Roy Norton--The unknown Mr Kent/Chapter 12
IT was spring again, and as if the change of weather or the indefatigable work of winter had worn him to laxity, Kent sat in his private office, for once idle. The king, wearing another business suit that had also assumed bags at the knees, came hurriedly in and closed the door behind him.
"Hello!" said the American, swinging around to greet him. "What's up? You look worried."
"I am!" was the king's reply, as he threw himself into a chair and wiped his brow. "I've got the worst of news."
"Where did you get it?" asked Kent, with a grin that the king did not return.
"Down in the village," he said. "Two or three of the men I have made friends came to warn me. I listened and came back here as quickly as I could to talk it over with you. Provarsk has been undermining us again."
Kent's eyes twinkled and he settled back into his chair and lighted his pipe.
"Is that so!" he exclaimed, without excitement. "Well, what do you think you ought to do about it?"
"Do? I can't do anything without your con- sent, and you won't give it. I wanted either to have him tried for conspiracy against the state, or throw him out of it, two months ago. You wouldn't consent. You said something about giv- ing the calf rope enough to hang itself, and did all you could to assist him by gradually giving him more power."
"Well, has he hanged himself yet!"
" Hanged himself ? Of course not. He 's trying to have us hanged."
"How?" asked Kent with that same air of quiet enjoyment, that did not at all please the king. "By surreptitiously making the people discon- tented. He has them believing that working the mines the way they do is an injustice ; that from the mines I am getting rich ; but that all the other state institutions are scarcely paying at all. It's useless to tell them that they are all profit- able "
"Save one," slyly interjected Kent. "That state bath house is a complete failure. It has re- quired all the means at my command to keep peo- ple from knowing it. The mineral springs turned to salt more than six weeks ago."
The king showed his surprise.
"Well, then why why didn't you close the place up? I didn't know that."
"True," said Kent, with the same easy dedemeanour. "I don't suppose you did know it. I haven't told any one, and there's not a man working there who isn't a confidential employé of mine. I had reason."
"But we have made money out of all the other state enterprises?" asked the king, anxiously.
"Out of every one of them. Marken, whether it wants to be or not, is due to become one of the richest nations, per capita, in the world."
He laid his pipe to one side, and leaned toward the king in a brisk business attitude.
"Listen," he said, "and I'll tell you what it means. The time had come to eliminate Mr. Provarsk. The very reason we kept him here in the first place was to give him either a chance to make good, or to fix him so that he would be forever harmless. "Well, we've had to take steps to do the latter."
The king shook his head and said, "I don't see how."
"When we opened up the state enterprises, we permitted any one to buy stock in small blocks, didn't we? We held control only. Provarsk tried to bribe my secretary to give him inside information as to what ones would be the most promising, and to which ones we would give the greatest state support. My secretary told me. Already I had decided to drop the mineral water resort project because it couldn't be made to pay. I had my secretary take Provarsk's bribe, and then tell him that the mineral water company was to be our biggest winner. Provarsk, through straw men and in divers ways, bought and bought until every dollar he could rake and scrape is in the venture. He owns forty-nine per cent of a project that isn't worth ten kronin on the minute that the state support is withdrawn and the reasons made public. Now do you see it all?"
"No, I don't," admitted the king thoughtfully. "What has that to do with a fresh disturbance among the people?"
Kent laughed, amused at what he regarded as the king's denseness.
"Why, just this. He expects to arouse the people to a point where they will demand a big share in the profits of all enterprises. Perhaps the absolute relinquishment of state control and ownership. Then those who hold the controlling stock in the best enterprise will find themselves rich. He thinks he has the best one."
"Pshaw! You haven't understood me," declared the king soberly. "I said that he aims his efforts at the mines."
"Quite true," replied the American. "In that way he kills several birds with one stone. He thinks that he upsets my house of cards on one hand, and builds his own with the other. Also, he embarrasses you because he knows that you dare not tell the people of Marken that you have given John Rhodes a concession for these mines, and that, although they have been getting big pay, they have been enriching you, as well as pay- ing back John Bhodes' money. The people them- selves have been helping to do it."
" Can't agree with you quite!" stubbornly in- sisted the king. "Why, the men who work there are getting double the wages, and sometimes quad- ruple, that they ever before had in their lives. They are prosperous prosperous beyond any hope that any of them ever had. You don't mean to say that prosperous men are the ones to revolt?"
" Nothing more certain in the world ! Too much prosperity is just the same, if not worse, than too much poverty. An autocrat, I have come to the conclusion, can make, with fair luck, either one or the other; too much wealth or too much pov- erty. And the end will always be the same they will get rid of the autocrat, who is the most obso- lete being on God Almighty's earth. There are times when one seems a necessity ; but the moment that necessity vanishes, so does he. Three very- great nations in this world proved it, Great Brit- ain, France and the United States. Sometimes I think the others don't count!"
"But we must stop Provarsk!" insisted the king, desperately. "You leave Provarsk alone. He is doing just exactly what I foresaw, and what I want him to do."
For a moment they stared at each other, and the king was vexed.
"Come," said Kent seriously, "haven't I ac- complished nearly everything I have undertaken ? Have you lost by my suggestions ? Think it over a minute, friend, before you reply."
The king did. Then, as abruptly it all recurred to him, his own desperate condition when first he met this man, the startling innovations, the prog- ress they had made, their friendship, and above all, the strength and independence that this alien had taught him, he was ashamed of his own doubts. He made frank confession.
"Kent," the king said, "I'm still a what you call a chump!"
"Nothing of the sort," remonstrated the American. "You're all right! Only you don't do things the way I do, and I think that when it comes to handling rogues, my way is better than yours. Now see here! This is what is going to happen. I am going to make our choice chancel- lor believe that he has it all his own way. Going to give him a lot more authority. Going to be blind and deaf, apparently. Don't you interfere. I'll let you know when I want you. Let him stir up his revolt. It can take but one course, that of demands, because it is far too late for him to dare to do anything against Your Majesty, personally. Why, if he harmed a hair of your or your sister's head, or suggested such a thing, they would take him down into the centre of the Market Place and burn him at a stake ! And when the demands come up, it's got to be up to you. You've either got to give or refuse, and may Heaven help you if you blunder. I shall decline to advise you. The time will then have come when you must act for your- self and be your own advisor. "
An hour later the king, with an anxious but resolute look, made his way to his private dress- ing rooms to prepare himself for a court recep- tion in which he was to be invested with a decora- tion from a neighbouring monarch who, hearing of the wealth of Marken, was on the eve of asking for a loan and also opening negotiations leading to a marriage between his eldest son, the crown prince, and the Princess Eloise.
Also Provarsk, who had accidentally met the King's Remembrancer in the corridors, was be- ing complimented by the latter on a manifesto that the chancellor had issued without authority and told that, inasmuch as all old hatchets had been buried, there was no reason why the chancel- lor should not really assume more power and do what he could to assist in the nation's welfare. Provarsk smiled gleefully when he left the King's Remembrancer ; likewise the King's Remem- brancer smiled. They met once more that day, when in the palace gardens the chancellor, self- confident, came upon Kent and the Princess Eloise. He paused to pay her his respects, which she accepted with cool politeness.
I learned a few days ago that Your Eoyal Highness had joined the others of us in the efforts for the good of the kingdom er got money to build a hospital for women, or something like that Subscription lists all closed, Grand Hurrah, and all that."
" So ? " she retorted in a calm drawl. " You are as nearly correct as one could expect. I haven't joined an effort, because I have made the effort. It is true that there is to be a hospital, but not true that its cost was raised by subscription. I am building it out of my own private funds and the women of Marken have gratefully agreed to support it."
He laughed tolerantly.
"Oh, they're grateful, all right for anything they can get for nothing."
An angry retort was on her lips, but she caught a warning look from Kent and remained silent. Disappointed in his failure to exasperate her, Provarsk took a fling at the American.
"Your methods are much better, Mr. Kent. You make them earn what they get and at the same time take good care to get yours."
"To be sure I do!" Kent agreed heartily. " That is your great weakness, Baron, your philan- thropy. You should take a lesson from me, and learn how to get your own profits first."
"I am trying to prove an apt pupil," the chan- cellor responded. "I've always wanted money. You have taught me several ways of getting it."
"Quite possible," declared Kent, almost with enthusiasm.
Provarsk pleaded the necessity for greeting some one, and after a very low bow to the prin- cess, and a light salute to the American, sauntered away. She stood with a frown on her face and watched him. Kent, after a moment's wait, laughed quietly.
" Isn J t he fine ? " he asked. ' < I rather like that chap. If he could only run straight, he might go a long way. He 's got the assurance of a pet Tom- cat, the persistence of a flea, and I don't believe he knows what fear is."
"I hate him!" exclaimed the princess.
"That never pays. It's a waste of time," he declared; and then suddenly shifting the subject, said, "Will you permit me to congratulate you on your hospital plan! It is something that has been needed here. I have been watching your work. You have done as I thought you might— found that common ground between the women of the kingdom and yourself. And you have done it alone, and unadvised. I am afraid you were a little too liberal, though. It must have strained your private resources."
"Strained them?" she said, and then laughed softly. "It did more than that, Mr. Kent. But I didn't want to do it by halves, and the more I thought over it, the more I became enthused, and there we are!"
"Was it worth while?" he asked, quietly, and staring at her profile that, against the darkness of the foliage, looked pale under the swinging fete lamps above them.
She turned toward him in a frank outburst.
"Yes ! More than worth while ! And I owe this new world of mine to you. I started badly. I must tell you, to be really honest, that I came to you that day through pique. I saw that you per- mitted nearly all the others to be friends with you, but barred me out. I wanted to be your friend, too. I couldn't come to you as the others had, because I had insulted you. And Mr. Kent, if you knew half how much I suffered, and despised my- self, for my insolence and rudeness, I think you would take pity on me, and forgive."
"I have nothing to forgive!" he declared, stoutly. "You said nothing more than the truth. You called me a money lender. I am. You said I came here to keep John Rhodes from losing his money. I did. Neither of us should be ashamed of the truth."
"But what of all the other things you have done?" she asked, curiously.
"The others don't matter. I have advised your brother as best I could because I liked him. He has very fine ideals. He has become a good king, and in time will become a great one. It was in him all the time; but he needed some one whom he trusted to give him plain horse-sense, and shape him to practicability. I don't really see how I could have acted differently."
"He gives you far more credit than you take," she said. "I think sometimes I am a little jealous of you. He talks of you so much. His enthusiasms are so great. He has changed so much. You and his work have absorbed him, and I am neglected ! Treated like a child. No longer advised with or consulted. They all treat me that way, now ! Not even Baron Von Glutz, or Paulo, can spare me a minute 's time. I want to be something more than a doll baby in the affairs of Marken ! "
"You are," he assured her, earnestly. "They recognise the part you have undertaken. They believe it as important as anything they are doing. You must not bother them. Keep a stiff upper lip and hoe your own row well!"
The princess gasped. It was the first time she had ever been told to keep a stiff upper lip. And, strangest of all, she enjoyed it. She began to understand, dimly, that in his attitude was no dis- respect, but a mere intolerance for forms to which she had been accustomed, and that he bent his neck to no one, not through stubbornness, but because it was habitually held in complete independence. Once she had heard him remark that he was just a plain American, and that "the woods were full of his kind over there." Perhaps that accounted for his fearlessness, she thought, as she pictured all those Americans running through primeval forests and fighting red Indians.
She was annoyed when her duties as hostess called her back to the brilliantly-lit palace from which the music of the guards' band came seduc- tively through the windows, and where she must appear and talk court platitudes with very gal- lant gentlemen in uniforms, who somehow never seemed to have much worth while to say.
It was nearly two weeks later when she again sought Kent, and this time she was in a state of angry alarm. She did not wait to be announced, BO urgent was her haste to speak to him. She scarcely took time to respond to his friendly greeting.
"I've got news ! Terrible news ! ' ' she exclaimed desperately. "It was told me by three different women, wives of men who work in the mines. Provarsk is stirring up a revolt on the new lines. He is encouraging the men to demand a share in the profits of the mine, and leads them to believe that if they can win this step, they can get anything they want."
She paused for breath, and was surprised that her news had so little effect on the American.
"Thank you," he said, "for coming to tell me about it; but I knew it already."
"And you are calmly letting him go ahead with this vile campaign I "
She could not understand such complacency.
"Yes," he said. "In fact I am surreptitiously encouraging him. Want to see just how far he can go. Things have been rather dull around here lately. Provarsk promises some entertain- ment."
He stared at the floor and his face softened by thought.
"It's great!" he declared before she could find speech. "Positively great! I knew you had it in you. By Jove ! I knew it. "
She feared that something had grone wrong with his mentality and with an anxious, bewildered question strove to bring him back to realities.
"What do you mean? Great? I was talking of Provarsk 's treachery."
"I mean," he said, slowly and unreasonably embarrassed, "that you are great. Why, just think of it, Princess Eloise! You were told the news by the wives of three men who work in the mines! Don't you see how you have won them the wives of the men who work in the mines? Would any of them have done so six months ago f Did any of them, six months ago, care enough for you, the royal princess, to be alarmed when any- thing threatened you or your house ? "
She had not considered it in that light before. There was a change, and it had come so gradually, so imperceptibly, that she had been the last one to recognise it. Somehow, this knowledge that there were those in Marken who cared for her for her own sake, gave her a greater sense of security and bravery than she had ever known.
"Come," he said, gently, "what harm do you think a man like Provarsk capable of, now? Why, if I wanted to take the trouble, I could start whis- pers throughout the kingdom to-night that the real reason for his plotting is that he intends to seize the throne, and exile your brother and yourself, and the people yes the very ones that he is now stirring to make foolish demands, would tear him to pieces and feed them to their dogs!"
"But why not do it?" she demanded, with all the eagerness of a conspirator.
"Because," he said, slowly, "I don't want it done that way. I want to punish him in my own way. Also, because I enjoy watching him, just to learn how far he is capable. Why, if he can succeed, we ought to walk out! It would show that we are a lot of incompetents! If any other women talk to you of him, just tell them how grateful you are and forget it. Provarsk must have no inkling that I suspect him. I want that much understood. When the time is ripe—we shall see!"
After she had gone, the American sat for a long time alone, and staring absently through the open window as if made very happy by the knowledge that at last the princess was a real ally. Then, smiling grimly, he sent for Von Glutz, who happened to be accessible, and told his secretary that they were not to be disturbed.