"THE matter is quite simple," the head of the department said, "that is, of course, so far as the facts are concerned. Princess Stephanie of Austiria has quite lately celebrated her twenty-first birthday. There have been great rejoicings in Marena, the capital of Austiria, and the King has been doing the thing, what shall I call it——"
"Top hole," the Baroness Cora Levinski laughed. "You may not care for the phrase in high diplomacy, but it is on the tip of your tongue."
Sir Anthony Barrington smiled. He was very young for the position, and there were those who hinted at boudoir politics and the ridiculous assumption that because a man has figured in a test match he might, therefore, make an ideal Head of the Secret Service Department.
As a matter of fact, no harassed and badgered Prime Minister ever made a better appointment. There was not a single political spy in Europe who was not aware of it.
"Princess Stephanie is our especial care just now," Barrington went on. "She is of far greater importance than she imagines. Of course I can't say whether she is ambitious or not, or whether she is merely a girl who——"
"She is divine," the baroness exclaimed. "The most beautiful and accomplished princess in Europe to-day. She has character and individuality. If she makes up her mind to a thing, that thing is going to be done. My dear Anthony, I have known her ever since she was a child. I know the Court at Marena inside out. Stephanie is no royal puppet, she will not marry the first prince that your people push across the chessboard towards her."
"Precisely," Barrington smiled. "Because of these facts we are desirous of availing ourselves of your valuable services. Because we have every reason to believe that the princess is married already."
"I am not easily startled, Sir Anthony. But is this really so?"
"Well, that is our impression. And we had it from a source which has hitherto been absolutely reliable. The marriage took place near Paris eight months ago. At that time the princess was staying incognito in charge of an old governess. The bridegroom is Prince Arturo of Braxony. Now, mind you, I am all the more inclined to believe this because we cannot find the faintest piece of evidence of it."
"Sounds rather subtle," the baroness murmured.
"Not at all. Our man's proofs were curt and to the point. We made no very careful enquiries at the time because the marriage was exactly what we wanted. In a few weeks, the cowardly, dissipated King of Braxony will be pushed off the throne, and it is arranged that Prince Arturo will take his place. A marriage between the prince and Princess Stephanie—some time to be queen of Austiria—would consolidate two powerful States and give us the buffer we need so as to protect our interests in Persia. Now that is not the game of the King of Austiria at all. He has made up his mind that Princess Stephanie shall wed her cousin, Prince Karl, and Russia has given him her blessing."
"But if the princess is already married to your man——"
"Did I not say that no proofs exist? The cure who was supposed to have performed the ceremony was transferred to Austiria. A promotion, of course. But he has been promoted so high that he has disappeared in the clouds. Two peasants who witnessed the marriage have migrated, goodness knows where. Then there was a fire in the chapel and all records burnt. Now all that is very suspicious. It is quite evident that old Carlos of Austiria has done his work thoroughly. All proofs have vanished, there has been no fuss and bother, and the princess is safely back home again."
"My dear Sir Anthony, you speak as if she were a prisoner."
"And so she is," said Harrington drily. "She appears in public, she goes to all kinds of functions, she is cheered as she rides in public, there is a smile upon her lips. But she is a prisoner all the same. And so is Prince Arturo. He is supposed to be in Marena for the rejoicings. But he is not allowed to move a yard without being followed. His correspondence is tampered with, his frank letters to his friends are fakes and forgeries. I know the situation sounds impossible, but there it is. Unless something is done, it may go on indefinitely. One or other of these young people—or both preferably—must escape."
"And you are looking to me to bring it about, Sir Anthony."
"My dear baroness, you are absolutely essential. There is nobody I know whose services I would prefer. You have brought off some brilliant coups for us, and we have not been ungrateful—or mean. You know the Court of Marena, you will be received there with open arms. Nobody will suspect you, least of all the king, who flatters himself that we are in the deepest ignorance with regard to the romance. Who would suspect that you are in the pay of our Government? And you can name your own price. Whatever you need is yours."
The dark eyes of the baroness sparkled.
"I should just love it," she whispered. "Besides, I am fond of the princess. But it is going to be an expensive play to stage. I may need a regiment of soldiers."
"Oh, have an army corps if necessary," Barrington said eagerly. "We will open an account in your name through some big foreign house, and the Nationale Bank at Barena will be advised to honor your draft to any extent. Now, when can you go?"
"I can and will start to-morrow," Baroness Levinski said promptly, "I shall have to spend a day or two in Paris en route. But it is going to take time. I must not be hurried in the matter."
Barrington was prepared to give every assurance. The baroness would not be interfered with, the service would give her an entirely free hand. Whereupon Cora Levinski departed smilingly, and Barrington strolled down to Lord's to see how Middlesex were getting on against Kent.
By the end of the week the baroness found herself comfortably settled in Marena. She wrote a good many letters and despatched a good many parcels, but none of these went by post. The baroness had been too long engaged in the secret service for that. She had her subordinates everywhere, she kept very much to herself, and it was only a question of time before an invitation to the palace came, and it was more prudent to wait for that.
The whole city was given over to a state of gaiety; concerts, dances, gala performances at the opera, everywhere the public rejoicings were going on. And amongst it all, the admired of all admirers, the Princess Stephanie floated, light and happy as a butterfly, and a charming smile ever on her lips. Prince Arturo was a prominent figure also, but his smile was restrained, there were moments when he looked out on to the giddy, noisy world with moody eye and compressed lips. The chains were not visible to the casual eye, but Cora Levinski could see them. And the way to file those fetters was slowly forming in her mind.
She plunged lightly and deftly into the hive of pleasure; a few days later she was meeting the princess everywhere. They were very old friends, these two, and the greetings were cordial on both sides.
"Are you not getting just a little bit tired of it, princess?" Cora asked.
The red lips trembled, the blue eyes were moist.
"Sick and weary to my soul," the princess whispered. "Cora, all this is killing me. If you knew, if you only knew what I am suffering, what—-"
"My dear child, it is because I know that I am here. I have come from London to help you—I have all the resources of a great nation behind me. It is all a matter of patience and courage."
The dainty face flushed, a sweet confusion filled the moist blue eyes.
"It has been found out," she whispered. "The story is public property."
"Nothing of the kind. Your secret is absolutely safe, dear heart. You appear to do as you like here so long as you make no attempt to leave the capital. Can you manage to come and have tea with me at my hotel to-morrow?"
The princess came eagerly enough. As she dropped into a chair, the smile faded from her face, the beautiful features grew white as ivory. Then she dropped her head on the baroness's knee and burst into a torrent of tears.
"Don't be anxious," she said, "I shall be better presently. If you only knew the blessed relief of having somebody to confide in. Cora I am the most wretched girl in Marena. I am forced to smile and smile whilst my heart is breaking. Can't they realise that a princess is but flesh and blood after all? Can't they see that I am a girl with love and passion like the rest of them?"
"Tell me all about it, dear," the baroness said tenderly.
"Cora, there is little to tell. I have always loved Arturo. And I have always hated my cousin of Russia. All the more, perhaps, because I know that I am destined to be his wife . . . . It was more or less by accident that I met Arturo in Paris. And Madam Brandt gave us all our opportunity. She is fat and lazy, and loves good living ... And so we were married. My father pretends that it is not so, he says it is but a dream. But I know that they destroyed all the evidence, and got the witnesses away. Heaven knows how they found out. And my father came to Paris with a smile on his lips and he asked Arturo to accompany me here for my birthday festivities. Once we were in the palace the bomb exploded. We were told we were both prisoners. I am never to leave the city again, and Arturo must stay till he has signed some paper saying that I am not married to him, and that my claim to be his wife is no more than a delusion on my part. The audacity of it, Cora. If Europe knew then the Powers must intervene. But you know how hard and stern and merciless my father can be. What am I to do?"
"Escape from Marena and proclaim the marriage," the baroness suggested. "Any line of conduct would be justified in the circumstances."
"But I cannot," the princess cried. "I cannot. Once beyond the frontier and the whole world should hear of my wrongs."
"And you are prepared to place yourself entirely in my hands?"
"My dear Cora, I will do so gladly. Once beyond the frontier—but what is the use of speaking of that? I tell you I am a prisoner here. True my cage is roomy and the bars are made of gold, but it is a prison all the same. I am watched day and night. And so is Arturo, only his case is worse than mine. Think of the audacity of it. And things are going badly in Braxony, and Arturo's presence is sorely needed there."
The baroness nodded. All this she knew full well. But it was no business of hers to disclose what Barrington had said as to the fate in store for Arturo.
"But it can be done," she said. "Now listen. I came here on purpose to help you. We will pretend that we don't know which of the great Powers is behind us. But I am your friend, and the Power in question is your friend, and Arturo's, and money is no object, whatever. I have thought the matter out thoroughly. I have my subordinates here and they are ready to do anything I tell them. My scheme is audacious to a degree—it requires courage and patience. Will you put yourself entirely in my hands and do as I tell you? No, I am not going to tell you what my scheme is or the precise moment when it will be put into execution. All you have to do is to watch and take your cue from me. Once past the frontier and you are free. Think what it means. It means liberty and life and love."
"Anything," the princess cried passionately, "anything rather than a life like this. You shall not blame my courage when the time comes."
MARENA was getting just a little satiated with pleasure. Marena began to note with concern that the beloved princess was growing thin and pale. Her very amusements were becoming a trial to her. And Marena would be glad to get back to work. There was only one other great social function, and Marena would not participate in that. Only some five hundred guests had been invited to the Baroness Levinski's al fresco lunch and dinner in the ruins of Alozo. There would be bridge after luncheon for those who liked it, and for the rest archery and such Arcadian joys. The whole party would be attired in mediaeval dress. The King and Princess Stephanie and the Court generally would be there, indeed His Majesty had been graciously pleased to place the royal train at the baroness's service. Half a dozen saloon carriages would be sufficient for the party—a brilliant gathering on the most luxurious train in the world. There were vestibule carriages, and it was possible to promenade the train from end to end.
Cora Levinski was dressed and ready for the fray. It still wanted an hour before she was due at the station, and there was much to be done. She stood in her mediaeval dress before the window of her drawing-room idly watching the crowd on the Linderstrasse below. She looked a little tired and languid, as if quite weary of it all, a creature who had utterly used up her emotions. There was no suggestion of the fire that raged so fiercely under the ice. Down below a green motor with drawn blinds threaded its way through the traffic. The muffled and goggled chauffeur just touched his cap as if by accident. Then at intervals of a minute or two other green motors passed, and each driver made exactly the same sign at the same spot.
"That makes ten," the baroness murmured as she turned from the window. "Fritz is doing his work well, it is time we were moving."
A glittering mob thronged the railed-off portion of the big station. They seemed strangely out of place in that busy terminus. The baroness was greeted with laughter and applause as she appeared. She had thrown aside her languor now, she was the brilliant, fascinating, charming host, she marshalled her guests with infinite tact and discrimination. The great scarlet and gold train formed a quaint background to the picturesque costumes of the middle ages, it was progress and pastoral comedy side by side. They were waiting only now for the arrival of the Royal party; they came presently in semi-regal state and guards of honor on either side saluted. The baroness could see the commanding figure of the King as he strode across the crimson carpet. His great red beard hid the decorations on his chest.
The baroness bowed low so that the King should not see the mocking mischief in her eyes. Behind him came the Princess Stephanie and Prince Arturo. They had been the King's only companions in the state coach. He had a fine sense of the irony of the situation. He was the type of humorist who prefers to keep his humor for his own consumption. He would have felt less grimly amused, perhaps, could he have seen what was passing in the mind of the baroness.
She marked Stephanie's drooping lips and pathetic blue eyes, she marked the troubled gloom of Arturo's brow. The train was filling up now and there was no time for speculation. Just eighty miles that scarlet and gold train was going to travel without a stop, and an hour and twenty minutes was the schedule time. By midday the famous old ruins would be reached. What surprise awaited the brilliant company on their arrival had yet to be declared. The Baroness was a past mistress in the disclosure of unexpected pleasures. And Princess Stephanie's pale face flushed as the journey proceeded.
"I am going to try and enjoy myself," she said to the baroness. "I am going to try and forget for one day at least."
"You will never forget this day as long as you live, princess."
"My dear Cora, what do you mean by that?"
"I cannot tell you. Talk to me as much as you like. If I do not answer you, no matter. My mind will probably be far away."
She shaded her eyes with her hand and gazed idly out of the window. But all the same her glance was keen and shrewd. She seemed to be going over some plan in her mind. Her eyes grew more eager and brilliant as the train shot through each station. There were small roadside stations that interested her but faintly, the larger ones held a firmer fascination. Just before the train drew near each signal box a chauffeur lounged as if waiting for his employer. As the train passed he just touched his cap. The baroness slipped one of the plate-glass windows up and looked out languidly.
There stood the telephone and telegraph posts, but of wires there was no sign to be seen. The train roared through a large station presently, a station with crowded platforms, where gold-laced officials seemed to be besieged by angry passengers. Some of them yelled and threw up their hands as the train flashed by.
"What is the trouble all about?" the King asked indifferently.
"It looked to me more like loyalty, your Majesty," the baroness answered. "The people have evidently gathered to see you go through."
The King smiled as if satisfied with the explanation. The miles were reeled off one by one, the telegraph and telephone posts staggered by, and yet nobody seemed to heed the fact that the wires had vanished. And here at long intervals lounged chauffeurs, idle and indifferent, who touched their caps as the great gold and scarlet dragon flashed along.
"Behold the classic ruins," one of the guests observed. "In ten minutes we shall be there. Baroness, when will the first surprise accost me?"
"One never can tell, prince," the baroness smiled. "It may come at any——"
From the back of the train came the sound of a shot. There can be no mistaking the sharp, whip-like crack of a revolver. Then came another and another, a shrill scream from the lips of a woman. The sound of tumult and strife came along the train like a wave, it spread from carriage to carriage in a flash.
A young man, pale and bleeding, staggered into the Royal saloon.
"I care little for your comedy, madame," the King said coldly.
"It is none of my making, sire," the baroness replied. She was pale and troubled, her eyes were dark with terror. "What has happened I know no more than your Majesty. If some of these gentlemen——"
The men started to their feet. Only Princess Stephanie was unmoved. Here was a hideous plot of some kind directed against the sacred person of the King. Or were those rascally brigands from the hills at work again?
"Are we going to take this like children," the King cried. "Is there nobody here who is man enough——"
"It is too late, sir," Prince Arturo said coldly. "The weight of power is against us. Look and see for yourself, your Majesty."
At either end of the saloon a trio of masked figures appeared. Each man carried a rifle with bayonet fixed. From the end next the engine a voice spoke.
"There is no great occasion for alarm," the voice said. "But we warn you that resistance would be madness. The train is in our possession, and what our plans are you will know all in good time. And if there is any bloodshed, please understand that it is none of our seeking."
"If this is a plot against my throne," the King cried, "then——"
"We have no concern with your Majesty at all," the voice interrupted. "The contents of your pocket are far more interesting to us than your crown—mainly because you don't happen to be wearing it. Our policy is far more sordid than you imagine. We are financiers, not politicians."
"In other words, you are a set of cowardly brigands."
"If your Majesty likes to put it that way. We belong to no country and boast no patriotism. We are out for the spoil. In the guise of guests we mingled with the throng, at a given signal we slipped off our disguises. That was the easiest part of the plot. To obtain possession of the signal boxes and telegraph offices was quite another matter. But we have got the train signalled through to Varsar, and that is where we are going to stop. There is not one single telephone or telegraph man between here and Marena. We have seen to all that."
Princess Stephanie glanced at the baroness, but there was no expression save that of fear and terror on the latter's face. Certain hopes beat high in the heart of the princess, but she could read nothing even though the book lay open before her.
"You shall answer for this with your lives," the King cried.
"Very likely, sire," the voice said coolly. "That is all on the lap of the gods. You will excuse me if I go now and give my directions to the engine-driver. As yet he is in blissful ignorance of what has happened."
The glass sliding doors at each end of the saloon were banged to, the three grim sentinels stood outside patiently. There was no help for it, no possible escape from the difficulty. They were caught like rats in a trap, and the trap had been most cunningly contrived and baited. Evidently the gang of desperadoes had worked out the scheme to the last decimal. It had been a costly process no doubt, but the reward was likely to be a valuable one. The men of the party groaned and swore, the women huddled together tearfully. From the van there came the muffled sound of a shot or two, the speed of the train slackened perceptibly until it came almost to a standstill. A whistle screamed long and shrill, then the crimson and gold snake began to creep on once more.
Again the Princess Stephanie turned to the baroness.
"Varsar is on the frontier," she whispered. "My dearest Cora, if—if we could only reach that our troubles are over. Oh, these men can have anything of value that belongs to me if they leave me my greatest possession—Arturo."
"You must wait and see," the baroness replied, "it may be that these ruffians are a blessing in disguise. I will help you if I can."
The train pulled up presently on an open plain far away from town or habitation. The luxurious saloon had been turned into a deserted siding hidden from the main line by a belt of trees. The sliding-doors of the saloon were pushed back, and the whole party unceremoniously commanded to alight. A white-faced guard and an equally pallid engine-driver looked out with armed men behind them. A big man in a mask seemed to be in command.
"Keep the train there," he said, "till your passengers are ready to return. Now, your Majesty, ladies and gentlemen, follow me this way."
Again there was no help for it. Angry, sullen men and frightened, pallid women surged forward like a mob in a state of panic. The baroness lingered behind with Princess Stephanie by her side. She smiled as she saw that Prince Arturo was close at hand. All her simulated terror had vanished.
"Now is your time," she whispered. "Now is your time when you are both together. Do you see what that object is over there behind those oleanders! Can't you see that it is a car?"
"And waiting for us, Cora," the princess cried. "Oh, my dearest friend, my sweet preserver! And you have done all this for us."
"Hush, hush, or somebody will hear you. For myself, I say nothing. And you have no right to point to the evidence that I am at the bottom of the outrage on the sacred person of the King. As if I should dare to take such a liberty! No, no, you must not associate me with brigands and desperadoes. And perhaps the owner of the car is there by accident and will refuse to help you, till——"
The princess snatched at the hand of the baroness and kissed it fervently. Arturo caught her round the waist, and hurried her away. There was a breathless moment or two, and then from the distance came the purring of the car as she gathered speed. It came down the road between the discomfited revellers, Stephanie and Arturo on their feet, their faces wreathed with happy smiles. It was only for a moment before the mocking triumphant faces had vanished from sight.
"My daughter!" the King cried. "My child! And Arturo! Get them back, bring them to me, and I forgive everything. A thousand crowns reward, a million."
"Too late," the man behind the mask thundered. "In a few moments, sire, your daughter and her husband will be beyond the frontier. To-morrow all Europe will be ringing with her story. The whole world will know how your daughter and her husband have been detained as prisoners here. They will be informed of the most audacious thing that ever happened in history. And before long they will be securely seated on the throne of Braxony."
"This—this was planned," the King stammered.
"It was planned sire, yes. We are the prince's countrymen and future subjects, and we got to know. It was a difficult task we had before us, but when we heard of her baroness' party we began to see our way. Nothing succeeds like audacity. And that is the whole of the story. In a few moments we shall also cross the frontier where you will be powerless to touch us. And now you can go back to your train, and explain to your engine-driver. By this time Marena knows what has happened, and steps are being taken to restore the dislocated traffic. Sire, we beg to take leave of you with profound apologies."
There was nothing for it but for the Royal party to struggle back as best they could. And fear had given place to an all-devouring curiosity. Even kings must bow the knee to popular opinion at times, and he of Austiria condescended to explain, indeed scandal and disgrace would have followed on silence. The story travelled from lip to lip as the train steamed back slowly to the capital. It was only when the outskirts of the town were reached that his Majesty approached the baroness.
"You were always fond of my daughter," he suggested.
"I would do anything to help her, your Majesty," she said.
"And also, I have a pretty shrewd idea that you have done so."
"Your Majesty! Do you dare to assume that I have had any hand——"
"Tut, tut. Don't be so impatient. I was about to say—but I have no proofs. I doubt if ever I shall have any proofs. And, upon my soul, I begin to believe that things are turning out for the best after all."