Part 7 out of 7
would be necessary, Casanova asked the Count for the loan of thirty
gold sequins. Asquino answered him gently that, in the first place,
they would not need money to escape; that, in the second, he had a
numerous family; that, in the third, if Casanova perished the money
would be lost; and that, in the fourth, he had no money.
"My reply," writes Casanova, "lasted half an hour."
"Let me remind you," he said in concluding his exhortation, "of your
promise to pray for us, and let me ask you what sense there can be
in praying for the success of an enterprise to which you refuse to
contribute the most necessary means."
The old man was so far conquered by Casanova's eloquence that he
offered him two sequins, which Casanova accepted, since he was not
in case to refuse anything.
Thereafter, as they sat waiting for the moon to set, Casanova found
his earlier estimate of the monk's character confirmed. Balbi now
broke into abusive reproaches. He found that Casanova had acted in
bad faith by assuring him that he had formed a complete plan of
escape. Had he suspected that this was a mere gambler's throw on
Casanova's part, he would never have laboured to get him out of his
cell. The Count added his advice that they should abandon an
attempt foredoomed to failure, and, being concerned for the two
sequins with which he had so reluctantly parted, he argued the case
at great length. Stifling his disgust, Casanova assured them that,
although it was impossible for him to afford them details of how
he intended to proceed, he was perfectly confident of success.
At half-past ten he sent Soradici -who had remained silent throughout
- to report upon the night. The spy brought word that in another
hour or so the moon would have set, but that a thick mist was rising,
which must render the leads very dangerous.
"So long as the mist isn't made of oil, I am content," said Casanova.
"Come, make a bundle of your cloak. It is time we were moving."
But at this Soradici fell on his knees in the dark, seized Casanova's
hands, and begged to be left behind to pray for their safety, since
he would be sure to meet his death if he attempted to go with them.
Casanova assented readily, delighted to be rid of the fellow. Then
in the dark he wrote as best he could a quite characteristic letter
to the Inquisitors of State, in which he took his leave of them,
telling them that since he had been fetched into the prison without
his wishes being consulted, they could not complain that he should
depart without consulting theirs.
The bundle containing Balbi's clothes, and another made up of half
the rope, he slung from the monk's neck, thereafter doing the same
in his own case. Then, in their shirt-sleeves, their hats on their
heads, the pair of them started on their perilous journey, leaving
Count Asquino and Soradici to pray for them.
Casanova went first, on all fours, and thrusting the point of his
spontoon between the joints of the lead sheeting so as to obtain a
hold, he crawled slowly upwards. To follow, Balbi took a grip of
Casanova's belt with his right hand, so that, in addition to making
his own way, Casanova was compelled to drag the weight of his
companion after him, and this up the sharp gradient of a roof
rendered slippery by the mist.
Midway in that laborious ascent, the monk called to him to stop.
He had dropped the bundle containing the clothes, and he hoped that
it had not rolled beyond the gutter, though he did not mention which
of them should retrieve it. After the unreasonableness already
endured from this man, Casanova's exasperation was such in that
moment that, he confesses, he was tempted to kick him after this
bundle. Controlling himself, however, he answered patiently that
the matter could not now be helped, and kept steadily amain.
At last the apex of the roof was reached, and they got astride of
it to breathe and to take a survey of their surroundings. They
faced the several cupolas of the Church of Saint Mark, which is
connected with the ducal palace, being, in fact, no more than the
private chapel of the Doge.
They set down their bundles, and, of course, in the act of doing
so the wretched Balbi must lose his hat, and send it rolling down
the roof after the bundle he had already lost. He cried out that
it was an evil omen.
"On the contrary," Casanova assured him patiently, "it is a sign
of divine protection; for if your bundle or your hat had happened
to roll to the left instead of the right it would have fallen into
the courtyard, where it would be seen by the guards, who must
conclude that some one is moving on the roof, and so, no doubt,
would have discovered us. As it is your hat has followed your
bundle into the canal, where it can do no harm."
Thereupon, bidding the monk await his return, Casanova set off
alone on a voyage of discovery, keeping for the present astride
of the roof in his progress. He spent a full hour wandering along
the vast roof, going to right and to left in his quest, but failing
completely to make any helpful discovery, or to find anything to
which he could attach a rope. In the end it began to look as if,
after all, he must choose between returning to prison and flinging
himself from the roof into the canal. He was almost in despair,
when in his wanderings his attention was caught by a dormer window
on the canal side, about two-thirds of the way down the slope of
the roof. With infinite precaution he lowered himself down the
steep, slippery incline until he was astride of the little dormer
roof. Leaning well forward, he discovered that a slender grating
barred the leaded panes of the window itself, and for a moment
this grating gave him pause.
Midnight boomed just then from the Church of Saint Mark, like a
reminder that but seven hours remained in which to conquer this and
further difficulties that might confront him, and in which to win
clear of that place, or else submit to a resumption of his
imprisonment under conditions, no doubt, a hundredfold more
Lying flat on his stomach, and hanging far over, so as to see what
he was doing, he worked one point of his spontoon into the sash of
the grating, and, levering outwards, he strained until at last it
came away completely in his hands. After that it was an easy matter
to shatter the little latticed window.
Having accomplished so much, he turned, and, using his spontoon as
before, he crawled back to the summit of the roof, and made his way
rapidly along this to the spot where he had left Balbi. The monk,
reduced by now to a state of blending despair, terror, and rage,
greeted Casanova in terms of the grossest abuse for having left
him there so long.
"I was waiting only for daylight," he concluded, "to return to
"What did you think had become of me?" asked Casanova.
"I imagined that you had tumbled off the roof."
"And is this abuse the expression of your joy at finding yourself
"Where have you been all this time?" the monk counter-questioned
"Come with me and you shall see."
And taking up his bundle again, Casanova led his companion forward
until they were in line with the dormer. There Casanova showed him
what he had done, and consulted him as to the means to be adopted
to enter the attic. It would be too risky for them to allow
themselves to drop from the sill, since the height of the window
from the floor was unknown to them, and might be considerable. It
would be easy for one of them to lower the other by means of the
rope. But it was not apparent how, hereafter, the other was to
follow. Thus reasoned Casanova.
"You had better lower me, anyhow," said Balbi, without hesitation;
for no doubt he was very tired of that slippery roof, on which a
single false step might have sent him to his account. "Once I am
inside you can consider ways of following me."
That cold-blooded expression of the fellow's egoism put Casanova
in a rage for the second time since they had left their prison.
But, as before, he conquered it, and without uttering a word he
proceeded to unfasten the coil of rope. Making one end of it
secure under Balbi's arms, he bade the monk lie prone upon the
roof, his feet pointing downwards, and then, paying out rope, he
lowered him to the dormer. He then bade him get through the
window as far as the level of his waist, and wait thus, hanging
over and supporting himself upon the sill. When he had obeyed,
Casanova followed, sliding carefully down to the roof of the
dormer. Planting himself firmly, and taking the rope once more,
he bade Balbi to let himself go without fear, and so lowered him
to the floor - a height from the window, as it proved, of some
fifty feet. This extinguished all Casanova's hopes of being able
to follow by allowing himself to drop from the sill. He was
dismayed. But the monk, happy to find himself at last off that
accursed roof, and out of all danger of breaking his neck, called
foolishly to Casanova to throw him the rope so that he might take
care of it.
"As may be imagined," says Casanova, "I was careful not to take
this idiotic advice."
Not knowing now what was to become of him unless he could discover
some other means than those at his command, he climbed back again
to the summit of the roof, and started off desperately upon another
voyage of discovery. This time he succeeded better than before.
He found about a cupola a terrace which he had not earlier noticed,
and on this terrace a hod of plaster, a trowel, and a ladder some
seventy feet long. He saw his difficulties solved. He passed an
end of rope about one of the rungs, laid the ladder flat along the
slope of the roof, and then, still astride of the apex, he worked
his way back, dragging the ladder with him, until he was once more
on a level with the dormer.
But now the difficulty was how to get the ladder through the window,
and he had cause to repent having so hastily deprived himself of
his companion's assistance. He had got the ladder into position,
and lowered it until one of its ends rested upon the dormer, whilst
the other projected some twenty feet beyond the edge of the roof.
He slid down to the dormer, and placing the ladder beside him, drew
it up so that he could reach the eighth rung. To this rung he made
fast his rope, then lowered the ladder again until the upper end of
it was in line with the window through which he sought to introduce
it. But he found it impossible to do so beyond the fifth rung, for
at this point the end of the ladder came in contact with the roof
inside, and could be pushed no farther until it was inclined
downward. Now, the only possible way to accomplish this was by
raising the other end.
It occurred to him that he might, by so attaching the rope as to
bring the ladder across the window frame, lower himself hand over
hand to the floor of the attic. But in so doing he must have left
the ladder there to show their pursuers in the morning, not merely
the way they had gone, but for all he knew at this stage, the place
where they might then be still in hiding. Having come so far, at
so much risk and labour, he was determined to leave nothing to
chance. To accomplish his object then, he made his way down to the
very edge of the roof, sliding carefully on his stomach until his
feet found support against the marble gutter, the ladder meanwhile
remaining hooked by one of its rungs to the sill of the dormer.
In that perilous position he lifted his end of the ladder a few
inches, and so contrived to thrust it another foot or so through
the window, whereby its weight was considerably diminished. If he
could but get it another couple of feet farther in he was sure that
by returning to the dormer he would have been able to complete the
job. In his anxiety to do this and to obtain the necessary
elevation, he raised himself upon his knees.
But in the very act of making the thrust he slipped, and, clutching
wildly as he went, he shot over the edge of the roof. He found
himself hanging there, suspended above that terrific abyss by his
hands and his elbows, which had convulsively hooked themselves on
to the edge of the gutter, so that he had it on a level with his
It was a moment of dread the like of which he was never likely to
endure again in a life that was to know many perils and many
hairbreadth escapes. He could not write of it nearly half a
century later without shuddering and growing sick with horror.
A moment he hung there gasping, then almost mechanically, guided
by the sheer instinct of self-preservation, he not merely attempted,
but actually succeeded in raising himself so as to bring his side
against the gutter. Then continuing gradually to raise himself
until his waist was on a level with the edge, he threw the weight
of his trunk forward upon the roof, and slowly brought his right
leg up until he had obtained with his knee a further grip of the
gutter. The rest was easy, and you may conceive him as he lay
there on the roof's edge, panting and shuddering for a moment to
regain his breath and nerve.
Meanwhile, the ladder, driven forward by the thrust that had so
nearly cost him his life, had penetrated another three feet
through the window, and hung there immovable. Recovered, he
took up his spontoon, which he had placed in the gutter, and,
assisted by it, he climbed back to the dormer. Almost without
further difficulty, he succeeded now in introducing the ladder
until, of its own weight, it swung down into position.
A moment later he had joined Balbi in the attic, and together
they groped about in it the dark, until finding presently a door,
they passed into another chamber, where they discovered furniture
by hurtling against it. Guided by a faint glimmer of light,
Casanova made his way to one of the windows and opened it. He
looked out upon a black abyss, and, having no knowledge of the
locality, and no inclination to adventure himself into unknown
regions, he immediately abandoned all idea of attempting to climb
down. He closed the window again, and going back to the other
room, he lay down on the floor, with the bundle of ropes for a
pillow, to wait for dawn.
And so exhausted was he, not only by the efforts of the past
hours, and the terrible experience in which they had culminated,
but also because in the last two days he had scarcely eaten or
slept, that straightway, and greatly to Balbi's indignation and
disgust, he fell into a profound sleep.
He was aroused three and a half hours later by the clamours and
shakings of the exasperated monk. Protesting that such a sleep at
such a time was a thing inconceivable, Balbi informed him that it
had just struck five.
It was still dark, but already there was a dim grey glimmer of
dawn by which objects could be faintly discerned. Searching,
Casanova found another door opposite that of the chamber which
they had entered earlier. It was locked, but the lock was a poor
one that yielded to half a dozen blows of the spontoon, and they
passed into a little room beyond which by an open door they came
into a long gallery lined with pigeon-holes stuffed with
parchments, which they conceived to be the archives. At the end
of this gallery they found a short flight of stairs, and below
that yet another, which brought them to a glass door. Opening
this, they entered a room which Casanova immediately identified
as the ducal chancellery. Descent from one of its windows would
have been easy, but they would have found themselves in the
labyrinth of courts and alleys behind Saint Mark's, which would
not have suited them at all.
On a table Casanova found a stout bodkin with a long wooden handle,
the implement used by the secretaries for piercing parchments that
were to be joined by a cord bearing the leaden seals of the Republic.
He opened a desk, and rummaging in it, found a letter addressed to
the Proveditor of Corfu, advising a remittance of three thousand
sequins for the repair of the fortress. He rummaged further,
seeking the three thousand sequins, which he would have appropriated
without the least scruple. Unfortunately they were not there.
Quitting the desk, he crossed to the door, not merely to find it
locked, but to discover that it was not the kind of lock that would
yield to blows. There was no way out but by battering away one of
the panels, and to this he addressed himself without hesitation,
assisted by Balbi, who had armed himself with the bodkin, but who
trembled fearfully at the noise of Casanova's blows. There was
danger in this, but the danger must be braved, for time was slipping
away. In half an hour they had broken down all the panel it was
possible to remove without the help of a saw. The opening they
had made was at a height of five feet from the ground, and the
splintered woodwork armed it with a fearful array of jagged teeth.
They dragged a couple of stools to the door, and getting on to
these, Casanova bade Balbi go first. The long, lean monk folded
his arms, and thrust head and shoulders through the hole; then
Casanova lifted him, first by the waist, then by the legs, and so
helped him through into the room beyond. Casanova threw their
bundles after him, and then placing a third stool on top of the
other two, climbed on to it, and, being almost on a level with
the opening, was able to get through as far as his waist, when
Balbi took him in his arms and proceeded to drag him out. But it
was done at the cost of torn breeches and lacerated legs, and
when he stood up in the room beyond he was bleeding freely from
the wounds which the jagged edges of the wood had dealt him.
After that they went down two staircases, and came out at last in
the gallery leading to the great doors at the head of that
magnificent flight of steps known as the Giant's Staircase. But
these doors - the main entrance of the palace - were locked, and,
at a glance, Casanova saw that nothing short of a hatchet would
serve to open them. There was no more to be done.
With a resignation that seemed to Balbi entirely cynical, Casanova
sat down on the floor.
"My task is ended," he announced. "It is now for Heaven or Chance
to do the rest. I don't know whether the palace cleaners will come
here to-day as it is All Saints', or to-morrow, which will be All
Souls'. Should any one come, I shall run for it the moment the
door is opened, and you had best follow me. If no one comes, I
shall not move from here, and if I die of hunger, so much the worse."
It was a speech that flung the monk into a passion. In burning
terms he reviled Casanova, calling him a madman, a seducer, a
deceiver, a liar. Casanova let him rave. It was just striking six.
Precisely an hour had elapsed since they had left the attic.
Balbi, in his red flannel waistcoat and his puce-coloured leather
breeches, might have passed for a peasant; but Casanova, in torn
garments that were soaked in blood, presented an appearance that
was terrifying and suspicious. This he proceeded to repair.
Tearing a handkerchief, he made shift to bandage his wounds, and
then from his bundle he took his fine taffeta summer suit, which
on a winter's day must render him ridiculous.
He dressed his thick, dark brown hair as best he could, drew on a
pair of white stockings, and donned three lace shirts one over
another. His fine cloak of floss silk he gave to Balbi, who looked
for all the world as if he had stolen it.
Thus dressed, his fine hat laced with point of Spain on his head,
Casanova opened a window and looked out. At once he was seen by
some idlers in the courtyard, who, amazed at his appearance there,
and conceiving that he must have been locked in by mistake on the
previous day, went off at once to advise the porter. Meanwhile,
Casanova, vexed at having shown himself where he had not expected
any one, and little guessing how excellently this was to serve his
ends, left the window and went to sit beside the angry friar, who
greeted him with fresh revilings.
A sound of steps and a rattle of keys stemmed Balbi's reproaches
in full flow. The lock groaned.
"Not a word," said Casanova to the monk, "but follow me."
Holding his spontoon ready., but concealed under his coat, he
stepped to the side of the door. It opened, and the porter, who
had come alone and bareheaded, stared in stupefaction at the
strange apparition of Casanova.
Casanova took advantage of that paralyzing amazement. Without
uttering a word, he stepped quickly across the threshold, and with
Balbi close upon his heels, he went down the Giant's Staircase in
a flash, crossed the little square, reached the canal, bundled Balbi
into the first gondola he found there, and jumped in after him.
"I want to go to Fusine, and quickly," he announced. "Call another
All was ready, and in a moment the gondola was skimming the canal.
Dressed in his unseasonable suit, and accompanied by the still
more ridiculous figure of Balbi in his gaudy cloak and without a
hat, he imagined he would be taken for a charlatan or an astrologer.
The gondola slipped past the custom-house, and took the canal of
the Giudecca. Halfway down this, Casanova put his head out of the
little cabin to address the gondolier in the poop.
"Do you think we shall reach Mestre in an hour?"
"Mestre?" quoth the gondolier. "But you said Fusine."
"No, no, I said Mestre - at least, I intended to say Mestre."
And so the gondola was headed for Mestre by a gondolier who professed
himself ready to convey his excellency to England if he desired it.
The sun was rising, and the water assumed an opalescent hue. It was
a delicious morning, Casanova tells us, and I suspect that never had
any morning seemed to that audacious, amiable rascal as delicious as
this upon which he regained his liberty, which no man ever valued
In spirit he was already safely over the frontiers of the Most
Serene Republic, impatient to transfer his body thither, as he
shortly did, through vicissitudes that are a narrative in themselves,
and no part of this story of his escape from the Piombi and the
Venetian Inquisitors of State.
XIII. THE NIGHT OF MASQUERADE
THE ASSASSINATION OF GUSTAVUS III OF SWEDEN
Baron Bjelke sprang from his carriage almost before it had come to
a standstill and without waiting for the footman to let down the
steps. With a haste entirely foreign to a person of his station
and importance, he swept into the great vestibule of the palace,
and in a quivering voice flung a question at the first lackey he
"Has His Majesty started yet?"
"Not yet, my lord."
The answer lessened his haste, but not his agitation. He cast off
the heavy wolfskin pelisse in which he had been wrapped, and,
leaving it in the hands of the servant, went briskly up the grand
staircase, a tall, youthful figure, very graceful in the suit of
black he wore.
As he passed through a succession of ante-rooms on his way to the
private apartments of the King, those present observed the pallor
of his clean-cut face under the auburn tie-wig he affected, and the
feverish glow of eyes that took account of no one. They could not
guess that Baron Bjelke, the King's secretary and favourite,
carried in his hands the life of his royal master, or its equivalent
in the shape of the secret of the plot to assassinate him.
In many ways Bjelke was no better than the other profligate minions
of the profligate Gustavus of Sweden. But he had this advantage over
them, that his intellect was above their average. He had detected
the first signs of the approach of that storm which the King himself
had so heedlessly provoked. He knew, as much by reason as by
intuition, that, in these days when the neighbouring State of France
writhed in the throes of a terrific revolution against monarchic and
aristocratic tyranny, it was not safe for a king to persist in the
abuse of his parasitic power. New ideas of socialism were in the
air. They were spreading through Europe, and it was not only in
France that men accounted it an infamous anachronism that the great
mass of a community should toil and sweat and suffer for the benefit
of an insolent minority.
Already had there been trouble with the peasantry in Sweden, and
Bjelke had endangered his position as a royal favourite by presuming
to warn his master. Gustavus III desired amusement, not wisdom,
from those about him. He could not be brought to realize the
responsibilities which kingship imposes upon a man. It has been
pretended that he was endowed with great gifts of mind. He may have
been, though the thing has been pretended of so many princes that
one may be sceptical where evidence is lacking. If he possessed
those gifts, he succeeded wonderfully in concealing them under a
nature that was frivolously gay, dissolute, and extravagant.
His extravagance forced him into monstrous extortions when only a
madman would have wasted in profligacy the wealth so cruelly wrung
from long-suffering subjects. From extortion he was driven by his
desperate need of money into flagrant dishonesty. At a stroke of
the pen he had reduced the value of the paper currency by one-third
- a reduction so violent and sudden that, whilst it impoverished
many, it involved some in absolute ruin - and this that he might
gratify his appetite for magnificence and enrich the rapacious
favourites who shared his profligacy.
The unrest in the kingdom spread. It was no longer a question of
the resentment of a more or less docile peasantry whose first
stirrings of revolt were easily quelled. The lesser nobility of
Sweden were angered by a measure - following upon so many others
- that bore peculiarly heavily upon themselves; and out of that
anger, fanned by one man - John Jacob Ankarstrom - who had felt the
vindictive spirit of royal injustice, flamed in secret the
conspiracy against the King's life which Bjelke had discovered.
He had discovered it by the perilous course of joining the
conspirators. He had won their confidence, and they recognized that
his collaboration was rendered invaluable by the position he held
so near the King. And in his subtle wisdom, at considerable danger
to himself, Bjelke had kept his counsel. He had waited until now,
until the moment when the blow was about to fall, before making the
disclosure which should not only save Gustavus, but enable him to
cast a net in which all the plotters must be caught. And he hoped
that when Gustavus perceived the narrowness of his escape, and the
reality of the dangers amid which he walked, he would consider the
wisdom of taking another course in future.
He had reached the door of the last ante-chamber, when a detaining
hand was laid upon his arm. He found himself accosted by a page
- the offspring of one of the noblest families in Sweden, and the
son of one of Bjelke's closest friends, a fair-haired, impudent boy
to whom the secretary permitted a certain familiarity.
"Are you on your way to the King, Baron?" the lad inquired.
"I am, Carl. What is it?"
"A letter for His Majesty - a note fragrant as a midsummer rose -
which a servant has just delivered to me. Will you take it?"
"Give it to me, impudence," said Bjelke, the ghost of a smile
lighting for a moment his white face.
He took the letter and passed on into the last antechamber, which
was empty of all but a single chamberlain-in-waiting. This
chamberlain bowed respectfully to the Baron.
"His Majesty?" said Bjelke.
"He is dressing. Shall I announce Your Excellency?"
The chamberlain vanished, and Bjelke was left alone. Waiting, he
stood there, idly fingering the scented note he had received from
the page. As he turned it in his fingers the superscription came
uppermost, and he turned it no more. His eyes lost their absorbed
look, their glance quickened into attention, a frown shaped itself
between them like a scar; his breathing, suspended a moment, was
renewed with a gasp. He stepped aside to a table bearing a score
of candles clustered in a massive silver branch, and held the note
so that the light fell full upon the writing.
Standing thus, he passed a hand over his eyes and stared again, two
hectic spots burning now in his white cheeks. Abruptly, disregarding
the superscription, his trembling fingers snapped the blank seal and
unfolded the letter addressed to his royal master. He was still
reading when the chamberlain returned to announce that the King was
pleased to see the Baron at once. He did not seem to hear the
announcement. His attention was all upon the letter, his lips drawn
back from his teeth in a grin, and beads of perspiration glistening
upon his brow.
"His Majesty - " the chamberlain was beginning to repeat, when he
broke off suddenly. "Your Excellency is ill?"
Bjelke stared at him with glassy eyes. He crumpled the letter in
his hand and stuffed one and the other into the pocket of his black
satin coat. He attempted to laugh to reassure the startled
chamberlain, and achieved a ghastly grimace.
"I must not keep His Majesty waiting," he said thickly, and stumbled
on, leaving in the chamberlain's mind a suspicion that His Majesty's
secretary was not quite sober.
But Bjelke so far conquered his emotion that he was almost his usual
imperturbable self when he reached the royal dressing-room; indeed,
he no longer displayed even the agitation that had possessed him
when first he entered the palace.
Gustavus, a slight, handsome man of a good height, was standing
before a cheval-glass when Bjelke came in. Francois, the priceless
valet His Majesty had brought back from his last pleasure-seeking
visit to pre-revolutionary Paris some five years ago, was standing
back judicially to consider the domino he had just placed upon the
royal shoulders. Baron Armfelt whom the conspirators accused of
wielding the most sinister of all the sinister influences that
perverted the King's mind - dressed from head to foot in shimmering
white satin, lounged on a divan with all the easy familiarity
permitted to this most intimate of courtiers, the associate of all
Gustavus looked over his shoulder as he entered.
"Why, Bjelke," he exclaimed, "I thought you had gone into the
"I am at a loss," replied Bjelke, "to imagine what should have given
Your Majesty so mistaken an impression." And he might have smiled
inwardly to observe how his words seemed to put Gustavus out of
The King laughed, nevertheless, with an affectation of ease.
"I inferred it from your absence from Court on such a night. What
has been keeping you?" But, without waiting for an answer, he
fired another question. "What do you say to my domino, Bjelke?"
It was a garment embroidered upon a black satin ground with tongues
of flame so cunningly wrought in mingling threads of scarlet and
gold that as he turned about now they flashed in the candlelight,
and seemed to leap like tongues of living fire.
"Your Majesty will have a great success," said Bjelke, and to
himself relished the full grimness of his joke. For a terrible
joke it was, seeing that he no longer intended to discharge the
errand which had brought him in such haste to the palace.
"Faith, I deserve it!" was the flippant answer, and he turned again
to the mirror to adjust a patch on the left side of his chin.
"There is genius in this domino, and it is not the genius of
Francois, for the scheme of flames is my very own, the fruit of a
deal of thought and study."
There Gustavus uttered his whole character. As a master of the
revels, or an opera impresario, this royal rake would have been a
complete success in life. The pity of it was that the accident of
birth should have robed him in the royal purple. Like many another
prince who has come to a violent end, he was born to the wrong
"I derived the notion," he continued, "from a sanbenito in a Goya
"An ominous garb," said Bjelke, smiling curiously. "The garment of
the sinner on his way to penitential doom."
Armfelt cried out in a protest of mock horror, but Gustavus laughed
"Oh, I confess that it would be most apt. I had not thought of it."
His fingers sought a pomatum box, and in doing so displaced a
toilet-case of red morocco. An oblong paper package fell from the
top of this and arrested the King's attention.
"Why, what is this?" He took it up - a letter bearing the
To His MAJESTY THE KING
SECRET AND IMPORTANT
"What is this, Francois?" The royal voice was suddenly sharp.
The valet glided forward, whilst Armfelt rose from the divan and,
like Bjelke, attracted by the sudden change in the King's tone and
manner, drew near his master.
"How comes this letter here?"
The valet's face expressed complete amazement. It must have been
placed there in his absence an hour ago, after he had made all
preparations for the royal toilette. It was certainly not there
at the time, or he must have seen it.
With impatient fingers Gustavus snapped the seal and unfolded the
letter. Awhile he stood reading, very still, his brows knit.
Then, with a contemptuous "Poof!" he handed it to his secretary.
At a glance Bjelke recognized the hand for that of Colonel Lillehorn,
one of the conspirators, whose courage had evidently failed him in
the eleventh hour. He read:
SIRE, - Deign to heed the warning of one who, not being in your
service, nor solicitous of your favours, flatters not your crimes,
and yet desires to avert the danger threatening you. There is a
plot to assassinate you which would by now have been executed but
for the countermanding of the ball at the opera last week. What
was not done then will certainly be done to-night if you afford
the opportunity. Remain at home and avoid balls and public
gatherings for the rest of the year; thus the fanaticism which
aims at your life will evaporate.
"Do you know the writing?" Gustavus asked.
Bjelke shrugged. "The hand will be disguised, no doubt," he
"But you will heed the warning, Sire?" exclaimed, Armfelt, who had
read over the secretary's shoulder, and whose face had paled in
Gustavus laughed contemptuously. "Faith, if I were to heed every
scaremonger, I should get but little amusement out of life."
Yet he was angry, as his shifting colour showed. The disrespectful
tone of the anonymous communication moved him more deeply than its
actual message. He toyed a moment with a hair-ribbon, his nether
lip thrust out in thought. At last he rapped out an oath of
vexation, and proffered the ribbon to his valet.
"My hair, Francois," said he, "and then we will be going."
It was an ejaculation of horror from Armfelt, whose face was now as
white as the ivory-coloured suit he wore.
"What else? Am I to be intimidated out of my pleasures?" Yet that
his heart was less stout than his words his very next question
showed. "Apropos, Bjelke, what was the reason why you countermanded
the ball last week?"
"The councillors from Gefle claimed Your Majesty's immediate
attention," Bjelke reminded him.
"So you said at the time. But the business seemed none so urgent
when we came to it. There was no other reason in your mind - no
His keen, dark blue eyes were fixed upon the pale masklike face of
That grave, almost stern countenance relaxed into a smile.
"I suspected no more than I suspect now," was his easy equivocation.
"And all that I suspect now is that some petty enemy is attempting
to scare Your Majesty."
"To scare me?" Gustavus flushed to the temples. "Am I a man to be
"Ah, but consider, Sire, and you, Bjelke," Armfelt was bleating.
"This may be a friendly warning. In all humility, Sire, let me
suggest that you incur no risk; that you countermand the masquerade."
"And permit the insolent writer to boast that he frightened the King?"
"Faith, Baron, you are right. The thing is written with intent to
make a mock of me."
"But if it were not so, Sire?" persisted the distressed Armfelt.
And volubly he argued now to impose caution, reminding the King of
his enemies, who might, indeed, be tempted to go the lengths of
which the anonymous writer spoke. Gustavus listened, and was
"If I took heed of every admonition," he said, "I might as well
become a monk at once. And yet - " He took his chin in his hand,
and stood thoughtful, obviously hesitating, his head bowed, his
straight, graceful figure motionless.
Thus until Bjelke, who now desired above all else the very thing he
had come hot-foot to avert, broke the silence to undo what Armfelt
"Sire," he said, "you may avoid both mockery and danger, and yet
attend the masquerade. Be sure, if there is indeed a plot, the
assassins will be informed of the disguise you are to wear. Give
me your flame-studded domino, and take a plain black one for
Armfelt gasped at the audacity of the proposal,
but Gustavus gave no sign that he had heard. He continued standing
in that tense attitude, his eyes vague and dreamy. And as if to
show along what roads of thought his mind was travelling, he uttered
a single word a name - in a questioning voice scarce louder than a
Later again he was to think of Ankarstrom, to make inquiries
concerning him, which justifies us here in attempting to follow
those thoughts of his. They took the road down which his conscience
pointed. Above all Swedes he had cause to fear John Jacobi
Ankarstrom, for, foully as he had wronged many men in his time, he
had wronged none more deeply than that proud, high-minded nobleman.
He hated Ankarstrom as we must always hate those whom we have
wronged, and he hated him the more because he knew himself despised
by Ankarstrom with a cold and deadly contempt that at every turn
That hatred was more than twenty years old. It dated back to the
time when Gustavus had been a vicious youth, and Ankarstrom himself
a boy. They were much of an age. Gustavus had put upon his young
companion an infamous insult, which had been answered by a blow.
His youth and the admitted provocation alone had saved Ankarstrom
from the dread consequence of striking a Prince of the Royal Blood.
But they had not saved him from the vindictiveness of Gustavus.
He had kept his lust of vengeance warm, and very patiently had he
watched and waited for his opportunity to destroy the man, who had
That chance had come four years ago - in 1788 - during the war with
Russia. Ankarstrom commanded the forces defending the island of
Gothland. These forces were inadequate for the task, nor was the
island in a proper state of defence, being destitute of forts. To
have persevered in resistance might have been heroic, but it would
have been worse than futile, for not only would it have entailed
the massacre of the garrison, but it must have further subjected
the inhabitants to all the horrors of sack and pillage.
In the circumstances, Ankarstrom had conceived it his duty to
surrender to the superior force of Russia, thereby securing immunity
for the persons and property of the inhabitants. In this the King
perceived his chance to indulge his hatred. He caused Ankarstrom
to be arrested and accused of high treason, it being alleged against
him that he had advised the people of Gothland not to take up arms
against the Russians. The royal agents found witnesses to bear
false evidence against Ankarstrom, with the result that he was
sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment in a fortress. But the
sentence was never carried out. Gustavus had gone too far, as he
was soon made aware. The feelings against him which hitherto had
smouldered flamed out at this crowning act of injustice, and to
repair his error Gustavus made haste, not, indeed, to exonerate
Ankarstrom from the charges brought against him, but to pardon him
for his alleged offences.
When the Swedish nobleman was brought to Court to receive this
pardon, he used it as a weapon against the King whom he despised.
"My unjust judges," he announced in a ringing voice, the echoes of
which were carried to the ends of Sweden, "have never doubted in
their hearts my innocence of the charges brought against me, and
established by means of false witnesses. The judgment pronounced
against me was unrighteous. This exemption from it is my proper
due. Yet I would rather perish through the enmity of the King than
live dishonoured by his clemency."
Gustavus had set his teeth in rage when those fierce words were
reported to him, and his rage had been increased when he was
informed of the cordial reception which everywhere awaited Ankarstrom
on his release. He perceived how far he had overshot his mark, and
how, in seeking treacherously to hurt Ankarstrom, he had succeeded
only in hurting himself. Nor had he appeased the general indignation
by his pardon. True, the flame of revolt had been quelled. But he had
no lack of evidence that the fire continued to burn steadily in secret,
and to eat its way further and further into the ranks of noble and
It is little wonder, then, that in this moment, with that warning
lying there before him, the name of Ankarstrom should be on his lips,
the thought of Ankarstrom, the fear of Ankarstrom, looming big in
his mind. It was big enough to make him heed the warning. He
dropped into a chair.
"I will not go," he said, and Bjelke saw that his face was white,
his hands shaking.
But when the secretary had repeated the proposal which had earlier
gone unheard, Gustavus caught at it with sudden avidity, and with
but little concern for the danger that Bjelke might be running. He
sprang up, applauding it. If a conspiracy there was, the
conspirators would thus be trapped; if there were no conspiracy,
then this attempt to frighten him should come to nothing; thus he
would be as safe from the mockery of his enemies as from their
knives. Nor did Armfelt protest or make further attempts to
dissuade him from going. In the circumstances proposed by Bjelke,
the risk would be Bjelke's, a matter which troubled Armfelt not at
all; indeed, he had no cause to love Bjelke, in whom he beheld a
formidable rival, and it would be to him no cause for tears if the
knife intended for the royal vitals should find its way into
So Baron Bjelke, arrayed in the domino copied from the penitential
sack, departed for the Opera House, leaving Gustavus to follow.
Yet, despite the measure of precaution, no sooner had the masked
King himself entered the crowded theatre, leaning upon the arm of
the Count of Essen, than he conceived that he beheld confirmation
of the warning, and regretted that he had not heeded it to the
extent of remaining absent. For one of the first faces he beheld,
one of the few unmasked faces in that brilliantly lit salon, was
the face of Ankarstrom, and Ankarstrom appeared to be watching the
Gustavus checked in his stride, a tremor ran through him, and he
stiffened in his sudden apprehension, for the sight of the tall
figure and haughty, resolute face of the nobleman he had wronged
was of more significance than at first might seem. Ever since his
infamous trial Ankarstrom had been at pains to seize every occasion
of marking his contempt for his Prince. Never did he fail upon the
King's appearance in any gathering of which he was a member to
withdraw immediately; and never once had he been known deliberately
to attend any function which was to be graced by the presence of
Gustavus. How, then, came he here to this ball given by the King's
own command unless he came for the fell purpose of which the letter
had given warning?
The King's impulse was to withdraw immediately. He was taken by a
curious, an almost unreasoning, fear that was quite foreign to him,
who, for all his faults, had never yet lacked courage. But, even
as he hesitated, a figure swept past him in a domino flecked with
flames, surrounded by revellers of both sexes, and he remembered
that if Ankarstrom were bent on evil his attention would be held by
that figure before which the crowd fell back, and opened out
respectfully, believing it to be the King's. Yet none the less it
was Gustavus himself that Ankarstrom continued to regard in such a
ay that the King had a feeling that his mask was made of glass.
And then quite suddenly, even as he was on the point of turning,
another wave of revellers swept frantically up, and in a moment
Gustavus and the Count of Essen were surrounded. Another moment
and the buffeting crowd had separated him from his grand equerry.
He found himself alone in the centre of this knot of wild fellows
who, seeming to mistake him for one of themselves, forced him
onward with them in their career. For a moment he attempted to
resist. But as well might he have resisted a torrent. Their rush
was not to be stemmed. It almost swept him from his feet, and to
save himself he must perforce abandon himself to the impetus. Thus
he was swirled away across the floor of the amphitheatre, helpless
as a swimmer in strong waters, and with the fear of the drowning
clutching now at his heart.
He had an impulse to unmask, proclaim himself, and compel the
respect that was his due. But to do so might be to expose himself
to the very danger of whose presence he was now convinced. His
only hope must lie in allowing himself to be borne passively along
until a chance opening allowed him to escape from these madmen.
The stage had been connected with the floor of the theatre by a
broad flight of wooden steps. Up this flight he was carried by that
human wave. But on the stage itself he found an anchorage at last
against one of the wings. Breathing hard, he set his back to it,
waiting for the wave to sweep on and leave him. Instead, it paused
and came to rest with him, and in that moment some one touched him
on the shoulder. He turned his head, and looked into the set face
of Ankarstrom, who was close behind him. Then a burning, rending
pain took him in his side, and he grew sick and dizzy. The uproar
of voices became muffled; the lights were merged into a luminous
billow that swelled and shrank and then went out altogether.
The report of the pistol had been lost in the general din to all but
those who stood near the spot where it had been fired. And these
found themselves suddenly borne backwards by the little crowd of
maskers that fell away from the figure lying prone and bleeding on
Voices were raised, shouting "Fire! Fire!" Thus the conspirators
sought to create confusion, that they might disperse and lose
themselves in the general crowd. That confusion, however, was very
brief. It was stemmed almost immediately by the Count of Essen,
who leapt up the steps to the stage with a premonition of what had
happened. He stooped to rip away the mask from the face of the
victim, and, beholding, as he had feared, the livid countenance of
his King, he stood up, himself almost as pale.
"Murder has been done!" he roared. "Let the doors be closed and
guarded, and let no one leave the theatre." Instantly was his
bidding done by the officers of the guard.
Those of the King's household who were in attendance came forward
now to raise Gustavus, and help to bear him to a couch. There
presently he recovered consciousness, whilst a physician was seeing
to his hurt, and as soon as he realized his condition his manner
became so calm that, himself, he took command of the situation. He
issued orders that the gates of the city should be closed against
everybody, whilst himself apologizing to the Prussian minister who
was near him for issuing that inconvenient but necessary order.
"The gates shall remain closed for three days, sir," he announced.
"During that time you will not be able to correspond with your Court;
but your intelligence, when it goes, will be more certain, since by
that time it should be known whether I can survive or not."
His next order, delivered in a voice that was broken by his intense
suffering, was to the chamberlain Benzelstjerna, commanding that
all present should unmask and sign their names in a book before
being suffered to depart. That done, he bade them bear him home on
the couch on which he had been placed that he might be spared the
agony of more movement than was necessary.
Thus his grenadiers bore him on their shoulders, lighted by torches,
through the streets that were now thronged, for the rumour had now
gone forth that the King was dead, and troops had been called out
to keep order. Beside him walked Armfelt in his suit of shimmering
white satin, weeping at once for his King and for himself, for he
knew that he was of those who must fall with Gustavus. And, knowing
this, there was bitter rage in his heart against the men who had
wrought this havoc, a rage that sharpened his wits to an unusual
At last the King was once more in his apartments awaiting the
physicians who were to pronounce his fate, and Armfelt kept him
company among others, revolving in his mind the terrible suspicion
he had formed.
Presently came Duke Charles, the King's brother, and Benzelstjerna
with the list of those who had been present at the ball.
"Tell me," he asked, before the list was read to him, "is the name
of Ankarstrom included in it?"
"He was the last to sign, Sire," replied the chamberlain.
The King smiled grimly. "Tell Lillesparre to have him arrested and
Armfelt flung forward. "There is another who should be arrested,
too!" he cried fiercely. And added, "Bjelke!"
The King echoed the name almost in anger at the imputation. Armfelt
spoke torrentially. "It was he persuaded you to go against your own
judgment when you had the warning, and at last induced you to it by
offering to assume your own domino. If the assassins sought the
King, how came they to pass over one who wore the King's domino, and
to penetrate your own disguise that was like a dozen others?
Because they were informed of the change. But by whom - by whom?
Who was it knew?"
"My God!" groaned the unfortunate King, who had in his time broken
faith with so many, and was now to suffer the knowledge of this
broken faith in one whom he had trusted above all others.
Baron Bjelke was arrested an hour later, arrested in the very act
of entering his own home. The men of Lillesparre's police had
preceded him thither to await his return. He was quite calm when
they surged suddenly about him, laid hands upon him, and formally
pronounced him their prisoner.
"I suppose," he said, "it was to have been inferred. Allow me to
take my leave of the Baroness, and I shall be at your disposal."
"My orders, Baron, are explicit," he was answered by the officer in
charge. "I am not to suffer you out of my sight."
"How? Am I to be denied so ordinary a boon?" His voice quivered
with sudden anger and something else.
"Such are my orders, Baron."
Bjelke pleaded for five minutes' grace for that leavetaking. But
the officer had his orders. He was no more than a machine. The
Baron raised his clenched hands in mute protest to the heavens,
then let them fall heavily.
"Very well," he said, and suffered them to thrust him back into his
carriage and carry him away to the waiting Lillesparre.
He found Armfelt in the office of the chief of the police, haranguing
Ankarstrom, who was already there under arrest. The favourite broke
off as Bjelke was brought in.
"You were privy to this infamy, Bjelke," he cried. "If the King
does not recover - "
"He will not recover." It was the cold, passionless voice of
Ankarstrom that spoke. "My pistol was loaded with rusty nails. I
intended to make quite sure of ridding my country of that perjured
Armfelt stared at the prisoner a moment with furious, bloodshot eyes.
Then he broke into imprecations, stemmed only when Lillesparre
ordered Ankarstrom to be removed. When he was gone, the chief of
police turned to Bjelke.
"It grieves me, Baron, that we should meet thus, and it is with
difficulty that I can believe what is alleged against you. Baron
Armfelt is perhaps rendered hasty by his grief and righteous anger.
But I hope that you will be able to explain - at least to deny your
concern in this horrible deed."
Very tense and white stood Bjelke.
"I have an explanation that should satisfy you as a man of honour,"
he said quietly, "but not as chief of the police. I joined this
conspiracy that I might master its scope and learn the intentions
of the plotters. It was a desperate thing I did out of love and
loyalty to the King, and I succeeded. I came to-night to the
palace with information which should not only have saved the King's
life, but would have enabled him to smother the conspiracy for all
time. On the threshold of his room this letter for the King was
delivered into my hands. Read it, Lillesparre, that you may know
precisely what manner of master you serve, that you may understand
how Gustavus of Sweden recompenses love and loyalty. Read it, and
tell me how you would have acted in my place!"
And he flung the letter on to the writing-table at which sat
The chief of police took it up, began to read, turned back to the
superscription, then resumed his reading, a dull flush overspreading
his face. Over his shoulder Armfelt, too, was reading. But Bjelke
cared not. Let all the world behold that advertisement of royal
infamy, that incriminating love-letter from Bjelke's wife to the
King who had dishonoured him.
Lillesparre was stricken dumb. He dared not raise his eyes to meet
the glance of the prisoner. But the shameless Armfelt sucked in a
breath of understanding.
"You admit your guilt, then?" he snarled.
"That I sent the monster to the masquerade, knowing that there the
blessed hand of Ankarstrom would give him his passport out of a
world he had befouled - yes."
"The rack shall make you yield the name of every one of the
"The rack!" Bjelke smiled disdainfully, and shrugged. "Your men,
Lillesparre, were very prompt and very obdurate. They would not
allow me to take leave of the Baroness, so that she has escaped me.
But I am not sure that it is not a fitter vengeance to let her live
and remember. That letter may now be delivered to the King, for
whom it is intended. Its fond messages may lighten the misery of
his remaining hours."
His face was contorted, with rage, thought Armfelt, who watched him,
but in reality with pain caused by the poison that was corroding
his vitals. He had drained a little phial just before stepping into
the presence of Lillesparre, as they discovered upon inquiries made
after he had collapsed dead at their feet.
This caused them to bring back Ankarstrom, that he might be searched,
lest he, too, should take some similar way of escaping them. When
he search was done, having discovered nothing, Lillesparre commanded
that he should not have knife or fork or metal comb, or anything
with which he might take his life.
"You need not fear that I shall seek to evade the sacrifice," he
assured them, his demeanour haughty, his eyes aglow with fanatic
zeal. "It is the price I pay for having rid Nature of a monster
and my country of a false, perjured tyrant, and I pay it gladly."
As he ceased he smiled, and drew from the gold lace of his sleeve
a surgeon's lancet. "This was supplied me against my need to open
a vein. But the laws of God and man may require my death upon the
And, smiling, he placed the lancet on Lillesparre's table.
Upon his conviction execution followed, and it lasted three days -
from April 19th to 21 st - being attended by all the horrible and
gradual torturings reserved for regicides. Yet possibly he did
not suffer more than his victim, whose agony had lasted for
thirteen days, and who perished miserably in the consciousness that
he deserved his fate, whilst Ankarstrom was uplifted and fortified
by his fanaticism.
The scaffold was erected on the Stora Torget, facing the Opera House
of Stockholm, where the assassination had taken place. Thence the
dismembered remains of Ankarstrom were conveyed to the ordinary
gallows in the suburb of Sodermalm to be exhibited, the right hand
being nailed below the head. Under this hand on the morrow was
found a tablet bearing the legend:
Blessed the hand
That saved the Fatherland.