XIV
THE EPISODE OF THE THRONE ROOM

“This is the throne room. Allode!”

The Princess Yetive paused before two massive doors. It was the next afternoon, and she had already shown him the palace of a queen—the hovel of a pauper!

Through the afternoon not one word other than those which might have passed between good friends escaped the lips of either. He was all interest, she all graciousness. Allode, the sturdy guard, swung open the doors, drew the curtain, and stood aside for them to pass. Into the quiet hall she led him, a princess in a gown of gray, a courtier in tweeds. Inside the doors he paused.

“And I thought you were Miss Guggenslocker,” he said. She laughed with the glee of a child who has charmed and delighted through surprise.

“Am I not a feeble mite to sit on that throne and rule all that comes within its reach?” She directed his attention to the throne at the opposite end of the hall. “From its seat I calmly instruct gray-haired statesmen, weigh their wisdom and pass upon it as if I were Demosthenes, challenge the evils that may drive monarchs mad, and wonder if my crown is on straight.”

“Let me be ambassador from the United States and kneel at the throne, your Highness.”

“I could not engage in a jest with the crown my ancestors wore, Mr. Lorry. It is sacred, thou thoughtless American. Come, we will draw nearer that you may see the beauty of the workmanship in that great old chair.”

They stood at the base of the low, velveted stage on which stood the chair, with its high back, its massive arms and legs ashimmer in the light from the lofty windows. It was of gold, inlaid with precious stones—diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires and other wondrous jewels—a relic of ancient Graustark.

“I never sit in the center. Always at one side or the other, usually leaning my elbow on the arm. You see, the discussions are generally so long and dreary that I become fatigued. One time,—I am ashamed to confess it, I went to sleep on the throne. That was long ago. I manage to keep awake very well of late. Do you like my throne room?”

“And to think that it is yours!”

“It is this room that gives me the right to be hailed with 'Long live the Princess!' Not with campaign yells and 'Hurrah for Yetive!' How does that sound? 'Hurrah for Yetive!'” She was laughing merrily.

“Don't say it! It sounds sacrilegious—revolting!”

“For over three years—since I was eighteen—I have been supreme in that chair. During the years of my reign prior to that time I sat there with my Uncle Caspar standing beside me. How often I begged him to sit down with me! There was so much room and he certainly must have grown tired of standing. One time I cried because he frowned at me when I persisted in the presence of a great assemblage of nobles from Dawsbergen. It seems that it was a most important audience that I was granting, but I thought more of my uncle's tired old legs. I remember saying, through my sobs of mortification, that I would have him beheaded. You are to guess whether that startling threat created consternation or mirth.”

“What a whimsical little princess you must have been, weeping and pouting and going to sleep,” he laughed. “And how sedate and wise you have become.”

“Thank you. How very nice you are. I knave felt all along that some one would discern my effort to be dignified and sedate. They say I am wise and good and gracious, but that is to be expected. They said that of sovereigns as far back as the deluge, I've heard. Would you really like to see me in that old chair?” she asked.

“Ah, you are still a woman,” he said, smiling at her pretty vanity. “Nothing could impress me more pleasantly.”

She stepped carelessly and impulsively upon the royal platform, leaned against the arm of the throne, and with the charming blush of consciousness turned to him with the quickness of a guilty conscience, eager to hear his praise but fearful lest he secretly condemned her conceit. His eyes were burning with the admiration that knows no defining, and his breath came quick and sharp through parted lips. He involuntarily placed a foot upon the bottom step as if to spring to her side.

“You must not come up here!” she cried, shrinking back, her hands extended in fluttering remonstrance. “I cannot permit that, at all!”

“I beg your pardon,” he cried, “That is all the humble plebeian can say. That I may be more completely under this fairy spell, pray cast about yourself the robe of rank and take up the sceptre. Perhaps I may fall upon my face.”

“And hurt your head all over again,” she said, laughing nervously. She hesitated for a moment, a perplexed frown crossing her brow. Then she jerked a rich robe from the back of the throne and placed it about her shoulders as only a woman can. Taking up the scepter she stood before the great chair, and, with a smile on her lips, held it above his head, saying softly:

“Graustark welcomes the American prince.”

He sank to his knee before the real princess, kissed the hem of her robe and arose with face pallid. The chasm was now endless in its immensity. The princess gingerly seated herself on the throne, placed her elbow on the broad arm, her white chin in her hand, and tranquilly surveyed the voiceless American prince.

“You have not said, 'Thank you,'” she said, finally, her eyes wavering beneath his steady gaze.

“I am only thinking how easy it would be to cross the gulf that lies between us. With two movements of my body I can place it before you, with a third I can be sitting at your side. It is not so difficult after all,” he said, hungrily eyeing the broad chair.

“No man, unless a prince, ever sat upon this throne,” she said.

“You have called me a prince.”

“Oh, I jested,” she cried quickly, comprehending his intention. “I forbid you!”

The command came too late, for he was beside her on the throne of Graustark! She sat perfectly rigid for a moment, intense fear in her eyes.

“Do you know what you have done?” she whispered, miserably.

“Usurped the throne,” he replied, assuming an ease and complacence he did not feel. Truly he was guilty of unprecedented presumption.

“You have desecrated—desecrated! Do you hear?” she went on, paying no attention to his remark.

“Peccavi. Ah, Your Highness, I delight in my sin. For once I am a power; I speak from the throne. You will not have me abdicate in the zenith of my glory? Be kind, most gracious one. Besides, did you not once cry because your uncle refused to sit with you? Had he been the possessor of a dangerous wound, as I am, and had he found himself so weak that he could stand no longer, I am sure he would have done as I have—sat down in preference to falling limp at your feet. You do not know how badly I am wounded,” he pleaded, with the subtlest double meaning.

“Why should you wound me?” she asked, plaintively. “You have no right to treat the throne I occupy as a subject for pranks and indignities. I did not believe you could be so—forgetful.” There was a proud and pitiful resentment in her voice that brought him to his senses at once. He had defiled her throne. In shame and humiliation he cried:

“I am a fool—an ingrate, You have been too gentle with me. For this despicable act of mine I cannot ask pardon and it would be beneath you to grant it. I have hurt you, and I can never atone. I forgot how sacred is your throne. Let me depart in disgrace.” He stood erect as if to forsake the throne he had stained, but she, swayed by a complete reversal of feeling, timidly, pleadingly touched his arm.

“Stay! It is my throne, after all. I shall divide it, as well as the sin, with you. Sit down again, I beg of you. For a brief spell I would rule beside a man who is fit to be a king but who is a desecrator. There can be no harm and no one shall be the wiser for this sentimental departure from royal custom. We are children, anyhow—mere children.”

With an exclamation of delight, he resumed his position beside her. His hand trembled as he took up hers to carry it to his lips. “We are children—playing with fire,” he murmured, this ingrate, this fool!

She allowed her hand to lie limply in his, her head sinking to the back of the chair. When her hand was near his feverish lips, cool and white and trusting, he checked the upward progress. Slowly he raised his eyes to study her face, finding that hers were closed, the semblance of a smile touching her lips as if they were in a happy dream.

The lips! The lips! The lips! The madness of love rushed into his heart; the expectant hand was forgotten; his every hope and every desire measured themselves against his discretion as he looked upon the tempting face. Could he kiss those lips but once his life would be complete.

With a start she opened her eyes, doubtless at the command of the masterful ones above. The eyes of blue met the eyes of gray in a short, sharp struggle, and the blue went down in surrender. His lips triumphed slowly, drawing closer and closer as if restrained and impelled by the same emotion—arrogant love.

“Open your eyes, darling,” he whispered, and she obeyed. Then their lips met—her first kiss of love!

She trembled from head to foot, perfectly powerless beneath the spell. Again he kissed a princess on her throne. At this second kiss her eyes grew wide with terror, and she sprang from his side, standing before him like one bereft of reason.

“Oh, my God! What have you done?” she wailed. He staggered to his feet, dizzy with joy.

“Ha!” cried a gruff voice from the doorway, and the guilty ones whirled to look upon the witness to their blissful crime. Inside the curtains, with carbine leveled at the head of the American, stood Allode, the guard, his face distorted by rage. The Princess screamed and leaped between Lorry and the threatening carbine.

“Allode!” she cried, in frantic terror.

He angrily cried out something in his native tongue and she breathlessly, imploringly replied. Lorry did not understand their words, but he knew that she had saved him from death at the hand of her loyal, erring guard. Allode lowered his gun, bowed low and turned his back upon the throne.

“He—he would have killed you,” she said, tremulously, her face the picture of combined agony and relief. She remembered the blighting kisses and then the averted disaster.

“You—what did you say to him?” he asked.

“I—I—oh, I will not tell you,” she cried.

“I beg of you!”

“I told him that he was to—was to put down his gun.”

“I know that, but why?” he persisted.

“I—Ach, to save you, stupid!”

“How did you explain the—the—” He hesitated, generously.

“I told him that I had not been—that I had not been—”

“Say it!”

“That I had not been—offended!” she gasped, standing stiff and straight, with eyes glued upon the obedient guard.

“You were not?” he rapturously cried.

“I said it only to save your life!” she cried, turning fiercely upon him. “I shall never forgive you! Never! You must go—you must leave here at once! Do you hear? I cannot have you near me now—I cannot see you again. Ach, God! What have I given you the right to say of me?”

“Stop! It is as sacred as—”

“Yes, yes—I understand! I trust you, but you must go! Find some excuse to give your friend and go to-day! Go now!” she cried, intensely, first putting her hands to her temples, then to her eyes.

Without waiting to hear his remonstrance, if indeed he had the power to utter one, she glided swiftly toward the curtains, allowing him to follow at his will. Dazed and crushed at the sudden end to everything, he dragged his footsteps after. At the door she spoke in low, imperative tones to the motionless Allode, who dropped to his knees and muttered a reverential response. As Lorry passed beneath the hand that held the curtain aside, he glanced at the face of the man who had been witness to their weakness. He was looking straight ahead, and, from his expression, it could not have been detected that he knew there was a man on earth save himself. In the hall she turned to him, her face cold and pale.

“I have faithful guards about me now. Allode has said he did not see you in the throne room. He will die before he will say otherwise,” she said, her lips trembling with shame.

“By your command?”

“By my request. I do not command my men to lie.”

Side by side they passed down the quiet hall, silent, thoughtful, the strain of death upon their hearts.

“I shall obey the only command you have given, then. This day I leave the castle. You will let me come again—to see you? There can be no harm—”

“No! You must leave Graustark at once!” she interrupted, the tones low.

“I refuse to go! I shall remain in Edelweiss, near you, just so long as I feel that I may be of service to you.”

“I cannot drive you out as I would a thief,” she said, pointedly.

At the top of the broad staircase he held out his hand and murmured:

“Good-by, your Highness!”

“Good-by,” she said, simply, placing her hand in his after a moment's hesitation. Then she left him.

An hour later the two Americans, one strangely subdued, the other curious, excited and impatient, stood before the castle waiting for the carriage. Count Halfont was with them, begging them to remain, as he could see no reason for the sudden leave-taking. Lorry assured him that they had trespassed long enough on the Court's hospitality, and that he would feel much more comfortable at the hotel. Anguish looked narrowly at his friend's face, but said nothing. He was beginning to understand.

“Let us walk to the gates. The Count will oblige us by instructing the coachman to follow,” said Lorry, eager to be off.

“Allow me to join you in the walk, gentlemen,” said Count Caspar, immediately instructing a lackey to send the carriage after them. He and Lorry walked on together, Anguish lingering behind, having caught sight of the Countess Dagmar. That charming and unconventional piece of nobility promptly followed the prime minister's example and escorted the remaining guest to the gate.

Far down the walk Lorry turned for a last glance at the castle from which love had banished him. Yetive was standing on the balcony, looking not at the monastery but at the exile.

She remained there long after the carriage had passed her gates, bearing the Americans swiftly over the white Castle Avenue, and there were tears in her eyes.

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