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The king, who had been leaning forward, fell back heavily in his seat, his eyes full wide and his mouth agape. Then, to express his utter bewilderment, he raised his hands above his head and limply dropped them.
"Five millions of crowns?" he gasped.
"Yes; what would your Majesty say to such a proposition?" complacently.
"I should say," answered the king, with a nervous laugh, "that my friend had lost his senses, completely and totally."
"The fact is," the Englishman declared, "they were never keener nor more lucid than at this present moment."
"But five millions!"
"Five millions; a bagatelle," smiling.
"Certainly you can not be serious, and if you were, it is out of the question. Death of my life! The kingdom would be at my ears. The people would shout that I was selling out to the English, that I was putting them into the mill to grind for English sacks."
"Your Majesty will recollect that the measure authorizing this loan was rather a peculiar one. Five millions were to be borrowed indiscriminately, of any man or body of men willing to advance the money on the securities offered. First come, first served, was not written, but it was implied. It was this which roused my curiosity, or cupidity, if you will."
"I can not recollect that the bill was as you say," said the king, frowning.
"I believe you. When the bill came to you, you were not expected to recollect anything but the royal signature. Have you read half of what you have signed and made law? No. I am serious. What is it to you or to the people, who secures this public mortgage, so long as the money is forthcoming? I desire to purchase at face value the twenty certificates."
"As a representative of England?"
The diplomat smiled. The king's political ignorance was well known. "As a representative of England, Sire, I could not purchase the stubs from which these certificates are cut. And then, as I remarked, I am an unfettered agent of self. The interest at two per cent. will be a fine income on a lump of stagnant money. Even in my own country, where millionaires are so numerous as to be termed common, I am considered a rich man. My personal property, aside from my estates, is five times the amount of the loan. A mere bagatelle, if I may use that pleasantry."
"Impossible, impossible!" cried the king, starting to his feet, while a line of worry ran across his forehead. He strode about impatiently slapping his boots with the riding stick. "It is impossible."
"Why do you say impossible, Sire?"
"I can not permit you to put in jeopardy a quarter of a million pounds," forgetting for the moment that he was powerless.
"Aha!" the diplomat cried briskly. "There is, then, beneath your weariness and philosophy, a fear?"
"A fear?" With an effort the king smoothed the line from his forehead. "Why should there be fear?"
"Why indeed, when our cousin Josef--" He stopped and looked toward the mountains.
"I was thinking what a fine coup de maitre it would be for his Highness to gather in all these pretty slips of parchment given under the hand of Leopold."
"Small matter if he should. I should pay him." The king sat down. "And it is news to me that Josef can get together five millions."
"He has friends, rich and powerful friends."
"No matter, I should pay him."
"Are you quite sure?"
"What do you mean?"
"The face of the world changes in the course of ten years. Will there be five millions in your treasury ten years hence?"
"The wealth of my kingdom is not to be questioned," proudly, "nor its resources."
"But in ten years, with the ministers you have?" The Englishman shrugged doubtfully. "Why have you not formed a new cabinet of younger men? Why have you retained those of your predecessor, who are your natural enemies? You have tried and failed."
The expression of weariness returned to the king's face. He knew that all this was but a preamble to something of deeper significance. He anticipated what was forming in the other's mind, but he wished to avoid a verbal declaration. O, he knew that there was a net of intrigue enmeshing him, but it was so very fine that he could not pick up the smallest thread whereby to unravel it. Down in his soul he felt the shame of the knowledge that he dared not. A dreamer, rushing toward the precipice, would rather fall dreaming than waken and struggle futilely.
"My friend," he said, finally, sighing, "proceed. I am all attention."
"I never doubted your Majesty's perspicacity. You do not know, but you suspect, what I am about to disclose to you. My hope is that, when I am done, your Majesty will throw Kant and the rest of your philosophers out of the window. The people are sullen at the mention of your name, while they cheer another. There is an astonishing looseness about your revenues. The reds and the socialists plot for revolution and a republic, which is a thin disguise for a certain restoration. Your cousin the duke visits you publicly twice each year. He has been in the city a week at a time incognito, yet your minister of police seems to know nothing." The speaker ceased, and fondled the dahlia in his button-hole.
The king, noting the action, construed it as the subtle old diplomat intended he should. "Yes, yes! I am a king only for her sake. Go on. Tell me all."
"The archbishop and the chancellor are the only friends you possess. The Marshal, from personal considerations merely, remains neutral. Your army, excepting the cuirassiers, are traitors to your house. The wisest thing you have done was to surround yourself with this mercenary body, whom you call the royal cuirassiers, only, instead of three hundred, you should have two thousand. Self-interest will make them true to you. You might find some means to pay them, for they would be a good buffer between you and your enemies. The president of the Diet and the members are passing bills which will eventually undermine you. How long it will take I can not say. But this last folly, the loan, which you could have got on without, caps the climax. The duke was in the city last week unknown to you. Your minister of finance is his intimate. This loan was a connivance of them all. Why ten years, when it could easily be liquidated in five? I shall tell you. The duke expects to force you into bankruptcy within that time, and when the creditor demands and you can not pay, you will be driven from here in disgrace.
"And where will you go? Certainly not to Osia, since you traded it for this throne. It was understood, when you assumed the reign, that the finances of the kingdom would remain unimpeachable. Bankrupt, the confederation will be forced to disavow you. They will be compelled to restore the throne to your enemy, who, believe me, is most anxious to become your creditor.
"This is an independent state,--conditionally. "The confederation have formed themselves into a protectorate. Why? I can only guess. One or more of them covet these beautiful lands. What are ten years to Josef, when a crown is the goal? Your revenues are slowly to decline, there will be internal troubles to eat up what money you have in the treasury. O, it is a plot so fine, so swiftly conceived, so cunningly devised that I would I were twenty years younger, to fight it with you! But I am old. My days for acting are past. I can only advise. He was sure of his quarry, this Josef whose hair is of many colors. Had you applied to the money syndicates of Europe, the banks of England, France, Germany, or Austria, your true sponsor, the result would always be the same: your ruin. Covertly I warned you not to sign; you laughed and signed. A trap was there, your own hand opened it. How they must have laughed at you! If you attempt to repudiate your signature the Diet has power to overrule you.
"Truly, the shade of Macchiavelli masks in the garb of your cousin. I admire the man's genius. This is his throne by right of inheritance. I do not blame him. Only, I wish to save you. If you were alone, why, I do not say that I should trouble myself, for you yourself would not be troubled. But I have grown to love that child of yours. It is all for her. Do you now understand why I make the request? It appears Quixotic? Not at all. Put my money in jeopardy? Not while the kingdom exists. If you can not pay back, your kingdom will. Perhaps you ask what is the difference, whether I or the duke becomes your creditor? This: in ten years I shall be happy to renew the loan. In ten years, if I am gone, there will be my son. You wonder why I do this. I repeat it is for your daughter. And perhaps," with a dry smile, "it is because I have no love for Josef."
"I will defeat him!" cried the king, a fire at last shining in his eyes.
"You will not."
"I will appeal to the confederation and inform them of the plot."
"The resource of a child! They would laugh at you for your pains. For they are too proud of their prowess in statecraft to tolerate a suspicion that your cousin is a cleverer man than all of them put together. There remains only one thing for you to do."
"And what is that?" wearily.
"Accept my friendship at its true value."
The king made no reply. He set his elbows on the arms of the rustic seat, interlaced his fingers and rested his chin on them, while his booted legs slid out before him. His meditation lengthened into several minutes. The diplomat evinced no sign of impatience.
"Come with me," said the king, rising quickly. "I will no longer dream. I will act. Come."
The diplomat nodded approvingly; and together they marched toward the palace. The bulldog trotted on behind, his pink tongue lolling out of his black mouth, a white tusk or two gleaming on each side. The Lieutenant of the cuirassiers saluted as they passed him, and, when they had gone some distance, swung in behind. He observed with some concern that his Majesty was much agitated.
The business of the kingdom, save that performed in the Diet, was accomplished in the east wing of the palace; the king's apartments, aside from the state rooms, occupied the west wing. It was to the business section that the king conducted the diplomat. In the chamber of finance its minister was found busy at his desk. He glanced up casually, but gave an ejaculation of surprise when he perceived who his visitors were.
"O, your Majesty!" he cried, bobbing up and running out his chair. "Good afternoon, your Excellency," to the Englishman, adjusting his gold-rimmed glasses, through which his eyes shone pale and cold.
The diplomat bowed. The little man reminded him of M. Thiers, that effervescence of soda tinctured with the bitterness of iron. He understood the distrust which Count von Wallenstein entertained for him, but he was not distrustful of the count. Distrust implies uncertainty, and the Englishman was not the least uncertain as to his conception of this gentleman of finance.
There were few men whom the count could not interpret; one stood before him. He could not comprehend why England had sent so astute a diplomat and politician to a third-rate kingdom. Of that which we can not understand we are suspicious, and the guilty are distrustful. Neither the minister of police nor his subordinates could fathom the purpose of this calm, dignified old man with the difficult English name.
"Count," began the king, pleasantly, "his Excellency here has made a peculiar request."
"And what might that be, Sire?"
"He offers to purchase the entire number of certificates issued to-day for our loan."
"Five millions of crowns?" The minister's astonishment was so genuine that in jerking back his head his glasses slipped from his nose and dangled on the string.
The Englishman bowed again, the wrinkle of a smile on his face.
"I would not believe him serious at first, count," said the king, laughing easily, "but he assured me that he is. What can be done about it?"
"O, your Majesty," cried the minister, excitedly, "it would not be politic. And then the measure--"
"Is it possible that I have misconstrued its import?" the diplomat interposed with a fine air of surprise.
"You are familiar--" began the count, hesitatingly.
"Perfectly; that is, I believe so."
"Has nothing whatever to do with the matter. Something greater, which goes by the name of self-interest."
"Ah," said the count, his wrinkles relaxing; "then it is on your own responsibility?"
"But five millions of crowns--two hundred and fifty thousand pounds!" The minister could not compose himself. "This is a vast sum of money. We expected not an individual, but a syndicate, to accept our securities, to become debtors to the various banks on the continent. But a personal affair! Five millions of crowns! The possibilities of your wealth overwhelm me."
The Englishman smiled. "I dare say I have more than my share of this world's goods. I can give you a check for the amount on the bank of England."
"Your Majesty's lamented predecessor--"
"Is dead," said the king gently. He had no desire to hear the minister recount that ruler's virtues. "Peace to his ashes."
"Five millions of crowns!" The minister had lost his equipoise in the face of the Englishman's great riches, of which hitherto he had held some doubts. Suddenly a vivid thought entered his confused brain. The paper cutter in his hand trembled. In the breathing space allowed him he began to calculate rapidly. The king and the diplomat had been in the garden; something had passed between them. What? The paper cutter slowly ceased its uneven movements. The count calmly placed it behind the inkwells. . . . . The Englishman knew. The glitter of gold gave way to the thought of the peril. A chasm yawned at his feet. But he was an old soldier in the game of words and cross-purposes.
"We should be happy to accord you the privilege of becoming the kingdom's creditor," he said, smiling at the diplomat, whom nothing had escaped. "I am afraid, however, that your request has been submitted too late. At ten o'clock this morning the transfer of the certificates would have been a simple matter. There are twenty in all; it may not be too late to secure some of them." He looked tranquilly from the Englishman to the king.
The smiling mask fell from the king's face; he felt that he was lost. He tried to catch his friend's eye, but the diplomat was deeply interested in the console of the fireplace.
"They seem to be at a premium," the Englishman said, "which speaks well for the prosperity of the country. I am sorry to have troubled you."
"It would have been a pleasure indeed," replied the count. He stood secure within his fortress, so secure that he would have liked to laugh.
"It is too bad," said the king, pulling his thoughts together.
"Your Majesty is giving the matter too much importance," said the diplomat. "It was merely a whim. I shall have the pleasure and honor of presenting my successor this evening."
The count bent low, while the king nodded absently. He was thinking that a penful of ink, carelessly trailed over a sheet of paper, had lost him his throne. He was about to draw the arm of the diplomat through his own, when his step was arrested by the entrance of a messenger who presented a letter to the minister of finance.
"With your Majesty's permission," he said, tearing open the envelope. As he read the contents, his shoulders sank to their habitual stoop and benignity once more shone in the place of alertness. "Decidedly, fate is not with your Excellency to-day. M. Jacobi writes me that four millions have already been disposed of to M. Everard & Co., English bankers in the Konigstrasse, who are representing a French firm in this particular instance. I am very sorry."
"It is of no moment now," replied the Englishman indifferently.
The adverb which concluded this declaration caught the keen ear of the minister, who grew tall again. What would he not have given to read the subtle brain of his opponent, for opponent he knew him to be! His intense scrutiny was blocked by a pair of most innocent eyes.
"Well," said the king impatiently, "let us be gone, my friend. The talk of money always leaves a copperish taste on my tongue."
Arm in arm they passed from the chamber. When the door closed behind them, the minister of finance drew his handkerchief across his brow.
"Everard & Co.," mused the Englishman aloud. "Was it not indeed a stroke for your cousin to select them as his agents? You will in truth be accused of selling out to the English. But there is a coincidence in all this."
"I am lost!" said the king.
"On the contrary, you are saved. Everard & Co. are my bankers and attorneys; in fact, I own an interest in the firm."
"What is this you tell me?" cried the king.
"Sire, we English have a peculiar trait; it is asking for something after we have taken it. The human countenance is a fine picture book. I should like to read that belonging to your cousin Josef, providing I could read unobserved."
"My friend!" said the king.
"Say nothing. Here is the bulldog; take him to her Royal Highness with my compliments. There is no truer friend than an animal of his breed. He is steadfast in his love, for he makes but few friends; he is a good companion, for he is undemonstrative; he can read and draw inferences, and your enemies will be his. I shall bid you good afternoon. God be with your Majesty."
"Ah, to lose you now!" said, the king, a heaviness in his heart such as presentiment brings.
The diplomat turned and went down the grand corridor. The bulldog tugged at his chain. Animals are gifted with prescience. He knew that his master had passed forever out of his life. Presently he heard the voice of the princess calling; and the glamour of royalty encompassed him,--something a human finds hard to resist, and he was only a dog.
Meanwhile another messenger had entered the chamber of finance and had gone. On the minister's desk lay a crumpled sheet of paper on which was written:
"Treason and treachery! It has at this moment been ascertained that, while pretending to be our agents in securing the consols, M. Everard & Co. now refuse to deliver them into the custody of Baron von Rumpf, as agreed, and further, that M. Everard & Co. are bankers and attorneys to his Excellency the British minister. He must not leave this city with those consols."
With his eyes riveted on these words, the minister of finance, huddled in his chair, had fallen into a profound study.
There were terrible times in the house of Josef that night.
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