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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

A STRANGE lassitude seemed to have overtaken Kent. In direct contrast to his old habitual energy, he now loitered habitually, taking long walks alone, dreaming alone, like a man who, finding his task done, has no further ambition and devotes himself to useless meditation. For weeks he appeared apathetic; so much so that the king, industrious, and the others of that little cohort whose activities he had directed and stimulated were gravely concerned. They suggested that he needed a rest; that he must be ailing; that it were better if he sought change. And to all these suggestions he smiled gravely and shook his head.

"It's like this," explained Ivan to Paulo, in private conference. "There is something on his mind, some trouble, some worry, that none shall ever know. I can not understand it—I who for years have been his shadow, his right hand, his friend of thought and service. He has not confided in me, which in itself is strange! Were he a youth, I should say he was involved in a hopeless love affair; but, being what he is, a rock, a being as independent as the poles of the globe, I can not conceive what it is that has overtaken him!"

"And all the time," angrily asserted the Min- ister of Finance, "that Provarsk plots!"

It was true. And Kent, as well as his adherents, knew it; for Kent's sources of information bronght him the constant and unanimous reports that the chancellor was adroitly using his time. The managers of the mines stated that the men were becoming daily more intractable and sullen, that nightly meetings were being held from which no information ever leaked, and that there was a growing unrest. There was no room to doubt that Provarsk was behind it all, and that Provarsk was carefully laying a powder train to cause an explosion; yet Kent, the master spirit of change, read the reports, or listened to them, and was lethargic.

Baron Von Glutz, the new enthusiast for road improvement, slipped hastily away to the outer world to inspect some new road-making machin- ery. Kent smiled at his enthusiasm. Paulo went to the other side of the toy kingdom to inspect work connected with his department. Again Kent smiled, and seemed happy to be left alone and un- molested.

And then, when least expected, Provarsk acted with his customary boldness. Kent, walking alone in the garden late one night, and absorbed in thought, was abruptly startled lay a soft crashing sound in the laurels on either side and suddenly realised that he was in the midst of a huge thicket where, if it came to a struggle, he would have bnt small chance. He whirled with the intention of running to a better field; bnt bis foot caught on a rope that had been tied across the path, and be fell headlong. A man crashed through the bushes on one side and threw himself on Kent before the latter could regain his feel He gathered bis big powerful body that had in youth been inured by hard work and hard blattles with lumbermen, and threw himself quickly to one side, broke the hold on his arms with a sharp wrench, and rolled on top of his assailant His hope had been to get to his feet; but the man beneath, disappointed in one way, took advantage of another and shifted his hold to Kent's neck. Instantly another ad- versary caught the American's heels and jerked his legs from under Mm so that he sprawled at length on the man in the path. Kent lifted his arm to strike and another man seized it strongly and clung to it. Kent's left fist struck this new assailant and elicited a grunt. Then, whilst he was trying to land a second blow, another man was added to the corps of assailants.

Kent fought so well that it took the best efforts of the four men to subdue him, after which be was immediately handcuffed, and lifted to his feet.

"What's the meaning of all this?" he de- manded, between pants.

"It means that you are under arrest," growled a hoarse voice. " Bring him along, men ! "

"But where are you taking me?" Kent insisted.

"You'll find that out soon enough," was the reply.

Kent walked doggedly along in silence and with- out further protest, and was led directly to the private entrance to the palace, thence upward to his offices, where, despite the warmth of the night, the shades were drawn and the room in a blaze of light. As soon as his eyes were accustomed to the change he beheld, through the open door of his private office, Provarsk lazily seated in his private chair, and saw that the drawers of the desk had been wrenched open and that numerous papers were scattered on the floor.

"Ah! Got him, did you?" the chancellor re- marked to the soldiers conducting Kent. "You did well. Couldn't have done much better in fact; but I was rather in hopes he would fight suffi- ciently hard to make extreme measures neces- sary."

He smiled pleasantly and came into the other room. Kent looked at the men around him and sneered when he discovered they were some of Provarsk 's original mercenaries, now become double traitors.

"However, it is just as well that you didn't have to knock his brains out," the baron con- tinued. * ' I find that the papers which are accessi- ble are not exactly those I wanted. Perhaps Mr. Kent will oblige us with the combination of his private vault?"

"Bless my soul! What an oversight!" Kent exclaimed. "You've not got the combination! Thoughtless of you. But, by the way, it would do you no good this evening, anyhow, Baron. It has the best time lock I could buy."

The baron walked over to the vault and in- spected it, and it was evident that he was not fa- miliar with such a modern device.

"Suppose you broke that clock off?" he in- quired of Kent.

"Then even I could not open it," the American replied. "You may be certain that the vault will not open until after ten o'clock to-morrow." "In that case all you can do is to give me the combination," said Provarsk, eyeing Kent inso- lently.

"For two centimes I wouldn't," Kent replied.

"And for two centimes, if you didn't, I'd throw you into a wet dungeon without food until you did," Provarsk promptly retorted.

"Um-m-m-h! By Jove! I believe you would," said Kent, admiringly, "and that being the case, I suppose I may as well give it to you."

"Exactly!" replied the chancellor. "Little courtesies will be duly appreciated."

"I've noticed that you were appreciative," Kent said, meaningly; "but inasmuch as I'm here and you are there, I don't see what else I can do but oblige. If you and my good faithful friends here are not afraid of me, perhaps you would kindly request them to remove this jewelry; other- wise I can't write."

Provarsk smiled at what he thought a sarcasm and asked the leading soldier if Kent had any weapons. On being assured that the American was unarmed the chancellor ordered the handcuffs removed.

"And let me caution you, Mr. Kent," he threat- ened, "that any attempt to escape or call for as- sistance may necessitate action on my part that I should regret to take. Furthermore it would be useless on your part, because there is no one in the palace who would attempt to assist you save the king and his royal sister, both of whom are now slumbering sweetly with a guard outside their doors."

Kent looked about him as if seeking some one. Provarsk divined his look and added : "And that bear man of yours has also been taken in, and I believe is now nicely secured in one of the old dungeons. I hope one was selected where there are plenty of rats."

Kent looked at the leader of the mercenaries who stood stockily by him, and whose protruding eyes batted themselves at intervals and were de- void of expression.

"He's got to be taken out of that dungeon," Kent said, emphatically.

"To quote one of your own phrases, Nothing doing!' : ' retorted the conspirator.

"All right! Nothing doing in the combination line, either," stubbornly returned the American.

Provarsk grinned at him with the kindliness of a hungry wolf; but influenced by his prisoner's fearless stare, paused to consider.

"I'll tell you what I'll do," said Kent, "I'll compromise. You have your friends put Ivan in a comfortable cell, and I'll not only give you the combination, but my parole. I'll agree that you can take me to my own room, and that I'll not leave there without first notifying you that I in- tend to do so. How's that?"

"This is to be a gentleman's agreement, is it, Kent?" Provarsk asked.

"It is."

"All right," the conspirator replied, "I'll ac- cept it. Whatever else you are, I'll admit your word is absolutely good. Give me the combina- tion." Kent walked across to his desk, sat down, and with a steady hand wrote it on a piece of paper, blotted it, and passed it to Provarsk. The latter smiled lazily, and turned to the leading soldier.

" You have heard the agreement, " he said. " See to it that we keep our part. Have that Ivan put in the most comfortable place of confinement we have. Take Mr. Kent to his room, and see that he is not disturbed. Of course he has no objections to a guard outside his door?"

"Not in the least, " Kent assured him. "I like it. Keeps me from being lonesome. Sort of soothing in the dark. Now, before I retire, would you mind telling me what you are up to this time, and what it's all about?"

"Not in the least/' said Provarsk with the same air of courtesy that was, in itself, akin to insult. "What I am up to is, first of all, to get rid of you. I'm going to put you out of the kingdom, and also I've taken steps to cut your claws. I secured the address of your employer, John Rhodes, at 65 Re- gent street, London, West, yesterday, and wrote him enclosing correspondence showing that you had not only made overtures to sell his concession to me, but had actually transferred it to me for a cash consideration, which I presumed was with his sanction. I explained that my object in writing was to have him remove you to other scenes of commercial activity, because you were personally obnoxious to His Majesty, the king, and also to me, the chancellor. Needless to say the corre- spondence I sent him proving the sale of the min- ing concession, was signed by yourself. Unmis- takably so."

Kent's eyes opened with genuine astonishment. This was a more adroit invention than he had credited Provarsk with being able to devise. He had written to Rhodes and !

"You forged my name to those letters, eh?" he asked hotly. "Well, before I'm through with you I'll "

"Do nothing! You can't; you are helpless. I've got you, this time, my smart Yankee friend, and got you in such a way that you can't escape. When I kick you out of Marken, you can take your choice; be tried by John Rhodes as a defaulter and convicted on my evidence that the letters are genuine, or put as much distance as you can be- tween yourself and your employer. That is im- material to me, either way."

"But but the king ! He will not submit to it ! " declared Kent, on the defensive.

"The king? Poof! The king will do as I say, after this; otherwise, I'll send him trailing along after you in short order."

Kent's face was impassive.

"Take him to his room and let him think it over," ordered Provarsk, with a grin. "Goodnight, Mr. Richard Kent ! I hope you have a very comfortable rest. I may call on you in the morn- ing to assure myself of your comfort."

Kent, for once astonished at the man's ingenu- ity, turned and led the way out with never a word. Provarsk had proved a better enemy than he had believed him to be. He could but think of the letter and enclosures to John Rhodes and remem- ber that the financier's reputation was that of be- ing an inflexibly hard and unrelenting man when- ever one of his underlings had proved delinquent. He tried to recall whether John Rhodes had al- ways been just in such cases. Perhaps poor Barry, who had been sent to an American prison for something similar, had been a victim of some other Provarsk. And Simmons, the Englishman, when led from the dock to serve his sentence of three years hard labour, had protested his inno- cence to the very last. And both Simmons and Barry had been master agents, entrusted with great transactions, enjoying intimate acquain- tance with John Rhodes! He looked very grave and preoccupied as they escorted him through the long, resounding corridors of the palace, dimly lighted, and suggestive of the long corridors of a prison where a man who was innocent of the crime for which he had been convicted, might helplessly eat his heart away. The very sound of their foot- steps suggested the tread of warders and guards. A problem presented itself to him in which he attempted to stand aloof like an outside spectator, and speculate what John Rhodes, the richest and most feared man in the world, would do upon the receipt of such letters. Would he be tolerant and kind, or severe and unrelenting, with such evidence against Richard Kent, the trusted agent, who had at last yielded to a very great temptation and gone wrong?

His guard halted and opened a door. Kent walked through and closed it behind him. He was alone in his accustomed room with his problem. And then it occurred to him that there is such an influence as justice, and that justice will not be denied. There was a king. The king, though it cost him his throne—though it cost him everything he prized in the world—would under such circumstances find and confront Rhodes, and declare it all a lie. And Rhodes under those circumstances would be compelled to believe. Kent's long and varied training in reading men told him that the king would prove a loyal, fighting, steadfast friend, and that in such an outrageous, diabolical plan as Provarsk's, this would prove to be the weak point in the chancellor's armour.

Kent disrobed, bathed the dust of that stiff physical contest on the garden path from his face, and climbed into bed. To-morrow was merely to-morrow, to be met as his judgment dictated. Within ten minutes he was sleeping as soundly as if nothing mattered and he were but a tired boy.