Roy Norton--The unknown Mr Kent/Chapter 9
IT was the morning of the day in which the announcements were to be made to the citizens of Marken that they had been conscripted for something far worse than war, namely work. Early in the day, as Kent had foreseen, Marken began to fill not only with those of the classes called, but with members of all other classes. Peasants, chattering volubly, poured into the capital, some on foot, others in carts, and all gaily clad in their best garb. There was an expectant and serious air pervading everything, the people themselves, the quiet old palace, the very trees of the streets and the flowers that lent colour to window sills and tiny patches of open gardens. The American was early at his desk, and was never more methodical and energetic. This he recognised as a crisis. People, he knew, could be asked to go to war and would go cheering; but to ask them to go to work was an entirely different and more serious request. They might rebel. All that foresight could suggest had been done. The standing army, the first and second reserves, had all been called out and posted in various places where trouble might occur, and Baron Von Glutz, faithful to orders and ever willing to do his best, had puffed, and sweated, and bellowed commands that all might be prepared to quell disorder.
Noon was the hour fixed, but already the town was filled. At noon they were to be told the worst!
Kent, referring to the lists on his littered desk, was jotting down figures, with an air of satisfaction, as if to reassure himself that he had made no mistakes in his estimates.
"A and B to the mines," he murmured. "That fixes them up. C men are carpenters and brick and stone layers, and there's enough of them to care for all constructions. And there are enough F men, all machinists, to look after the plants. Yes, that leaves plenty of common labourers for the quarries. Must call them up next."
From the window overlooking the palace gardens came the voice of Ivan: "The chancellor and his friend, the banker Wimplehurst, are walking in the gardens together," he said, and turned to Kent to see the effect of his words.
"By Jove! Is that so? I've been rather bothered about our friend the chancellor in the last few weeks," Kent said. "He's so uncommonly bright that I haven't been able to get a line on him."
He got up and came to the side of the window, caught the curtains in his hand to shield himself from possible observation and looked through the meshes.
"Wonder what in the deuce that rascal has on hand now? It's something. Otherwise he wouldn't have selected the garden for the meeting. No place like a garden or a crowded street to keep from being overheard. He's afraid that walls have ears like an elephant's. And so they have; under my especial provision," he added with grim humour.
He suddenly turned and hastened to his desk, pulled open a drawer and handed a pair of binocu- lars to Ivan.
"Keep out of sight and tell me what they say," he ordered, after which he returned to his desk and quietly lounged over its corner with folded arms.
Ivan grinned, adjusted the glasses, focussed them at a conveniently thin place in the curtain design and began talking, disjointedly, as if to himself.
"Wish I could open these curtains. They bother me when there's two hundred yards between us. Hard to read the lips unless they turn this way. Ah! They've stopped and I can see them both. Lucky that the banker is smooth-shaven and speaks distinctly."
He paused for a moment as if picking up the thread of conversation that was being unwound across the wide, intervening space.
"It seems that Provarsk has arranged with the banker to get together a certain number of men to create a disturbance when the announce- ments are made. Provarsk thinks enough fuss can be raised to stop your conscription scheme. The banker doesn't want it to go as far as open revolt. Provarsk laughs. Says what if it does. Banker says that part is up to Provarsk. Pro- varsk hopes that the centre of unrest and objection being the capital, it will spread out into the coun- try. Says he knows your affairs are critical, and that if you are beaten in this, you'll either have to give up or try something else. Banker's men are to be posted around different spots in the Market Place. Provarsk wants to know how they are to act unitedly. Banker says he will get up close to the stand where the announcement is to be read, then, when he thinks time is right, will get up and give signal. That immediately a riot will start. Says all his men know one another by a red cockade in the left buttonhole. Provarsk wants to know if the banker followed his instruc- tions and confined his efforts to Marken, because he thinks concentration here is important. Banker says yes, all are to be at Market Place. Banker says had to pay men four dollars each in advance. Wants Provarsk to pay him back. Provarsk smoothing banker down with promises. Tells him he's to be Minister of Treasury some day and not too many questions asked. Banker appears satisfied. The baron has an idea "
He was interrupted by Kent, who had arisen, walked behind him and now took the glasses from his hand and said, " Never mind the remainder. I've only got an hour in which to move. Go and get Paulo and bring him back with you on the jump ! And, hold on a minute ! As you go out to get him, order my car brought around and kept in waiting at the private door. Also, as soon as you've brought Paulo here, don't wait, but skip over to your room and arm yourself, and bring a gun for me. Just as well be prepared. Hurry, Ivan! We've got quite an uncertain job."
After Ivan had rushed from the room, he daw- dled back toward his desk, stood above it for a moment, carefully sorted the lists and papers, and then, with hands in trousers' pockets, sat on the corner, swung his leg, and carelessly hummed a tune as if perfectly satisfied with all things. Only his eyes betrayed any excitement, and they danced as happily as those of a boy just starting on some wild adventure. But when Paulo, eager to be of service to this leader whom he trusted and ad- mired, came through the door, he lost no time in beckoning him to his private office where he leaned forward and mumbled hasty instructions, checkchecking them off on his finger-tips, and having them recapitulated to make certain of their intelligent understanding. He was quite gleeful when Paulo ran from the room, calling back, "Leave it to me, Mr. Kent. You can depend on me."
He consulted his watch, saw that it lacked but half an hour of noon, and locked his desk and twirled the knob of his private safe. He clapped his hat on his head, and whistled merrily as he closed the office door after telling his secretary that he would not return until late in the afternoon. He was exactly like any other American business man as he walked alertly to his waiting car, smiled at Ivan, and told the driver, another man on whom he could depend, to make his way to the Market Place. He lighted a cigar and puffed it vigorously as the car swung out of the palace gates and with shrill warnings made its way toward the centre of that day's attraction.
In the outskirts of the crowd the car was stopped by an officer who, on seeing the palace uniform worn by the driver, was prepared to give the car right of way. The American dismounted.
"Permit this car to stand here at the side where we can reach it when we return," he said. "Clear a way and conduct my man and me to the platform where the announcement is to be made. I am on the king's business."
"I recognised you, sir," said the officer fully, and at once called to two of his men and began conducting them forward. The crowd swayed, commented, and drew back leaving a free lane down which they pasesd. Gay it appeared with all the colours of the rainbow, a strange motley of gorgeous hues now that the holiday cos- tume was donned. Under their feet the rounded cobbles, polished by many feet for many ages, were littered with broken flowers, tinsel from sweet- meats and confetti. Any great gathering in Marken betokened a holiday, sacred or secular, and habit could not be overcome in a day. At the foot of a grey old tower whose clock, daintily veiled with ivy, stared down at the assemblage, a stand had been erected; for here, from time im- memorial, had been read the king's commands. It was always the same scene. First the waiting crowd, then the king's heralds brilliantly clad, the shrilling of silver trumpets, the silence, some- times murmuring, sometimes breathless and ex- pectant, as befitted the gravity of the situation, while some person of state shouted in long-drawn, deliberate tones the king's decree. Always it closed with the same statement, that confirmation would be found on the printed announcements hereafter to issue and "God Save the King!" Sometimes they had approved. Sometimes they had looked at one another sullenly, or humorously, and asked what God should save him for, being a little in doubt on that point, and finding no sufficient reason of their own. Legend said that away back in distant times, some of their kings, a very few, being those who could read, had in person bawled their own decrees. But that had been a long time ago, and — well — the ways of God's anointed were sometimes incomprehensible to those of meeker mould. An unexpurgated history, now suppressed, declared that Ferdinand First while addressing his loyal subjects had fallen over the platform rail because at the time he happened to be drunk; but none dared criticise a king lest, being God's chosen, one commit sacrilege. It was too much like scratching one's head when reading the Poet Laureate's poem dedicated to "Princess Ann Elize on Her Sixteenth Birthday," which called her fairer and more divine than all the angels ever before loaned direct from Heaven, when one who had seen her knew that she had a face like an oyster shell, with a pendent lower lip, and drooled when, straining her intelligence to its limit, she talked about the weather.
Kent reached the platform and saw one of his own men there, clad as a king's crier. The man looked like a cross between haughtiness and an attack of fever and ague. Kent thanked the officer, climbed to a back seat on the tiny platform and stared over the crowd below. He observed, with satisfaction, that here and there in this crowd there were tiny swirls and lanes like those of cross currents in a sluggish stream, and that every now and then an automobile at the extreme edge of the pool appeared to have been granted a bur- den, and dexterously whirled away.
A gun boomed from an old fortress that stood sentry above the market place. The old clock in the tower began a ringing of cracked and ancient chimes. A wooden crusader clumsily carved, and riding a clumsily carved figure presumed to rep- resent a horse, went rocking around a circle with creaking jerks, met a similar wooden monstrosity, passed from sight, and a toy rooster opened a door and crowed as if to impress those below with the fact that he had a serious bronchial affection, or had lost part of his crow. Another effigy sup- posed to carry the colours of Marken creaked around the circle, and the official announcer got to his feet, and made his way to the front of the platform.
"In the name of his gracious majesty, Karl II, King of Marken, Duke of the Trentheim, Baron of the Oberwald," etc., etc., he announced and began reading the decree, which, stripped of the whereases and wherefores and constant references to Divine Eight, bluntly told the citizens of Mar- ken the appalling truth that they would have to go to work.
In the horrified silence it was explained that a state form of conscription had been evolved, not for the purpose of bearing arms, but that work- ers might be obtained for the conduct of various state enterprises, the profit therefrom to be de- rived by the state and applied to the payment of its debts and upkeep ; that ultimately the citizens themselves would receive that profit after the state debts had been paid, and that the new form of taxation, that imposed by the work of their hands, would abrogate all others. Furthermore, it was announced that certain factories and public utili- ties were to be commandeered and in future op- erated by the government acting over and legiti- mately protecting the original owners. The voice of the announcer closed with its "God Save the King," and he took his seat.
There had been attentive silence while he read. Out there in the clear noon, under the clear blue sky, the Markenites listened, and struggled to comprehend. And then an abrupt murmur arose to become in a moment a roar, and the American sitting stolidly and listening attentively, caught an undernote that threatened anger; so without a moment's hesitation threw himself forward to stem the tide before it got beyond control. He signalled to the trumpeters and shouted, "Blow I Throw your lungs into it! Quickly! Blow!"
Obediently the two men trumpeted for atten- tion. Kent had jumped across the platform and shouted into the announcer's ear: "Tell them the king has sent his agent to explain what the new conscription amounts to!"
In his gorgeous uniform the announcer again stepped to the front between the trumpeters, ges- tured them to stop and raised his hand for silence. "Hear Ye! Hear Ye!" he called, and paused until the silence was absolute. "That His People may understand, His Majesty the King has sent to you his personal agent to explain more fully than could be done by royal decree the objects and effects of the new law. Give heed to the king's mouthpiece!"
Kent came forward and studied his audience, that waited ominously.
"Listen to the king's desire," he said, in his big, resonant voice that swept over their heada and through the Market Place. "His Majesty has but one wish, to make Marken and Markenites respected and prosperous. He wishes to make the title of Markenite, all over the world, a proud synonym for honesty, industry, and prosperity."
He paused a moment with his shrewd senses alert, and decided that he was on the wrong track when he tried to arouse them to patriotism. In- stantly his facile imagination adopted another course, and a momentary sneer flickered over his lips as he shifted to demagoguery, the fine old method used from the days of Borne to the days of the present, forever effective, and invariably ephemeral, but potent for a crisis such as this.
"The king has studied the situation. He be- lieves that the poor are getting poorer and the rich richer, and that the great throbbing honest frame of mankind is about to be crucified on a cross of gold! Down with the trusts! Give the honest, horny-handed son of toil a chance! One man is as good as another and better. E Pluribus Unum! Multum in Parvo! Who is to blame? said His Majesty the King, after years of study. And then like seeing a great white light he under- stood. It was because these who had riches no longer worked but devoted themselves to idle lux- ury and looked down upon the real Markenites, those who, with rugged arms, sweat-stained brows, and hopeless eyes looked up to the Heavens and cried in patient agony, 'How long, Oh, Lord, how long!' Ground beneath the heel of the octopus wealth those who had nothing saw about them many who had much, but saw no way of getting any of it. 'Many of my beloved people,' said the king, * produce nothing and will not work with their hands, whilst their brothers till the fields from rooster crow to nightingale's song for a mere pittance. I want,' said the king the great sor- rowing king of this imperial realm, * to know that the workingman's dinner pail is full!' That is what he said." He paused and saw with satisfaction that his words were having effect. He went them one bet- ter. He lowered his voice to a tone of pathos, rolled his eyes upward, shook his hands up at the clear blue sky and said in a still more impressive silence, "I would that you could have seen that great king that governs us all, Karl the Second, whose name shall pass down through all ages, im- mortal, enshrined in the tender memories of men, as he stood with great pitiful eyes suffused with unshed tears and cried, ' The salvation of my peo- ple lies in that simple thing, the full dinner pail ! And that this may come about there is but one way, that all men shall work, produce, develop, and do their share. The richer the plutocrat, the more he should do. The poorer the man, the more op- portunity he should have to become independent among his fellows. Therefore each and all shall work as his or their abilities seem fitted. There shall be no more starvation wages. Some wages shall be increased by the hundred fold, and others in proportion. The man who now earns but a kroner a day shall have two kroners. The rich man shall work with his brothers and actually earn the same.' Thus spoke His Majesty. The gra- cious king will see that work is forthcoming, and the gracious king will see that no one in all this broad land shall go hungry to his humble couch whilst others who have heretofore prospered beyond their deserts, shall with full bellies rest between silken sheets."
He paused dramatically, and lifted his hands above his head, crossed in a peculiar manner, and instantly a wild cheer broke out that began in a singularly scattered way, but was so insistent that the people themselves took it up at last and roared loudly, "God Save the King! Long live the King!"
Kent, discerning the same sort of frenzy that prevails alike in negro camp-meetings and Madi- son Square political meetings, where individuals yell and shriek principally because the men on either side are setting the example, played another fine old oratorical trick by furiously bawling for silence and gesturing appeals, polite requests, and commands.
"No man dares speak against the king's wish," he roared, as if intent on being heard by some one across the Atlantic ocean, "because his intelligent and wise fellows will understand, at once, that such an objector is a disgrace to the name of man- hood, an obstructor to progress, a rebel at heart, and, worst of all, one who would trample under foot the grand and noble flag of labour, that sacred standard that has been followed, defended and died for since time began, that symbolises the glory of honest toil!"
Again he made that peculiar gesture, and this time the cheers were hysterical in volume and min- gled with them was the roar of firearms as a group of soldiers stationed at the side of the Market Place, in obedience to a command from their offi- cer, fired a blank salvo in the air. A man sta- tioned in the tower banged the cracked bells and lashed them up to a fine imitation of joy. Men and women hugged one another. Dogs howled. Children shrieked with excitement, and the quaint old buildings surrounding the Market Place rocked and trembled with the universal ecstasy that intoxicated the Markenites now that they had been plainly told what a wonderful king was this that had come to lead them to universal riches, and, therefore, to such a state of plenty that they could buy anything in sight, eat the best there was to be had and patiently look forward to an earthly paradise where nobody at all had any work what- ever to do.
The King's Remembrancer turned and winked slyly at Ivan and voiced silently the cryptic re- marks made by many another renowned orator, when closing a successful campaign speech, " Guess that'll hold them for a little while. Come on! Let's beat it!"
Like a stern conqueror, with head erect and steady eyes he moved slowly through the lane that opened wide to give him egress. He seemed not to hear the shouts of approval, or the cheers of those who paid him adulation as the one who had spoken for the king. Only once he halted in this triumphal progress, when his eyes fell on a puffed-up and self-important contractor with whom he had become acquainted and whom he thoroughly detested for his garrulity. To him he extended his hand and spoke. The little man swelled visibly at being thus recognised by the great man, and was gratified that so many could see this evidence of friendship.
"The people understand," murmured Kent, confidentially. "The king told me they would, because he could always trust to their good sense; but His Excellency, the Chancellor, will be furious; because you see he wanted the king to lower all wages, and not compel any of the rich ones to work. The chancellor, born to a golden spoon, I am afraid hates the honest sons of toil. Trust the king to set him in his place if he goes too far!"
He gave a lugubrious shake of his head, again shook hands very warmly and hastened onward.
"One for you, Provarsk," he said to himself. "Before I've got out of this square that fat gas bag will pass it around with exaggeration and my worthy little chancellor won't dare travel without a guard for some time, I reckon. Hope they don't catch him and hang him on sight!"