Roy Norton--The unknown Mr Kent/Chapter 10
IN the precincts of the palace, on that eventful afternoon, there was considerable apprehension sustained by the king, who, born to precedent and hedged in by conventionalities, believed in doing all things slowly and with decorum. As Kent once said, he was "As fine a watchful-waiter as ever succeeded in ponderously doing nothing." Indeed there was but one person visible after Kent's hasty departure for the Market Place who did not seem anxious, that person being the chancellor himself. He strolled languidly into Kent's office within three minutes after the American had passed out, and looked for the King's Remembrancer. Not seeing him, he smiled slyly, took a seat, waited a few minutes, and then rang the bell that summoned Kent's secretary. That astute and well trained young gentleman entered the room and stood like a statue of respectful attention.
"Good morning, Your Excellency," he said, while in the back of his brain ran the question, "Wonder what that pusillanimous blighter wants in here at this time?"
"I should like to speak with Mr. Kent," announced the chancellor.
"I regret to say, sir, that he is not in at present," replied the secretary, with due deference. "Any word which Your Excellency might———"
"When will he be in?" curtly interrupted Provarsk.
"Probably not until late this evening," was the calm response.
"Where is he?"
"I rather think, sir, that he has gone to inspect some new work over at the mines," deliberately lied the secretary, but with a convincing air of innocence and candour that proved his worth as either a secretary or a witness before a congressional investigating committee. He stood at ease, still with that air of deference, but noted that the chancellor, after a moment's thought, was undoubtedly pleased. His meditations were interrupted by the entrance of the king, who came in with more than usual haste. Provarsk instantly stood to his feet; but the king took one glance at him and frowned in lieu of greeting.
"Your superior—where is he?" demanded the king, addressing the secretary.
"He is not in at present, Your Majesty," promptly responded that worthy.
The king was undoubtedly anxious. A certain nervousness of demeanour expressed it.
"That is just what I was asking, Cousin," airily interjected the chancellor.
"Suppose you stop 'cousming' me," the king said, eyeing him with no attempt to conceal his dislike. "Besides, I don't know what you had been asking. Few people ever do."
With undisguised enjoyment that he had suc- ceeded in exasperating the king, Provarsk smiled and flicked his fingers.
"Oh, tut! tut!" he said. "What I had just remarked was that I thought it very discreet of Mr. Kent to remove himself on such a momentous day. To take to the woods, I might say, lest a storm arise."
The king turned his back and walked toward the door leading out to the hanging balcony, where he stood gazing off toward the city. Not in the least disconcerted, Provarsk added, with mock gravity, "I even told him that affairs were criti- cal and that perhaps the power of the throne it- self had been cast on an issue of extreme doubt."
"That must distress you terribly," remarked the king, with a sneer in his voice.
"Ah, good morning, Your Royal Highness," Provarsk said with great heartiness, and the king turned to discover that his sister had entered the room and was now facing Provarsk with a cool stare.
"Karl," she asked, "is it true Mr. Kent still insists on forcing his wishes through to the very utmost? That enforced labour measure?"
"So far as I know," moodily replied the king.
"And aren't you afraid that——" she paused and looked at Provarsk, who declined to depart without direct orders.
"Afraid of what?" the king asked in a tone of irritation.
"Afraid there will be trouble," calmly interjected Provarsk. "That is what the Princess Eloise means. Afraid the people won't submit. And why should they? I wouldn't if I were one of them. You can give odds on that."
The secretary created a diversion by discreetly bowing himself backward to the office door and then through it, with the staid fervour of an automaton. The princess looked at her brother a polite request to order Provarsk from the room; but the king, through obstinacy, refused to heed it.
"You were about to say, Eloise?" he asked politely, as if the baron had not been present, and therefore had not impertinently added his voice to the conversation.
She had no time to answer; for at that moment there came from the distance a loud roar of many voices, and immediately after the sound of firearms in ragged volley. The effect on the king was as if some one had propelled him with a swift kick out to the balcony, where he gazed anxiously in the direction of the city. The princess, distressed, also moved toward the balcony, while Provarsk grinned pleasantly and seemed to understand the meaning of the sound. He was confident that he alone knew all that was conveyed by that uproar. He rather hoped that enough Markenites had been killed and wounded to make his revolt a good one. He cocked his head intently to listen for further shots, heard the distant clangour of the bells in the city tower, and decided it must be an alarum, and then another noise became audible, the sound of some one hastily coming through the tiled corridors, and this latter noise perplexed him. It grew louder and more distinct, and both king and princess, hearing it, hastily re-entered the room. Stentorian puffs and wheezes were now accompanied by the ringing of boot-heels and spurs, and through the door galloped the Minister of War. He was in full uniform of his own proud design, and the red of his broad sash was no redder than the red of his face. His eyes protruded and were wide, and his hand was on his sword hilt. So fast had been his progress, and so intense his excitement, that for a moment he appeared unable to speak. Then he burst out, "Has any one seen Mr. Kent? Has any one seen Mr. Kent, Your Majesty? Oh, this is horrible. Horrible!"
"I regret to say, sir, that he is not in at present. Any word which Your Excellency might wish to leave will be duly repeated," Provarsk said in admirable imitation of Kent's secretary, and then added, "My goodness! It's all fussed up, isn't it?"
"Everything is lost!" exclaimed the Minister of War, speaking to the king.
"What has happened!" asked the latter, quietly, confronting an issue that brought out his better and fighting qualities.
"Mr. Kent! He told me that he proposed to put the decree through regardless of anything and that if I had to fight, fight it would be; told me to have my army stationed at places named, but said he would be there and that I wasn't to give the command to fire until he told me to. Great crowd! People all excited and restless! Accidentally dropped my glasses and stepped on them! And I've lost the oculist's prescription."
"You're rattled!" said the king, growing still cooler now that he faced an emergency.
"So I am! So I am!" admitted Von Glutz, hastily. "But I couldn't see Mr. Kent anywhere and the crowd grew threatening. I asked if any one of my officers had seen him. No one had. I hurried here to inform him, and on the way I heard shots. It can mean but one thing; that, pressed to the limit, my soldiers have fired, and that Marken is in a state of civil war!"
He paused for want of breath, and the king clenched his hands and made as if to go to the front himself; then whirled and asked sharply, "If he told you to stay there in command of the troops, who is in charge now?"
" General Handers."
The king hesitated; but the princess asked stormily, "Did Mr. Kent say you were to kill the people if a disturbance resulted?"
Von Glutz in his turn hesitated, trying to recall his exact orders.
"On signal from him," he replied.
"Karl ! Karl ! " she called. "Something must be done at once! This will never do. You must act, regardless of your promises to this American. Now! This comes, you see, from your putting yourself into the hands of such a man."
Emboldened by her criticism of the dictator, Baron Provarsk thought he saw his opportunity and assumed an air of extreme honesty and dis- tress.
"The princess is right!" he declared to the king. "It is time to cast off such an incubus be- fore the kingdom itself has gone to the dogs." The princess recognised his presence for the first time.
"What do you mean by that?" she demanded, regarding him sternly.
It nettled him to an unfortunate retort. "I mean that the only way in which affairs can be straightened out is to at once counteract every- thing this fellow Kent has done, and if I had my way he wonld be taken out and shot before the day is over."
At his callons indifference to either justice or life, she gasped, and eyed him with a wide stare. Provarsk wondered if, in overlooking the complex- ities of a woman's mind, he had not made a mis- take; but he was still daring to hope to turn the situation to his own advantage. "If I am to be an actual chancellor, " he began suavely, but was cut short by the princess.
"Which, no matter what happens, you are not to be, and so of course is all useless to talk about ! You would have Mr. Kent shot ! You ! Why, the worst blunders he ever made are sure to be bet- ter than the best things you have ever done. You have told what you would do if you had your way. Well, I'll tell you what I would have done if I had mine! I'd have you booted into the street and through the Market Place. Kent? Whatever else Mr. Kent is, he is a man. No matter if he has made mistakes, and is a money lender, and all that, he is still a real man and unafraid. Who are you, to talk about having him shot?"
She faced her brother as if her last contemp- tuous gibe at Provarsk had been her final one for him, and saw that her brother's eyes were fixed on the door and that Von Glutz also stared in that direction with a look of relief. She also turned and saw that the American had entered the room and was now coming gravely toward her.
"I overheard Your Royal Highness," he said, "and I thank you for your defence. I had not hoped for so much and I am grateful very, very grateful for a friendship that I esteem as of great worth."
She was visibly embarrassed, and took refuge in a diversion.
"What has happened in the Market Place?" both she and the king asked in chorus.
"It's a terrible situation," wheezed Von Glutz. Kent's eyes flickered as if he now understood the cause of the assemblage in his reception room. "In some ways," he said; "but I don't see how I could have acted differently."
"Why didn't you " began the princess im- patiently, and then hesitated and looked at the king.
"Will the princess please finish?" the Ameri- can asked. "I wish you would extend your friend- ship to the point of advice. What would you have done?"
"First of all, I should quell the riot. It comes from misunderstanding. There are no kindlier nor more amenable people, Mr. Kent, than ours. They should not have been fired upon at all."
He stood quietly to one side, listening attentively, as if all his own plans had been defeated.
"I don't see why we waste time talking now," the king declared, impatiently.
"Please, Sire, allow the Princess Eloise to proceed," Kent said. "Her suggestions might be valuable." He turned his face toward her and encouraged her by asking, "And what then? After the riot is quelled?"
"Then they must be dealt with kindly, but with resolute firmness. It will not do to seem to give in to them. They must be made to obey; but there can be a compromise of some sort, can there not? This new plan was too unexpected, too drastic. It would have been better to have prepared them gradually. That would have been my way, Mr. Kent."
She stopped in expectation of his defence, and gazed at him with sympathy and regret, as if wishing to assist him in any way she could now that his plans, all energetic, all hopeful, had gone awry. She had never by word, until this day, credited him with any virtues.
"Thank you," he said quietly, lifting his fine eyes to hers. "I applaud your firmness. It's like encouragement from a friend to hear you talk. But I think, after all, that my way was the best. Something abrupt and sensational had to be done to arouse them. I did it. It worked all right."
All in the room fixed him with looks of interrogation and suspense. The chancellor emitted a sarcastic, "You certainly did!"
"And now we've got a revolution!" grumpily muttered Von Glutz.
Kent was still watching the princess, and had opened his lips as if to explain the situation to her when Ivan came striding into the room, stopped and would have retreated when he saw those present, had not Kent halted him with a gesture.
"Well, Ivan," Kent asked, "have you got them all right now?"
"Yes, sir. Captain Paulo said to tell you that the last of them had been rounded up and that all of them are now in jail. Also that he had followed your instructions and ordered an hour of free refreshments in the name of the king. The Market Place is filled now with people singing the national air and shouting their heads off for His Majesty. They've wrapped a big banner round the clock tower that reads, 'At last we have a king in Marken. God preserve His Majesty, Karl the Second.'"
Kent calmly grinned at Provarsk, whose face had grown black as an August thunder cloud. The king looked bewildered and vastly relieved. Von Glutz exclaimed, "God help us! What does it all mean?" and the Princess Eloise broke into a surprised and gratified smile.
Kent again faced Ivan and asked, "And by the way, did you learn what they have to say about our most noble chancellor, Provarsk?"
Ivan grinned broadly, and with marked enjoyment said, "Yes. Most of the things they said I can't repeat; but I should think it would not be very wise or safe for His Excellency, the Chancellor, to be seen without a good strong guard for a few days, or until this celebration blows over. On that point they dispute among themselves; some being in favour of tar and feathers, while the others insist on hanging."
"You remember of whom you are speaking!" roared Provarsk, betrayed into an unusual display of anger.
"If necessary," said Kent, eyeing him, "I'll see that you are handed over to the mob in the Market Place within the next ten minutes, and with the word that the king agrees with those who want to lynch you."
"You asked my advice a few minutes ago, Mr. Kent," the princess broke in with a malicious little laugh. " Let me offer it. Send him down there now, regardless of whether he has anything more to say."
Provarsk controlled himself and was again the polished, self-contained, and fearless man of the moment. He brought his heels together and bowed very low toward the princess.
"To be hanged by Your Royal Highness' wish would be a happines to me," he said.
" Come ! Come ! We Ve had enough of this, it seems to me," said the king. "If Mr. Kent will but relieve our suspense by explaining what took place "
"Very easily done," the American replied, with the utmost calmness. "I learned that a combina- tion had been effected between a certain number of men to provoke a riot at what they believed a suitable moment. It was to be such a row that it might become a full-grown revolt. I therefore took measures to see that each one of these hired lambs was to be shadowed by a guardsman I could depend upon. The Princess Eloise will be de- lighted to know that these guardsmen consisted of former adherents of a petty baron named Pro- varsk, who have taken service under me per- sonally. Money paid into an itching palm at regu- lar intervals and in sufficient sums, does -make some men loyal. These followers swear by me."
He did not look at the discomfited Provarsk, who affected an air of the utmost indifference and stared absently out toward the garden.
"So," Kent went on, "when the hired disturb- ers started their outburst each one was instantly clapped on the shoulder and carried away to a nice, secure little place protected by iron bars. I gave the people a treat. Talked to them myself and was ahem! received with marked enthusi- asm. The firing you heard was prearranged by me. It was a salvo of joy fired with blank cart- ridges. The ringing of the bells was also arranged by me, to give due dramatic effect. The feeling of love for the chancellor was also stimulated by me. I pointed out that it was he who signed the harsh decree enforcing labour, and suggested that only the unswerving efforts of His Majesty, the King, had ameliorated what might have been a most heart-rending condition of toil. We turned the proposed revolt into a celebration of joy and enthusiasm for His Majesty, who is probably at this moment the best loved man in Marken."
The king threw off royal dignity, and impul- sively tried to express his thanks, but seemed to have trouble with his throat.
As if to relieve himself from an embarrassing position, Kent suddenly swung round toward Pro- varsk, and fixed him with mocking eyes.
"By the way, Chancellor," he asked in a casual tone, "isn't the banker Wimblehurst a friend of yours?"
"It seems to me that I am acquainted with the gentleman," Provarsk replied, not in the least perturbed.
"Too bad! Too bad!" said Kent. "He was the leader of the disturbers. He was the first one I had arrested and put in jail. To-morrow he shall be deported and all his property escheat to the crown."
"Dreadful person!" said Provarsk, with a slight grin.
Kent's eyes lost all mockery and stared harshly at Provarsk with an unmistakable menace.
"Take care, Your Excellency, lest you overwork and the cares of state become too great for your zeal. It would indeed be pitiable if you were suddenly compelled to join that estimable gentleman, your friend the banker, in an equally penniless state."
Provarsk did not waver. He sniffed disdainfully, and with the utmost politeness asked, "Am I to understand that this is a command for my departure?"
"Not at all! Why should it be?" Kent retorted with cynical courtesy. "Oh, no, indeed! You are too good a thing to lose sight of, my gentle chancellor. Why, do you know, you are the most interesting person I have met since the panic of 1903? It is almost unthinkable what might happen to Marken without your presence to guide the ship of state through the reefs of unrest. Also I'm making you popular; as popular as castor oil for a summer beverage."
He waved his hand deprecatingly.
"I am sure," he said, deferentially, "that Your Excellency will pardon, for speaking so feelingly, one who is, after all, but the King's Remembrancer."
"Quite so! Quite so!" retaliated Provarsk, with unbroken nerve. "Let us hope that it doesn't happen again. It's the first time I knew you had any feelings."