Truxton King A Story of Graustark

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CHAPTER I

TRUXTON KING

He was a tall, rawboned, rangy young fellow with a face so tanned by wind and sun you had the impression that his skin would feel like leather if you could affect the impertinence to test it by the sense of touch. Not that you would like to encourage this bit of impudence after a look into his devil-may-care eyes; but you might easily imagine something much stronger than brown wrapping paper and not quite so passive as burnt clay. His clothes fit him loosely and yet were graciously devoid of the bagginess which characterises the appearance of extremely young men whose frames are not fully set and whose joints are still parading through the last stages of college development. This fellow, you could tell by looking at him, had been out of college from two to five years; you could also tell, beyond doubt or contradiction, that he had been in college for his full allotted time and had not escaped the usual number of "conditions" that dismay but do not discourage the happy-go-lucky undergraduate who makes two or three teams with comparative ease, but who has a great deal of difficulty with physics or whatever else he actually is supposed to acquire between the close of the football season and the opening of baseball practice.

This tall young man in the panama hat and grey flannels was Truxton King, embryo globe-trotter and searcher after the treasures of Romance. Somewhere up near Central Park, in one of the fashionable cross streets, was the home of his father and his father's father before him: a home which Truxton had not seen in two years or more. It is worthy of passing notice, and that is all, that his father was a manufacturer; more than that, he was something of a power in the financial world. His mother was not strictly a social queen in the great metropolis, but she was what we might safely call one of the first "ladies in waiting." Which is quite good enough for the wife of a manufacturer; especially when one records that her husband was a manufacturer of steel. It is also a matter of no little consequence that Truxton's mother was more or less averse to the steel business as a heritage for her son. Be it understood, here and now, that she intended Truxton for the diplomatic service: as far removed from sordid steel as the New York post office is from the Court of St. James.

But neither Truxton's father, who wanted him to be a manufacturing Croesus, or Truxton's mother, who expected him to become a social Solomon, appears to have taken the young man's private inclinations into consideration. Truxton preferred a life of adventure distinctly separated from steel and velvet; nor was he slow to set his esteemed parents straight in this respect. He had made up his mind to travel, to see the world, to be a part of the big round globe on which we, as ordinary individuals with no personality beyond the next block, are content to sit and encourage the single ambition to go to Europe at least once, so that we may not be left out of the general conversation.

Young Mr. King believed in Romance. He had believed in Santa Claus and the fairies, and he grew up with an ever increasing bump of imagination, contiguous to which, strange to relate, there was a properly developed bump of industry and application. Hence, it is not surprising that he was willing to go far afield in search of the things that seemed more or less worth while to a young gentleman who had suffered the ill-fortune to be born in the nineteenth century instead of the seventeenth. Romance and adventure, politely amorous but vigorously attractive, came up to him from the seventeenth century, perhaps through the blood of some swash-buckling ancestor, and he was held enthralled by the possibilities that lay hidden in some far off or even nearby corner of this hopelessly unromantic world of the twentieth century.

To be sure there was war, but war isn't Romance. Besides, he was too young to fight against Spain; and, later on, he happened to be more interested in football than he was in the Japs or the Russians. The only thing left for him to do was to set forth in quest of adventure; adventure was not likely to apply to him in Fifth Avenue or at the factory or—still, there was a certain kind of adventure analogous to Broadway, after all. He thought it over and, after trying it for a year or two, decided that Broadway and the Tenderloin did not produce the sort of Romance he could cherish for long as a self-respecting hero, so he put certain small temptations aside, chastened himself as well as he could, and set out for less amiable but more productive by-ways in other sections of the globe.

We come upon him at last—luckily for us we were not actually following him—after two years of wonderful but rather disillusioning adventure in mid-Asia and all Africa. He had seen the Congo and the Euphrates, the Ganges and the Nile, the Yang-tse-kiang and the Yenisei; he had climbed mountains in Abyssinia, in Siam, in Thibet and Afghanistan; he had shot big game in more than one jungle, and had been shot at by small brown men in more than one forest, to say nothing of the little encounters he had had in most un-Occidental towns and cities. He had seen women in Morocco and Egypt and Persia and—But it is a waste of time to enumerate. Strange to say, he was now drifting back toward the civilisation which we are pleased to call our own, with a sense of genuine disappointment in his heart. He had found no sign of Romance.

Adventure in plenty, but Romance—ah, the fairy princesses were in the story books, after all.

Here he was, twenty-six years old, strong and full of the fire of life, convincing himself that there was nothing for him to do but to drift back to dear old New York and talk to his father about going into the offices; to let his mother tell him over and over again of the nice girls she knew who did not have to be rescued from ogres and all that sort of thing in order to settle down to domestic obsolescence; to tell his sister and all of their mutual friends the whole truth and nothing but the truth concerning his adventures in the wilds, and to feel that the friends, at least, were predestined to look upon him as a fearless liar, nothing more.

For twenty days he had travelled by caravan across the Persian uplands, through Herat, and Meshed and Bokhara, striking off with his guide alone toward the Sea of Aral and the eastern shores of the Caspian, thence through the Ural foothills to the old Roman highway that led down into the sweet green valleys of a land he had thought of as nothing more than the creation of a hairbrained fictionist.

Somewhere out in the shimmering east he had learned, to his honest amazement, that there was such a land as Graustark. At first he would not believe. But the English bank in Meshed assured him that he would come to it if he travelled long enough and far enough into the north and west and if he were not afraid of the hardships that most men abhor. The dying spirit of Romance flamed up in his heart; his blood grew quick again and eager. He would not go home until he had sought out this land of fair women and sweet tradition. And so he traversed the wild and dangerous Tartar roads for days and days, like the knights of Scheherazade in the times of old, and came at last to the gates of Edelweiss.

Not until he sat down to a rare dinner in the historic Hotel Regengetz was he able to realise that he was truly in that fabled, mythical land of Graustark, quaint, grim little principality in the most secret pocket of the earth's great mantle. This was the land of his dreams, the land of his fancy; he had not even dared to hope that it actually existed.

And now, here he was, pinching himself to prove that he was awake, stretching his world-worn bones under a dainty table to which real food was being brought by—well, he was obliged to pinch himself again. From the broad terrace after dinner he looked out into the streets of the quaint, picture-book town with its mediæval simplicity and ruggedness combined; his eyes tried to keep pace with the things that his fertile brain was seeing beyond the glimmering lights and dancing window panes—for the whole scene danced before him with a persistent unreality that made him feel his own pulse in the fear that some sudden, insidious fever had seized upon him.

If any one had told him, six months before, that there was such a land as Graustark and that if he could but keep on travelling in a certain direction he would come to it in time, he would have laughed that person to scorn, no matter how precise a geographer he might have been.

Young Mr. King, notwithstanding his naturally reckless devotion to first impressions, was a much wiser person than when he left his New York home two years before. Roughing it in the wildest parts of the world had taught him that eagerness is the enemy of common sense. Therefore he curbed the thrilling impulse to fare forth in search of diversion on this first night; he conquered himself and went to bed early—and to sleep at once, if that may serve to assist you in getting an idea of what time and circumstances had done for his character.

A certain hard-earned philosophy had convinced him long ago that adventure is quite content to wait over from day to day, but that when a man is tired and worn it isn't quite sensible to expect sleep to be put off regardless. With a fine sense of sacrifice, therefore, he went to bed, forsaking the desire to tread the dim streets of a city by night in advance of a more cautious survey by daylight. He had come to know that it is best to make sure of your ground, in a measure, at least, before taking too much for granted—to look before you leap, so to speak. And so, his mind tingling with visions of fair ladies and goodly opportunities, he went to sleep—and did not get up to breakfast until noon the next day.

And now it becomes my deplorable duty to divulge the fact that Truxton King, after two full days and nights in the city of Edelweiss, was quite ready to pass on to other fields, completely disillusionised in his own mind, and not a little disgusted with himself for having gone to the trouble to visit the place. To his intense chagrin, he had found the quaint old city very tiresome. True, it was a wonderful old town, rich in tradition, picturesque in character, hoary with age, bulging with the secrets of an active past; but at present, according to the well travelled Truxton, it was a poky old place about which historians either had lied gloriously or had been taken in shamelessly. In either case, Edelweiss was not what he had come to believe it would be. He had travelled overland for nearly a month, out of the heart of Asia, to find himself, after all, in a graveyard of great expectations!

He had explored Edelweiss, the capital. He had ridden about the ramparts; he had taken snapshots of the fortress down the river and had not been molested; he had gone mule-back up the mountain to the snowcapped monastery of St. Valentine, overtopping and overlooking the green valleys below; he had seen the tower in which illustrious prisoners were reported to have been held; he had ridden over the King's Road to Ganlook and had stood on American bridges at midnight—all the while wondering why he was there. Moreover, he had traversed the narrow, winding streets of the city by day and night; never, in all his travels, had he encountered a more peaceful, less spirit-stirring place or populace.

Everybody was busy, and thrifty, and law abiding. He might just as well have gone to Prague or Nuremburg; either was as old and as quaint and as stupid as this lukewarm city in the hills.

Where were the beautiful women he had read about and dreamed of ever since he left Teheran? On his soul, he had not seen half a dozen women in Edelweiss who were more than passably fair to look upon. True, he had to admit, the people he had seen were of the lower and middle classes—the shopkeepers and the shopgirls, the hucksters and the fruit vendors. What he wanted to know was this: What had become of the royalty and the nobility of Graustark? Where were the princes, the dukes and the barons, to say nothing of the feminine concomitants to these excellent gentlemen?

What irritated him most of all was the amazing discovery that there was a Cook's tourist office in town and that no end of parties arrived and departed under his very nose, all mildly exhilarated over the fact that they had seen Graustark! The interpreter, with "Cook's" on his cap, was quite the most important, if quite the least impressive personage in town. It is no wonder that this experienced globe-trotter was disgusted!

There was a train to Vienna three times a week. He made up his mind that he would not let the Saturday express go down without him. He had done some emphatic sputtering because he had neglected to take the one on Thursday.

Shunning the newly discovered American club in Castle Avenue as if it were a pest house, he lugubriously wandered the streets alone, painfully conscious that the citizens, instead of staring at him with admiring eyes, were taking but little notice of him. Tall young Americans were quite common in Edelweiss in these days.

One dingy little shop in the square interested him. It was directly opposite the Royal Café (with American bar attached), and the contents of its grimy little windows presented a peculiarly fascinating interest to him. Time and again, he crossed over from the Café garden to look into these windows. They were packed with weapons and firearms of such ancient design that he wondered what they could have been used for, even in the Middle Ages. Once he ventured inside the little shop. Finding no attendant, he put aside his suddenly formed impulse to purchase a mighty broadsword. From somewhere in the rear of the building came the clanging of steel hammers, the ringing of highly tempered metals; but, although he pounded vigorously with his cane, no one came forth to attend him.

On several occasions he had seen a grim, sharp-featured old man in the doorway of the shop, but it was not until after he had missed the Thursday train that he made up his mind to accost him and to have the broadsword at any price. With this object in view, he quickly crossed the square and inserted his tall frame into the narrow doorway, calling out lustily for attention. So loudly did he shout that the multitude of ancient swords and guns along the walls seemed to rattle in terror at this sudden encroachment of the present.

"What is it?" demanded a sharp, angry voice at his elbow. He wheeled and found himself looking into the wizened, parchment-like face of the little old man, whose black eyes snapped viciously. "Do you think I am deaf?"

"I didn't know you were here," gasped Truxton, forgetting to be surprised by the other's English. "The place looked empty. Excuse me for yelling."

"What do you want?"

"That broad—Say, you speak English, don't you?"

"Certainly," snapped the old man. "Why shouldn't I? I can't afford an interpreter. You'll find plenty of English used here in Edelweiss since the Americans and British came. They won't learn our language, so we must learn theirs."

"You speak it quite as well as I do."

"Better, young man. You are an American." The sarcasm was not lost on Truxton King, but he was not inclined to resent it. A twinkle had come into the eyes of the ancient; the deep lines about his lips seemed almost ready to crack into a smile.

"What's the price of that old sword you have in the window?"

"Do you wish to purchase it?"

"Certainly."

"Three hundred gavvos."

"What's that in dollars?"

"Four hundred and twenty."

"Whew!"

"It is genuine, sir, and three hundred years old. Old Prince Boris carried it. It's most rare. Ten years ago you might have had it for fifty gavvos. But," with a shrug of his thin shoulders, "the price of antiquities has gone up materially since the Americans began to come. They don't want a thing if it is cheap."

"I'll give you a hundred dollars for it, Mr.—er—" he looked at the sign on the open door—"Mr. Spantz."

"Good day, sir." The old man was bowing him out of the shop. King was amused.

"Let's talk it over. What's the least you'll take in real money?"

"I don't want your money. Good day."

Truxton King felt his chin in perplexity. In all his travels he had found no other merchant whom he could not "beat down" two or three hundred per cent. on an article.

"It's too much. I can't afford it," he said, disappointment in his eyes.

"I have modern blades of my own make, sir, much cheaper and quite as good," ventured the excellent Mr. Spantz.

"You make 'em?" in surprise.

The old man straightened his bent figure with sudden pride. "I am armourer to the crown, sir. My blades are used by the nobility—not by the army, I am happy to say. Spantz repairs the swords and guns for the army, but he welds only for the gentlemen at court."

"I see. Tradition, I suppose."

"My great-grandfather wrought blades for the princes a hundred years ago. My son will make them after I am gone, and his son after him. I, sir, have made the wonderful blade with the golden hilt and scabbard which the little Prince carries on days of state. It was two years in the making. There is no other blade so fine. It is so short that you would laugh at it as a weapon, and yet you could bend it double. Ah, there was a splendid piece of work, sir. You should see the little toy to appreciate it. There are diamonds and rubies worth 50,000 gavvos set in the handle. Ah, it is—"

Truxton's eyes were sparkling once more. Somehow he was amused by the sudden garrulousness of the old armourer. He held up his hand to check the flow of words.

"I say, Herr Spantz, or Monsieur, perhaps, you are the first man I've met who has volunteered to go into rhapsodies for my benefit. I'd like to have a good long chat with you. What do you say to a mug of that excellent beer over in the Café garden? Business seems to be a little dull. Can't you—er—lock up?"

Spantz looked at him keenly under his bushy brows, his little black eyes fairly boring holes into King's brain, so to speak.

"May I ask what brings you to Edelweiss?" he asked abruptly.

"I don't mind telling you, Mr. Spantz, that I'm here because I'm somewhat of a fool. False hopes led me astray. I thought Graustark was the home, the genesis of Romance, and I'm more or less like that chap we've read about, who was always in search of adventure. Somehow, Graustark hasn't come up to expectations. Up to date, this is the slowest burg I've ever seen. I'm leaving next Saturday for Vienna."

"I see," cackled Spantz, his eyes twinkling with mirth. "You thought you could capture wild and beautiful princesses here just as you pleased, eh? Let me tell you, young man, only one American—only one foreigner, in fact—has accomplished that miracle. Mr. Lorry came here ten years ago and won the fairest flower Graustark ever produced-the beautiful Yetive—but he was the only one. I suppose you are surprised to find Graustark a solid, prosperous, God-fearing little country, whose people are wise and happy and loyal. You have learned, by this time, that we have no princesses for you to protect. It isn't as it was when Mr. Lorry came and found Her Serene Highness in mediæval difficulties. There is a prince on the throne to-day—you've seen him?"

"No. I'm not looking for princes. I've seen hundreds of 'em in all parts of the world."

"Well, you should see Prince Robin before you scoff. He's the mo