Open main menu

CHAPTER FOUR

 

FOR what seemed to Kent a long and perilous time, the car jolted and slipped, and ran at a fearsome speed over long level stretches, up hills, over mountain roads, and at last rushed noisily up a harsh incline and across what he surmised had once been a moat bridge, to come to a halt in a courtyard, where it stood and steamed like a spent racer finishing a course.

"Well! What's wanted?"

A night watchman, flashing an electric torch, challenged them, and they climbed out to observe that the storm was abating, that off on one horizon stars were shining through a cloud opening, and that they stood in front of a huge and gloomy old pile that Kent knew must be the Castle Hertz.

"The baron is within?" asked the chancellor.

"Without a doubt. And asleep as such an honest man should be," was the watchman's surly response.

"He must be aroused," grunted the chancellor.

"Not by me!" exclaimed the watchman. "I'm an old man with a family dependent on me. Can't you gentlemen wait until morning?"

"You go and tell your master that———" Von Glutz began in a hoarse bluster, but was quietly elbowed aside by the American, who continued the sentence as if it were his own.

"That three gentlemen have called here in the most urgent haste and can not be delayed. Also that we are on the king's business. Here! This may help!"

He slipped a gold coin into the watchman's hand, which the latter took, inspected under the light of the torch, bit to make certain that he was not dreaming, and acknowledged by doffing his cap and bowing very deeply.

"It must be on the king's business," he declared. "No one else could possibly have that much money in these times, Sir. I'll take a chance."

"Wonderful what one can accomplish by diplomacy," Kent remarked, dryly, as the watchman ambled around to a side entrance and disappeared. A long wait ensued which indicated cither that the Baron Von Hertz might have been hard to awaken, or had calmly murdered his watchman and returned to his repose. And then when Kent was beginning to be annoyed, a huge door in front of them opened, a light glowed within, and they were invited to enter.

"I trust," observed the watchman, meaningly, as he conducted them toward a waiting room, "that you gentlemen are really on the king's business. Otherwise I fear that My Lord the baron will prove—ahem! a trifle unpleasant. At first he swore that he wouldn't get up for the king himself. It was not until I suggested you might be robbers, and there was a prospect of a good fight, that he consented to arise. He is now loading his shotgun. Pray be seated."

"Must be a pleasant old chap !" said Kent, with a soft chuckle.

But the king, failing to see any humour in the situation, threw himself wearily into a chair without removing his hat or coat, and stretched his legs in front of him and stared at his boots. The watchman took his post outside the doorway, and then, by afterthought, switched on the lights in the corridors, and brought the waiting room to full blaze. Kent, as idly as any tourist, personally conducted, and endowed with a connoisseur's knowledge, stared around at the fine old wainscoting and polished floors. He acted as if calling out a baron of the realm of Marken at three o'clock in the morning were an every-night occurrence with him. He was disturbed by a sharp "Ahem!" in the doorway and looked around to discover a tall, gaunt, white-whiskered old gentleman whose bald head was protected by a flaming red night cap, and who carried a heavy fowling piece in a manner that suggested that he might be perfectly willing to use it on slight provocation. The three men stood to their feet and for a moment he glared at them, then entering the room, hastily deposited the shotgun in a corner, turned his head and bawled to the watchman, "It's all right! Go on outside and watch the weather. I'm expecting a hailstorm."

After that he came quickly forward and offered both hands to his sovereign.

"Well, Karl, what is up now? What brings you here at this time of night? Some one been lifting the lid to let the sulphur out?"

"Provarsk," replied the king, sententiously.

The old man smiled a wry smile, nodded to Von Glutz, and favoured Kent with a harsh stare from under his scowling eyebrows.

"It's all right!" said the king. "We can talk freely. This is an American gentleman, Mr. Kent, who is the agent for John Rhodes, the financial magnate."

"Oh! Can't he collect interest in daylight?" demanded the irascible old man. "Since when did you begin to make night journeys with money lenders?"

Kent stood unmoved; but the king rushed to his defence.

"Baron," he asserted, steadily, "Mr. Kent has proved to be my friend. As such I am certain you will regard him."

"Pardon me," the American interjected, "I do not seek the baron's friendship."

Before the amazed old nobleman could recover, Kent walked directly across the intervening space until he confronted him.

"Whether you like me or not, whether you object to me or not, My Lord Baron, is to me of the very slightest importance. There is but one attitude I expect from you, that which is current between gentlemen, and consists of courtesy. That I demand!"

There was an intense stillness in the room as they eyed each other, Kent inflexible, the king distressed, and the chancellor open-mouthed at such uncompromising words. The old baron was the most affected and stood as if stupefied with astonishment. For a pregnant time he met Kent's stare and then suddenly chuckled in his throat with a queer, wise acceptance. He turned to the king and exploded, much as an explorer might have done on announcing a discovery. "Why, Karl! You've got a friend who is a man! By Saint Dominique! This is a man!"

The chancellor twisted and frowned. The caustic inference was not lost upon him; but he had no opportunity for speech, for the baron advanced to the American, put out his hand and exclaimed, "My kinsman needs a few like you. It should straighten affairs out, unless I mistake."

For a time they stood and eyed each other, the one stalwart in developed strength, the other elderly, weak, and wise.

"I have placed myself at the king's disposal," Kent said, mollified. "And that is one of the reasons why we are here. We now seem to under- stand one another. His Majesty himself will tell you what has happened in Marken. He seeks a friend. He has come to you."

He turned to the king, as did the baron, and they seated themselves around a tête-à-tête table that stood conveniently in a corner of the room, where, without evasion, the king told the baron all that had taken place, observing his promise to Kent that nothing should be said of their private agreement.

"I have undertaken," explained the American, "to assist His Majesty in the difficulty, by advice, and, furthermore, I am in a position to command for him and if need arises will enlist substantial financial support in our enterprise."

His three auditors alike exposed their surprise and gratification.

" I mean it, " he declared. ' * Mean that I am go- ing to save, if possible, the Rhodes loan, though doubtless it may require additional resources. If they are needed they will be forthcoming. The financial side does not in the least disturb us, therefore, and we have come to you because the king understands that we must have support and possibly refuge. That is all he asks of you. I shall attempt to clear Provarsk out without blood- shed. After that I shall endeavour to advise the king how to rehabilitate himself as the real ruler of Marken."

"But what do you propose to do!" demanded the old baron. "What is the first move? It looks rather difficult to me. Provarsk has brains. He is fearless; fearless in the adventurer way. If you think you have an infant to fight you are wrong. You might lose."

"I never play to lose," retorted Kent. "I make no such calculation."

"Karl," said the baron, after a thoughtful study of the American, "all the support I have to give is yours."

"That being so," hastily suggested Kent, "the next move is to send Captain Paulo back to bring the princess, her maid, and my man Ivan here as quickly as possible. It must not become known to the public that the king has ever been driven from the kingdom. For the present, it will do, if his absence is noted, that he and his sister have been here as your guests, voluntarily."

The baron assented with an enthusiasm that had in it a suggestion of mischievousness.

"That will do nicely," he said. "And it will bo easy as far as my part is concerned, because I have the finest body of liars around me that the world has ever known since Ananias gained re- pute. Send for Eloise."

After Paulo had been summoned and sent on his journey, they fell to discussing the plan which the American slowly outlined, and were still en- larging upon it when the young officer returned with his passengers. Kent, as though curious to interpret the princess ' attitude, was a silent spec- tator in the background when she arrived, and smiled his approbation when he saw her hasten to the king and study his face, unabashed by the pres- ence of the others, and meet his eyes with an en- couraging stare.

"I am glad ! " she declared. "Very glad ! You are going to fight it out, and drive Provarsk, that unspeakable traitor, from Marken!"

"With Mr. Kent's help I shall try," he said, and, disappointed and perplexed, she slowly dropped her hands, and her eyes sought the American, for whom she had already pronounced aversion and distrust.

"You are accepting his support, rather than——"

Kent, alert and diplomatic, stepped forward to prevent the completion of her sentence.

"Your Royal Highness will permit me," he said suavely, " to say that I am trying as best I can to support your brother. I may be of service or not ; but what I have to offer, I give. And at least we are here, together, ready for an effort. "

"And what is more, Eloise," sharply exclaimed Baron Von Hertz, "this is no time for any woman folly of tongue. You'd better be thankful that Karl has got some one back of him that, if I'm not badly mistaken, is going to do things. Hoity-toity! Don't start in to make faces at me! I'm old enough to know a man when I see one. You had better go upstairs to bed. So had all of us. Come on. No foolishness. I'll show you the way. This man—what is that his name is —Kent, has plenty to do in the morning, and I will not let him be bothered by anybody. You just stop any desire to interfere and leave him alone. I'll have my way here. This is my place."

Rebelliously she obeyed, and Kent watched her as she followed the crabbed old man up the grand staircase, while the latter 's voice came back through the deserted halls, querulous, and admon- itory, until it died away. A half hour later he, too, stood alone in a vast room surveying the bed in which he was to sleep, and as he pulled off his shoes and threw them outside the door for much needed attention, he grinned as if secretly pleased with his adventure. His lights were out within fif- teen minutes, but the watchman, wondering, noted that farther along in a room assigned to the young man to whom so much deference was shown, that occupied by His Majesty, Karl II, the lights did not go out and a harassed guest continued to pace, with monotonous insistence, backward and forward in front of the windows on which his shadow was thrown.