Roy Norton--The unknown Mr Kent/Chapter 5
IN the city of Marken, the capital of Marken, early rising might have been a crime. Here was no sordid place so highly fascinated by industry that lights began to glow in workmen's homes before the sun arose. Not thus in Marken! The only ones who opened windows in Marken at dawn were those who, usually with night-caps on their heads, poked the said night-capped heads out to look at the weather, then with all observations necessary for prognostication, shut the windows again and retired to "think it over" for an hour or two. True, if the day happened to be fair and somnolent, the sun, shining in their eyes through some quaint old lattice, or climbing almost boisterously like a second-story burglar into the depths of some high-hung balcony, caused them to arise grumbling. People in Marken always did the same things—came deliberately to the front doors and opened them, walked out into the narrow, cobbled streets, took another look at the weather, yawned, thrust their fingers through their hair, grunted "good morning" to their neighbours, and then sought the kitchen sink to wash their faces. Then, by about nine o'clock, there might be a haze over Marken—a most savoury haze of ethereal, palpitating blue, the blue of a fair dream perfumed; but the perfumed haze in Marken was due to the unanimous habit of fry- ing sausages. The dogs, of which population there was nearly as great a number as of other people, aroused themselves from the doorways, stretched, exchanged neighbourly canine salutations by the customary methods of identification, and then, with noses properly dilated, headed for those places where according to their fixed belief, the sausages grew and might be obtained. Later the children, swarms of them, appeared in the nar- row cobbled streets, accompanied by the dogs, all of them adorned by sausage grease on their chops and an air of contentment. Then, still leisurely, the shop shutters began to come down with creaks, and bangs, and bumps, and portly shopkeepers in their shirt sleeves stood in the shade of their door- ways, leaning more or less heavily on the door- jambs, and smoked, and read their papers, prior to a general assemblage in the streets to discuss the latest news. Periodically they all arose early, it being the most exciting day of each week, mar- ket day. This was due, perhaps, to the fact that the farmers of the immediate country were a quite incomprehensible sort of folk, who were foolish enough to brave miasmatic vapours from the soil and all sorts of unpleasant things, and get up early. Not that this would have made much dif- ference to the good folk of Marken; but that these same foolish farmers invaded the city with a clatter of sabots, a bleating of kids, the braying of donkeys, and much voluble chatter, so that it was quite impossible for any one to sleep.
The storm of the night had completely disap- peared with the dawn and a lazy spring sun busied itself in drying the mud on this particular market day, when some of the more observant arrivals noted with curiosity that for the first time since Karl II had become a king, with vast and delight- ful ceremony, the gates of his palace were closed and two grim and foreign-appearing sentries stood guard beside the main entrance, each square- ly planted in his sentry box as if he had grown there over night like a fungus. And so he had, in truth!
The palace stood on the flat top of a fair hill and was surrounded by a wall. Every good pal- ace has to have one, and all others do not count. Doubtless, in some ancient day, there had been a moat; but this had been filled and turfed. "Where in the time of his august predecessors had been a considerable place d'armes for the drilling of fighting men, Karl II had created a garden of distinguished beauty in which, it was scornfully whispered by the malcontents, he occasionally worked, himself, with pruning shears and spade. He had approached sacrilege by modernizing the palace itself, something criminally undigni- fied, inasmuch as no good palace should have either drains or sanitary contrivances. It makes them too much like other folks' houses, and, somehow, people expect kings to be different from everybody else. Furthermore, as a final proof that he was not fit to be a real king, he tried to pay his debts!
From the palace windows the quaint old city of Marken, red or moss roofed, flowering from win- dow ledges, its streets dotted here and there with colourfully-clad inhabitants, could be scanned as it stretched away on three sides.
From the smaller throne room, by stepping to a balcony, on this morning, a great deal might have been seen; but nobody in the throne room took the trouble. There was much other business to be done, because when a first-class usurper usurps, there are usually several things that re- quire attention. At least that was the opinion of one Baron Provarsk, who, on this gay morning, was, as Kent might have said, "on the job."
The usurper sat in a big chair at the head of a table, the like of which could be seen any day, in any directors' room of any bank in America. Neatly proportioned, middle-sized, carelessly but well clothed, and about thirty-five years of age, he appeared competent. His was rather a handsome, fearless, albeit reckless face, fairly strong, and without trace of any excess. He was more the rapier type of soldier of fortune, than usurpers usually are, and would probably prefer a rapier to a butcher's cleaver. And as far as looks were concerned, Kent afterward said, he "had it on the king."
On the side of the room opposite from the balconied, or garden side, were ornate inner windows looking out upon a corridor, and, proving that the baron proposed to take no chances, there could be seen standing in this generous passageway a file of armed men. As for them, the foreign legion of Africa could not have been more mixed, or mongrel. Apparently the baron had been interested in such of the king's papers and letters as he had been able to find by ransacking the palace. He scanned them hastily, grinning pleasantly now and then. A good usurper displays no more delicacy in nosing into another's palace, than does a cuckoo intent on laying an egg in another's nest.
Provarsk shoved the papers into a heap and picked up several other sheets in his own handwriting, just as a scar-faced man with a scraggly moustache and stubby goatee swaggered into the room and stood opposite his new master.
"I don't see anything to prevent my proclamation being sent to the printing office just as it is," said Provarsk, looking up at his lieutenant, who had become such by recruiting from various foreign sources and drilling Provarsk's army. "Here, Ubaldo, read it. Read it aloud so I can hear how it sounds."
The new commander-in-chief of the army took the paper and after mumbling over a flowery preamble which "Viewed with horror and alarm," read the following: "It having come to my knowledge, fortunately, that the erstwhile sovereign of the free and independent Monarchy of Marken, King Karl II, had practically completed secret plans to borrow in the name of the state a second and larger loan than that with which his suffering subjects were already grievously burdened, I, his cousin by direct descent from the royal Dynasty, Ferdinand Matilda George Wilhelm Ludwig Humberto Provarsk, Baron of the realm, did expostulate with him in the name of the people of Marken, and was rebuffed, and threats made against my person. I therefore gathered for my own protection a few followers, but was astonished, grieved, and humiliated to learn that, presumably some time within the past few days, King Karl II had taken all the available funds in the treasury, all the royal jewels, and with his sister, the Royal Princess Eloise, his Chancellor, the Baron Von Glutz (who apparently is a fellow-participant and partner in his defalcation), and the renegade Captain Paulo, fled to parts unknown. The abdication, to my sincere and lasting grief, is made certain by the fact that the former king and his party are known to have abandoned the sacred soil of our beloved fatherland without legal notice and have been seen on their way to Paris.
"It has therefore become incumbent upon me as one of the hereditary royal family, and as a true patriot, ready to sacrifice himself for the kingdom, to assume at least temporarily the reins of government and to bring chaos from the muddle into which the foolish extravagances and corruptions of the late king and his chancellor have plunged it."
This much Ubaldo obediently read aloud, after which for a time he read to himself, while the baron yawned and drummed the table with his fingers.
"It's all right," said Ubaldo, tossing it back on the table; "but I always like to see them end up some way. Most of those I've helped get up before have something about how the people are to be freed from taxation, work, and all that stuff. Then all of 'em have one of two things at the tag end; they either beseech the dear, faithful subjects and patriots to rest quietly and peacefully until the new ruler, always aided by God Almighty, gets down to the concrete foundations and straightens everything out; or else they warn the damned public to avoid congregating in groups on any public street, showing any lights at night, making any undue disturbances, or speaking above a whisper, on penalty of being shot dead, in- stantly, all their goods and likely womenfolk escheating to the crown."
'Um-m-mh ! That 's so, * ' thoughtfully observed the baron.
"And I should advise the dear-people-keep- quiet stuff and all that," hastily observed Ubaldo, " otherwise we might have a scrap, and ther* might not be enough of us. Also eighteen or twenty of the army signed on as soldiers with the understanding that they wouldn't have to do any fighting, and there aren't more than three that could hit a barn with a shotgun at ten paces distance. * '
Baron Provarsk grinned amiably, and hurriedly wrote another page or two, pausing but once to look up when part of the new army flattened its nose against the panes of the corridor window.
"Pull those curtains across that window so nobody can see in," he growled, irritably. "Also see that handkerchiefs are made part of the regu- lation uniform. Some of your men—er—rather disturb my cultured side."
The new commander-in-chief dutifully obeyed, then disappeared into the hall and swore, painstakingly but fluently, in seven different tongues, while Provarsk completed his manifesto.
"There," he said, as if highly satisfied, when his lieutenant returned. "I've added in the gentle appeal for peace and order. Also I've offered ten thousand pounds for old Von Glutz, dead or alive, five thousand for that fellow Paulo, and stated that we are making indefatigable efforts to recover the loot from the royal absconders and have hopes of getting it."
The new commander-in-chief was making mental calculations.
"About that fifteen thousand pounds——" he said, abstractedly staring at the ceiling. "I didn't know you had found that much on tap. Let me see ! Fifty men, and me getting ten shares makes sixty, and sixty goes into fifteen——"
"You needn't badger your empty skull about that!" angrily remarked the usurper. "There isn't any fifteen thousand that I know of."
"But supposing somebody does catch the chan- cellor or Paulo?"
"Then we'll have the chancellor and Paulo killed in their cells, after which we'll accuse the fellows that claim the reward of murder and have them hanged publicly as proof of how lawful and orderly we are," cheerfully replied the baron. "Besides, either old Von Glutz or Paulo will be hard to catch. They'll not show up until long after I've got so firmly fixed in the saddle that no one will dare try to upset me. I think I shall have this posted on every church and Well, what is it?" he demanded, as a sentry appeared at the door waiting for a word.
"A man to see you, sir, who insists on an im- mediate and private audience. Says you will be glad to see him at once. Here is his card, sir." He advanced and tendered a card which Pro- varsk, scowling with annoyance, took and scanned. His face changed from anger to one of amuse- ment.
"He is right, ' ' he said. " I Ve an idea that this chap and I might do some profitable business to- gether. No one I want to see so much just now. You can bring Mr. Richard Kent, agent for John Rhodes, Esq., up at once."
The sentry saluted and disappeared, and Pro- varsk turned to his lieutenant.
"I want to be left alone and undisturbed when this man comes up," he said, pointedly. When he gets in the room you go outside, shut the door after you, stand guard, to see that no one gets his ear tangled up with a crack in the door, and by the way keep your own away, too. This is going to be private business ! Strictly private ! Under- stand?"
Ubaldo grinned mirthlessly and said orders should be obeyed. Evidently, at a pinch, he stood in considerable awe of his new master; for he was threatening to wax voluble concerning his own sense of discipline when the visitor arrived. His advent was preceded by the persistent thumping of a stick on the tiled floor, by sundry titters and muttered gibes from the guardsmen in the cor- ridor, then by his own voice admonishing, some- what testily, some unseen person to exercise more care and not let him fall.
Provarsk saw an apparently infirm, decrepit and palsied man being half led, half carried into the room by a veritable giant of an attendant, as if the visitor were paralysed from the hips down- ward and could but drag his legs with difficulty.
"You discern my infirmities, sir," said the financial agent, "hence I crave your permission to be seated. In asking such a favour I—Ivan! What are you trying to do? You lumphead! Trying to let me fall and murder me, eh? Big, slow, clumsy lout! I'll get another valet! I will, so help me Bob! I will I"
His voice had risen by degrees to a querulous, irascible scream that ended with, * ' There ! There ! There ! Easy now ! That does it ! Now stand by me with the ammonia. And don't go to sleep if I get faint!"
He settled helplessly into the chair toward which the baron had waved a hand, and panted laboriously as if the exertion had been trying, and seemed startled when the doors leading to the corridor closed with a harsh clicking sound.
"You are Mr. Kent " suavely began Pro- varsk.
"Financial agent for John Rhodes, who loaned this kingdom five million dollars on my advice," the visitor finished the sentence, eyeing the usurp- er at the opposite end of the table.
Provarsk smiled sadly and shook his head, quite with a regretful air, but politely waited for his visitor to proceed.
"Dangerous man, this. Knows how to keep his mouth shut," was Kent's mental measurement. Aloud he said, "I came here in my employer's in- terests and was told at the very gates of the palace that the king had abdicated and that a distin- guished Baron Provarsk now ruled in his stead, or at least was at present the head of the govern- ment."
He paused and watched the baron, who bit his lower lip, tried to keep from frowning, and men- tally swore that he must find out which sentry had been so frank in statement and see that his case was amply attended to.
"I presume, therefore," continued the visitor, "that it is the Baron Provarsk I must interview concerning the state of indebtedness."
"That is true," replied the usurper. "And I am Baron Provarsk. Now that you are made comfortable, perhaps it is as well, considering the confidential nature of our interview, that you dismiss your man for a few minutes, Mr.—ah—" He consulted the card to refresh his memory, "Mr. Kent."
"Quite impossible! Quite impossible! Quite impossible!" declared the agent, resuming some of his former air of irritability. "Can't you see for yourself that he is both hands and feet to me? I'll answer for him. He always goes where I go. Don't mind him. Talk as if he isn't here. He forgets. I pay him for that—and for being dumb. Besides, if he ever said that you said, or that I said, or that anybody ever said anything, at any time, or any place, I'd say he was a liar! All men of affairs deny all interviews and call all reporters liars when it suits their convenience. So they're all liars—everybody's a liar, but you and me."
Provarsk decided that there was quite a lot of wisdom in that speech. It indicated possibilities. Moreover, as it fitted in so closely with his own cynical code, it was up to this money lender to take the responsibility if anything was said that might prove embarrassing.
"As you wish," he said, with a little shrug.
"What I came for, and all that interests me," said the agent, "is to know what provisions the new government proposes to make for the payment of its bonds. They are almost due. I don't care a rap who pays them. All I want is the payment. Money alone does not change. It has no regard for the hand that borrows, spends or pays. It absorbs no personality, no identity. It has neither fealty nor religion. It outlasts kings and cardinals. It is admirable, being steadfastly itself." His eyes were wide and vacant as he rhapsodized; but now they came quickly to another cast and he demanded, "What does the new government of the great sovereign state of Marken intend to do about the bonds held by Mr. John Rhodes?"
The usurper stared straight at him, wondering if there was intentional sarcasm in this money lender's speech, but meeting a stare even steadier than his own, and devoid of anything save enquiry, resolved to continue in diplomacy.
"I am exceedingly sorry, Mr. Kent," he said, with an admirable assumption of regret, "to say that the late king, my cousin Karl, was not—ah! What shall I say to seem kindly yet truthful?—In fact, Karl was anything but a great and farsighted monarch. Indeed, he was a plain, unadulterated ass!"
"It appears so. You are here!" drily observed the American, and again the usurper wondered if there might be a double significance in his words. Patiently, however, he resumed.
"He managed the affairs of the kingdom of Marken very faultily. He was a theorist and a reformer. The Markenite wishes neither theory nor reformation. It is a staid, sober, and self-satisfied nation. It is not the most powerful nor the richest nation in the world; but, such as it is, it is. My unfortunate and lamented cousin did not understand it. It did not understand him. "With the very best of intentions, he failed. Failed because he was not adept, as you and I are, Mr. Kent, in financial affairs."
He waited for an instant for this suggestion to sink in, then, satisfied by the twinkle in his visitor's eyes that it had been fully understood, and being thereby emboldened, proceeded in that same gentle, courteous, well-modulated tone that was quite nearly, if not wholly, ingratiating.
"Owing to this mistaken direction of funds, and failure to realise from resources, it will thereby be necessary, regrettable as it may seem at first sight—and at first sight only, Mr. Kent—that Mr. Rhodes' loan be extended, and also that the state be provided with additional funds that it may redeem not only its original bonds, but all others that follow."
Kent was thoughtfully staring upward, but now dropped his eyes to those of his vis-a-vis.
"Quite so," he said, encouragingly.
"It would be—let us say—profitable, for all concerned." The baron's voice had lowered itself and conveyed much. "It is the business of your superior to lend from his enormous stores of wealth. A man with so much money has but one object, to lend it. You, as his agent, have but one employment, to see that it is lent. Is that not so, Mr. Kent?"
The baron was now leaning eagerly across the big table with a meaning smile, like an angler who sees a coveted trout nosing his bait.
"Quite so," came again the encouraging assent.
"And you, as a most capable agent for the most distinguished financier in the world, perhaps receive, for doing the lion's share, the brainy share, let us say, a commission?"
"You are right about that," declared the American, grinning steadily into the baron's fact and inviting him to come still further.
"Then," said the baron, dropping all pretence and confident of his ground, "what use is there for you and me to ride this merry-go-round any longer? You want money. So do I. Rhodes has it—plenty of it. What commission do you usually make on a loan of five million dollars?"
Kent eyed him in perfect understanding, and pretended a certain amount of caution by throwing a quick glance over his shoulder at Ivan, who, with a face as blank as the wall, stared straight in front of him, and even yawned deliberately, as if infinitely bored by hearing a lot of stuff that he had heard before.
"Suppose I said one per cent?" questioned the American with an air of slyness.
"Then I should say," instantly reciprocated the baron, now fully convinced, "that if you induced John Rhodes to advance another million dollars, you should be entitled to——" He stopped short, got to his feet, rested his palms on the long table and leaned far across, and spoke scarcely above a whisper—"to a bigger commission than you ever had in your life. Enough so that you could re- linquish your difficult and burdensome duties, Mr. Kent, and retire. If you can induce Rhodes to extend the time of the previous bonds five years, and to advance five million francs more for ten years, on the same terms as those preceding, I'll make you an independent man by giving you one million francs. Think of it I A million francs for your own! Is that worth while?"
Kent sat stolidly in his chair, and to all outward appearances considered the proposition.
"But what of Rhodes?" he asked, lifting his eyes, slowly. "What of Rhodes? Does he ever get his money? How will you raise it?"
"Sweat it out of the hands and hides of these citizens of Mark en!" was the emphatic reply, still carried across the desk in that suggestive under- tone.
"And yours ? How much do you get ?"
"I'll get enough. That is not your affair," somewhat stiffly responded the usurper. * ' All that need concern you is that I hope, and think, Rhodes will lose nothing and that you will make a million francs. Also that no one but you and I is ever to know anything about it. It is, after all, a clean deal. You get well paid for your work. I get well paid for my management. Rhodes gets well paid for his advance. "
Again the American made that queer twisting movement and glanced over his shoulder to reas- sure himself that Ivan was still standing behind him. The baron complacently dropped back into his seat, beaming with satisfaction. He accepted the conclusion too speedily, as was evinced by his visitor's next remark. Kent leaned slowly back, rested his hands on his hips and laughed. The usurper frowned at him.
"Hot stuff! Fresh from the bat!" Kent said in his native tongue, then reverted to the language of Marken. "Say, I admire your line of talk ! I do ! You are quite all right ! I rather expected something like this. "Why, I really believe you are trying to bribe me personally, aren't you?"
"Of course I am." The usurper smiled plac- idly. "You had no idea I was sending you out into this cold and cruel world to start an orphans ' home, or a hospital for indigent and decrepit chorus girls, did you? I put no conditions on what you are to do with the money. It's for you."
"Have you ever sold any green goods?" de- manded Kent "If not, you've certainly missed your calling."
The baron failed to understand this literal translation of an unknown swindle; but he sur- mised that his proffer was being ridiculed, and having made his last pitch in this direction, his face hardened and he displayed the real man he was, resourceful, striving for a new hold. He became quite natural, ready to storm his way through, strike, smash under foot, and pass on.
"You jest," he said, unsmilingly. "You think you can play with me. Good! If you don't induce Rhodes to advance another five million francs, I promise you this : that he shall never get a single centime of the money he has already advanced, and that I shall also tell him that you made me take this decision. How does that strike you, Mr. Richard Kent?"
He sat back with an air of triumph, and waited.
"Strike? How does that strike me? Why, very good, Baron, save for this: that I took a few precautions before I came here. In fact, you rather please me, when I recall that you are some- what younger than I and doubtless lacking in experience. I think you might do well on Wall Street, or in a good stiff game of poker. Ever play it? That's too bad! You're ignorant of a lot that we teach school boys, over in America. By the way, have you a telegraph form ? "
Puzzled by this swift speech, and inclined to believe that the difference in national characteris- tics accounted for any balk of agreement, after all, the baron resumed his air of suavity, and threw a blank sheet of paper across the table which Ivan, as if schooled to service, laid in front of his employer, and handed him a pencil.
"You said," remarked Kent, with the pencil poised in his fingers and looking across at the baron, "that if I didn't get Rhodes to advance you five million francs more, you would repudiate the loan?"
"I said it. "
"You don't dare do it!"
"I don't, eh? Try me, Mr. Kent." There was the utmost assurance in his words, but his manner belied them as he watched the American, who painstakingly scrawled a message on the sheet of paper, then, almost carelessly, tossed it along toward Provarsk. It fell short, and Ivan, like an automaton, picked it up and handed it on to its destination. "With a show of nothing more than cursory interest, the baron read it. It was addressed to the foreign minister of Austria and said: "Provarsk, who is now dic- tator of Marken, owing to the abdication of Karl II, repudiates Rhodes loan. The action previously agreed upon between us is now expected and will be responded to as promised. Immediate results will be easy of accomplishment."
(Signed) "Richard Kent, agent for John Rhodes."
The baron read it with an unmoved face.
"Of course," he said, as placidly as if discuss- ing the weather, "I don't understand its mean- ing."
"That's easy to explain," declared the Ameri- can, and there was something in his attitude quite like that of a cat playing with a beetle, or a gen- tleman holding a royal flush while the others con- sider. "Austria has borrowed money, quite a lot of it, and wants more, I might add, from Mr. Rhodes. Funny condition attached to that loan, Baron. Might interest you to know about it. Laughable and unusual, in fact!"
He bent forward and smiled sweetly at the usurper.
"Something like this: that loan was granted and the second request considered, with the pro- viso that if Marken refused to pay that five mil- lion dollars, Austria was to immediately take Itarken and assume the indebtedness."
Provarsk read the message again, and pondered, while gazing at the sheet. Then he laid it on the table, impolitely yawned while holding his finely- shaped hand over his mouth, excused himself and drawled, "That was rather neat of you. All right ! I'll have it sent," and arose to reach for the bell on the far side of the table.
"Just a moment," the American interrupted. " Why are you so willing to destroy Marken, your native state?"
Provarsk laughed heartily.
"Destroy nothing!" he retorted, contemptuous- ly. "I am merely amused at the bewilderment which will be sustained by the Austrian minister on receipt of this message!"
The American continued to watch him unmoved. The baron, indicating that he would no longer dally with a situation over which he had control, sharply rapped his knuckles on the outspread message and said, insolently, "This is what your countrymen call a bluff! You know it. I'll let you know a little more. It doesn't in the least in- fluence me. You can send it if you wish. I don't care! Furthermore, this twaddle about destroy- ing the country makes me laugh. Rubbish ! Sheer rubbish! When addressed to a man who has seized a throne and who thereby stakes not only his fortunes but his life on the result and his ability to maintain himself. I don't care much more about this country than you do, and you may as well know that, too. " "Give me the message," Kent said.
The usurper thrust it across toward him, facili- tated its passage by blowing it sharply with his pursed lips, and then calmly sat down. Kent took it, twisted it into a knot, and with thumb and finger flipped it into the air. For a moment they looked at each other, Provarsk alert and with in- creasing insolence, the American humorously, and secretly pleased.
""Why, do you know," he said suddenly, almost as if speaking to himself and expecting no reply, "you are a lot more interesting and much smarter than I gave you credit for being? Somehow or another, though, I don't believe you are going to put it through. You don't dare to ruin a kingdom. You've called my bluff and now I call yours !"
The baron sneered.
"Don't dare to carry it out to the end, you mean? Try me!"
"Perhaps I shall. That depends. Yes, I rather think I will."
"That old saw about possession being nine- tenths, you know, Mr. Kent?" The baron now spoke with painful gentility.
"That being the case, I suppose I may as well go," replied the American.
"Oh, I shouldn't be in too big a hurry," the usurper said, with a meaning grin that did not extend above his lips. "I'm afraid, Mr. Richard Kent, agent for John Rhodes, that you shall not make your departure from this palace until you have induced your employer to advance the additional loan. Needless to add that, under these new conditions, you can scarcely expect any commission whatever."
The American did not appear disturbed; yet there was a peculiar watchfulness in his manner.
"Humph! You don't dare to detain me," he said.
"Don't dare to detain you? That's a joke. Don't dare? I dare not only to detain you, but, in case this money lending, penny scraping master of yours doesn't advance, I dare to have both you and that stupid dummy behind you shot and put nicely out of the way."
If he had expected to frighten his visitor, he must have been disappointed; for the latter grinned with the utmost contempt directly across at him and then chuckled deep in his throat.
"You're not half the man I thought you," he said, jeeringly. "I'm quite disappointed in you, to tell the truth. Dare? Why, you wouldn't dare do anything. It's a pity. You had me respecting you as a pretty fair gamester; but this last lot about detaining me, brigand and ransom stuff, cheap melodrama, really hurts me! Call in one of those louts outside, and, by an exchange, take your proper place. You and your mob are, after all, a lot of penny whistles squeaking thinly in a country lane."
There was everything of studied insult in his tone, his look, the play of his hands as he spoke, and the baron, surprised, upset, angered, and tired by his long hours of excitement, responded as the American wished and lost his temper, and jumped to his feet in a fury. Unnoted by him, the American had given an odd signal across his shoulders by curiously twisting his fingers and waving them, and, expectant and watchful, Ivan had observed and slowly, cautiously, edged around the table side to his employer's elbow. Now he came, inch by inch, a little farther, to a position where he could fix his eyes on Kent's lips. The baron, resolved to exert his authority, came around the corner and reached for the bell. Kent's lips moved noiselessly, although he sat still.
"Now! Ivan! Get him! Quickly!" he said, and the giant whirled and leaped even as the baron's fingers were within an inch of the bell that would summon assistance. One of Ivan's huge hands was clasped over the usurper's mouth, the fingers seeming bent on crushing the lower part of the baron's face, while he threw his other arm completely around him, pinioned him and lifted him from the floor as if he were but a combative boy in weight and strength. He bent him back across the table roughly, then slammed him down on the top of it with such force that the baron's breath was almost churned from his body; then, swiftly releasing his arm from around the baron's body, he lifted himself on one tip-toe and planted a heavy knee in the pit of the baron's stomach, while the other hand shot to the usurper's throat and threatened by main strength to crush the bones of his victim's neck. The baron's eyes protruded and he began to struggle feebly.
Kent rushed to Ivan's side and attracted his attention by tapping him, smartly on the should- ers with his knuckles. Ivan, without relaxing his hold, looked at his employer's lips.
"Don't kill him! For heaven's sake, don't kill him!" Kent muttered.
"I've got to choke his teeth loose. He has set them in the palm of my hand," the giant replied; but was saved from executing the baron, who at that moment dropped back inert, his face purple, and his eyes dazed with threatened unconscious- ness. Unnoted by either Kent or the baron, an automobile horn had been tooting lustily outside, its mellow notes playing a trumpet tune that swept vigorously through the open windows. Again it sounded and Kent threw his head up and listened.
"What can that mean!" he voiced aloud, forget- ting that Ivan could not hear. "That is one of the royal automobiles, because no others are allowed to carry such horns!"
It did not sound again and the baron was begin- ning to recover his senses and anger; although now the latter was curiously intermingled with respect, if not fear. Kent stood over him per- fectly calm and self-possesesd.
"Listen, Provarsk," he said, "and make no mistake. My man and I may have trouble get- ting you out of here; but of one feature rest as- sured. If any of your sentries come in to take us, or to help you, they will find a dead leader on this table!"
An almost sly smile shifted the grim outlines of his mouth, as he added, speaking entirely for the baron's ears, and well aware that Ivan, watching his prisoner, could not take the order, "Ivan, if the baron opens his mouth to call for help, or makes any attempt to reach that bell, kill him instantly by breaking his neck across the edge of the table. If you prefer, you may cut his head off with that knife on your hip, but make no noise. Do it quickly, and surely."
He saw that Provarsk was impressed with his peril but also saw a sudden gleam of exultation leap into his eyes at the sound which now became audible throughout the corridor, a sound of com- motion and a woman's voice raised to an indig- nant pitch of determination. "How dare you attempt to block my way?" it demanded. "Who are you and your scrapheap band of adventurers to attempt to keep me from coming into my own palace ? "
"But, but, Madame!" they heard the voice of Ubaldo protesting.
"I am not Madame. I am Her Royal Highness the Princess Eloise, and I am going to see and talk to Baron Provarsk, no matter who interferes. Out of my way!"
"That's the bird the baron wanted us to make sure of last night, Captain," another voice, coarse and heavy, called out. "Better let her go in. He'll be glad to see her."
"But the princess does not understand that my orders are "
It was evident that Ubaldo was retreating in front of her up the corridor toward the entrance to the throne room, and that she was steadily ad- vancing, bravely and impetuously intent on con- fronting the usurper. Kent's face hardened. He thrust his hand into his pocket, brought out a heavy automatic pistol, slipped the safety catch off with hands that did not tremble, and planted himself just inside the door. Ivan, obedient to previous understanding that, no matter what occurred after they were in the pal- ace, Provarsk was to be his especial charge, held the usurper down with the steadiness of a stone man. The noise in the corridor increased, making it plain that the guard, highly entertained, had fal- len into the Princess' wake. They heard her turn on them.
"What do you mean by following after and annoying me?" she questioned, angrily.
Ubaldo, anxious to find some means of extri- cating himself from a ridiculous position, bawled, "The princess is right! Halt, you men! Fall in! Stand at attention!"
There was a quick shuffling of feet as the guardsmen obeyed.
"Now, Your Royal Highness, if you still in- sist, I will announce you."
"No, you won't!" she said. "All you can do is to stand to one side. I'll announce myself!"
That she gained her way was evident by her entrance, as she swung one of the doors open and, with white cheeks and blazing eyes, stepped inside. Instantly the American closed it behind her. At the sound of the closing door she turned appre- hensively like one entrapped, but both fear and anger gave way to astonishment as she grasped the signs of struggle that were before her, the American with pistol in hand, and on the table the discomfited usurper intently watched by the giant, who did not so much as glance up at her entrance.
"What—what is the meaning of this?" she faltered, all her own resolutions upset by the strangeness of the tableau.
Provarsk dumbly rolled his eyes toward her, but it was Kent who replied.
"It means that the princess has arrived at a most inopportune moment," he said, coldly. "I left positive instructions that neither you, nor any one else, was to interfere with my plans."
"And my brother took orders from you," she said, sarcasm in her reflexion. "And I told him that if there was no man of our house who dared to face this upstart baron, I would do it myself and alone ! "
A reluctant approval of her bravery shone in his grim, resolute face.
"How could my brother know, " she demanded, as her temper again came uppermost, "that the agent of John Rhodes, who seeks his pound of flesh and nothing more, would not come here and ally himself with this adventurer?"
"I am not without honour," Kent answered, quietly and with a fine dignity of his own. " The situation as you find it is sufficient proof."
She hesitated, bit her lip, and looked back at the other participants in this outré scene into which she had recklessly forced her way. The proof of Kent's fidelity to her house was palpable in that restrained and desperate figure stretched out and held relentlessly by the silent giant, and by the American's readiness to defend her against the squalid band outside.
"You have impugned my motives before," his cold, restrained voice again broke in, and with a quality that she could not misinterpret. "But you have now interfered, seriously, in an emer- gency whose difficulties are increased by your presence. You have jeopardised our chances; so you shall and must obey what I am going to tell you."
"Must and shall!"
For an instant they eyed each other, and then, frightened by his very domination and strength, she felt suddenly disturbed.
"Come," he said, "we have no time to quibble. If you value your life, or your brother's posses- sion of the throne, you will do precisely as I tell you. If this can not be accomplished with your friendship as an aid, it shall, nevertheless, be ac- complished. I expect you to obey, implicitly! It is our only chance."
Overawed by his determined pose, she bowed her head, in enforced assent. He stepped across to the side of the table, touched Ivan on the arm, and gestured for him to release their prisoner.
"Get up, Provarsk!" the American curtly or- dered, and as the baron stiffly descended from the table and began with nervous fingers to rearrange his disordered cravat, Kent glanced swiftly at Ivan to assure himself that the latter 's gaze was fixed on his lips. He spoke slowly, distinctly, and with forceful quietness, addressing himself to the baron but with his head slightly turned that the giant might read.
"Provarsk, you and I are going out of this room and through that corridor, arm-in-arm, while you apparently assist me in a friendly fashion. Ivan will support me on the opposite side, be- cause my arms will be crossed, the one on your side being beneath my coat. You will support me with your left side toward me, my gentle friend, for a definite reason."
He grinned and paused to give his words effect.
"That reason being, as you may have surmised, that every foot of the way the hand beneath my coat will be pressing this gun against your heart, and that if you even falter, attempt to break loose, or give the slightest alarm, I '11 kill you as remorse- lessly as I would a snake. Our peaceful progress is the only way by which you have the remotest chance of being alive fifteen minutes from now. If we are compelled to fight our way out, it will be after your dead carcass is left behind on the corridor tiles. Make no mistake concerning my determination and ability to carry this through. This time there is no bluff."
Terrified by the possibilities of tragedy before her eyes, the princess asked in an awed whisper, "What do you intend to do with him?"
"If he lives through the next few. minutes, I shall take him to the automobile waiting there in the street, and kidnap him. After the king has returned to his throne, we shall see! Probably I shall permit him to live. That depends entirely on his behaviour. I expect you to play your part well."
He turned to the baron with a scowl on his face.
"Now!" he said. "This, as sure as you're alive, is a moment of fate for you. Also, lest any of your fool guard might suspect, you must pretend to engage me in friendly conversation. The friendlier the better, my lad, for I shall listen earnestly to that pleasant discourse that I expect to fall from your lips. I have observed that you can talk rather well, on occasion. Open the doors, Princess Eloise, and pass out. You know the way."
Right royally she obeyed, nerving herself to a direct and unfaltering progress. Her pale, clean- ly-cut face, the haughty carriage of her finely poised head, and her deliberate, graceful stride proclaimed her the royal princess in truth. So far as any nervous betrayal was concerned, she might have been leading the way to some affair of state. She stared with cool contempt at the little guard of adventurers who stood at stiff attention against the corridor walls.
Provarsk felt the strength of the rigid arm that clasped his own against the American's side, and the rigid pressure beneath it of the firmly- held steel tube. Any doubts he had relative to the helplessness of his position were confirmed. Any hope he cherished of escape was subdued by the fear and certainty of death, imminent, ready, and inexorable; for now, to increase his discom- fiture, the hobbling, dragging man, a picture of physical incapacity, had bent a trifle forward and turned his gaze upward that he might watch even the expression of his prisoner's face. The surrep- titious wink of an eye would, Provarsk felt, be as fatal as a shrill scream.
"Ah! My dear Baron, you were saying ?"
He writhed mentally at the sound of the high, querulous, assumed voice, and hastened to reply when he felt the pressure of the pistol's muzzle harshly increased against his ribs.
"I was saying," he replied, with cool, untrem- bling bravado, "that we can finally rearrange our affairs at a later date. At present, of course, you have the best of it."
"Decidedly! Decidedly!" croaked the visitor. "And there is nothing I love better than a man who tries to balance his obligations. But I trust, my dear Baron Provarsk, that the cares of state which now burden you will soon be over with."
The usurper's face flushed red, but he controlled himself to pass the crisis. This American had taunted him, and played with him in the moment when disaster had overtaken his plans—but what- ever else he was, Provarsk was a good sports- man, and, somehow, the humour of the situation, even in this time of stress, appealed. He broke into a cynical laugh that echoed through the cor- ridors and convinced the wondering Ubaldo that there was nothing covert in the situation. The lat- ter even grinned and winked at his comrades after the procession disappeared and declared, "Trust him! He's a fox! Already he has that dodder- ing old ass just where he wants him. Now you fellows can take a rest!"
The two sentries on guard in the gaily painted sentry boxes outside the palace gates decided, when they saw the princess, who had almost forced her way into the palace, reappear and enter her car, that they had done well to admit her; for surely that great leader, Baron Provarsk, whom they had assisted to the throne, talked most gaily when he drove away in the second car with the high-voiced, cackling old man who still clung to him in a most friendly manner. The only diffi- culty about a revolution, after all, the sentries decided, was that it robbed the invaders of enough sleep, and thereupon they yawned widely and tried once more to interest themselves in the appearance of the villagers and farmers who passed leisurely with baskets and fowls, totally unaware that they were in the midst of a revolt.