John Charles strode through the long, silent hall. The soundless tremor of many boots ringing in martial unison menaced his course. There were soldiers in the square. He shivered, the swift suppression of paltry fear. They would not check him now; the greatness of his errand would fly unnoticed in the face of the cruel normality of tyranny. A small door on the right admitted him to a shadowy path traversed with the fluent irreverence of familiarity. The whispered challenge issued, the watcher satisfied, and John Charles did not even blink at the sudden light of the council-room.
No greeting is given or expected. This gathering cannot afford personality. Many have been lost; many more would too easily be betrayed. There were seven assembled: the chairman, the general, the poet, the purser, and three “advisors”. The first four held the power. John Charles and his fellows were, simply, spies. The poet, protégé of the chairman, was in mid-tirade.
“Long has this state wielded secrecy and terror, the blackness of night and silence! Ever have its arrogant masters robbed the people while disdaining even to be seen. How long must we also sulk in the darkness? Will we not soon destroy the light of freedom by familiarity with shadow?”
“Haste is dangerous, young fool,” growled the purser. “And though the fire of your song warms the hearts of the people, it also burns them with a dreadful cost.”
“I burn them? No, sir, it is not I, but this foul state that…”
“Gentleman!” The old chairman roused himself as to a weary task, “Gentleman, we must save our strength for a worthy fight!” “Sir,” to the purser, “your losses are very deep, but drink not yet of despair.”
“Young man, you are zealous in your poetry, but you have also diligence in your zeal. I know how tirelessly you write the lifeblood of our people’s hope. You are right. Our lords have not only deprived us of our liberty, of our children, of our livelihood, of any of the honest pleasures or burdens of free life, they have created two worlds. They gathered all that was useful and artful, and they cast us out. And every child who has thought to read, every girl who has thought to sing, every man who has thought to soothe his brother’s illness, every one of our people who have unselfishly reached out of this despairing world have been attacked! They slither amongst us, destroying any that would share in their treasures. But no more! Brother, give us your news.”
John Charles rose. “You all know how terrible the persecution has become. Director Theodore, though but a slave of the great lords, is even more terrible in his hatred than they. Now he prepares our utter destruction.” John Charles spoke clearly and softly, as if commenting on the weather.
“Theodore has risen to great favor with the king. They meet face to face. The director received his final orders this morning. The king has carefully guided his slave to this point, slowly crushing the resistance. The lords are emboldened. Today he will leave the citadel and come against our people in the forests with his full force.”
“Then,” said the general, “It is just as we have planned it.”
The king will die first.” The purser spoke with dark pleasure. “Are the rest of the lords marked well?
The second advisor nodded, “We found the last of them mere hours ago.”
The chairman stood. “The years have stretched and strained, victory came close, and fled again. Now the final stroke is at hand. The price we have paid for this opportunity has been terrible. The farmer and his band slaughtered, the forester vanished, and others were subjected to unspeakable things. By your careful work, John Charles, the director’s plans were open to us. By your advice, time and time again we suffered that in his success he might gain the confidence of his masters. And now, by your, certain intelligence we will again be attacked in the forests. But our lords will also fall, unguarded, in their homes.”
“And our diplomats are ready to secure recognition of our freedom from our friends abroad immediately we have wrested it from those cold hands that suffocated it,” the last of the advisors smiled with satisfaction.
“Then freedom will come at last,” was the whisper of the chairman, no less weary than before.
“I will not write again until men may sing not merely of freedom, but in it! It is strange, indeed,” the poet continued, looking at John Charles “that he who brings the news of the end should not rejoice more. And yet, great joy is for those who have invested much!” he finished with a bow to the purser.
At this, general hope warmed the chamber. But the chairman stood, stern weariness yet on his face, and looking gravely at John Charles, dismissed them.
“Gentleman, attend to your duties and farewell.”
That afternoon, even as the army finished its preparations, the assassins moved to their places. They would strike as soon as the protection of the Director’s troops was diverted on its sinister task. Suddenly, it was whispered through the imperial ranks that an unparalleled honor would be given them. A royal review would see them off to what they knew would be a short but desperate fight. The assassins smiled grimly.
John Charles strode through the long, silent hall. The hushed murmur of massed anticipation swelled to meet him. There were soldiers in the square. A smile whispered across his face. They would not check him now; his great errand the certain end of tyranny. A small door on the left opened to a broad balcony. The fevered silence peaked. His gaze swept the plaza as he raised his arms in greeting.
“The King!” came the heralding cry.
“The King!” echoed the soldiers.
The crown had come to him when he was young. By curiosity he had crossed into the world of suffering. Terrible was the realization that his throne was too weak for justice. The great lords would simply erase the unseen king. And then he met the chairman, and together they plotted the freedom of his people.
Freedom did come. Songs were sung of the farmer and the forester, of the general and the purser. And in a quiet churchyard corner stands a stone with this inscription:
The Great Investor
– A poet.