Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview
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Long Live The King!
While the birthday supper was at its height, in the bureau of the concierge sat old Adelbert, heavy and despairing. That very day had he learned to what use the Committee would put the information he had given them, and his old heart was dead within him. One may not be loyal for seventy years, and then easily become a traitor.
He had surveyed stonily the costume in which the little Prince was to be taken away. He had watched while the boxes of ammunition were uncovered in their barrels, he had seen the cobbler's shop become a seething hive of activity, where all day men had come and gone. He had heard the press beneath his feet fall silent because its work was done, and at dusk he had with his own eyes beheld men who carried forth, under their arms, blazing placards for the walls of the town.
Then, at seven o'clock, something had happened.
The concierge's niece had gone, leaving the supper ready cooked on the back of the stove. Old Adelbert sat alone, and watched the red bars of the stove fade to black. By that time it was done, and he was of the damned. The Crown Prince, who was of an age with the American lad upstairs, the Crown Prince was in the hands of his enemies. He, old Adelbert, had done it.
And now it was forever too late. Terrible thoughts filled his mind. He could not live thus, yet he could not die. The daughter must have the pension. He must live, a traitor, he on whose breast the King himself had pinned a decoration.
He wore his new uniform, in honor of the day. Suddenly he felt that he could not wear it any longer. He had no right to any uniform. He who had sold his country was of no country.
He went slowly out and up the staircase, dragging his wooden leg painfully from step to step. He heard the concierge come in below, his heavy footsteps reechoed through the building. Inside the door he called furiously to his niece. Old Adelbert heard him strike a match to light the gas.
On the staircase he met the Fraulein hurrying down. Her face was strained and her eyes glittering. She hesitated, as though she would speak, then she went on past him. He could hear her running. It reminded the old man of that day in the Opera, when a child ran down the staircase, and, as is the way of the old, he repeated himself: "One would think new legs grew in place of old ones, like the claws of sea-creatures," he said fretfully. And went on up the staircase.
In his room he sat down on a straight chair inside the door, and stared ahead. Then, slowly and mechanically, he took off his new uniform and donned the old one. He would have put on civilian clothes, had he possessed any. For by the deeds of that day he had forfeited the right to the King's garb.
It was there that Black Humbert, hurrying up, found him. The concierge was livid, his massive frame shook with excitement.
"Quick!" he said, and swore a great oath. "To the shop of the cobbler Heinz, and tell him this word. Here in the building is the boy."
The concierge closed a great hand on the veteran's shoulder. "Who but the Crown Prince himself!" he said.
"But I thought - how can he be here?"
"Here is he, in our very hands. It is no time to ask questions." "If he is here - "
"He is with the Americans," hissed the concierge, the veins on his forehead swollen with excitement. "Now, go, and quickly. I shall watch. Say that when I have secured the lad, I shall take him there. Let all be ready. An hour ago," he said, raising his great fists on high, "and everything lost. Now hurry, old wooden leg. It is a great night."
"But - I cannot. Already I have done too much. I am damned. I have lost my soul. I who am soon to die "
"YOU WILL GO."
And, at last, he went, hobbling down the staircase recklessly, because the looming figure at the stair head was listening. He reached the street. There, only a block away, was the cobbler's shop, lighted, but with the dirty curtains drawn across the window.
Old Adelbert gazed at it. Then he commended his soul to God, and turned toward the Palace.
He passed the Opera. On Carnival night it should have been open and in gala array, with lines of carriages and machines before it. It was closed, and dreary. But old Adelbert saw it not at all. He stumped along, panting with haste and exhaustion, to do the thing he had set himself to do.
Here was the Palace. Before it were packed dense throngs of silent people. Now and then a man put down a box, and rising on it, addressed the crowd, attempting to rouse them. Each time angry hands pulled him down, and hisses greeted him as he slunk away.
Had old Adelbert been alive to anything but his mission, he would have seen that this was no mob of revolutionists, but a throng of grieving people, awaiting the great bell of St. Stefan's with its dire news.
Then, above their heads, it rang out, slow, ominous, terrible. A sob ran through the crowd. In groups, and at last as a whole, the throng knelt. Men uncovered and women wept.
The bell rang on. At its first notes old Adelbert stopped, staggered, almost fell. Then he uncovered his head.
"Gone!" he said. "The old King! My old King!"
His face twitched. But the horror behind him drove him on through the kneeling crowd. Where it refused to yield, he drove the iron point of his wooden leg into yielding flesh, and so made his way.
Here, in the throng, Olga of the garderobe met him, and laid a trembling hand on his arm. He shook her off, but she clung to him.
"Know you what they are saying?" she whispered. "That the Crown Prince is stolen. And it is true. Soldiers scour the city everywhere."
"Let me go," said old Adelbert, fiercely.
"They say," she persisted, "that the Chancellor has made away with him, to sell us to Karnia."
"Fools!" cried old Adelbert, and pushed her off. When she refused to release him, he planted his iron toe on her shapely one and worked his way forward. The crowd had risen, and now stood expectantly facing the Palace. Some one raised a cry and others took it up.
"The King!" they cried. "Show us the little King!"
But the balcony outside the dead King's apartments remained empty. The curtains at the long windows were drawn, save at one, opened for air. The breeze shook its curtains to and fro, but no small, childish figure emerged. The cries kept up, but there was a snarl in the note now.
"The King! Long live the King! Where is he?"
A man in a red costume, near old Adelbert, leaped on a box and lighted a flaming torch. "Aye!" he yelled, "call for the little King. Where is he? What have they done with him?"
Old Adelbert pushed on. The voice of the revolutionist died behind him, in a chorus of fury. From nowhere, apparently, came lighted box-banners proclaiming the Chancellor's treason, and demanding a Republic. Some of them instructed the people to gather around the Parliament, where, it was stated, leading citizens were already forming a Republic. Some, more violent, suggested an advance on the Palace.
The crowd at first ignored them, but as time went on, it grew ugly. By all precedent, the new King should be now before them. What, then, if this rumor was true? Where was the little King?
Revolution, now, in the making. A flame ready to blaze. Hastily, on the outskirts of the throng, a delegation formed to visit the Palace, and learn the truth. Orderly citizens these, braving the terror of that forbidding and guarded pile in the interests of the land they loved.
Drums were now beating steadily, filling the air with their throbbing, almost drowning out the solemn tolling of the bell. Around them were rallying angry groups. As the groups grew large, each drum led its followers toward the Government House, where, on the steps; the revolutionary party harangued the crowd. Bonfires sprang up, built of no one knew what, in the public squares. Red fire burned. The drums throbbed.
The city had not yet risen. It was large and slow to move. Slow, too, to believe in treason, or that it had no king. But it was a matter of moments now, not of hours.
The noise penetrated into the very wards of the hospital. Red fires bathed pale faces on their pillows in a feverish glow. Nurses gathered at the windows, their uniforms and faces alike scarlet in the glare, and whispered together.
One such group gathered near the bedside of the student Haeckel, still in his lethargy. His body had gained strength, so that he was clothed at times, to wander aimlessly about the ward. But he had remained dazed. Now and then the curtain of the past lifted, but for a moment only. He had forgotten his name. He spent long hours struggling to pierce the mist.
But mostly he lay, or sat, as now, beside his bed, a bandage still on his head, clad in shirt and trousers, bare feet thrust into worn hospital slippers. The red glare had not roused him, nor yet the beat of the drums. But a word or two that one of the nurses spoke caught his ear and held him. He looked up, and slowly rose to his feet. Unsteadily he made his way to a window, holding to the sill to steady himself.
Old Adelbert had been working his way impatiently. The temper of the mob was growing ugly. It was suspicious, frightened, potentially dangerous.
The cry of "To the Palace!" greeted his ears he finally emerged breathless from the throng.
He stepped boldly to the old stone archway, and faced a line of soldiers there. "I would see the Chancellor!" he gasped, and saluted.
The captain of the guard stepped out. "What is it you want?" he demanded. "The Chancellor," he lowered his voice. "I have news of the Crown Prince."
Magic words, indeed. Doors opened swiftly before them. But time was flying, too. In his confusion the old man had only one thought, to reach the Chancellor. It would have been better to have told his news at once. The climbing of stairs takes time when one is old and fatigued, and has but one leg.
However, at last it way done. Past a room where sat Nikky Larisch, swordless and self- convicted of treason, past a great salon where a terrified Court waited, and waiting, listened to the cries outside, the beating of many drums, the sound of multitudinous feet, old Adelbert stumped to the door of the room where the Council sat debating and the Chancellor paced the floor.
Small ceremony tow. Led by soldiers, who retired and left him to enter alone, old Adelbert stumbled into the room. He was out of breath and dizzy; his heart beat to suffocation. There was not air enough in all the world to breathe. He clutched at the velvet hangings of the door, and swayed, but he saw the Chancellor.
"The Crown Prince," he said thickly, "is at the home of the Americans." He stared about him. Strange that the room should suddenly be filled with a mist. "But there be those - who wait - there - to capture him."
He caught desperately at the curtains, with their royal arms embroidered in blue and gold. Shameful, in such company, to stagger so!
"Make - haste," he said, and slid stiffly to the ground. He lay without moving. The Council roused then. Mettlich was the first to get to him. But it was too late.
Old Adelbert had followed the mist to the gates it concealed. More than that, sham traitor that he was, he had followed his King.