The Weight of the CrownFred M. White / Actions & Adventure
THE WEIGHT OF THE CROWN
FRED. M. WHITE
Author ofTregarthen's Wife The Robe of LuciferThe Crimson Blind etc.
R. F. Fenno & Company, _Publishers_18 East Seventeenth Street, New York City
Ward Lock & Co. Limited: London1906
Copyright 1904.By Transatlantic Press, Ltd.
CHAP. PAGE I WITHOUT A FRIEND 7 II A DESPERATE VENTURE 18 III ON GUARD 30 IV THE WARNING LIGHT 36 V DEEPER STILL 43 VI THE PERIL SPEAKS 49 VII UNEASY LIES THE HEAD 55 VIII THE VERY MAN 61 IX PONGO 72 X A FRIEND AT COURT 78 XI IN THE GARDEN 84 XII A PRODIGAL SON 90 XIII THE MODERN JOURNALIST 96 XIV BAFFLED! 102 XV THE SEARCH 108 XVI WAS IT RUSSIA? 114 XVII A BOW AT A VENTURE 120 XVIII WATCHING 126 XIX THE QUEST OF THE PAPERS 132 XX A SPECIAL EFFORT 138 XXI FOREWARNED, FOREARMED 144 XXII THE TRAIL GROWS 150 XXIII GENERAL MAXGREGOR 156 XXIV AT THE WINDOW 162 XXV AN UNEXPECTED HONOUR 168 XXVI LOYAL SILENCE 174 XXVII LECHMERE TO THE RESCUE 180 XXVIII THE POWER OF THE PRESS 186 XXIX IN MAXGREGOR'S CHAMBERS 192 XXX HER FRIEND, THE QUEEN 198 XXXI A SURPRISE FOR JESSIE 204 XXXII NO TIME TO LOSE 210 XXXIII THE FISH ON THE LINE 216 XXXIV A ROYAL ACTOR 222 XXXV A RACE FOR A THRONE 228 XXXVI ANNETTE TELLS A STORY 234 XXXVII CROSS PURPOSES 240 XXXVIII ON BROKEN GROUND 246 XXXIX IN THE CAMP OF THE FOE 252 XL THIN ICE 258 XLI ANNETTE AT BAY 264 XLII THE COUNTESS RETURNS 271 XLIII IN SEARCH OF THE KING 277 XLIV DEAD! 283 XLV CHECK! 289 XLVI MATE IN TWO MOVES 295 XLVII THE SITUATION IS SAVED 301 XLVIII THE PAPERS AT LAST 307 XLIX LOVE AND ROSES 313
THE WEIGHT OF THE CROWN
WITHOUT A FRIEND
The girl stood there fighting hard to keep back the tears from her eyes.The blow had been so swift, so unexpected. And there was the hurt to herpride also.
Do I understand that I am dismissed, Madame? Jessie Harcourt askedquietly. You mean that I am to go at the end of the week?
The little woman with the faded fair hair and the silly affectation offashion was understood to say that Miss Harcourt would go at once. Theproprietress of the fashionable millinery establishment in Bond Streetchose to call herself Madame Malmaison, though she was London to thecore. Her shrill voice shook a little as she spoke.
You are a disgrace to the establishment, she said. I am sorry youever came here. It is fortunate for me that Princess Mazaroff took theproper view so far as I am concerned. Your conduct was infamous,outrageous. You go to the Princess to try on hats for her Highness, andwhat happens? You are found in the library engaged in a bold flirtationwith her Highness's son, Prince Boris. Romping together! You sufferedhim to kiss you. When the Princess came here just now and told me thestory, I was----
It is a lie, Jessie burst out passionately. A cowardly lie on thepart of a coward. Why did not that Russian cad tell the truth? He cameinto the drawing-room where I was waiting for the Princess. Don'tinterrupt me, I must speak, I tell you.
Madame Malmaison subsided before the splendid fury of Jessie's anger.She looked more like a countess than a shop girl as she stood there withher beautiful eyes blazing, the flash of sorrow on her lovely face.Madame Malmaison had always been a little proud of the beauty and graceand sweetness of her fitter-on. Perhaps she felt in her heart of heartsthat the girl was telling the truth.
I hope I am a lady, Jessie said a little more gently--at any rate, Itry to remember that I was born one. And I am telling the truth--notthat it matters much, seeing that you would send us all into the gutterrather than offend a customer like the Princess. That coward said hismother was waiting for me in the library. He would show me the way. Thenhe caught me in his arms and tried to kiss me. He wanted me to go tosome theatre with him to-night. He was too strong for me. I thought Ishould have died of shame. Then the Princess came in, and all the angerwas for me. And that coward stood by and shirked the blame; he let itpass that I had actually followed him into the library.
The girl was telling the truth, it was stamped on every word that shesaid. Madame Malmaison knew it also, but the hard look on her greedyface did not soften.
You are wasting my time, she said. The Princess naturally prefers herversion of the story. And she has demanded your instant dismissal. Youmust go.
Jessie said no more. There was proud satisfaction in the fact that shehad conquered her tears. She moved back to the splendid show-room withits Persian carpets and Louis Seize furniture as if nothing hadhappened. She had an idea that Madame Malmaison believed her, and thatthe latter would be discreet enough to keep the story from the otherhands. And Jessie had no friends there. She could not quite bringherself to be friendly with the others. She had not forgotten the dayswhen Colonel Harcourt's daughter had mixed with the class of people whomshe now served. Bitterly Jessie regretted that she had ever taken upthis kind of life.
But unhappily there had been no help for it. Careless, easy-goingColonel Harcourt had not troubled much about the education of his twogirls; and when the crash came and he died, they were totally unfittedto cope with the world. The younger girl, Ada, was very delicate, and soJessie had to cast about to make a living for the two. The next sixmonths had been a horror.
It was in sheer desperation that Jessie had offered her services toMadame Malmaison. Here was the ideal fitter-on that that shrewd ladyrequired. She was prepared to give a whole two guineas a week forJessie's assistance, and the bargain was complete.
Well, it was all over, anyway, now, Jessie told herself. She wasdismissed, and that without a character. It would be in vain for her toapply to other fashionable establishments of the kind unless she wasprepared to give some satisfactory reason for leaving Madame Malmaison.Her beauty and grace and charm would count for nothing with rivalmanagers. The bitter, hopeless, weary struggle was going to begin allover again. The two girls were utterly friendless in London. In all thetragedy of life there is nothing more sad and pathetic than that.
Jessie conquered the feeling of despair for the moment. She had all herthings to arrange; she had to tell the girl under her that she wasleaving for good to-night. She had had a dispute with Madame Malmaison,she explained, and she would not return in the morning. Jessie wassurprised at the steadiness of her own voice as she gave theexplanation. But her cold fingers trembled, and the tears were veryheavy in the beautiful eyes. Jessie was praying for six o'clock now.
Mechanically she went about her work. She did not heed or hear thechatter of her companions; she did not see that somebody had handed hera note. Somebody said that there was no answer, and Jessie merelynodded. In the same dull way she opened the letter. She saw that thepaper was good, she saw that the envelope bore her name. There was noaddress on the letter, which Jessie read twice before having the mostremote idea of its meaning.
A most extraordinary letter, Jessie decided, when at length she hadfixed her mind into its usual channel. She read it again in the light ofthe sunshine. There was no heading, no signature.
I am writing to ask you a great favour (the letter ran). I should haveseen you and explained, but there was no time. If you have any heart andfeeling you cannot disregard this appeal. But you will not ignore it,however, because you are as good and kind as you are beautiful. Thehappiness of a distressed and miserable woman is in your hands. Will youhelp me?
But you will help me, I am certain. Come to 17, Gordon Gardens,to-night at half-past nine o'clock. Come plainly dressed in black, andtake care to wear a thick black veil. Say that you are the young personfrom Forder's in Piccadilly, and that you have called about the dress.That is all that I ask you to do for the present. Then you will see me,and I can explain matters fully. Dare I mention money in connection withthis case? If that tempts you, why the price is your own. L500, L1,000await you if you are bold and resolute.
There was nothing more, no kind of clue to the identity of the writer.Jessie wondered if it were some mistake; but her name was most plainlywritten on the envelope. It had been left by a district messenger boy,so that there was no way of finding out anything. Jessie wondered if shehad been made the victim of some cruel hoax. Visions of a decoy rosebefore her eyes.
And yet there was no mistake about the address. Gordon Gardens was oneof the finest and most fashionable squares in the West End of London.Jessie fluttered over the leaves of the _London Directory_. There wasGordon Gardens right enough--Lady Merehaven. The name was quite familiarto her, though the lady in question was not a customer of MadameMalmaison's. All this looked very genuine, so also did the letter withthe passionate, pleading tone behind the somewhat severe restraint of itall. Jessie had made up her mind.
She would go. Trouble and disappointment had not soured the nobility ofher nature. She was ready as ever to hold out a helping hand to those indistress. And she was bold and resolute, too. Moreover, as she toldherself with a blush, she was not altogether indifferent to the money.Only a few shillings stood between her and Ada and absolute starvation.L500 sounded like a fortune.
I'll go, Jessie told herself. I'll see this thing to the bitter end,whatever the adventure may lead to. Unless, of course, it is somethingwrong or dishonest. But I don't think that the writer of the lettermeans that. And perhaps I shall make a friend. God knows I need one.
The closing hour came, and Jessie went her way. At the corner of NewBond Street a man stood before her, and bowed with an air of suggestedpoliteness. He had the unmistakable air of the dissipated life; he waswell dressed, and handsome, in a picturesque way. But the mouth underthe close-cropped beard was hard and sensual; the eyes had that in themthat always fills the heart of a girl with disgust.
I have been waiting for you, the man said. You see I know yourhabits. I am afraid you are angry with me.
I am not angry with you at all, Jessie said coldly. You are not worthit, Prince Boris. A man who could play the contemptible cur as youplayed it this morning----
But, _ma cherie_, what could I do? Madame la Princess, my mother, holdsthe purse-strings. I am in disfavour the most utter and absolute. If mymother comes to your establishment and says----
The Princess has already been. She has told her version of the story.No doubt she heartily believes that she has been told the truth. I havebeen made out to be a scullery girl romping with the page boy. My wordwas as nothing against so valuable a client as the Princess. I amdischarged without a character.
Prince Boris stammered something, but the cruel light of triumph in hiseyes belied his words. Jessie's anger flamed up passionately.
Stand aside and let me pass, she said; And never dare to address meagain. If you do, I will appeal to the first decent man who passes, andsay you have grossly insulted me. I have a small consolation in theknowledge that you are not an Englishman.
The man drew back abashed, perhaps ashamed, for his dark face flushed.He made no attempt to detain Jessie, who passed down the street with hercheeks flaming. She went on at length until she came to one of thesmaller byways leading out of Oxford Street, and here, before ashabby-looking house, she stopped and let herself in with a latchkey. Ina bare little room at the top of the house a girl was busy painting. Shewas a smaller edition of Jessie, and more frail and delicate. But thesame pluck and spirit were there in Ada Harcourt.
What a colour! the younger girl cried. And yet--Jessie, what hashappened? Tell me.
The story was told--indeed, there was no help for it. Then Jessieproduced her mysterious letter. The trouble was forgotten for the timebeing. The whole thing was so vague and mysterious, and moreover therewas the promise of salvation behind it. Ada flung her paint brush asidehastily.
You will go? she cried. With an address like that there can be nodanger. I am perfectly certain that that is a genuine letter, Jess, andthe writer is in some desperate bitter trouble. We have too many ofthose troubles of our own to ignore the cry of help from another. Andthere is the money. It seems a horrible thing, but the money is a soretemptation.
Jessie nodded thoughtfully. She smiled, too, as she noted Ada's flushed,eager face.
I am going, she said. I have quite made up my mind to that. I amgoing if only to keep my mind from dwelling on other things. Besides,that letter appeals to me. It seems to be my duty. And as you say, thereis the money to take into consideration. And yet I blush even to thinkof it.
Ada rose and walked excitedly about the room. The adventure appealed toher. Usually in the stories it was the men only to whom these excitingincidents happened. And here was a chance for a mere woman todistinguish herself. And Jessie would do it, too, Ada felt certain. Shehad all the courage and resolution of her race.
It's perfectly splendid! Ada cried. I feel that the change of ourfortunes is at hand. You are going to make powerful friends, Jessie; weshall come into our own again. And when you have married the prince, Ihope you will give me a room under the palace roof to paint in. But youmust not start on your adventure without any supper.
Punctual to the moment Jessie turned into Gordon Gardens. Her heart wasbeating a little faster now; she half felt inclined to turn back andabandon the enterprise altogether. But then such a course would havebeen cowardly, and the girl was certainly not that. Besides, there wasthe ever unceasing grizzly spectre of poverty dangling before Jessie'seyes. She must go on.
Here was No. 17 at length--a fine, double-fronted house, the big doors ofwhich stood open, giving a glimpse of the wealth and luxury beyond.Across the pavement, to her surprise, Jessie noticed that a breadth ofcrimson cloth had been unrolled. The girl had expected to find thehouse still and quiet, and here were evidences of social festivities.Inside the hall two big footmen lounged in the vestibule; a row of hatstestified to the fact that there were guests here to dinner. A dooropened somewhere, and a butler emerged with a tray in his hand.
As the door opened there was a pungent smell of tobacco smoke, followedby a bass roll of laughter. Many people were evidently dining there.Jessie felt that she needed all her courage now.
It was only for a moment that the girl hesitated. She was afraid totrust her own voice; the great lump in her throat refused to beswallowed. Then she walked up the scarlet-covered steps and knocked atthe door. One of the big footmen strolled across and asked her herbusiness.
I am the young person from Forder's, in Piccadilly, Jessie said, witha firmness that surprised herself. I was asked by letter to come hereat this hour to-night.
Something about a dress? the footman asked flippantly. I'll send andsee.
A moment later and the lady's maid was inviting Jessie up the stairs. Asrequested, the girl had dressed herself in black; she wore a blacksailor hat with a dark veil. Except in her carriage and the strikinglines of her figure, she was the young person of the better classmillionaire's shop to the life. She came at length to a dressing-room,which was evidently about to be used by somebody of importance. Thedressing-room was large and most luxuriously fitted; the contents of asilver-mounted dressing-bag were scattered over the table between thebig cheval glasses; on a couch a ball dress had been spread out. Jessiebegan to understand what was going on--there had been a big dinnerparty, doubtless to be followed presently by an equally big reception.One of the blinds had not been quite drawn, and in the garden beyond shecould see hundreds of twinkling fairy lamps. The adventure was beginningto appeal to her now; she was looking forward to it with zeal andeagerness.
My mistress will come to you in a moment, the maid said, in the toneof one who speaks to an equal. Only don't let her keep you any longerthan you can help. The sooner you are done, the sooner I shall be ableto finish and get out. Good night!
The maid flitted away without shutting the door. Jessie's spirits roseas she looked about her. There could be no possible chance of personaldanger here. Jessie would have liked to have raised her veil to get abetter view of all these lovely things that would appeal to a femininemind, but she reflected that the black veil had been strongly insistedupon.
A voice came from somewhere, a voice asking somebody also in a whisperto put the lights out. This command was repeated presently in a hurriedway, and Jessie realized that the voice was addressing her. Without aminute's hesitation she crossed over to the door and flicked out thelights. Well, the adventure was beginning now in real earnest, Jessietold herself. The voices whispered something further, and then in thecorridor Jessie saw something that rooted her to the spot. In perfectdarkness herself, she could look boldly out into the light beyond. Shesaw the figure of a man half led and half carried between two women--oneof them being in evening dress. The man's face was as white as death.He was either very ill or very near to death, Jessie could see; his eyeswere closed, and he dragged his limbs after him like one in the laststage of paralysis. One of the ladies in evening dress was elderly, herhair quite gray; the other was young and handsome, with a commandingpresence. On her hair she wore a tiara of diamonds, only usuallyaffected by those of royal blood. She looked every inch a queen, Jessiethought, as with her strong gleaming arms she hurried the stricken manalong. And yet there was a furtive air about the pair that Jessie didnot understand at all.
The phantom passed away quietly as it had come, like a dream; the triovanished, and close by somebody was closing a bedroom door gently, as iffearful of being overheard. Jessie rubbed her eyes as if to make surethat the whole thing had not been a delusion. She was still ponderingover that strange scene in a modern house, when there came the quickswish of drapery along the corridor, and somebody flashed into the roomand closed and locked the door. That somebody was a woman, as the trailof skirts testified, but Jessie rose instantly to the attitude of self.
She had not long to wait, for suddenly the lights flashed up, and a girlin simple evening dress stood there looking at Jessie. There was aplacid smile on her face, though her features were very white andquivering.
How good of you! she said. God only knows how good of you. Will youplease take off your hat, and I will...? Thank you. Now stand side byside with me before the glass. Is not that strange, Miss Harcourt? Doyou see the likeness?
Jessie gasped. Side by side in the glass she was looking at the veryimage of herself!