Roy Norton--The unknown Mr Kent/Chapter 3
THE king, harassed by his own misfortunes, slowly dropped back to his seat, and resumed his listless attitude while staring into the fire that crackled and glowed as a black log dropped, broken, to be consumed in the bed of embers beneath, symbol of his broken kingdom from which he had fled. The chancellor, diplomatic, become obsequious in the presence of the man who stood as a possible dictator of destiny, stared at Kent, and resumed that nervous tugging at his moustache. Kent, bent from the hips forward, still leaned across the desk, with his eyes fastened absently on the door through which the princess had departed.
"I hope," said the chancellor, apologetically, "that Mister Kent does not take too seriously what the Princess Eloise has said! Her Royal Highness is exhausted. She has endured much to-night, and at times all of us are worn to irritability."
Abruptly Kent scowled at him and stood erect. Almost resentfully, he said, "The princess requires no champion. She appears abundantly able to fight her own battles. Better, I might suggest, than some of those stalwarts around her."
Heedless of the chancellor's discomfiture, he walked around the desk and seated himself, with all the air of energy and business capability that dominated him when on guard. He folded the scattered papers, placed them in an envelope, put them back into the despatch box, and then brusquely turned toward the king.
"Now that we understand more or less of the conditions," he said, coldly, "I should like to have you tell me exactly what happened in Marken that explains your presence here in this village. You need not hesitate or stand on your dignity. I have talked with other fallen kings. I have made and unmade some of them," he added, with grim significance.
The king looked at him and smiled, almost sadly, yet not without dignity. The chancellor, after a perplexed and hesitating glance, grunted, wiped his bald head with his handkerchief, and left the task of reply to royalty. The king shrugged his shoulders, and his eyes wandered around the room, as he mentally formulated speech and sought the true beginning. They fell upon Ivan, and for the first time he appeared cognisant of his presence.
"Perhaps," he suggested, "in the discussion of a subject so delicate as the admission of one's own defeats it would be better if we were alone."
Kent turned toward Ivan. He started to ex- plain the latter's affliction and then, checking himself, said, " Quite right! It is better if we are alone."
It flashed through his mind that it might be as well to humour the king, and also mental habit controlled him, a habit of caution that had grown from the policy that it was far better never to tell anything that could remain untold. He saw that his follower's eyes were on his lips, and said, "Ivan, you may go. I shall not want you this evening. "
The giant, alert in his own world of silence, smiled quietly, understanding all that was implied, and turned toward the door with the lost book in his hands.
"Thank you, " he said. " If you need me, I shall "be in my room. Good night, sir ! "
He bowed to Kent's guests and passed out, while the king, with an air of relief, watched his departure.
"Well," said the king abruptly, after a min- ute's silence, "I tried to reform and be a father to my people without giving offence, and—made a mess of it!"
Kent liked him for the frankness of his confession, and his eyes softened to a more friendly shade.
"His Majesty was not——" began the chan- cellor.
"Suppose you let him tell it," interrupted the financier. "He seems to have maintained his po- sition as well as you did yours."
The king lifted his hand, palm outwards, to- ward the chancellor, and it was quite as effective as if the open palm had been clapped over the chancellor's mouth.
" Go ahead, " Kent urged the king. " You tried reforms and they didn't succeed. Most of them don't. Er—what particular mania—I mean brand of reformation, was yours? Anti-gambling? Prohibition? Eugenics? Votes for women? Universal peace? What was it you tried?"
At first the king scowled at the American, a good, hearty scowl of outraged dignity, and then discerning that beneath the banter was more or less of sympathy, smiled a trifle sadly.
"I tried," he said, quietly, "to give them more liberty."
"Oh!" Kent let the exclamation slip. And then, after a slight pause, "I remember that yours was an absolute monarchy. Always has been; people brought up to respect the king boisterously when he happened to be respectable, and to swal- low their disrespect when he happened to be the other thing. May I ask what form of liberty you proposed? Was it magna charta, or something like that! "
"Of course not ! " indignantly objected the chan- cellor. "The rights of the crown had to be re- spected."
"Um-m-mh! So! Sort of curtailed liberty, eh, with a leash on it that could be jerked when ne- cessity arose? Just like an April Fool purse de- signed by a small boy who lurks around the cor- ner."
"I gave them councils where they could vote," protested the king. "That was a step toward lib- erty, wasn't it?"
"But I suppose your very able chancellor saw to it that you could veto any act passed, and in fact dissolve them, any time they had plans you did not approve of?"
The king tried to appear offended, and the chan- cellor was sulky and sullen.
"Did you finally dissolve them?" Kent asked, when neither answered.
"No," said the king, sadly. "I tried to reason with them. That was after one of them proposed a resolution inviting me to abdicate."
Kent leaned back and laughed quietly.
"Listen!" he said. "There are just two ways of reasoning with a man who tries to throw you out of your own house. If he is big enough to do it, grin and move. If he isn't, call for the police or take a club and chase him into the middle of the next block. It appears they were strong enough to put you out, so—here you are!"
"No, you are wrong," disputed the king. "It was not the people who caused me to leave. It was my cousin, Baron Provarsk, who wants to rule in my place, and who laughs and snaps his fingers at any idea of reform."
"I rather approve of him," Kent volunteered. "How did he do it?"
1 ' He has money. He gathered a good-sized band of mercenaries from the surrounding states, with- out our knowing it, surprised the palace to-night, which was easy because I have dispensed with much of a guard, and we had to escape."
"His Majesty fails to be explicit," declared the chancellor, crustily. "Provarsk would have mur- dered him."
"But what I can't understand," said Kent, "is why you didn't fight it out? "Why you two come mounted? Why Her Eoyal Highness arrives in a car accompanied by a maid and one officer? Why didn't all——"
"When the attack was made it was entirely unexpected," explained the king. "I had not the faintest fear that any of my subjects would lay hands on my person. I was unable to defend the palace alone, and couldn't escape and leave my sister there at Provarsk's mercy. You see, Sir, my sister was also one of his objects. Twice he has tried to marry her. It was because I didn't want her to fall into his clutches that we ran away. We would have remained to fight it out but for her presence. We did hold them off until Captain Paulo had succeeded in carying her away, then,—well—the chancellor and I mounted, led Provarsk's followers off in the wrong direction to give Paulo time, and rejoined my sister here at this village."
"We fought," observed the chancellor, as if theirs had been an achievement scarcely worthy of note. "We held them up from door to door, and charged them once in the woods, cutting our way through and back again."
The king nodded agreement, and Kent, aston- ished, studied both his and the chancellor's faces as if he had discovered unexpected cause for com- mendation.
"His Majesty made most excellent sword play," observed the chancellor. "We dared not fire lest we bring others against us."
The king lifted his hand in deprecation.
"Well, you did, Sire," insisted the chancellor. pro- tested the king.
"I did not mind that so much as the difficulties of getting Her Eoyal Highness to assent, " boomed the chancellor.
"My sister," explained the king to the financier, "is—somewhat difficult. She has—and I don't mean this as disparagement or criticism—quite a will and temper of her own. She rather stub- bornly insisted on all of us remaining and fighting to the death."
"Positively refused to recognise the hopeless- ness of the odds," the chancellor seconded. "De- clared she would go and face them alone, which was just what Provarsk would have liked. Tried to call for help by telephone, but Provarsk's crew had cut the wires. Tried to shoot a man who crawled round the balcony toward her chamber, but the pistol wasn't loaded. It was very diffi- cult, sir. Very. We had to threaten to carry her away by force for her own safety before she would go."
"Whose task was that?" asked Kent.
"I should say that, too, required some bravery," commented the American.
"It did," assented Von Glutz, grinning drily and stroking his nose, in an effort to hide his mirth.
"And this Paulo is?" Kent questioned.
"The captain of the king's guard, which un- fortunately consists, owing to His Majesty's desire to appear democratic, and also to conduct the affairs of the kingdom with the utmost econ- omy, of barely four-score men, of whom but five are ever on palace duty. Provarsk had about fifty followers," he concluded, as if to explain how the palace had been overwhelmed.
Kent leaned his chin on his hand and meditated for a time and then said, "I don't see how you could have done anything else than escape from the palace; but why cross the border?"
"There seemed no other direction open," re- plied the king, with a heavy sigh of discourage- ment.
"But certainly, if what I understand is correct, you must have had some friend who could shel- ter you until you could formulate some definite plan?"
"Yes; but that," said the king, "might have meant civil war. Bloodshed. And I don't want any of my people killed on my account. If they have decided that the country and their happiness are more assured by my going—well—I must go!"
"What do you think on those points?" Kent demanded, frowning at the king.
"If it were anybody but Provarsk——" the lat- ter faltered, with an air of resignation.
"Provarsk is a reactionary! A would-be ty- rant ! A man who would think no more of taking one or a hundred lives, than he would of throw- ing dice for his castle," Von Glutz roared.
"With the natural result that if he gets into power, the people of Marken will at least have a ruler," Kent retorted. "And quite plainly, from my way of thinking, that is what they have lacked. The country has had a king who, with the best of intentions, has been misunderstood. Firmness was the element lacking. To like a man's motives but to doubt his ability to carry any of them through is even worse than to doubt his motives, but be certain that, whatever they are, he will force them over. A resolute bad man is frequently better than a vacillating good man."
The king nodded his head and scowled at the fireplace.
"I admit all that—now that it is too late," he said, in a bitter monotone.
"Too late! Heavens, man, you don't mean to tell me that you are brave enough to cut your way through a band of murderers in the night, after defending your sister, and yet are ready to abdicate rather than make another fight for it, do you? Humph!"
Kent's tone conveyed contempt mixed with wonder.
"I am not personally afraid of anything, sir," declared the king, nettled. "But I do not want, and will not have, hundreds, perhaps thousands of men killed on my acount. After all, they are my people, as they have been the people of my ancestors for hundreds of years! I have conceived it to be my duty to protect them and their happiness and welfare."
"Well spoken," said Kent. "Very nice theory, too; but it lacks this much: that quite frequently it is necessary to compel people to do the right things for their own happiness. For this reason we sometimes spank boys when they run away from schools; paddle them when they yield to the delights of chewing tobacco; admonish our daughters when they go to places of gaiety that they should not enter; whip our dogs when they begin to delight in snapping at strangers' heels; and a thousand and one other things that make the admonished howl or yelp at the time, but work out for their own good."
He stared in a kindly way at the king for a moment, as if expecting the latter to dispute, and then added, grimly, "If I were in your place, I'd not let this man Provarsk win so easily. I'd fight!"
"I would, if I knew how!" The king spoke impetuously.
"But you must have some friend who can assist you," suggested Kent. "Some man you can depend upon."
The king shook his head sadly.
"There are many who like me," he said; "but they fear Provarsk."
"Pooh!" Kent accompanied himself with a snap of his fingers.
"If His Majesty would run the risk of a war——" began the chancellor.
"Rubbish!" exclaimed Kent. "War, nothing! The thing to do is to beat him at his own game. See here, young man,—I beg Your Majesty's pardon—you've got to do it! You've got to be one of two things, a king or a coward. You've got to decide to-night, too, before the people of Marken know that you have been driven out by Provarsk. Don't you understand that from to-night you are either just beginning or just finished?"
"If I could see any way on earth without civil war," declared the king, desperately, "I'd try it."
Kent studied him closely, with steady eyes, and then turned to his desk and consulted a memorandum book.
"I'm going to be perfectly frank with you," he said, at last. "It doesn't matter much to me who is the ruler of Marken; but I like you for the ideals you have had, and admire your sister for wishing to stay to the ultimate end. And most of all, I've got considerable at stake in this myself, because John Rhodes hasn't much use for a man who causes him to lose a million pounds, and what's more, he's a good fighter. He does pretty much as I suggest. Besides, this strikes me as an interesting proposition, and at present I haven't much to do. Provarsk is promising. I admire him, too. It requires courage to do what he has done."
He suddenly threw the book back into the drawer and shoved the latter shut with an emphatic bang. He arose from his chair, frowned thoughtfully at the lampshade, then looked across it at the king, who was watching him, as if fascinated by his heavy, square-cut American face. He seemed to have arrived at an audacious resolution.
"I'll make a bargain with you," he said, chopping his sentences. "You assist me and I'll assist you—under—let us say—very peculiar conditions. If you will agree to do exactly as I say, I'll either make a real king of you, or give you a chance to die like a man instead of a runaway. And if we fail, we'll fail together. But I shall at least make an effort to save John Rhodes' money, and you your throne! Be certain of that!"
The king looked at him hopefully, and the chancellor with grudging respect.
"I can't see what else I can do but listen," said the king. "I am—as you see. What do you propose?"
"This," said Kent, deliberately; "that you are to go back to your country and fight it out; but that you are to fight it out just as I direct; that from now onward, until I have recovered the money John Rhodes lent you, which would naturally mean the clearing of Marken's finances and a restoration of peace and industry, I am to be the absolute, untrammelled dictator of your kingdom. Not only that, but that you and this chancellor, or any other that I name, are to do exactly as I order. I'm to be temporarily the tyrant, the ruler. Also that not a soul on earth besides ourselves is to know that I am such. I can be anything we wish, a visitor at court, or anything that doesn't matter, so long as you and the baron here obey me implicitly, no matter how difficult my demand."
The king gasped and stared at him as if fascinated, while the chancellor went red and white by turns. Both were speechless at the boldness of his proposition.
"Come," he said, in a friendly tone, "you've everything to gain and nothing to lose. You've lost all you had, both of you. And I believe, if you agree to give me a free hand, that we can succeed. Administration is, after all, largely a matter of finance. Furthermore, if you do not agree to this, I am compelled to take steps immediately to ally myself with Provarsk, the insurgent, for the protection of that loan which I caused to be made, and which I represent. Hence, after to-night, I shall be either your friend or your enemy! No half-way measures with me. I must be one or the other, squarely, uncompromisingly. You must decide."
The king settled back into his chair, and appeared to hesitate and consider, while the chancellor fixed his stare on the floor, greatly perturbed, and quite helpless. The old clock in the corner ticked heavily, and the rain lashed the windows audibly, as if waiting outside the room were enemies, defiant and challenging onslaught. The American slowly opened his strong box a second time, selected some papers with due care, and held them toward the king.
"That there may be no doubt in your mind that I am the original man who made the loan to your government, and that I am empowered by John Rhodes to act as I deem best, you will please read these. They will serve as credentials."
He handed the papers to the king, who read them and handed them back; but with an increased look of respect in his eyes. His gaze shifted back to the chancellor, then, almost absently, so evident was his concentration, to the fire dogs. Plainly he was hesitating, yet devoid of funds or other plans, an exile, tempted to plunge.
"If you were out of money, why didn't you sell those manganese mines you own, or a concession on them for a number of years?" Kent asked the king as if by afterthought.
" Because I could conceive of no one being fool enough to offer me such a sum for a concession," replied the king. * ' It would require more capital or labour than I can produce to make them pay. " Kent stared speculatively at him, and took a turn through the room.
"I'm not certain that I wouldn't be foolish enough to try it," he said thoughtfully. "I've been well informed that they are valuable. Why not grant me a twenty-year concession, out of which I give you ten per cent of the profit; but with this clear agreement : that I am to have full power to handle you and your kingdom to make them pay? It's the only way I can find to save Ehodes' money for him."
The king looked tempted, yet cautiously con- siderate; but did not answer in haste.
Kent paced the room thoughtfully, and at last, with a kindly air, walked across and laid his hand on the king's shoulder.
"You are not a king to me," he said, quietly. "You are just a fine, brave young fellow, with high ideals, who deserves a chance. I hate to see as decent a young chap as you are fail, irretriev- ably, for the want of some one to back him, and to show him the way through. We don't have kings in my country; but we have the young fel- lows. And I have helped a lot of them, when about all they needed was some one to pat them on the back and say, 'It's all right, Boy. You're not licked yet! Get up and try again!' And most always, they take heart and go in and win ! That's what I want you to do. Go in and win! Your duty is to be a king ! And I now tell you, go and be one! If you'll do as I say, Provarsk is much abler than I think he is, if we don't best him, hand and foot. In any event, he shall have a struggle that will make him about the busiest usurper that ever tried for a throne!"
The king, trained to repress display of emo- tions since childhood, and passed through the course which makes of princes wooden-faced im- ages, forgot all that education as the American progressed, and became merely a desperate hurt human being, craving friendship and support. His lips twitched and strained under this unex- pected tender of sympathy. They might have remained unmoved had he walked upon the scaf- fold of a guillotine, but here was a new emotion, that rendered him defenceless. With something akin to boyish amazement, he stared at the grim, satirical, strong face above him as if to make cer- tain of the character that offered open support in return for secret domination, and what he saw there gave him confidence. For a long time he weighed the situation with all its alternatives, ask- ing now and then cautious questions and receiv- ing reassuring answers. At last, quite like one taking a final and desperate chance, he made his decision. He stood to his feet, as befitted the gravity of the situation, and said, very simply, "I accept. The concession is yours, and I put my- self completely in your hands because I trust you and because I have no other recourse. Our agree- ment is one of honour, to last until you have secured your superior's money, or by your own word release me from further obligation."
"That is fair; very fair," Kent replied, with equal gravity. "And you may trust me to make my stay as brief as possible, because I've no wish for the job. " He paused a minute and added with one of his rare, half -humorous smiles, "You see, the fact is, I never have run a kingdom before. Once when I was young, I ran a sawmill, and after all, running kingdoms and sawmills are not much different. Both consist in seeing that the work is well done."
The king extended his hand to the financial agent, who took it, and for an instant held it, and studied the king's face as if to make a last ap- praisment of this material with which he must work.
"And I take it that the chancellor "
"For more than twenty years, as boy and man," Von Glutz rumbled, "I have served the house of His Majesty. And behind me are four genera- tions of my name who have also given all they had to give. I ask nothing but to serve. The king's wish is to me an order."
"Phwew! That's going some! Takes me back to a gallery seat at the melodrama," Kent said in English, much to the chancellor's bewilderment. But with the chancellor, too, the American shook hands as if this were to seal a binding contract, and then, almost abruptly, he swung round to his desk, seated himself, and was the man in com- mand. His head appeared to set more doggedly, his voice to become more crisp and authoritative.
"I'll take your word for the concession until we can draw it up. Now who is this friend of whom you spoke?" he asked the king.
"Baron Von Hertz, distantly related, who dwells most of the time in a mediaeval castle he has rehabilitated. It is less than ten miles from Mar- ken."
"And you can depend on him?"
"Implicitly. On him and all his followers and tenants. "
"And how far is his castle from here?"
"About thirty miles, I should think."
"All right. We shall have to use the car the princess arrived in. We three will start at once."
"And leave my sister here alone unde- fended?"
Kent stepped to the door, and turned back to answer over his shoulder. "No, I shall leave my man Ivan to guard her. She will be as safe as if we three were here."
He was gone from the room but a few minutes and when he returned was clad in a heavy rain- coat, and carried in his hand a light sporting rifle. He was very brusque and determined in the directness with which he crossed the room, pos- sessed himself of a magazine pistol, examined the clip to make certain that it was filled, and gave an order that was entirely devoid of deference.
- * You will now call in Captain Paulo and instruct
him," he said. "Also there must be no forget- fulness of our relative positions. You are now and hereafter to be my mouthpiece. You are still the king. You will give such orders as I give you as your own, obey my instructions, and see that they are carried out as if they were your own. You understand thoroughly?"
Both the king and chancellor bowed, the latter with a quick military salute of acquiescence.
"Summon Captain Paulo," said the king, ac- cepting his new role ; and when, in answer to the stentorian hail of the chancellor through the lat- tice, the officer appeared, the king commanded, evenly, as if nothing unusual could be found in the situation, "Captain Paulo, bring the car around to the door, headed in the opposite direc- tion. We return to our kingdom."
The officer's youthful face flashed to exultation, Almost he voiced it; but recovered and saluted, while his eyes danced with satisfaction. He would have turned to obey, but the king restrained him.
"Just a moment, Paulo," he said. "Mr. Kent accompanies us, and will remain with us for some time. It is my wish that you obey anything he asks as you would me. Do you know the road from here to the Castle Hertz?"
"Quite well, Sire."
"Then it is there that you are to take us." Kent gave his first direct order to the officer a few minutes later as the three men climbed into the car.
"Drive!" he said "Drive like the devil!"
And the car, with big headlights ablaze, roared its way down the village street, skidded as it made a sharp turn, and then leaped out on a long straight road like a racer reaching for a goal.