Roy Norton--The unknown Mr Kent/Chapter 15
THE PRINCESS ELOISE tiptoed to the shattered hall door, and, with infinite care, passed through and closed it behind her. Then, hesitant, perturbed, distressed, she looked down the long reaches, lonely as a deserted avenue, as if considering a direction for flight. She paused, torn between the tugging hand of convention and desire, that dragged her in diverse ways. Convention urged her that she was of the blood of proud and lasting kings, certain to find her place upon some potent throne, inevitably destined to rule, endowed by nature, and trained religiously to that small caste whose slightest wish becomes a necessity with the people beneath. But desire cried aloud that all was vain, all happiness lost, the world barren, the future a desert, if now she closed her ears to the cry of her heart. A choice of queendom lay before her; one over a vast number whom she might serve, and assist, with a high nobility of purpose, and the other over one subject, a strange, brusque, many-sided man who would give of strength, and soul, and fealty, all that he had to give and if need be, uncomplainingly as a duty, reverently as a sacrifice, his life.
Life stretched before her like the corridor, in two directions, each leading from the other. Steadily, with clear eyes and clarity of mind, she weighed one route against the other, and then, with bent head, and tremulous breath, she made her decision. She turned, retraced her steps, opened the door very gently, stepped inside the room she had left, and closed the door behind. Kent, grave, embarrassed, and yet determined, came but a moment later from his sleeping chamber, and closed the door leading to it; but not with his habitual directness and decision. This was not the man she had seen confidently striding his way, staring direct with the radiation of personal power and purpose, intent on some goal beyond other eyes. Instead, there was about him a curious attitude of awkwardness, appeal and reverence, a strange lack of confidence. For an instant only she forced herself to meet his eyes. They cried their message to hers across the silent, waiting room. The sounds of the outside world, in which that day the future of a nation was being irrevocably decided, became hushed and still. She seemed to hear in that same soundless silence the struggle of his mind as it fell upon and conquered his tongue. Forced by decision to meet this portentous issue, she heard him coming toward her. His voice sounded as if reaching her from a long distance, so quiet, so gentle, so grave it was in this decisive moment of its existence.
"You," it said, "are a princess. I am nothing, save that which I am—a man who has done his best. A plebeian man, Princess Eloise, because all that I have tried and all that I have done, may seem insignificant in your eyes. But what I am, I am."
The voice paused in that time she stood with hands crossed above her breast not daring to lift her eyes to his; paused as if gathering power to find the way.
"I should not dare to speak," it proceeded, more firmly, "had you not said what you did a while ago. You said that you would have given anything for———" he hesitated and spoke scarcely above a whisper, as if a repetition of her words were profanation, as if he, a penitent, approached slowly on hands and knees to confession. "You said that you would have given anything for my friendship, for my esteem! That you had wanted to help me—always!" He spoke the last word like one reading the ultimate word of life from the open book of destiny, laid once before us all. "Oh, Eloise!" he cried with a tenderness beyond all she had dreamed, "I am like that poor, foolish juggler of Notre Dame, who, unable to do more than juggle gay balls upon his hands and feet, yet dared toss them at the shrine of Our Lady, and thus gave all he had to give! I am helpless! I am nothing, in this fight—the only one from which I've ever flinched. I wanted to go before I gave myself away; but you said—you said———"
He stopped and she knew that the poet soul of him that had been so scrupulously concealed from all the world, was bursting its way, released by the alchemy of love, to his last abashed declaration. She waited intent on what he might say, this man who had posed through all his life as one without sentiment, hard, inflexible, masterful, and who now for the first time was stripping nude his spirit.
"Do you know," he said, "I've always been ashamed of something that I liked something I read. It seemed too fine to say aloud; but it's what I want to say now:
"I am he that cries aloud beneath your gates,
"With eyes uplifted to the moon, the night, your castle walls.
"No beggar I for paltry dole! No suppliant for paltry favours,
"Worthless, ephemeral, and indifferently thrown.
"I ask all you have; all you have been; all you are;
"All that you may ever be.
"I am that throbbing thing of love,
"Venturesome, calling for its own."
There was a child 's bashfulness and simplicity in his declamation. He spoke as if ashamed to voice those inner and concealed sentiments that he had so studiously veiled throughout his life. Nothing hut the quick knowledge that she had seen him as he was in truth, kept her from laugh- ing at him. And then there came to her the rea- lisation, not without a sense of triumph, that she knew, beyond all others, this strange, reticent, re- tiring man whose very name had been feared by some of those esteemed as powerful. That of her alone, in all the world, he stood in awe.
"If I had known then who who you really were " she faltered. "If if I had not been so terribly disappointed, I should not have said what I did."
She paused ; but without ever looking up at him she knew that he recoiled as from a blow. And then, bravely, she took the plunge, and added in a voice that was scarcely louder than the exquisite sound of the wind's fingers playing upon a harp, "But now that I know my mistake, and that you have not been defeated, I I have nothing to re- tract."
She heard him coming slowly toward her, and lifted her eyes to his grim, rugged, homely face, and beheld it transfigured like the top of some weather-scarred crag suddenly illumined by sun- light. The warmth and majesty of a great love were there, the imperative will to seize, and to shield, and the longing to prove worth by sacrifice. He would have taken her hand, awkwardly, as some poor courtier might; but nothing less than full relinquishment was in her heart. And so she lifted her arms swiftly upward, caught his face for a long moment between her hands, looked deeply into his eyes and then, contented with what she saw, bent farther toward him, and was caught and held.
Forgetful of all else, deaf to all else, they had not heard the roaring tumult that came sweeping toward the palace, increased in the crescendo of proximity, and that now suddenly burst over- whelmingly upon their ears in terrifying volume. It sounded as if something had gone wrong ; as if revolt had in full strength rushed upon them. They turned and hastened to the window. The great garden of the palace had been invaded by a mob of people, the foremost of whom rushed excitedly to places beneath the windows, while, rapidly, other waves surged behind, closed in, and became more dense until even the walls were mounted by upthrown crests. For a moment it was difficult to distinguish the character of that tremendous shouting, or to know whether menace or approval was the dominant note. And then, suddenly, a red-faced man who had been crowded into the basin of a fountain climbed triumphantly to its top, where he stood silhouetted against the sky, waved his arms, and in a stentorian voice that swept over all else began to sing the national anthem. Instantly other voices took it up, until to the beating of time by that lone figure aloft it became united, and overpowering, battering the walls, the trees, and the skies with stately blows. The lips of the Princess Eloise quivered and her eyes filled with tears of emotion. Kent felt his hands clenching as he caught the meaning, and knew that it was an ovation to the king ; but even then he could not understand why the giving of the mines had so stirred the people. His door was jerked open unceremoniously, and the king ran in, followed by Paulo and Von Glutz, all appear- ing scarcely less excited and jubilant than those below.
At sight of his sister and Kent, the king waved his state sword above his head and saluted the hilt with his lips.
"Marken! Marken!" he shouted as gallantly as any of his mailed ancestors might have done when announcing victory after battle.
""What have you done?" demanded Kent, once more the cool man of affairs.
"I've gone you one better, my friend, and acted without any one's advice. I've not only done as you suggested, but I've taken a long step farther. I've told them that, without their asking it, and because I have faith in them, I surrender all arbi- trary rights of the crown and that from this time henceforth Marken is to be a liberal government, in which the people are to exercise their own judg- ment and powers, and that not even England her- self can boast of greater freedom and democracy. I Ve given them their liberty. Marken is no longer an autocracy!"
He paused, proud of the effect he had pro- duced, and saw the great approval that shone from his sister's eyes ; but, before he could proceed, the doughty old Von Glutz took up the tale.
"That's not all! He didn't tell you all!" he roared. "His Majesty ended by telling them that if they chose they could even do away with a king and make Marken a republic. That was when they first shouted so loudly, and what they yelled was, 'No! No! God save the king! God save Karl the Great ! ' And by the Lord Almighty ! They meant it ! They stormed the platform. They lifted him up and carried him in their arms. Old women cried and knelt at his feet. They held their dirty babies up for him to touch. And then some of the women began to shout, 'God save the Princess Eloise!' and that started them all off again. The king got himself heard at last and told them that the credit was not his. That they owed it all to you, Kent. And then Karl did a fool thing. Told them that you two were here and that the palace grounds were open. Listen ! Hear that ! "
The song had ceased and great shouts were again storming them.
"The Princess Eloise! Our Princess Eloise!" and "Kent! Kent! Kent!"
They saw him, the man who loathed publicity, quail like a bashful youth, and saw the princess catch his hand and almost drag him toward the balcony. Then he seemed to recall something that must be done and braced himself, and strode for- ward. He stopped abruptly just inside the door and motioned to the king. The king smiled and stepped out, followed by the princess. Like the abrupt discharge of heavy guns the noise renewed as Kent followed them, and Von Glutz and Paulo, rigid, unmoved, came behind and took their posts in the background like watch dogs of state.
Kent stepped to the edge of the balcony and lifted his hand for silence, the same heavy, un- faltering man that had addressed them on one other occasion, when he mentally derided them and then disappeared. Again, as then, his great voice reached them like some enormous trumpet; but now there was nothing of cynicism or dema- goguery in his words, no jesting with their igno- rance.
"His Majesty Karl Second " "God Save Karl the Great !" they corrected him.
" has told you that you owe much of what has been to-day given you, to me. With all respect for His Majesty's word, I wish to tell you, flatly, that it is not so. I did nothing. You owe it all to him. All I did was to advise regarding the employment of your industries. I approve of his grant of self-government, for I am an American ; but I am as surprised as were you that he gave so freely."
They interrupted him with cheers, while he stood watching them, and evidently waiting to add something more.
"You owe me nothing," he declared. "But to others you owe much. You owe Her Royal High- ness, the Princess Eloise, for her advice " and again they interrupted him with cheers.
"You owe to a much misunderstood man, a nobleman, steadfast, loyal and true, a great pay- ment for his unfaltering devotion to the king, to you and to his duty ; and to his plain honesty you are indebted beyond all words. I speak of Baron VonGlutz!"
He did not look around in that mad interim when again they shouted ; but had he done so would have seen that the baron was for once abashed to dumb- ness. All that he, plain, simple old man, had ever asked, was to serve as best he might, careless of reward.
"Beyond this,'* continued the voice, "you must not forget the services of as good a Minister of Treasury as has ever conducted the affairs of a people or a king, Captain Philidor Paulo."
In a cheering mood, they cheered again.
"And from now on you owe it to yourselves, and your king, to those who have done the best they could for you, to make, by continued indus- try and integrity, the kingdom of Marken great. The king has made no mistake. You were not fit to conduct yourselves a year ago. Many of you were idle, lazy and indifferent. It required the inflexibility of an autocrat to arouse you. An autocrat is, after all, but a nurse. Once the neces- sity for a nurse passes, it passes for all time. You are a nation now, known and respected by the whole world. It rests with you whether that respect shall continue, and respect is a thing that accumulates or diminishes in just proportion to your deeds. It does not stand still. The respect given a nation is not measured by the breadth of its lands, or by what it owns. It is measured by the acts of the individuals who compose it. No man dare act otherwise than as a representa- tive of his nation. On him individually rests the good name of his nation. He, as a unit, is as responsible for its reputation, as is the king himself. It is by his individual acts that his country is estimated. I ask you to remember my words and to consider them when alone, that you may find the right way, in this hour of your assump- tion of great responsibilities, to each adjust his own personal life to the demands of a high stand- ard."
The crowd beneath had become hushed and thoughtful as he shot his words out to them. They expected in that grave moment that he would say more ; but, as if daunted by his own temerity and unwonted publicity, he abruptly stopped, and like one suddenly frightened, turned and fled. The man on the fountain again lifted his hands and sang with that far-reaching voice. Again they joined him with a new fervour, containing in its volume some enormous throb, quite without ex- citement, quite grave in its sincerity.
The king, regardless of everything, forgetful of all save the terrific song which for centuries had led his people to the heights of endeavour, there to be crowned with death or victory, shut his eyes, threw his head back and sang with them. With a final outpouring of fervent wishes, the crowd saw him pass through the door, followed last of all by the white-headed old baron. The noise died away, and the palace gardens began to empty. The king looked around the room for Kent. He was not to be seen. As if mortified by his own moralising, he had gone.
The door of the room adjoining stood ajar and the king walked to it, looked in, and halted in astonishment. Kent was standing alone by the side of his bed, in which lay Provarsk. The king hesitated for an instant and then turned and tip-toed away. The broken screen caught his glance and he paused above it, observing that Von Glutz and Paulo were both inspecting the same object.
The baron looked around with his slow eyes, and pointed at the tiny dent in the tiles, bordered with splotches of lead, and called attention to it with a significant smile.
"That," he said, "I take to be the last shot of the last revolt in Marken."
The king saw the American once more that day. It was after twilight, dusk and a full moon had followed one another across the trail of the skies. In the distance, where Marken huddled and shouldered on its hills, could be heard, mellowed, but expressive, the faint sounds of revelry. Great rockets marked fiery courses in the night and then showered upon the red roofs their softly floating and multi-hued rain of stars. Sometimes above the murmur of the notes of a military band might be heard, bearing through the distance, airs of triumphant peace. Very soothing they sounded to the king, who, exhausted by his day of excitement and work, strolled meditatively in the garden that had so short a time before been trampled by the feet of a people freed. Here had his ambition been achieved in that hour when his subjects shouted to him their esteem. Here they had voiced more than esteem, and given him an outspoken affection. With that, all things could be accomplished.
He took a shorter way through the masses of roses, and came to a secluded path on which the moon seemed to peer intent. He stopped short and bent forward, unconsciously eavesdropping. Those were familiar voices, and familiar shapes, those of the princess walking with the American, whilst their arms, outlined in sombre black, and silken white, were around each other's waists. The king stepped into the path behind them and gave a loud "Ahem!"
Startled, and confused, they fell apart as they faced him. There was but a moment's hesitancy, and John Rhodes, recovering, closed the space between him and the Princess Eloise, and caught her waiting hand in his.
"By your leave, Sire," he said, to the king.
"Sir," said the king, "the honour is mine!"