although he had good friends in the offending company. "He must do as he likes – so long as he's Commandant," he said to Markart.

"May I go and see them and cheer them up a bit, sir, instead of coming with you to the Palace?" asked that good-natured young man.

"If his Royal Highness gives you leave, certainly," agreed the General.

The Commandant liked Markart. "Yes – and tell them what fools they are," he said, with a smile.

Markart found the imprisoned officers at wine after their dinner; the men had resigned themselves to fate and gone to bed. Markart delivered his message with his usual urbane simplicity. Lieutenant Rastatz giggled uneasily – he had a high falsetto laugh. Lieutenant Sterkoff frowned peevishly. Captain Mistitch rapped out a vicious oath and brought his great fist down on the table. "The evening isn't finished yet," he said. "But for this cursed fellow I should have been dining with Vera at the H?tel de Paris to-night!"

Whereupon proper condolences were offered to their Captain by his subalterns, who, in fact, held him in no small degree of fear. He was a huge fellow, six feet three and broad as a door; a great bruiser and a duellist of fame; his nickname was Hercules. His florid face was flushed now with hot anger, and he drank his wine in big gulps.

"How long are we to stand it?" he growled. "Are we school-girls?"

"Come, come, it's only for one evening," pleaded Markart. "One quiet evening won't hurt even Captain Hercules!"

The subalterns backed him with a laugh, but Mistitch would have none of it. He sat glowering and drinking still, not to be soothed and decidedly dangerous. From across the square came the sound of music and singing from the Golden Lion. Again Mistitch banged the table.

"Listen there!" he said. "That's pleasant hearing while we're shut up like rats in a trap – and all Slavna laughing at us!"

Markart shrugged his shoulders and smoked in silence; to argue with the man was to court a quarrel; he began to repent of his well-meant visit. Mistitch drained his glass.

"But some of us have a bit of spirit left, and so Master Sergius shall see," he went on. He put out a great hand on either side and caught Sterkoff and Rastatz by their wrists. "We're the fellows to show him!" he cried.

Sterkoff seemed no bad choice for such an enterprise – a wiry, active fellow, with a determined, if disagreeable, face, and a nasty squint in his right eye. But Rastatz, with his slim figure, weak mouth, and high laugh, promised no great help; yet in him fear of Mistitch might overcome all other fear.

"Yes, we three'll show him! And now" – he rose to his feet, dragging the pair up with him – "for a song and a bottle at the Golden Lion!"

Rastatz gasped, even Sterkoff started. Markart laughed: it could be nothing more than a mad joke. Cashiering was the least punishment which would await the act.

"Yes, we three together!" He released them for a moment and caught up his sword and cap. Then he seized Rastatz's wrist again and squeezed it savagely. "Come out of your trap with me, you rat!" he growled, in savage amusement at the young man's frightened face.

Sterkoff gained courage. "I'm with you, Hercules!" he cried. "I'm for to-night – the devil take to-morrow morning!"

"You're all drunk," said Markart, in despairing resignation.

"We'll be drunker before the night's out," snarled Mistitch. "And if I meet that fellow when I'm drunk, God help him!" He laughed loudly. "Then there might be a chance for young Alexis, after all!"

The words alarmed Markart. Young Count Alexis was the King's son by Countess Ellenburg. A chance for young Alexis!

"For Heaven's sake, go to bed!" he implored.

Mistitch turned on him. "I don't want to quarrel with anybody in Slavna to-night, unless I meet one man. But you can't stop me, Markart, and you'll only do mischief by trying. Now, my boys!"

They were with him – Sterkoff with a gleam in his squinting eye, Rastatz with a forced, uneasy giggle and shaking knees. Mistitch clapped them on the back.

"Another bottle apiece and we'll all be heroes!" he cried. "Markart, you go home to your mamma!"

Though given in no friendly way, this advice was wise beneath its metaphor. But Markart did not at once obey it. He had no more authority than power to interfere; Mistitch was his senior officer, and he had no special orders to act. But he followed the three in a fascinated interest, and with the hope that a very brief proof of his freedom would content the Captain. Out from the barracks the three marched. The sentry at the gate presented arms, but tried to bar their progress. With a guffaw and a mighty push Mistitch sent him sprawling. "The Commandant wants us, you fool!" he cried – and the three were in the square.

"What the devil will come of this business?" thought Markart, as he followed them over the little bridge which spanned the canal, and thence to the door of the Golden Lion. Behind them still he passed the seats on the pavement and entered the great saloon. As Mistitch and his companions came in, three-fourths of the company sprang to their feet and returned the salute of the new-comers; so strongly military in composition was the company – officers on one side of a six-feet-high glass screen which cut the room in two, sergeants and their inferiors on the other. A moment's silence succeeded the salute. Then a young officer cried: "The King has interfered?" It did not occur to anybody that the Commandant might have changed his mind and reversed his decree; for good or evil, they knew him too well to think of that.

"The King interfered?" Mistitch echoed, in his sonorous, rolling, thick voice. "No; we've interfered ourselves, and walked out! Does any one object?"

He glared a challenge round. There were officers present of superior rank – they drank their beer or wine discreetly. The juniors broke into a ringing cheer; it was taken up and echoed back from behind the glass screen, to which a hundred faces were in an instant glued, over which, here and there, the head of some soldier more than common tall suddenly projected.

"A table here!" cried Mistitch. "And champagne! Quick! Sit down, my boys!"

A strange silence followed the impulsive cheers. Men were thinking. Cheers first, thoughts afterwards, was the order in Slavna as in many other cities. Now they recognized the nature of this thing, the fateful change from sullen obedience to open defiance. Was it only a drunken frolic – or, besides that, was it a summons to each man to choose his side? Choosing his side might well mean staking his life.

A girl in a low-necked dress and short petticoats began a song from a raised platform at the end of the room. She was popular, and the song a favorite. Nobody seemed to listen; when she ended, nobody applauded. Mistitch had been whispering with Sterkoff, Rastatz sitting silent, tugging his slender, fair mustache. But none of the three had omitted to pay their duty to the bottle; even Rastatz's chalky face bore a patch of red on either cheek. Mistitch rose from his chair, glass in hand.

"Long life to the King!" he shouted. "That's loyal, isn't it? Ay, immortal life!"

The cheers broke out again, mingled with laughter. A voice cried: "Hard on his heir, Captain Hercules!"

"Ay!" Mistitch roared back. "Hard as he is on us, my friend!"

Another burst of cheering – and again that conscience-smitten silence.

Markart had found a seat, near the door and a good way from the redoubtable Mistitch and his companions. He looked at his watch – it was nearly ten; in half an hour General Stenovics would be leaving the Palace, and it was meet that he should know of all this as soon as possible. Markart made up his mind that he would slip away soon; but still the interest of the scene, the fascination of this prelude – such it seemed to him – held his steps bound.

Suddenly a young man of aristocratic appearance rose from a table at the end of the room, where he had been seated in company with a pretty and smartly dressed girl. A graceful gesture excused him to his fair companion, and he threaded his way deftly between the jostling tables to where Mistitch sat. He wore Court dress and a decoration. Markart recognized in the young man Baron von Hollbrandt, junior Secretary of the German Legation in Slavna.

Hollbrandt bowed to Mistitch, with whom he was acquainted, then bent over the giant's burly back and whispered in his ear.

"Take a friend's advice, Captain," he said. "I've been at the Palace, and I know the Prince had permission to withdraw at half-past nine. He was to return to Slavna then – to duty. Come, go back. You've had your spree."

"By the Lord, I'm obliged to you!" cried Mistitch. "Lads, we're obliged to Baron von Hollbrandt! Could you tell me the street he means to come by? Because" – he rose to his feet again – "we'll go and meet him!"

Half the hall heard him, and the speech was soon passed on to any out of hearing. A sparse cheer sputtered here and there, but most were silent. Rastatz gasped again, while Sterkoff frowned and squinted villanously. Hollbrandt whispered once more, then stood erect, shrugged his shoulders, bowed, and walked back to his pretty friend. He sat down and squeezed her hand in apology; the pair broke into laughter a moment later. Baron von Hollbrandt felt that he at least had done his duty.

The three had drunk and drunk; Rastatz was silly, Sterkoff vicious, the giant Mistitch jovially and cruelly reckless, exalted not only by liquor but with the sense of the part he played. Suddenly from behind the glass screen rose a mighty roar:

"Long live Mistitch! Down with tyrants! Long live Captain Hercules!"

It was fuel to the flames. Mistitch drained his glass and hurled it on the floor.

"Well, who follows me?" he cried.

Half the men started to their feet; the other half pulled them down. Contending currents of feeling ran through the crowd; a man was reckless this moment, timid the next; to one his neighbor gave warning, to another instigation. They seemed poised on the point of a great decision. Yet what was it they were deciding? They could not tell.

Markart suddenly forgot his caution. He rushed to Mistitch, with his hands out and "For God's sake!" loud on his lips.

"You!" cried Mistitch. "By Heaven! what else does your General want? What else does Matthias Stenovics want? Tell me that!"

A silence followed – of dread suspense. Men looked at one another in fear and doubt. Was that true which Mistitch said? They felt as ordinary men feel when the edge of the curtain is lifted from before high schemes or on intrigues of the great.

"If I should meet the Prince to-night, wouldn't there be news for Stenovics?" cried Mistitch, with a roar of laughter.

If he should meet the Prince! The men at the tables could not make up their minds to that. Mistitch they admired and feared, but they feared the proud Prince, too; they had many of them felt the weight of his anger. Those who had stood up sank back in their places. One pot-bellied fellow raised a shout of hysterical laughter round him by rubbing his fat face with a napkin and calling out: "I should like just one minute to think about that meeting, Captain Hercules!"

Markart had shrunk back, but Mistitch hurled a taunt at him and at all the throng.

"You're curs, one and all! But I'll put a heart in you yet! And now" – he burst into a new guffaw – "my young friends and I are going for a walk. What, aren't the streets of Slavna free to gentlemen? My friends and I are going for a walk. If we meet anybody on the pavement – well, he must take to the road. We're going for a walk."

Amid a dead silence he went out, his two henchmen after him. He and Sterkoff walked firm and true – Rastatz lurched in his gait. A thousand eyes followed their exit, and from five hundred throats went up a long sigh of relief that they were gone. But what had they gone to do? The company decided that it was just as well for them, whether collectively or as individuals, not to know too much about that. Let it be hoped that the cool air outside would have a sobering effect and send them home to bed! Yet from behind the glass screen there soon arose again a busy murmur of voices, like the hum of a beehive threatened with danger.

"A diplomatic career is really full of interest, ma ch?re," observed Baron von Hollbrandt to his fair companion. "It would be difficult to see anything so dramatic in Berlin!"

His friend's pretty blue eyes lit up with an eager intensity as she took the cigarette from between her lips. Her voice was full of joyful excitement:

"Yes, it's to death between that big Mistitch and the Prince – the blood of one or both of them, you'll see!"

"You are too deliciously Kravonian," said Hollbrandt, with a laugh.

Outside, big Mistitch had crossed the canal and come to the corner where the Street of the Fountain opens on to St. Michael's Square. "What say you to a call at the H?tel de Paris, lads?" he said.

"Hist!" Sterkoff whispered. "Do you hear that step – coming up the street there?"

The illuminations burned still in the Square and sent a path of light down the narrow street. The three stopped and turned their heads. Sterkoff pointed. Mistitch looked – and smacked his ponderous thigh.



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