The Island Mystery/Chapter 2
KONRAD KARL II began to reign over Megalia in 1908. He obtained the throne through the good offices of his uncle, who wanted to get rid of him. Konrad Karl, at that time prince, was the hero of several first-rate scandals, and had the reputation of being the most irrepressible blackguard of royal blood in all Europe. He was a perpetual source of trouble in the Imperial Court. Gorman says that the Emperor pushed him on to the vacant throne in the hopes that the Megalians would assassinate him. They generally did assassinate their kings, and would no doubt have cut the throat of Konrad Karl II if he had not left the country hurriedly after reigning two years.
As king in exile Konrad Karl made a tour of the central European courts, staying as long as he could in each. He was never allowed to stay very long because of Madame Corinne Ypsilante. This lady had shared with him the palace, but not the throne, of Megalia. She accompanied him in his flight and subsequent wanderings. In these democratic days Grand Dukes, Kings, and even Emperors, must have some regard for appearances if they wish to keep their positions. It is painfully necessary to avoid open and flagrant scandal. Madame Corinne was a lady who showed wherever she was. It was impossible to conceal her. Konrad Karl did not even try.
Some time in 1912 or 1913 he arrived, still accompanied by Madame, in London. His reputation, and hers, had preceded him. English society did not receive him warmly. He occupied a suite of rooms at Beaufort’s, the expensive and luxurious hotel which is the London home of foreign royalties and American millionaires. Kings, I suppose, can hold out longer than ordinary men without paying their bills. Konrad Karl was in low water financially. His private fortune was small. Madame Corinne had no money of her own, though she had jewels. Perhaps Mr. Beaufort—if the proprietor of the hotel is indeed a Mr. Beaufort—makes enough money out of the millionaires to enable him to entertain impecunious kings.
My friend Gorman made the acquaintance of Konrad Karl early in 1913. Gorman is a man who lives comfortably, very much more comfortably than he could if he had no resources except the beggarly £400 a year which his country pays him as a reward for his popularity with the people of Upper Offaly. He makes money in various ways. His journalistic work brings him in a few hundreds a year. Enterprises of a commercial or financial kind add very considerably to his income. In 1913 he was interested in the Near Eastern Winegrowers’ Association, a limited liability company which aimed at making money by persuading the British public to drink Greek wine. He heard of Konrad Karl, and at once invited that monarch to become one of the directors of the company. Konrad Karl was not a Greek, and his country did not produce wine which any one except a Megalian could drink. His value to Gorman lay in the fact that there was not another limited liability company in all England which had a King on its Board of Directors.
One of the least objectionable of the wines which Gorman’s company sold was put on the market as Vino Regalis. The advertisements hinted without actually stating that the King had succeeded in carrying off a thousand dozen bottles of this wine out of the royal cellars when he fled from his subjects in Megalia. The bottles in which Vino Regalis was sold had yards of gold foil wrapped round their necks. They were in their way quite as splendid and obtrusive as Madame Corinne was in hers. I always think that Gorman must have had the lady before his eyes when he arranged the get-up of that wine.
The company prospered for a while, until the public became aware of the quality of the wine sold. Then came a collapse. But Gorman did pretty well out of it. The King also did pretty well. He drew fees as a director, a special honorarium in recognition of the value of his title, and his share of the profits. The profits were large, but he spent all he got as he received it. Madame Corinne is an expensive lady, and the King was just as badly off after the collapse of the company as he had been before he became a director. He consulted Gorman about his future. This was a very wise thing to do. Gorman probably knows more ways of making money than any man in London.
The consultation—the true starting point of the story of the Island of Salissa—took place in one of the King’s rooms in Beaufort’s. Madame Corinne was not there. She had, I think, gone to the opera. Gorman and the King dined well, as men do who can command the services of the chef at Beaufort’s. The wine they drank was not Vino Regalis. After dinner they sat in front of a fire. Brandy and coffee were on a small table set between their chairs. They smoked large and excellent cigars.
“My friend,” said the King, “I find myself in a tight place. I am, as the English say, broke like a stone.”
The King prided himself on his mastery of that esoteric English by which the members of various sets, smart, sporting and other, conceal the meaning of what they say from outsiders, especially from foreigners who have acquired their knowledge of our language by painful study of dictionaries and grammars.
“Since the wine company went on the burst,” said the King, “I have not a stiver, not a red cent, not in all my pockets the price of one damned drink.”
“If I might venture to advise you, sir,” said Gorman.
“Advise? Certainly advise. But drop or, as you say in England, knock up calling me ‘sir.’ I am no longer a king. I resign. I abdicate. I chuck up the sponge of royalty. What the hell, my dear Gorman, is the good of being a king when there are no shekels?”
“I shouldn’t do that if I were you,” said Gorman. “After all, royalty is an asset. A title like that—kings aren’t at all common, you know—is worth money in the market.”
The King drank a glass of brandy with an air of great dejection.
“In what market? Who will buy?”
“Well,” said Gorman, “I suppose you might marry. There must be lots of wealthy girls who would like to be called queen.”
The King leaned forward and smacked Gorman heartily on the knee.
“You have hit the business end of the nail,” he said. “I am ready. I shall marry. Produce the lady, or, as you say in England, cough her up.”
Gorman had not expected this prompt and enthusiastic approval of his suggestion. He had not a list of heiresses in his pocket.
“But,” he said, “there’s Madame Ypsilante.”
“Corinne is reasonable,” said the King. “I should not, of course, show my cold shoulder to Corinne. She would share the loot. She and I together.”
Gorman knew that the King was a blackguard entirely without principle or honour; but this proposal startled him.
“I have it,” said the King. “Something has happened—no, occurred to me. There is in this hotel at this moment an American, an oof-bird, a king of dollars.”
Gorman knew Donovan pretty well; as indeed he knew all wealthy Irish-Americans. It was Gorman’s business to cross the Atlantic from time to time to get money for the support of the Irish Party. Donovan had been for many years a generous subscriber to these funds.
“There is a daughter,” said the King. “I have not put eyes on her. She may be—but it does not matter what she is, not a curse, not a damn from the Continent. I shall still have Corinne. The American oof-girl may have the eyes of a pig. I do not care.”
It is not easy to shock Gorman. Indeed, I should have said beforehand that it was impossible to shock him. But I have his assurance that Konrad Karl did it. It is true that Gorman himself had suggested marriage to the King as a way out of his difficulties. But marriage with an unnamed and unknown heiress is one thing. The King’s plan, frankly worked out, for insulting and robbing a girl whom Gorman knew personally was quite a different matter. Miss Daisy Donovan is a bright-faced, clear-eyed, romantic-souled girl. She had finished her course of study in one of the universities of the Middle-west without becoming a cultivated prig. In spite of the fact that history, economics, emasculated philosophy and a kind of intellectual complexion cream called literature had been smeared all over her by earnest professors, she had never learned to take herself, life or society at all seriously. She had all the vitality which gives American women their singular charm and none of the appalling earnestness of high endeavour which sometimes leads even very charming women into repulsive kinds of foolishness. The thought of a marriage between Miss Daisy and King Konrad Karl—with Madame Ypsilante in the near background—affected Gorman with a feeling of physical nausea.
The King possessed a certain capacity for sympathy. He guessed something of what was in Gorman’s mind.
“After all,” he said, “she would be a queen. It is something. You have said so yourself, my friend. You cannot have an omelette without the sacrifice of an egg. But I see—I see very plainly that you do not wish me to marry the Donovan oof-girl. You will not back me up. Good. I back down. I bear no malice. I wish you success. I shall eat cake at your wedding without envy. To you the American with pigs’ eyes—yes, I am sure she has pigs’ eyes. To me Corinne. To which of us happiness? eh, my friend?”
Gorman felt that it would be perfectly impossible to convince the King that he had no wish to marry Miss Daisy or her fortune.
“All right,” he said. “Leave it at that if you like.”
“I have left it,” said the King, “at that, precisely at that, though I do not like it at all.”
“And now,” said Gorman, “let’s get back to your own affairs. You say that you’re in a tightish place just for the moment.”
“I am in a hell hole,” said the King.
“Why not go back to the Emperor? He must do something for you. After all, he’s your uncle. He can’t let you go under altogether. Of course you’ll have to eat humble pie, do the repentant prodigal and all that sort of thing.”
“I should with gladness eat any pie—even pie made of the fatted calf of the prodigal; but—there is Corinne. The Emperor regards Corinne very much, my dear Gorman, as you regard me. I do not complain. You and the Emperor are no doubt right. You hit your nails on the head, both of you, when you say of Corinne and me—they are blackguards. But I prefer Corinne and no veal pie to veal pie and no Corinne. Yes, my friend, I choose Corinne every time.”
I have met King Konrad Karl once or twice, and I have, of course, heard a good deal about him. He is, unquestionably, a scoundrel. But I agree with Gorman that he is a frank and therefore an attractive scoundrel. Besides, his fidelity to Corinne is a redeeming feature, perhaps the only redeeming feature of his character.
Gorman is, if not a blackguard, at all events an adventurer, and therefore kin to the King. He saw the impossibility of leading Corinne to the foot of the imperial throne; and he felt that, after all, the King was right from his own point of view. Corinne was more desirable than many fatted calves. He cast about for some other way out of the difficult position.
“We might,” he said, “make something out of Megalia.”
“Nothing,” said the King. “I have been in Megalia and I know it. It is a one-dog country. There is nothing in it. I have tried it, and I know.”
“We might start a Megalian Development Company,” said Gorman.
“A company, perhaps,” said the King, “but development of Megalia, never.”
“I was not thinking of actually developing it. That would be the company’s business afterwards. Not that it will be easy to start the company. It won’t. Nobody knows anything about the damned place.”
“That is our best chance,” said the King. “If any one did know Megalia, the company would be—what is it you say—a scrub down—no—a wash-up—ah, I have it—a wash-out.”
“You’d grant concessions, I suppose,” said Gorman.
“I do not know exactly what a concession means,” said the King, “but if any one will pay for it I will give them permission to make the people of Megalia into sausages and kidneys. Believe me, my friend, that is the only development of which the Megalians are capable. They are pigs—Gadarene pigs.”
“We won’t suggest that in the prospectus,” said Gorman. “Our company, if we ever get it started, must be humanitarian, altruistic; I’m not sure that it ought not to be a little religious—mission of civilization. That’s the note to strike.”
“And you expect to make money out of—out of that? out of what you teach in your schools for Sunday?”
“It’s just exactly out of that that money is made.”
“The English,” said the King, “are a great people, very wonderful. You—even you, my friend, who are not English, but Irish—you will not let me marry because of Corinne. You wish me to eat humble pie while poor Corinne goes hungry, and yet you will make money out of a company for reforming the people of Megalia, making them civilized, Christian—a thing that is not at all possible—ever, in any way. Tell me, my friend, could you not start a company to develop, reform, improve Corinne and me. Believe me, it would be easier to do.”