Chapter the Third: The Ending of War - Section 7
The Slavic fox stood upon a metal balcony in his picturesque Art Nouveau palace that gave upon the precipice that overhung his bright little capital, and beside him stood Pestovitch, grizzled and cunning, and now full of an ill-suppressed excitement. Behind them the window opened into a large room, richly decorated in aluminium and crimson enamel, across which the king, as he glanced ever and again over his shoulder with a gesture of inquiry, could see through the two open doors of a little azure walled antechamber the wireless operator in the turret working at his incessant transcription. Two pompously uniformed messengers waited listlessly in this apartment. The room was furnished with a stately dignity, and had in the middle of it a big green baize-covered table with the massive white metal inkpots and antiquated sandboxes natural to a new but romantic monarchy. It was the king’s council chamber and about it now, in attitudes of suspended intrigue, stood the half-dozen ministers who constituted his cabinet. They had been summoned for twelve o’clock, but still at half-past twelve the king loitered in the balcony and seemed to be waiting for some news that did not come.
The king and his minister had talked at first in whispers; they had fallen silent, for they found little now to express except a vague anxiety. Away there on the mountain side were the white metal roofs of the long farm buildings beneath which the bomb factory and the bombs were hidden. (The chemist who had made all these for the king had died suddenly after the declaration of Brissago.) Nobody knew of that store of mischief now but the king and his adviser and three heavily faithful attendants; the aviators who waited now in the midday blaze with their bomb-carrying machines and their passenger bomb-throwers in the exercising grounds of the motor-cyclist barracks below were still in ignorance of the position of the ammunition they were presently to take up. It was time they started if the scheme was to work as Pestovitch had planned it. It was a magnificent plan. It aimed at no less than the Empire of the World. The government of idealists and professors away there at Brissago was to be blown to fragments, and then east, west, north, and south those aeroplanes would go swarming over a world that had disarmed itself, to proclaim Ferdinand Charles, the new Caesar, the Master, Lord of the Earth. It was a magnificent plan. But the tension of this waiting for news of the success of the first blow was—considerable.
The Slavic fox was of a pallid fairness, he had a remarkably long nose, a thick, short moustache, and small blue eyes that were a little too near together to be pleasant. It was his habit to worry his moustache with short, nervous tugs whenever his restless mind troubled him, and now this motion was becoming so incessant that it irked Pestovitch beyond the limits of endurance.
‘I will go,’ said the minister, ‘and see what the trouble is with the wireless. They give us nothing, good or bad.’
Left to himself, the king could worry his moustache without stint; he leant his elbows forward on the balcony and gave both of his long white hands to the work, so that he looked like a pale dog gnawing a bone. Suppose they caught his men, what should he do? Suppose they caught his men?
The clocks in the light gold-capped belfries of the town below presently intimated the half-hour after midday.
Of course, he and Pestovitch had thought it out. Even if they had caught those men, they were pledged to secrecy.... Probably they would be killed in the catching.... One could deny anyhow, deny and deny.
And then he became aware of half a dozen little shining specks very high in the blue.... Pestovitch came out to him presently. ‘The government messages, sire, have all dropped into cipher,’ he said. ‘I have set a man——’
‘LOOK!’ interrupted the king, and pointed upward with a long, lean finger.
Pestovitch followed that indication and then glanced for one questioning moment at the white face before him.
‘We have to face it out, sire,’ he said.
For some moments they watched the steep spirals of the descending messengers, and then they began a hasty consultation....
They decided that to be holding a council upon the details of an ultimate surrender to Brissago was as innocent-looking a thing as the king could well be doing, and so, when at last the ex-king Egbert, whom the council had sent as its envoy, arrived upon the scene, he discovered the king almost theatrically posed at the head of his councillors in the midst of his court. The door upon the wireless operators was shut.
The ex-king from Brissago came like a draught through the curtains and attendants that gave a wide margin to King Ferdinand’s state, and the familiar confidence of his manner belied a certain hardness in his eye. Firmin trotted behind him, and no one else was with him. And as Ferdinand Charles rose to greet him, there came into the heart of the Balkan king again that same chilly feeling that he had felt upon the balcony—and it passed at the careless gestures of his guest. For surely any one might outwit this foolish talker who, for a mere idea and at the command of a little French rationalist in spectacles, had thrown away the most ancient crown in all the world.
One must deny, deny....
And then slowly and quite tiresomely he realised that there was nothing to deny. His visitor, with an amiable ease, went on talking about everything in debate between himself and Brissago except——.
Could it be that they had been delayed? Could it be that they had had to drop for repairs and were still uncaptured? Could it be that even now while this fool babbled, they were over there among the mountains heaving their deadly charge over the side of the aeroplane?
Strange hopes began to lift the tail of the Slavic fox again.
What was the man saying? One must talk to him anyhow until one knew. At any moment the little brass door behind him might open with the news of Brissago blown to atoms. Then it would be a delightful relief to the present tension to arrest this chatterer forthwith. He might be killed perhaps. What?
The king was repeating his observation. ‘They have a ridiculous fancy that your confidence is based on the possession of atomic bombs.’
King Ferdinand Charles pulled himself together. He protested.
‘Oh, quite so,’ said the ex-king, ‘quite so.’
‘What grounds?’ The ex-king permitted himself a gesture and the ghost of a chuckle—why the devil should he chuckle? ‘Practically none,’ he said. ‘But of course with these things one has to be so careful.’
And then again for an instant something—like the faintest shadow of derision—gleamed out of the envoy’s eyes and recalled that chilly feeling to King Ferdinand’s spine.
Some kindred depression had come to Pestovitch, who had been watching the drawn intensity of Firmin’s face. He came to the help of his master, who, he feared, might protest too much.
‘A search!’ cried the king. ‘An embargo on our aeroplanes.’
‘Only a temporary expedient,’ said the ex-king Egbert, ‘while the search is going on.’
The king appealed to his council.
‘The people will never permit it, sire,’ said a bustling little man in a gorgeous uniform.
‘You’ll have to make ‘em,’ said the ex-king, genially addressing all the councillors.
King Ferdinand glanced at the closed brass door through which no news would come.
‘When would you want to have this search?’
The ex-king was radiant. ‘We couldn’t possibly do it until the day after to-morrow,’ he said.
‘Just the capital?’
‘Where else?’ asked the ex-king, still more cheerfully.
‘For my own part,’ said the ex-king confidentially, ‘I think the whole business ridiculous. Who would be such a fool as to hide atomic bombs? Nobody. Certain hanging if he’s caught—certain, and almost certain blowing up if he isn’t. But nowadays I have to take orders like the rest of the world. And here I am.’
The king thought he had never met such detestable geniality. He glanced at Pestovitch, who nodded almost imperceptibly. It was well, anyhow, to have a fool to deal with. They might have sent a diplomatist. ‘Of course,’ said the king, ‘I recognise the overpowering force—and a kind of logic—in these orders from Brissago.’
‘I knew you would,’ said the ex-king, with an air of relief, ‘and so let us arrange——’
They arranged with a certain informality. No Balkan aeroplane was to adventure into the air until the search was concluded, and meanwhile the fleets of the world government would soar and circle in the sky. The towns were to be placarded with offers of reward to any one who would help in the discovery of atomic bombs....
‘You will sign that,’ said the ex-king.
‘To show that we aren’t in any way hostile to you.’
Pestovitch nodded ‘yes’ to his master.
‘And then, you see,’ said the ex-king in that easy way of his, ‘we’ll have a lot of men here, borrow help from your police, and run through all your things. And then everything will be over. Meanwhile, if I may be your guest....’ When presently Pestovitch was alone with the king again, he found him in a state of jangling emotions. His spirit was tossing like a wind-whipped sea. One moment he was exalted and full of contempt for ‘that ass’ and his search; the next he was down in a pit of dread. ‘They will find them, Pestovitch, and then he’ll hang us.’
The king put his long nose into his councillor’s face. ‘That grinning brute WANTS to hang us,’ he said. ‘And hang us he will, if we give him a shadow of a chance.’
‘But all their Modern State Civilisation!’
‘Do you think there’s any pity in that crew of Godless, Vivisecting Prigs?’ cried this last king of romance. ‘Do you think, Pestovitch, they understand anything of a high ambition or a splendid dream? Do you think that our gallant and sublime adventure has any appeal to them? Here am I, the last and greatest and most romantic of the Caesars, and do you think they will miss the chance of hanging me like a dog if they can, killing me like a rat in a hole? And that renegade! He who was once an anointed king! . . .
‘I hate that sort of eye that laughs and keeps hard,’ said the king.
‘I won’t sit still here and be caught like a fascinated rabbit,’ said the king in conclusion. ‘We must shift those bombs.’
‘Risk it,’ said Pestovitch. ‘Leave them alone.’
‘No,’ said the king. ‘Shift them near the frontier. Then while they watch us here—they will always watch us here now—we can buy an aeroplane abroad, and pick them up....’
The king was in a feverish, irritable mood all that evening, but he made his plans nevertheless with infinite cunning. They must get the bombs away; there must be a couple of atomic hay lorries, the bombs could be hidden under the hay.... Pestovitch went and came, instructing trusty servants, planning and replanning.... The king and the ex-king talked very pleasantly of a number of subjects. All the while at the back of King Ferdinand Charles’s mind fretted the mystery of his vanished aeroplane. There came no news of its capture, and no news of its success. At any moment all that power at the back of his visitor might crumble away and vanish....
It was past midnight, when the king, in a cloak and slouch hat that might equally have served a small farmer, or any respectable middle-class man, slipped out from an inconspicuous service gate on the eastward side of his palace into the thickly wooded gardens that sloped in a series of terraces down to the town. Pestovitch and his guard-valet Peter, both wrapped about in a similar disguise, came out among the laurels that bordered the pathway and joined him. It was a clear, warm night, but the stars seemed unusually little and remote because of the aeroplanes, each trailing a searchlight, that drove hither and thither across the blue. One great beam seemed to rest on the king for a moment as he came out of the palace; then instantly and reassuringly it had swept away. But while they were still in the palace gardens another found them and looked at them.
‘They see us,’ cried the king.
‘They make nothing of us,’ said Pestovitch.
The king glanced up and met a calm, round eye of light, that seemed to wink at him and vanish, leaving him blinded....
The three men went on their way. Near the little gate in the garden railings that Pestovitch had caused to be unlocked, the king paused under the shadow of an flex and looked back at the place. It was very high and narrow, a twentieth-century rendering of mediaevalism, mediaevalism in steel and bronze and sham stone and opaque glass. Against the sky it splashed a confusion of pinnacles. High up in the eastward wing were the windows of the apartments of the ex-king Egbert. One of them was brightly lit now, and against the light a little black figure stood very still and looked out upon the night.
The king snarled.
‘He little knows how we slip through his fingers,’ said Pestovitch.
And as he spoke they saw the ex-king stretch out his arms slowly, like one who yawns, knuckle his eyes and turn inward—no doubt to his bed.
Down through the ancient winding back streets of his capital hurried the king, and at an appointed corner a shabby atomic-automobile waited for the three. It was a hackney carriage of the lowest grade, with dinted metal panels and deflated cushions. The driver was one of the ordinary drivers of the capital, but beside him sat the young secretary of Pestovitch, who knew the way to the farm where the bombs were hidden.
The automobile made its way through the narrow streets of the old town, which were still lit and uneasy—for the fleet of airships overhead had kept the cafes open and people abroad—over the great new bridge, and so by straggling outskirts to the country. And all through his capital the king who hoped to outdo Caesar, sat back and was very still, and no one spoke. And as they got out into the dark country they became aware of the searchlights wandering over the country-side like the uneasy ghosts of giants. The king sat forward and looked at these flitting whitenesses, and every now and then peered up to see the flying ships overhead.
‘I don’t like them,’ said the king.
Presently one of these patches of moonlight came to rest about them and seemed to be following their automobile. The king drew back.
‘The things are confoundedly noiseless,’ said the king. ‘It’s like being stalked by lean white cats.’
He peered again. ‘That fellow is watching us,’ he said.
And then suddenly he gave way to panic. ‘Pestovitch,’ he said, clutching his minister’s arm, ‘they are watching us. I’m not going through with this. They are watching us. I’m going back.’
Pestovitch remonstrated. ‘Tell him to go back,’ said the king, and tried to open the window. For a few moments there was a grim struggle in the automobile; a gripping of wrists and a blow. ‘I can’t go through with it,’ repeated the king, ‘I can’t go through with it.’
‘But they’ll hang us,’ said Pestovitch.
‘Not if we were to give up now. Not if we were to surrender the bombs. It is you who brought me into this....’
At last Pestovitch compromised. There was an inn perhaps half a mile from the farm. They could alight there and the king could get brandy, and rest his nerves for a time. And if he still thought fit to go back he could go back.
‘See,’ said Pestovitch, ‘the light has gone again.’
The king peered up. ‘I believe he’s following us without a light,’ said the king.
In the little old dirty inn the king hung doubtful for a time, and was for going back and throwing himself on the mercy of the council. ‘If there is a council,’ said Pestovitch. ‘By this time your bombs may have settled it.
‘But if so, these infernal aeroplanes would go.’
‘They may not know yet.’
‘But, Pestovitch, why couldn’t you do all this without me?’
Pestovitch made no answer for a moment. ‘I was for leaving the bombs in their place,’ he said at last, and went to the window. About their conveyance shone a circle of bright light. Pestovitch had a brilliant idea. ‘I will send my secretary out to make a kind of dispute with the driver. Something that will make them watch up above there. Meanwhile you and I and Peter will go out by the back way and up by the hedges to the farm....’
It was worthy of his subtle reputation and it answered passing well.
In ten minutes they were tumbling over the wall of the farm-yard, wet, muddy, and breathless, but unobserved. But as they ran towards the barns the king gave vent to something between a groan and a curse, and all about them shone the light—and passed.
But had it passed at once or lingered for just a second?
‘They didn’t see us,’ said Peter.
‘I don’t think they saw us,’ said the king, and stared as the light went swooping up the mountain side, hung for a second about a hayrick, and then came pouring back.
‘In the barn!’ cried the king.
He bruised his shin against something, and then all three men were inside the huge steel-girdered barn in which stood the two motor hay lorries that were to take the bombs away. Kurt and Abel, the two brothers of Peter, had brought the lorries thither in daylight. They had the upper half of the loads of hay thrown off, ready to cover the bombs, so soon as the king should show the hiding-place. ‘There’s a sort of pit here,’ said the king. ‘Don’t light another lantern. This key of mine releases a ring....’
For a time scarcely a word was spoken in the darkness of the barn. There was the sound of a slab being lifted and then of feet descending a ladder into a pit. Then whispering and then heavy breathing as Kurt came struggling up with the first of the hidden bombs.
‘We shall do it yet,’ said the king. And then he gasped. ‘Curse that light. Why in the name of Heaven didn’t we shut the barn door?’ For the great door stood wide open and all the empty, lifeless yard outside and the door and six feet of the floor of the barn were in the blue glare of an inquiring searchlight.
‘Shut the door, Peter,’ said Pestovitch.
‘No,’ cried the king, too late, as Peter went forward into the light. ‘Don’t show yourself!’ cried the king. Kurt made a step forward and plucked his brother back. For a time all five men stood still. It seemed that light would never go and then abruptly it was turned off, leaving them blinded. ‘Now,’ said the king uneasily, ‘now shut the door.’
‘Not completely,’ cried Pestovitch. ‘Leave a chink for us to go out by....’
It was hot work shifting those bombs, and the king worked for a time like a common man. Kurt and Abel carried the great things up and Peter brought them to the carts, and the king and Pestovitch helped him to place them among the hay. They made as little noise as they could....
‘Ssh!’ cried the king. ‘What’s that?’
But Kurt and Abel did not hear, and came blundering up the ladder with the last of the load.
‘Ssh!’ Peter ran forward to them with a whispered remonstrance. Now they were still.
The barn door opened a little wider, and against the dim blue light outside they saw the black shape of a man.
‘Any one here?’ he asked, speaking with an Italian accent.
The king broke into a cold perspiration. Then Pestovitch answered: ‘Only a poor farmer loading hay,’ he said, and picked up a huge hay fork and went forward softly.
‘You load your hay at a very bad time and in a very bad light,’ said the man at the door, peering in. ‘Have you no electric light here?’
Then suddenly he turned on an electric torch, and as he did so Pestovitch sprang forward. ‘Get out of my barn!’ he cried, and drove the fork full at the intruder’s chest. He had a vague idea that so he might stab the man to silence. But the man shouted loudly as the prongs pierced him and drove him backward, and instantly there was a sound of feet running across the yard.
‘Bombs,’ cried the man upon the ground, struggling with the prongs in his hand, and as Pestovitch staggered forward into view with the force of his own thrust, he was shot through the body by one of the two new-comers.
The man on the ground was badly hurt but plucky. ‘Bombs,’ he repeated, and struggled up into a kneeling position and held his electric torch full upon the face of the king. ‘Shoot them,’ he cried, coughing and spitting blood, so that the halo of light round the king’s head danced about.
For a moment in that shivering circle of light the two men saw the king kneeling up in the cart and Peter on the barn floor beside him. The old fox looked at them sideways—snared, a white-faced evil thing. And then, as with a faltering suicidal heroism, he leant forward over the bomb before him, they fired together and shot him through the head.
The upper part of his face seemed to vanish.
‘Shoot them,’ cried the man who had been stabbed. ‘Shoot them all!’
And then his light went out, and he rolled over with a groan at the feet of his comrades.
But each carried a light of his own, and in another moment everything in the barn was visible again. They shot Peter even as he held up his hands in sign of surrender.
Kurt and Abel at the head of the ladder hesitated for a moment, and then plunged backward into the pit. ‘If we don’t kill them,’ said one of the sharpshooters, ‘they’ll blow us to rags. They’ve gone down that hatchway. Come! . . .
‘Here they are. Hands up! I say. Hold your light while I shoot....’