Roy Norton--The unknown Mr Kent/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

IT was nearly three months later when the various steel manufacturers of the world were stirred and agitated by the announcement that the redoubtable John Rhodes had again been heard from and in a most unsatisfactory way. The manganese deposits, of which there were only two or three of any size on earth, had been secretly bought in, or concessions gained therefor, and word came from the blithe John Rhodes, dated from his London offices, that hereafter manganese would double in price. Steel manufacturers swore volubly, but the market went soaring. Some of the manufacturers used cables and wires to find out if that deposit which was said to exist in a dinky little kingdom called Marken, was open for sale, lease, or concession.

The replies provoked renewed profanity, inasmuch as they tersely said, "Nothing doing. Concession already held by John Rhodes. (Signed) Kent."

And the steel industry of the world threw up its hands in horror and was compelled to submit to unheard of prices for a commodity that was indispensable for all manganese steel. Richard Kent, smiling plaintively in his offices in the palace, found much cause to feel well satisfied. He had "made good" with John Rhodes for life, for on his judgment John Rhodes was making "a killing." Kent could now see the way not only to repay Rhodes all the money advanced to Marken, but in addition thereto was enjoying himself to the uttermost in the development of his big machine of state enterprise.

"I've put Marken on the map, you can bet," he confided to Paulo. "A year ago mighty few people had ever heard of it. To-day it's known everywhere, and there's a nice crowd of kings here in Europe who have a hundred times more power, but who are sick with envy. Marken markets on manganese are quoted daily all over the world. That's going some!"

Daily, also, the American was giving the king lessons in finance that made that dreamer take a new interest in life. The state automobile no longer hooted over the drives, because the king was too busy poring over the books which Kent had caused to be opened for him. Kent assured the king that in due time he would be made into a first-class accountant. He also suggested at times that it would be a fine thing for Her Royal Highness to study stenography and typewriting so she could assist in confidential matters; but at this the king drew the line. Paulo had already succumbed and become as busy an office man as any concern might wish, Von Glutz had been burdened with the department of highways and railways, and could be daily seen inspecting steam rollers and consulting with traffic officials, and the chancellor was the only man about the palace who was entrusted with nothing at all. It began to be rumoured that the king of Marken was due in time to make the distinguished Prince of Monaco look like a deuce spot in the financial world. Meanwhile, Richard Kent, hustling, scheming, sat like a spider in a den and pulled webs from morning to night, and remained the least-known man on the scene. The Markenites liked him and called him, familiarly, the King's Errand Boy, a title to which he made not the slightest objection. But the Princess Eloise was troubled.

Prior to that day in the palace when the throne seemed rocking on its stately legs, the American had striven for her friendship. She had disapproved of him with an intensity that she could not now understand. He had lashed her with gentle, ironical raillery; he had dared to command and subdue her; and then, after the day of her brave championship, when she had wished to be his friend and ally, he had cultivated a studious and aloof politeness. She could not decide which of her actions had caused this change. Surely the man was big enough to fathom her distress and mental harassments in those times of upheaval! From a defiant dislike, she had been won to a grudging respect for his rough, direct methods. She felt that she merited forgiveness for the natural ignorance of one who had never before come in contact with an American, and particularly with such a one. She had come to forget that he was not of her own nationality, which but increased her resentment. She had learned to understand that this alien who came and went, obscure, unobtrusive, unassuming, had in him some marvellous quality of leadership and organisation that needed no trappings to give it dignity and power. And as the success of his methods became positive in realisation, she regretted opportunities, lost, for a better friendship and understanding, with and of such a character. There was embodied in him a strange, new and virile life, a capacity for achievement, that she decided must have been born of that strange, new and virile country from which he had sprung. All her life had been imbued with contempt for such a country, a country of crudities, a colossus with nothing to recommend it save resources and wealth, and now, in the presence of this man from that country, who adroitly twisted all things to his purpose, she felt peculiarly weak and useless. What was there about him, what mysterious quality, that enabled him to set a king at work like a bookkeeper, a former chancellor to hurrying over dusty roads to inspect a public work, and an ardent young soldier like Captain Paulo to the dry task of manipulating funds? She had, with a sense of shame, made pretexts to seek him in those offices that had become driving centres of effort, and sometimes she had surprised him at his work and, unobserved, seen him sitting stockily before a desk where there was a battery of telephones, batteries of push-buttons, and compact reference cards, and noted with admiration the crispness of his commands, and the ordered intelligence of his methods. Her brother had become this man's admiring slave, and appeared to enjoy with him a friendship that was constantly increasing in intimacy. She had looked across from her wing of the palace at late hours on those long summer nights, and when the shades were up and the windows open, seen them lounging together and heard them laughing heartily at their own comments. And, worst of all, her brother was amazingly improved by this contact, for now he moved with a confident air, as if no longer uncertain of himself. The improvement was not without another change that she was not certain she liked; for her brother no longer carried himself with the august dignity of a king; but had fallen to the American's carelessness of dress and dislike of functions. He forgot to change clothes several times a day and formed an affection for an ordinary sack suit, which, she observed with horror, was gradually bagging at the knees. Also, he had cultivated a blotch of ink on the inner sides of his first and second fingers, and was impatient when she spoke to him of this delinquency.

"We've got no time, Kent and I, to waste on pumice stone and perfume!" he declared at the table one evening when she reproached him.

And worst of all, he was eating like a working-man! As if he wanted no amenities and only food. Plain deterioration, she thought it. Also, his conversation had undergone a subtle change. He no longer talked of the standard topics of royalty such as the weather, reports from the last yacht regatta, and the court scandal of neighbouring kingdoms. Instead, he waxed enthusiastic over another electric power plant, of the possibilities of all taxation being remitted, owing to state prosperity, of old age pensions, and how a new way had been found to increase production and lower costs of this or that, by Kent. Always Kent! Kent did this, or Kent said that! Had to lay a cornerstone to-morrow for a new plant, because Kent thought it best. Beastly bore, but Kent insisted that he should do it because the people liked it. Kent ragged him because he laid the last one without enough ceremony.

"But the dignity of the throne!" she remon- strated, highly shocked by his confession.

"Hang all that stuff!" he retorted in vulgar slang, also learned from Kent. "The only thing that counts is what you are doing and how well you get it done. Kent said so, and I want to tell you, Eloise, that what Kent says is good enough for me to go by. We how is it he says it in English? We are making the old dry bones rat- tle!"

She affected contempt for these barbarisms and in distress sought that staid old gentleman, the Minister of War, for consolation ; but here again she was rebuffed.

" Haw ! Haw ! Haw ! " roared Von Glutz. "One can't attend to all things, Your Royal Highness. Of course none of us are as polite as we used to be. Haven't the time. No, indeed."

"There is time for civilities, isn't there 1 ?" she demanded hotly, and the red-faced old man became grave.

"Eloise," he said, "I trotted you and Karl on my knees when you were nothing but babies. I was chancellor under your father. Your grand- father used to pat my head when he met me in these gardens out here. Now listen! I want to tell you something. In all its history there has never been a Marken like this. It's a kingdom, now ! It is going to be able to buy and sell a lot of its neighbours. It's respected. It pays its bills. Its bonds are away above par among the best in the world. If it wants more territory it doesn't have to go to war to get it. It can buy it, outright!"

He even slapped his fat, sun-tanned hand on his knee to emphasise his point, and added, "We were all mistaken. It took a Kent to show us how. He is a great man, Eloise, a very great man. The greatest that ever came to Marken. Why, do you know, I was angry when he used to call me a doddering old fool, and now I know he was right. I like it, I do!"

He threw his head back proudly and defiantly. He, the dignified stately old chancellor, admitted that he was pleased to be called a fool so long as it was this phenomenal alien who called him that ! She ended that interview by lifting her head in the air and passing from the room, and red- dened with annoyance when she thought she heard from behind her a soft, chuckling noise. And then came the worst shock of all. The king had actually gone, with bag-kneed trousers, ink-stained fingers and all, accompanied by Kent only, into the city and attended an evening band concert in the Market Place. And most undignified had been the consequence ; for the people, recognising him, had given him an ovation and with locked arms escorted him home to the very palace gates! When, mortified, she had reproached him for this lack of dignity, the king had casually replied, "To the deuce with it! Say, I've got something that beats all that, and from now on I'm going every night I can find time. What I've found out is that the people like me. There was a baker down there, and his name was Pete ; sort of a man of affairs, I think, who is on the city council, and he made a speech. In a cafe, it was, and I had to make a speech. Kent says that I did well. Says I Ve got them all buffaloed, whatever that is. Says I've got the makings, whatever that is, of a fine orator. And next week I'm going to a ban- quet given by the ironmongers' guild, and Kent says that after this when there's a decree to be read, he wants me to go and read it myself. He says I'm a what is it that he calls it in English? Oh, yes, I'm a good mixer. Kent says I've got to learn how to get acquainted with every one, and yet keep my dignity. Says I must never let any one talk about state affairs, but that I must make them feel that they can come to me when they are in trouble. Says I can get them so that they would die to the man if I asked them to."

"What else did this wonderful Mr. Kent ad- vise!" she asked.

"Said I must never permit any familiarity, but must make them feel that we are all working to- gether to make Marken great ; that as the head of the state I am entitled to respect but that my acts as an individual are open to criticism; said I must learn to submerge myself, and make them think of Marken in the day-time, and dream of it by night. That I must make them proud of being Markenites above all things. That I must make them proud to say that they know the king personally, and earn the reputation of being a just king who could always be depended upon."

"Rank Democracy!" she exclaimed.

"All right. Call it that if you wish; but I tell you I am learning that the way to make men do things for me, is to make them do it because they wish to and not merely because I happen to be the king," he answered, with emphasis, and then she realised that the change had been greater than she had seen, and that her brother had thrown aside all the precedent that had made the dynasty a mysterious potency, because this money lender had shown a new way. She shuddered with apprehension when alone. She resolved to make further efforts to learn this strange man Kent, and if necessary check his aggressions. Something must be done. She had tried defiance with him at various times, and always been worsted. She had tried to approach him on a friendly basis and had been held aloof by his quiet politeness. She resolved to attack his reserve in a more subtle way, by approaching him over ground that was indubitably his weak point.

And so it was that the American, in his private office one morning, was told that Her Royal High- ness the Princess Eloise waited in the reception room. He responded at once and stood before her with his grave air of attention.

"Mr. Kent," she said, smiling up at him, "I have come on affairs of state. "

He wondered, mentally, what this dispute could be about, but said courteously, "I am of course a Your Royal Highness' service."

His steadfast, calm aloofness bothered her.

"Why is it that you do not make use of me ? "

"Make use of you? Make use I scarcely un- derstand."

"Yes, make use of me. I am the only one you do not employ. You have my brother converted to your creed. Baron von Glutz is working harder than he ever did in his life. Captain Paulo has no time for any one or any other occupation than his own affairs. I am the only one left out. Surely I am as much interested as any one, and surely there is something I can do. I came to learn what it is. "

His face relaxed into a warm smile that was his chief charm, a smile that forever came unexpect- edly, that displayed his firm white teeth, that brought little wrinkles to the corners of his clear eyes. Then as if studying the face of a child, he looked at her with an odd kindliness and approval. She was the first to lower her gaze and could not understand why she suddenly felt like a small girl appealing to a very great man.

"Will you not be seated?" she asked and heard him obey. She did not look up until he began to speak, and there was nothing of ridicule, sarcasm, or raillery in his musical voice.

"There is much that you might do, Princess Eloise, if only you understood; but the barrier between a princess and her people, the common people, I mean, is well it's a mighty hard hurdle to take. I don't know much about such things. I wasn't brought up exactly as those of royal families are, you see. I graduated from a sawmill. Outside of lumber kings, and soap kings, and others of that sort, we haven't any kings in America. The way I look at the situa- tion here is this. First we had to make Marken honest and prosperous. To do that we had to make people work, make them all get their shoul- ders to the wheel and shove in the same direction. That far we have got. Next, so that they may keep shoving for all they are worth, we have got to get closer and closer to them ; got to make them loyal to Marken and its ruling house because they want to be so. People can be forced to do things for a while by law ; but that wears off, sometime. People don't have to be forced when they do things through respect and affection. They do them because they want to. Because it's natural for them to do so. Our task now is to win their affection without losing their respect. You could do some very good work in that direction. It would help, materially. It might, sometime, Your Boyal Highness, avert a serious crisis."

"You mean?" she asked earnestly.

"I mean that in the past there has been too much royalty here and not enough people; that the time has come when a let us say a very small place like Marken must begin to wear its clothes differently. When its royal house must stop trying to ape the emperors and kings and -czars of great and powerful nations; drop the royal splendour pretence, and begin to make itself & power in its own way, on new lines, and let all others think whatever they please and be perfectly indifferent to what they do think. You've got to forget that you are a princess, and try to make friends out there. Every one of those women working in the fields, every girl out there of your age, has just as many perplexities, and sorrows, and hopes, and ambitions as you have. They've got just as much right to live and to hope. Doubt- less some of their sorrows and some of their hopes would seem ridiculous to you. Doubtless a lot of your sorrows and hopes would look equally ridiculous to them. So, if you wish to help, and I know you do or you wouldn't be here now, you must go out among them and establish a new line, a common ground, whereon their difficulties no longer seem trivial to you, and yours no longer ridiculous to them. Find a way to rub shoulders with them. They'll not contaminate you. You'll make it a whole lot easier for them. Get to know their names. Help christen their babies. Learn to advise. Learn to accept advice. Make them feel that you are not only a princess, but a woman as well. Why, the proudest title any man ever had in my country, Princess Eloise, was given to a ruler when they commonly called him Old Abe. Everybody knew who Old Abe was. And the rea- son it was the finest title was because they gave it to him from their hearts! A nation fought when he asked them to. A nation wept when Old Abe died."

Some great pathos in his voice, unsuspected from such a man, some prodigious seriousness, impressed and subdued her as she listened. This was not the money lender. Here was one who had pulled the curtain from the alcoves of his mind, and exposed therein something so noble that it brought her, a princess, to her knees. A glimpse had been given her of a fair landscape beyond all that she had ever seen, fairer than she had ever seen, tenderly appealing, warmly alluring, like unto the dream of Parsifal. A land through which she might not pass save through nobility of spirit alone. She was crushed by a sense of littleness, of unworthiness. The American had arisen to his feet and she felt his glowing eyes. She arose, confused by the swift tracery of her thought, and stood before him with bent head and hands clasped before her. She spoke, still under the spell of the dream invoked by his clear insight, but could only stammer, "I am trying — am trying, Mr. Kent, to see. And I understand, now, — and I don't blame you — why you despise me!"

Had she looked up, then, she would have observed the swift look of pain that swept across his face, and his struggle to hold himself in leash. Just for an instant, and then, curbed by his relentless will, it was gone, and he was merely the quiet, inflexible, and kindly man regarding her with serious eyes.

"I did not say that," he rebuked her. "You asked what you could do to help. I tried to help you. You must find the way. I can't. I don't understand women. And because of this, I have most always avoided them. I do know men. I've had to. I've made my way by knowing them. And after all, I may be mistaken in my ideas. Sometimes I think they are foolish; but it seems to me worth thinking over, Princess Eloise, and I've learned that by thinking hard enough, one can almost always find a way. I hope you can, because, you see, you could do a heap of good. This place we're in has no jobs for cripples or pygmies."

She glanced at him to reassure herself that he was not again mocking her; but saw nothing beyond the utmost candour in his look; yet she was secretly pleased to discover, with a woman's intuition, that he felt awkward and embarrassed. She proved merciful to him and to herself, by uttering a single sentence.

"Thank you," she said. "I promise to try."

He bowed deeply to her as she walked from the room without looking back and then for a long time stood with his hands in his pockets and glowered out over the roofs and spires of the city, dimmed and empurpled by the evening glow.