Rediscovered Fiction: “The Alterkrontz Conspiracy”

[Editor’s Note: For many years, I’ve been a big fan of Ishbel Ross’s novels, especially Promenade Deck, but I also admire of her life story: the first woman to work as a fulltime reporter for a New York daily paper, among many other accomplishments. Promenade Deck was a huge bestseller in the early 1930s, a beautifully written novel that works superficially as a page-turning soap opera as well as, at a deeper level, a searing and outrageously hilarious satire of wealth and privilege; but it is rather obscure today, unjustifiably. So some years ago, when I was editing a magazine called “Audere,” I was thrilled to discover that Ross might have published a piece of short fiction in Harper’s Weekly at the tender age of 15, under a pseudonym, “N. G. Smith”; I tracked it down and prepared it for publication. But a few things were off. Ross would have been eight years old in 1903, when the story was published. OK, maybe she lied about her age. But she didn’t lie about her age. Also, it didn’t really seem good enough to be a Ross original! Another source attributes the story to a different trail-blazing female journalist, maybe, Nixola Greeley-Smith. I realized that this is almost-certainly not a forgotten and then rediscovered short story by the great Ishbel Ross. But I’d worked hard proofing it. And it hadn’t seen print in 117 years. And the illustrations are nice, and the story is kind of sweet in its mixture of romance and politics. And, again, I worked hard on it. It’s grown in my estimation, a bit, in the years since. So here it is again, our “Fiction Friday” feature for today.]

IT TOOK SEVEN DAYS to make the world and forty to destroy it.” The ex-Chancellor smiled. “For thirty years, I have labored to upbuild this kingdom. In six months it shall be no more. Ritzler,” he said, and turned half-condescendingly to the earnest man at his elbow. “Together we must inevitably triumph.”

The other nodded.

“If it were not for the Crown-Princess,” he said, finally, “there would be nothing easier. His Majesty, as you know, can’t live through the year.”

The knob turned, and the door swung open, revealing a young man who looked about him with a slow deliberateness that in a person of more energy might have been curiosity.

“What the devil are you doing here?” the Count asked, angrily.

“You don’t seem to be glad to see me,” said the young man. “Hello, Ritzler!”

The ex-Chancellor looked at his son, and his face relaxed. “Seriously, Fritz,” he said, “you ought not to be here at this time. And you interrupted a sale. But” — turning to Ritzler — “if I decide to take the horses, I’ll let you know by four o’clock.”

Ritzler rose and bowed with some formality. “At your service, Chancellor, at any time,” he said. “Good morning, Count.”

The old man sighed. “Now you are here, what are you going to do with yourself?” he asked. “I suppose you’ve already been made to feel that I am no longer Chancellor.”

“Can’t say I have. I met Prince Ludwig at the club, and he insisted that I go to the ball to-night. Wants me to see his royal fiancée. It’s a pity any woman should have to marry that little scrub. By the way, he says she’s pretty.”

“Yes,” replied the ex-Chancellor, “she is.”

“IT IS RATHER WARM for dancing,” the young Prince was saying, “but I have known it warmer. I remember the night that I came of age.” What happened on that evening the Princess never knew. In that instant her eyes, resting on Fritz von Linden, grew large and wonderfully lustrous, and her face became as suddenly white.

“Take me where I can get a breath of air!” she said. And not waiting for his answer, she led the way to the near-by balcony. “I have danced too much and need the air. You may come for me in five minutes.”

His Royal Highness rose with alacrity. “I’ll smoke a cigar and come back,” he said, and stepped into the ball-room.

The Princess was relieved to be alone. She closed her eyes, and before she opened them again, she knew that von Linden had stepped from the window onto the balcony. Dazed by his audacity, she was hardly conscious that, feigning to see her for the first time, he stammered, “I beg your pardon!” and started, very slowly, to withdraw.

It was then she remembered her rank and its privileges with a sudden thrill of pleasure.

“Will you get me a glass of water?” she said calmly.

When von Linden returned, she drank the water slowly, and she looked at him critically between sips.

“You are the new lord-in-waiting?” she asked, finally.

“No,” said von Linden.

The brevity of his answer was annoying.

“I thought you must be. I don’t think I ever saw you before,” she continued.

 “Possibly not, your Highness.” His manner was frankly admiring, and his forgetfulness of her rank was contagious.

“Oh, I know who you are!” she conceded. “You are the Chancellor’s son.”

“Yes,” he said, smiling, “or rather the ex-Chancellor. How did you know?”

She hesitated, then lowered her eyes. “I think I known you must have from description. I have heard the maids of honor talk about you.”

The young man hesitated. “I had never seen your Highness before tonight,” he began.

“I have no liberty in town,” she interrupted. Then added meditatively: “We are going to the summer palace next week, you know. At Kronheim I run about quite like a country girl and take long rides or walks in the woods. We have a summer-house overlooking the Stretnitz Valley where I sometimes sit for hours in the afternoons. It is such a relief to be alone.”

“But Prince Ludwig will accompany you.”

“No. He says it would be too quiet for him. But he will visit us from time to time. I think we will stay there till — ” She paused, overcome with a sudden emotion.

“Till your Royal Highness’s marriage,” he concluded.

“Till the autumn,” she amended, quickly.

The night air had become oppressive, surcharged with the cloying odor of roses that bloomed below. Far off in the palace garden a fountain plashed, and from within came the notes of a Strauss waltz. But the Princess did not hear the music, nor smell the roses, nor yield to the soft influences of the night. For the young man bending over her seemed to have absorbed the beauty of the earth and sky, to exhale the freshness of spring and the ardor of its sunshine. She felt his gaze upon her face, and the next instant his fingers closed over hers. She felt, she knew that he was about to kiss her, and all the danger of the situation rushed upon her. Her rank, her betrothal, her own self-respect, but for one moment she experienced what seemed the obsession of all sensation, perhaps one of those short eclipses of the moral sense which the good know only in dreams; the next he had kissed her, and then more shocked than she at his presumption, sank to his knees in an appeal for forgiveness that was nevertheless a tremulous protestation of love. But the Princess had risen to her feet, her face and neck suffused.

“I must go in,” she said, in a dazed way.

Von Linden rose also. “Please forgive me,” he pleaded.

She looked at him, and her eyes softened. “It must have been my fault, or it couldn’t have happened,” she said; then added, tremulously, as she moved away, “I will forgive you if you will forget it.”

Von Linden bent his head. “I prefer to remain unforgiven,” he said, and looking up saw that she had gone. For a moment he wondered if she had heard him.

IN THE COURSE of the succeeding fortnight young von Linden smoked a little more, and perhaps played a little higher than was his custom. And he wondered at intervals whether the Princess, in telling him she was going to Kronheim where she often went about alone, had meant to give him a rendezvous.

It was one day while in this shifting mood of indecision that the ex-Chancellor said to him, “Fritz, when are you going to Kronheim?”

The question had presented itself to his own mind so often that mechanically he gave the stereotyped reply, “I don’t know that I’ll go at all.”

The next morning, however, when he remarked that he thought of running up to Paris for a day or so, his father received the announcement in apparent good faith. and remarking that it might do him good, stirred his coffee, reflectively. And the same afternoon when the Princess Isabel, looking tired and slightly pale from the heat, took her way to the little summer-house overlooking the Stretnitz Valley, the figure which she had expected to see for some time suddenly appeared, and she slackened her place a little. As she stood, slender, dark, glowing with delight in his presence, she seemed so little the Princess he reverenced and so much the woman he loved that von Linden at once lost sight of the barrier’s absence and the common sense of the morning after had raised between them.

“Your Highness is glad to see me?” he asked, as he kissed the hand she extended.

“Don’t call me your Highness!” she answered. “It reminds me of a rank you must try to make me forget.”

“I would have to forget it myself first,” he hazarded.

She looked at him between half-closed lids. “Such things have happened,” she smiled. “But they must never happen again!” she added, quickly.

Von Linden laughed. “Does the Princess say that or the woman?” he asked.

She sat down. “I think it ought to be both, don’t you? A house divided against itself cannot stand,” she added.

Then involuntarily she touched his arm with a light caressing movement. “I am so glad you have come.” she said. “Prince Ludwig is expected this afternoon. Is it anything to you that they will make me marry him?”

Her remark recalled to von Linden all the difficultly of a situation, which in the enjoyment of the moment he had forgotten.

“You needn’t have him unless you like,” he protested.

He smiled bitterly. Had she guessed the wild dreams he had been indulging as he sat beside her, and meant to shatter them with a careless word? But the next moment she added, “You know there is very little choice in princes.”

“Then a prince is not your ideal? What is your ideal?” he asked abruptly.

She turned and looked at him.

“What a magnificent view!” said a voice behind them. Von Linden sprang to his feet. Small, complacent, self-assured, His Royal Highness nodded to him. “This is an unexpected pleasure,” he said, glibly. “They told me I’d find you alone, Isabel. Von Linden, what are you doing here, more than twenty miles from a dice-box?”

It was a long speech for His Royal Highness, and delivered with much apparent ease. In reply, the Princess greeted him cordially and simply. Of the three, only von Linden seemed embarrassed, and perceiving this she turned to him, smiling. “I am afraid Ludwig wants me to think you a gambler, Count.”

“A gambler!” echoed Prince Ludwig. “I rather think so. He plays for higher stakes than any man in Europe.”

Isabel looked at him in amazement. There was no mistaking the purport of his words.

“And generally wins them?” she added.

FOR A MONTH the King treated his daughter’s refusal to marry Prince Ludwig as a joke; indeed, not until their return to the capital did he realize that she was wholly serious in her determination. Since their meeting at Kronheim, the Princess had not seen von Linden, but the day after his departure he had received a slip of paper upon which the announcement of the rupture of her engagement was written by a woman. It had puzzled him greatly at first, but after ten minutes’ reflective smoking it occurred to him that it might have come from her, and as he heard nothing about it at the clubs, this soon grew to be a conviction. And he had written her several notes which in some way found their way to her hands. Short, disconnected, sincere, and with a tendency to anti-climax, they nevertheless served to sustain her during many stormy interviews with the King. But where argument had failed, where abuse of and threats against von Linden had been met with contemptuous silence, entreaty half prevailed. In one culminating scene, her father, older and more broken than she had ever seen him, had by an appeal to her honor as a member of the reigning house, and to her filial affection, extracted a half promise that she would do as he wished, and had left her. For ten minutes she held back the tears, but when the room began to swim, and her head seemed full to bursting, she flung herself upon her bed and wept. How long she never knew. She was aroused by a knock at her door.

“Your Highness,” said the young woman who entered, “Chancellor von Alter and Count Mindheim ask an audience.”

“Now?” said the Princess, startled. “What can they want with me?” But, red-eyed and with disheveled hair, she walked into her drawing-room.

The old Chancellor bowed over her hand, then looked at her long and gently, but did not speak.

“You asked for me?” she began, in a puzzled voice.

His glance turned to Count Mindheim, as though for assistance, but the Count did not break the silence. “We bring your Majesty sad news,” he said at last. “The King was stricken with apoplexy while driving in the park.” Then, in a voice that was scarcely audible, “He is dead….”

ISABEL, QUEEN OF ALTERKRONTZ! She looked at herself in her trailing black and wondered if she could be the creature of careless moods and fancies of a year before. The week succeeding her father’s death had been full of bustle and incident; save in her sleeping hours she had not had a moment’s solitude. She saw once more the swollen body as it lay in state, the somber pageantry of the majestic funeral that had been followed by countless interviews with self-important ministers whose attitude seemed to blend deference to the Queen and condescension to the woman.

The outcome of these interviews she hardly knew; she had signed the papers brought her, reading them sometimes, but without grasping their meaning. One brief conversation with von Alter she remembered clearly; it concerned her marriage.

“I hesitate to approach your Majesty upon such a subject at this time,” he had begun, “but your Majesty is at an age when it is natural to think of marriage. Among the princes whose proposals are known to you, has your Majesty any choice?”

“No,” she answered, curtly, “none.”

“I may infer, then, they are all equally acceptable?”

“Equally unacceptable.”

There was a silence. “Has your Majesty anyone else in view?” he had asked, finally. “The question of your Majesty’s choice of a husband is one of paramount importance. The situation in the country is one that needs a strong hand and a united ministry to meet it. It would be a relief to have these minor questions settled as soon as possible.”

These minor questions!

The young Queen almost laughed.

“I will consider your suggestions, Baron,” she said, and the slight tinge of weariness in her voice closed the interview.

Perhaps the person most aggrieved by the King’s death in all the country had been ex-Chancellor von Linden, for with the news his slowly maturing plans of vengeance had collapsed. His enemy, the man who had humiliated him by his ingratitude, was dead. He had no longer any desire to make Alterkrontz a republic. He certainly bore the young Queen no ill will. Perhaps, if she were really in love with his son — but, even so, the thing was impossible. Nevertheless, the fires of an unquenchable ambition rose in his heart, and within twenty-four hours he had notified Ritzler that their agreement to overthrow the government was at an end. It was two days later he determined to get some definite grasp of the situation from his son. Touching a bell, he said to the old servant who answered it, “Send the young Count to me.”

When his son entered, the ex-Chancellor looked at him gravely.

Friedrich,” he began.

The young man looked puzzled, then his face broadened into its slow smile. He remembered that when he was a child, his father had never called him Friedrich except when about to flog him.

“Tell me just how matters stand between you and the Queen,” he continued. “It is important that I should know.”

For three minutes young von Linden puffed slowly at his cigarette, then he answered, “Between the Queen and myself there is nothing.”

His father sighed impatiently. “You know what I mean!” he exclaimed. “When I last spoke to you of the then-Crown princess, you were desperately in love with her. What was the situation at the time of the King’s death?”

“It would be hard to say,” he laughed harshly. “If the Princess had been a dairy-maid and I a gardener’s assistant, I suppose we might have been considered engaged. But,” he added, with assumed carelessness, “of course it is all over now.”

“I don’t know that,” was the reply. “ You are taking a man’s point of view. There is no accounting for women.”

Young von Linden sighed. A servant entered and handed the ex-Chancellor a note.’ One glimpse of the handwriting and the young man sprang forward. “ That must be for me!” he said.

Young von Linden read it.

“Please come to the Palace at once. Isabel.”

He laughed joyously. Then he turned to the waiting man-servant. “Who brought this?”

“An orderly. He appeared to be in a great hurry to go, and said you were to follow him. The streets are full of strikers,” the man added. “The order for a general strike went out at four this morning.”

The ex-Chancellor started. Ritzler was evidently playing it alone. But Fritz had already arisen.

“We must go at once,” he said.

It was five blocks to the Quentin Boulevard, and along it fifteen to the Palace. The side streets seemed deserted, but the avenue was thronged, not with its usual holiday crowd, but with groups of excited strikers.

When they reached the Palace, they saw that already a large crowd had gathered about its gates, above which rose the royal lions massively impressive.

They were shown into the Queen’s apartment. Fritz von Linden’s eyes, eagerly seeking Isabel, ignored the group of gray-bearded men gathered about a table and saw only the slender figure at its head, and in the answering glow of her eves and the sudden trembling of the fingers that rested on the green table he read that she was glad of his presence.

She walked to the window where he was standing. “Let us go out,” she said, indicating a small balcony. “ We are nothing more than spectators, you and I.”

She put her arm in his, and for a moment they stood reflected in a large mirror; then they passed out. Suddenly there was a succession of crashes. and from the windows above a shower of shivered glass. The Queen sprang forward. She was no longer frightened, but determined. She surveyed the crowd below. She raised her hand as a sign that she wished to speak to them.

“I don’t know what you want,” she said. “ Perhaps you do not. But if there is anything I am responsible for it can soon be remedied. If you have any leader who can guarantee protection to my people, I will surrender the Palace to him and the crown to you.”

Then she turned to von Linden, who now stood beside her, fluent and dazed by the sudden turn of events.

“My reign is over,” she sighed, wearily.

He took her hand and kissed it, holding her eyes with his.

“No,” he said, smiling brightly, “it has just begun.”

Stay in the Know

Sign up for our newsletter.

Email List Subscribe Form