The Lad and the Lion

Chapter Seven

Edgar Rice Burroughs

IT WAS the seventeenth birthday of Prince Ferdinand. He and the king were no longer prisoners in the palace. They went abroad almost as they pleased, though they were always well guarded. The iron hand of General Count Sarnya had kept peace in the kingdom, an armed, suspicious peace that had filled the jails and the cemeteries with “Martyrs” and “friends of the people” and other witless ones who got no thanks for their pains and seldom even a decent burial.

Ferdinand enjoyed the pomp and ceremony attendant upon the celebration of this anniversary. He loved the fawning and the eulogizing. He would probably have loved it even had he known that it was false, but he did not. He was too self-centered and egotistical to realize how cordially he was hated. He would not have cared much, had he known; for he looked with contempt upon all creatures below him in rank; and some day he would be king—highest of all. He loved only one person besides himself—Hilda; but he hated many. He hated Sarnya, because Sarnya was more powerful than he. He hated him and feared him. When he became king, he promised himself, Sarnya would be replaced. He even planned on disgracing him.

He hated his father, too, partly because his father feared Sarnya even more than he did, and partly because his father, by living, prevented Ferdinand from becoming king. He had a few friends among the sons of the nobility; but perhaps it would be better to say acquaintances, for these all hated him cordially. Among these, the closest to him was young Count Lomsk, an archsycophant of his own age who was already dissolute and lecherous.

As the long day gave way to evening and the evening drew toward a close, even Ferdinand became bored. He and Max Lomsk put their heads together and sought for a plan of escape. The king had already withdrawn, which made it possible for Ferdinand to do likewise. Lomsk went into the gardens after Ferdinand had retired to his apartments, and presently Ferdinand joined him there. It was not late, and there were still lights in the gardener’s cottage at the far end of the palace grounds. The two youths stopped in the shadows of some shrubbery that grew near the cottage; then Ferdinand whistled.

Hans de Groot, who had been admitted to the Royal Military Academy, was home on leave. He heard the whistle and recognized it. He remembered the first time he had seen Ferdinand kiss Hilda. It had been only something to laugh about then; now it was quite different—Hilda was sixteen and Ferdinand seventeen. Now he heard Hilda’s door open and close. He listened. Yes, the back door of the cottage was cautiously opened and as cautiously closed again. Hans could stand it no longer—Crown Prince or not, he was going to have it out with Ferdinand. He had no right to compromise Hilda in this way. Hans jumped out of bed and into his uniform as quickly as he could, but when he reached the garden he could see nothing of Hilda or Ferdinand—not even at the bench where they had met in years past. He hurried through the garden toward the palace and as he passed the great gates he saw a girl and two men enter a limousine and drive away. The girl was Hilda, and one of the men was Ferdinand.

There was a sudden tightening of the muscles of Hans’ heart. A wave of nausea surged through him as he realized his helplessness. He could not follow them, for he had neither automobile nor money. He paced up and down the garden, determined to wait until they returned; and there was murder in his heart.

The car stopped in the city and picked up the pretty daughter of a cobbler; then it drove on out into the country to the hunting lodge in the woods. There were always servants and food and wine at the hunting lodge.

.     .     .     .     .

“I tell you,” said Carlyn, “that we have got to do something. Our people are becoming discouraged. We must do something to give them new hope.”

“What would you suggest?” “If we could get a promise out of Ferdinand that he would kick Sarnya out and grant us the new constitution when he became king, that would be something,” said Carlyn.

“And what would we offer Ferdinand in return?” “The crown and his life. He would be glad to rule without constant fear of assassination.” “He would probably want to know just how we were going to hand the crown over to him,” suggested Andresy.

“Had you thought of that?” “It would be only in the event that an accident befell his father. I have it on good authority that the two dislike one another most cordially and that Ferdinand is anxious to become king; so it might not be too difficult to obtain his cooperation.” “I wonder if he would keep his promises to us,” mused Andresy.

“His life would be the stake.” “I am commencing to wish,” said Andresy, “that we had left well enough alone. The old king was a good king and Michael was a fine lad. If we only had him here now.” “Well, we haven’t. There is no question but that he is dead. Old Jagst’s body was found floating in his life belt; so we are sure that Michael went down with the ship; even though his body was never found. There were two hundred others that were never found, and no one has ever suggested that any of them might be alive.” “Meyer was too rabid and too radical,” said Carlyn. “He wanted to accomplish everything at a single stroke. I can see now that he was wrong.” “Meyer wanted to, be dictator,” said Andresy. “He was mad for power, and too anxious to obtain it quickly. That came first with Meyer, the welfare of the people second. It is strange what small, remote things may affect the destiny of a nation.” “What do you mean?” asked Carlyn.

“Because Meyer, as a child, was suppressed and beaten by his father; because, on that account, he had a feeling of inferiority, he craved autocratic power that would permit him to strike back in revenge. Meyer did not realize it himself; but whenever he struck at government, he was striking at his father. When he ordered the assassination of the king, he was condemning his father to death in revenge for the humiliation and brutalities the father had inflicted on him. Now the king is dead and Michael and Meyer and Bulvik and hundreds of the men and women who believed in Meyer; but Meyer’s father is still alive, basking in the reflected glory of his martyred son. Life is a strange thing, Carlyn. Civilization is strange and complex. The older I grow, the more I realize how little any of us know what it is all about. Why do we strive? Everything we attain always turns put to be something we do not want, and then we try to change it for something else that will be equally bad. Oh, well, but I suppose that we must keep on. How do you plan to kill the king?”

Carlyn started, as though caught red-handed in a crime. “God!” he exclaimed; “Don’t spring it on me like that.”

Andresy laughed. “You have nerves, haven’t you? I never would have believed it. I shall put it in a more emasculated style. What accident will befall the king? And how will it happen?”

“It will take a little time, thanks to Sarnya’s most efficient guarding of his royal meal ticket,” replied Carlyn; “but I have a plan. First we must approach Ferdinand and obtain his promise of the reforms we desire; then I must be reinstated in the army. That can, I think, be accomplished through the influence of Ferdinand. It was only the little matter of a gambling debt anyway that got me cashiered. I shall try to get back into the Guard; then, some day I shall be detailed for duty inside the palace grounds. That is all I ask.”

“That, and a decent burial?” asked Andresy.

“I shall not be caught. I am not so anxious as was Bulvik to become a martyr.”

.     .     .     .     .

It was after midnight, the birthday guests had departed, but the king was still closeted with Sarnya when the officer of the guard asked for an audience.

The king looked up at him irritably. “What now?” he demanded. “Can’t you perform your duties without annoying me?”

“I am sorry, Your Majesty,” said the officer; “but I thought I should report this to you personally.”

“Well what is it?” snapped the king.

“Prince Ferdinand’s valet has informed me that His Royal Highness is not in his apartments and that he cannot locate him anywhere in the palace.”

“Has he looked in the garden?” demanded the king.

“I think not, Sir:”

“Search the grounds, then; and report back to me.”

Hans de Groot paced back and forth in the shadows of the trees and shrubbery that his father had tended and nursed for many years. The white heat of his first anger had passed. He felt cold now, cold with bitterness and resentment and hate. He had always hated Ferdinand, ever since he could remember; but never before had he wanted to kill him.

He saw someone approaching from the palace, and drew back farther into the shadows. As the figure passed nearer one of the few night lights in the gardens, Hans saw that it was that of an officer, and that he was evidently searching the grounds. He was coming in Hans’ direction; and the youth, not wishing to be discovered, drew back farther among the bushes. It was this movement that revealed him to the searcher.

“Hey, there!” called the officer. “Who’s that?” Hans did not answer. “If it is you, Your Highness, say so: and come out. If you don’t, I shall have to shoot.”

“You don’t have to shoot,” said Hans. “I’ll come out.” He walked toward the officer.

“Who are you?” demanded the latter.

“I am Hans de Groot. My father is chief gardener.”

“What are you doing here?” “I could not sleep. I was just walking,” replied Hans.

“You were not walking; you were hiding. Why did you hide?” Hans made no reply. “You had better answer me or you will get into trouble. Have you seen Prince Ferdinand in the gardens?” Still Hans kept silent. The Dutch are a determined race, not easily coerced. “Very well then, come with me. There are ways to make you speak. You are under arrest.”

It is one thing to defy a captain of the guard; quite another to defy a king. Hans was trembling with nervousness when he found himself facing Otto.

“What were you doing in the gardens this time of night?” demanded the king.

“I—I was waiting for my sister to come home.” “Where is your sister?”

“I don’t know, Sir.”

The king’s eyes narrowed. “Who is she with?” “I—I please, Your Majesty, I would rather not say,” stammered the unhappy Hans. It was one thing to demand an accounting himself; quite another to be forced to inform on Ferdinand and Hilda. He had much pride, too. He did not want the king to know that Hilda had—oh, what had she done? Maybe she had done nothing wrong. Hans wished that his father had never left Holland; that he, Hans was dead; that he had never been born.

“It doesn’t make any difference what you would rather do,” thundered the king. “Who is she with?”

“She was with two men,” faltered Hans.

“Who are they?”

“It was quite dark, Your Majesty; and I was not close. They jumped into a limousine and drove away before I could reach the gates.”

“Was one of them Prince Ferdinand?” Otto almost shouted.

Hans nodded. “Y—yes, Your Majesty.”

.     .     .     .     .

“I think we should go home,” said Hilda. “It is very late. If my father catches me getting in at this hour, I don’t know what he might do.”

“It is only one o’clock,” objected Max, “just the beginning of the evening. We haven’t had any fun at all yet. What do you suppose we brought you girls out here for, anyway? — to turn right around and go back?”

“Aw, come on, Hilda, don’t be a spoil-sport,” urged Ferdinand, drawing the girl down on the sofa beside him and kissing her.

It was then that the door opened and the king and Sarnya stepped into the room.

.     .     .     .     .

“I wonder,” said one undergardener to another, “why they discharged de Groot. He was a fine fellow and a splendid gardener. They will look a long time before they find his equal.”

“There is no accounting for what kings do,” said his fellow.

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