XXIII
THE VISITOR AT MIDNIGHT

Below the castle and its distressed occupants, in a dark, damp little room, Grenfall Lorry lived a year in a day. On the night of the eighteenth, or rather near the break of dawn on the nineteenth, Captain Quinnox guided him from the dangerous streets of Edelweiss to the secret passage, and he was safe for the time being. The entrance to the passage was through a skillfully hidden opening in the wall that enclosed the park. A stone doorway, so cleverly constructed that it defied detection, led to a set of steps which, in turn, took one to a long narrow passage. This ended in a stairway fully a quarter of a mile from its beginning. Ascending this stairway one came to a secret panel, through which, by pressing a spring, the interior of the castle was reached. The location of the panel was in one of the recesses in the wall of the chapel, near the altar. It was in this chapel that Yetive exchanged her male attire for a loose gown, weeks before, and the servant who saw her come from the door at an unearthly hour in the morning believed she had gone there to seek surcease from the troubles which oppressed her.

Lorry was impatient to rush forth from his place of hiding and to end all suspense, but Quinnox demurred. He begged the eager American to remain in the passage until the night of the nineteenth, when, all things going well, he might be so fortunate as to reach the Princess without being seen. It was the secret hope of the guilty captain that his charge could be induced by the Princess to return to the monastery, to avoid complications. He promised to inform Her Highness of his presence in the underground room and to arrange for a meeting. The miserable fellow could not find courage to confess his disobedience to his trusting mistress. Many times during the day she had seen him hovering near, approaching and then retreating, and had wondered not a little at his peculiar manner.

And so it was that Lorry chafed and writhed through a long day of suspense and agony. Quinnox had brought to the little room some candles, food and bedding, but he utilized only the former. The hours went by and no summons called him to her side. He was dying with the desire to hold her in his arms and to hear her voice again. Pacing to and fro like a caged animal, he recalled the ride in West Virginia, the scene in her bed chamber, the day in the throne room and, more delicious than all, the trip to the monastery. In his dreams, waking or sleeping, he had seen the slim soldier, had heard the muffled voice, and had felt the womanly caresses. His brain now was in a whirl, busy with thoughts of love and fear, distraught with anxiety for her and for himself, bursting with the awful consequences of the hour that was upon them. What was to become of him? What was to be the end of this drama? What would the night, the morrow bring about?

He looked back and saw himself as he was a year ago in Washington, before she came into his life, and then wondered if it could ready be he who was going through these strange, improbable scenes, these sensations. It was nine o'clock in the evening when Quinnox returned to the little room. The waiting one had looked at his watch a hundred times, had run insanely up and down the passage in quest of the secret exit, had shouted aloud in the frenzy of desperation.

“Have you seen her?” he cried, grasping the new-comer's hand.

“I have, but, before God, I could not tell her what I had done. Your visit will be a surprise, I fear a shock.”

“Then how am I to see her? Fool! Am I to wait here forever—”

“Have patience! I will take you to her tonight—aye, within an hour. To-morrow morning she signs away the northern provinces and her instructions are that she is not to be disturbed to-night. Not even will she see the Countess Dagmar after nine o'clock. It breaks my heart to see the sorrow that abounds in the castle to-night. Her Highness insists on being alone and Bassot, the new guard, has orders to admit no one to her apartments. He is ill and I have promised that a substitute shall relieve him at eleven o'clock. You are to be the substitute. Here is a part of an old uniform of mine, and here is a coat that belonged to Dannox, who was about your size. Please exchange the clothes you now have on for these. I apprehend no trouble in reaching her door, for the household is in gloom and the halls seem barren of life.”

He threw the bundle on a chair and Lorry at once proceeded to don the contents. In a very short time he wore, instead of the cell keeper's garments, a neat-fitting uniform of the royal guard. He was trembling violently, chilled to the bone with nervousness, as they began the ascent of the stairs leading to the chapel. The crisis in his life, he felt, was near at hand.

Under the stealthy hand of Quinnox the panel opened and they listened intently for some moments. There was no one in the dimly-lighted chapel, so they made their way to the door at the opposite end. The great organ looked down upon them and Lorry expected every instant to hear it burst forth in sounds of thunder. It seemed alive and watching their movements reproachfully. Before unlocking the door, the captain pointed to a lance which stood against the wall near by.

“You are to carry that lance,” he said, briefly. Then he cautiously peered forth. A moment later they were in the broad hall, boldly striding toward the distant stairway. Lorry had been instructed to proceed without the least sign of timidity. They passed several attendants in the hall and heard Count Halfont's voice in conversation with some one in an ante-room. As they neared the broad steps who should come tripping down but Harry Anguish. He saluted Quinnox and walked rapidly down the corridor, evidently taking his departure after a call on the Countess.

“There goes your hostage,” said the captain, grimly. It had required all of Lorry's self-possession to restrain the cry of joyful recognition. Up the staircase they went, meeting several ladies and gentlemen coming down, and were soon before the apartments of the Princess. A tall guard stood in front of the boudoir door.

“This is your relief, Bassot. You may go,” said Quinnox, and, with a careless glance at the strange soldier, the sick man trudged off down the hall, glad to seek his bed.

“Is she there?” whispered Lorry, dizzy and faint with expectancy.

“Yes. This may mean your death and mine, sir, but you would do it. Will you explain to her how I came to play her false?”

“She shall know the truth, good friend.”

“After I have gone twenty paces down the hall, do you rap on the door. She may not admit you at first, but do not give up. If she bid you enter or asks your mission, enter quickly and close the door. It is unlocked. She may swoon, or scream, and you must prevent either if possible. In an hour I shall return and you must go back to the passage.”

“Never! I have come to save her and her country, and I intend to do so by surrendering myself this very night.”

“I had hoped to dissuade you. But, sir, you cannot do so to-night. You forget that this visit compromises her.”

“True. I had forgotten. Well, I'll go back with you, but to-morrow I am your prisoner, not your friend.”

“Be careful,” cautioned the captain as he moved away. Lorry feverishly tapped his knuckles on the panel of the door and waited with motionless heart for the response. It came not and he rapped harder, a strange fear darting into his mind.

“Well?” came from within, the voice he adored.

Impetuous haste marked his next movement. He dashed open the door, sprang inside and closed it quickly. She was sitting before her escritoire, writing, and looked up, surprised and annoyed.

“I was not to be disturbed—Oh, God!”

She staggered to her feet and was in his arms before the breath of her exclamation had died away. Had he not supported her she would have dropped to the floor. Her hands, her face were like ice, her breast was pulseless and there was the wildest terror in her eyes.

“My darling—my queen!” he cried, passionately. “At last I am with you! Don't look at me like that! It is really I—I could not stay away—I could not permit this sacrifice of yours. Speak to me Do not stare like that!”

Her wide blue eyes slowly swept his face, piteous wonder and doubt struggling in their depths.

“Am I awake?” she murmured, touching his face with her bewildered, questioning hands. “Is it truly you?” A smile illumined her face, but her joy was short-lived. An expression of terror came to her eyes and there was agony in the fingers that clasped his arm. “Why do you come here?” she cried. “It is madness! How and why came you to this room?”

He laughed like a delighted boy and hastily narrated the events of the past twenty-four hours, ending with the trick that gave him entrance to her room.

“And all this to see me?” she whispered.

“To see you and to save you. I hear that Gabriel has been annoying you and that you are to give up half of the kingdom to-morrow. Tell me everything. It is another reason for my coming.”

Sitting beside him on the divan, she told of Gabriel's visit and his dismissal, the outlook for the next day, and then sought to convince him of the happiness it afforded her to protect him from an undeserved death. He obtained for Quinnox the royal pardon and lauded him to the skies. So ravishing were the moments, so ecstatic the sensations that possessed them that neither thought of the consequences if he were to be discovered in her room, disguised as one of her guardsmen. He forgot the real import of his reckless visit until she commanded him to stand erect before her that she might see what manner of soldier he was. With a laugh, he leaped to his feet and stood before her—attention! She leaned back among the cushions and surveyed him through the glowing, impassioned eyes which slowly closed as if to shut out temptation.

“You are a perfect soldier,” she said, her lashes parting ever so slightly.

“No more perfect than you,” he cried. She remembered, with confusion, her own masquerading, but it was unkind of him to remember it. Her allusion to his uniform turned his thoughts into the channel through which they had been surging so turbulently up to the moment that found him tapping at her door.

He had not told her of his determination, and the task grew harder as he saw the sparkle glow brighter and brighter in her eye.

“You are a brave soldier, then,” she substituted. “It required courage to come to Edelweiss with hundreds of men ready to seize you at sight,—a pack of bloodhounds.”

“I should have been a miserable coward to stay up there while you are so bravely facing disaster alone down here. I came to help you, as I should.”

“But you can do nothing, dear, and you only make matters worse by coming to me. I have fought so hard to overcome the desire to be near you; I have struggled against myself for days and days, and I had won the battle when you came to pull my walls of strength down about my ears. Look! On my desk is a letter I was writing to you. No; you shall not read it! No one shall ever know what it contains.” She darted to the desk, snatched up the sheets of paper and held them over the waxed taper. He stood in the middle of the room, a feeling of intense desolation settling down upon him. How could he lose this woman?

“To-morrow night Quinnox is to take you from the monastery and conduct you to a distant city. It has all been planned. Your friend, Mr. Anguish, is to meet you in three days and you are to hurry to America by way of Athens. This was a letter to you. In it I said many things and was trying to write farewell when you came to this room. Do you wonder that I was overcome with doubt and amazement—yes, and horror? Ach, what peril you are in here! Every minute may bring discovery and that would mean death to you. You are innocent, but nothing could save you. The proof is too strong. Mizrox has found a man who swears he saw you enter Lorenz's room.”

“What a damnable lie!” cried Lorry, lightly. “I was not near his room!”

“But you can see what means they will adopt to convict you. You are doomed if caught, by my men or theirs. I cannot save you again. You know now that I love you. I would not give away half of the land that my forefathers ruled were it not true. Bolaroz would be glad to grant ten years of grace could he but have you in his clutches. And, to see me, you would run the risk of undoing all that I have planned, accomplished and suffered for. Could you not have been content with that last good-by at the monastery? It is cruel to both of us—to me especially—that we must have the parting again.” She had gone to the divan and now dropped limply among the cushions, resting her head on her hand.

“I was determined to see you,” he said. “They shall not kill me nor are you to sacrifice your father's domain. Worse than all, I feared that you might yield to Gabriel.”

“Ach! You insult me when you say that! I yielded to Lorenz because I thought it my duty and because I dared not admit to myself that I loved you. But Gabriel! Ach!” she cried scornfully. “Grenfall Lorry, I shall marry no man. You I love, but you I cannot marry. It is folly to dream of it, even as a possibility. When you go from Graustark tomorrow night you take my heart, my life, my soul with you. I shall never see you again—God help me to say this—I shall never allow you to see me again. I tell you I could not bear it. The weakest and the strongest of God's creations is woman.” She started suddenly, half rising. “Did any one see you come to my room? Was Quinnox sure?”

“We passed people, but no one knew me. I will go if you are distressed over my being here.”

“It is not that—not that. Some spy may have seen you. I have a strange fear that they suspect me and that I am being watched. Where is Captain Quinnox?”

“He said he would return for me in an hour. The time is almost gone. How it has flown! Yetive, Yetive, I will not give you up!” he cried, sinking to his knees before her.

“You must—you shall! You must go back to the monastery to-night! Oh how I pray that you may reach it in safety! And, you must leave this wretched country at once. Will you see if Quinnox is outside the door? Be quick! I am mad with the fear that you may be found here—that you may be taken before you can return to St. Valentine's.”

He arose and stood looking down at the intense face, all aquiver with the battle between temptation and solicitude.

“I am not going back to St. Valentine's,” he said, slowly.

“But it is all arranged for you to start from there tomorrow. You cannot escape the city guard except through St. Valentine's.”

“Yetive, has it not occurred to you that I may not wish to escape the city guard?”

“May not wish to escape the—what do you mean?” she cried, bewildered.

“I am not going to leave Edelweiss, dearest. It is my intention to surrender myself to the authorities.”

She gazed at him in horror for a moment and then fell back with a low moan.

“For God's sake, do not say that!” she wailed. “I forbid you to think of it. You cannot do this after all I have done to save you. Ach, you are jesting; I should have known.”

He sat down and drew her to his side. Some moments passed before he could speak.

“I cannot and will not permit you to make such a sacrifice for me. The proposition of Bolaroz is known to me. If you produce me for trial you are to have a ten years' extension. My duty is plain. I am no cowardly criminal, and I am not afraid to face my accusers. At the worst, I can die but once.”

“Die but once,” she repeated, as if in a dream.

“I came here to tell you of my decision, to ask you to save your lands, protect your people, and to remember that I would die a thousand times to serve you and yours.”

“After all I have done—after all I have done,” she murmured, piteously. “No, no! You shall not! You are more to me than all my kingdom, than all the people in the world. You have made me love you, you have caused me to detest the throne which separates us, you have made me pray that I might be a pauper, but you shall not force me to destroy the mite of hope that lingers in my heart. You shall not crush the hope that there may be a—a—some day!”

“A some day? Some day when you will be mine?” he cried.

“I will not say that, but, for my sake,—for my sake,—go away from this place. Save yourself! You are all I have to live for.” Her arms were about his neck and her imploring words went to his heart like great thrusts of pain.

“You forget the thousands who love and trust you. Do they deserve to be wronged?”

“No, no,—ach, God, how I have suffered because of them! I have betrayed them, have stolen their rights and made them a nation of beggars. But I would not, for all this nation, have an innocent man condemned—nor could my people ask that of me. You cannot dissuade me. It must be as I wish. Oh, why does not Quinnox come for you!” She arose and paced the floor distractedly.

He was revolving a selfish, cowardly capitulation to love and injustice, when a sharp tap was heard at the door. Leaping to his feet he whispered:

“Quinnox! He has come for me. Now to get out of your room without being seen!”

The Princess Yetive ran to him, and, placing her hands on his shoulders, cried with the fierceness of despair:

“You will go back to the monastery? You will leave Graustark? For my sake—for my sake!”

He hesitated and then surrendered, his honor falling weak and faint by the pathway of passion.

“Yes!” he cried, hoarsely.

Tap! tap! tap! at the door. Lorry took one look at the rapturous face and released her.

“Come!” she called.

The door flew open, an attendant saluted, and in stepped—Gabriel!

Last | Next | Contents