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   Chapter 4 No.4

Arms and the Woman By Harold MacGrath Characters: 13168

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


I shall tell Hillars's story as he told it. He said:

Last August I went to B--. My mission was important and took me to the British Legation, where I am well known. I was most cordially invited to attend a ball to be given the next evening. The notables of the court were there. For a few moments the King let his sun shine on the assemblage. It was a brilliant spectacle. At midnight I saw for the first time a remarkably beautiful woman. I was looking well myself that night. All women like to see broad shoulders in a man. It suggests strength-something they have not. Several times this young woman's eyes met mine. Somehow, mine were always first to fall. There was a magnetism in hers mine could not withstand. Later, an attaché came to me and said that he wished to present me to her Serene Highness the Princess Hildegarde of-let us call it Hohenphalia. He whispered that she had commanded the introduction. I expected to see some red-faced dowager who wanted to ask me about my country and bore me with her guttural accents. To my intense pleasure, I found myself at the side of the beauty whom I had been admiring. There was a humorous light in her eyes as she put some questions to me.

"Do you speak German?" she asked in that language.

"Poorly, your Highness," I answered.

"Perhaps, then, you speak French?"

"As I do my mother tongue," said I.

"I am interested in Americans," she said.

"Collectively or individually?" I tried to say this with perfect innocence, but the smile on her lips told me that I had failed.

"Yes, I was sure that you would interest me."

She tapped the palm of her hand with the fan she held. "Shall I tell you why I desired to meet you?"

I nodded.

"I have heard it said that the American bows down before a title; and I am a woman, and curious."

Said I, laughing: "Your Highness has been misinformed. We never bow down to a title; it is to the wearers that we bow."

This time her eyes fell.

"This sort of conversation is altogether new to me," she said, opening the fan.

"I hope that I have not offended your Highness," I said.

"Indeed, no. But it seems so strange to have any one talk to me with such frankness and deliberation. Have you no fear?"

"There is seldom fear where there is admiration. If you had used the word awe, now--"

Soft laughter rippled over the fan. She had the most wonderful eyes.

"Are all Americans brave like yourself?" she next asked.

"Brave? What do you call brave?"

"Your utter lack of fear in my presence, in the first place: I am called dangerous. And then, your exploits in the Balkistan, in the second place. Are you not the M. Hillars whose bravery not so long ago was an interesting topic in the newspapers? I know you."

"This is truly remarkable," said I. "The only thing I did was to lead a regiment out of danger."

"The danger was annihilation. If a Captain or a Colonel had done it, we should have thought nothing of it; but an utter stranger, who had nothing in common with either cause-ah, believe me, it was a very gallant thing to do."

"This is positively the first time I was ever glad that I did the thing." I placed my hand over my heart. "But, after all, that is not half so brave as what I am doing now."

"I do not understand," said she puzzled.

"Why, it is simple. Here I am talking to you, occupying your time and keeping those fierce Generals at bay. See how they are gnawing their mustaches and biting their lips and asking one another who I am. There are as many as five challenges waiting for me the moment I depart from your side."

There was mischief in her eye.

"Then you shall stay with me, find me an ice and waltz once with me, for if anything happened to you I should always have myself to blame."

I waltzed with her, and the perfume of her hair got into my head, and I grew dizzy. When the dance came to an end, I went into the smoking room. Suddenly it went through my brain that the world had changed in an incredibly short time. I tried to smoke, and for the first time in my life, tobacco was tasteless, I was falling in love with a Princess. I confess that it did not horrify me; on the contrary, I grew thrilled and excited. There was a spice here which hitherto had been denied me. The cost was unspelled. I fell as far as I could fall. The uncertainty of the affair was in itself an enchantment.

Well, the next day I strolled up the Avenue of Legations and saw her on horseback. She was accompanied by an elderly man with a face like an eagle's. There were various decorations on his breast. As the Princess saw me, she bent her head. She remembered me. That was all that was necessary for my transportation. Later, I was informed that her escort was Prince Ernst of Wortumborg, who was destined to become her lord and master. I did not care who he was; I knew that I hated him.

For a week I lingered on. I met her time and again; alone on horseback, at the various embassies and at the opera. At these meetings I learned a great deal about her. She was known to be the most capricious woman at court, and that she was as courageous as she was daring; and that the Prince might consider himself lucky if he got her, King's will or no King's will. She had little liking for her intended. She treated him contemptuously and held his desires in utter disregard. One fine morning I was told that the Prince was beginning to notice my attentions, that he was one of the most noted pistol shots and swordsmen on the Continent, and that if I had any particular regard for my epidermis I would cease my attendance on the Princess at once. This, of course, made me more attentive than ever; for I can hold my own with any man when it comes to pistols, and I can handle the rapier with some success.

It was one night at the opera that the climax was brought about. I sat in one of the stalls diagonally across from the royal box, where she sat. She saw me and gave me the barest nod of recognition. Perhaps she did not wish to attract the attention of the royal personages who sat with her; for the nod struck me as clandestine. Between the first and second acts a note was handed to me. It was not addressed, neither was it signed. But it was for me; the bearer spoke my name. As near as I can remember, the note contained these words:

"A carriage will await you two blocks south; it will be without lights.

You will enter it exactly ten minutes after the opera is ended."

That was all, but it was enough. When I returned to my seat I found the Princess gazing intently at me. I made

an affirmative gesture and was rewarded with a smile which set my blood to rushing. I made little out of the last act. I could not dream what the anonymous note had behind it. I suspicioned an intrigue, but what use had she for me, an American, a very nobody? Something unusual was about to take place and I was to be a witness or a participant of it. That was as far as my talent for logical deduction went. Promptly at the stated time I stood at the side of the carriage. It was the plainest sort of an affair. Evidently it had been hired for the occasion. The door opened.

"Step in, monsieur," said a low voice in French. I obeyed. The horse started. As we spun along the pavement a light flashed into the window. The Princess sat before me. There was a ringing in my ears, and I breathed quickly. But I said no word; it was for her to speak first.

"Monsieur is an American," she began. "The American is of a chivalric race."

"That should be the aim of all men," I replied.

"But it is not so. Monsieur, I have been studying you for the past week. To-night I place my honor and my fame in your hands; it is for you to prove that you are a knight. I trust you. When I have said what I shall say to you, you may withdraw or give me your aid, as you please."

"I am grateful for your confidence, your Highness," said I. "What is it that you wish me to do?"

"Have patience, monsieur, till the ride is done," she said. "Do not speak again till I permit you. I must think."

The journey was accomplished in half an hour.

"It is here, monsieur, that we alight," she said as the carriage stopped.

I was glad that her opera cloak was of dark material and that she wore a veil.

The building before which we stood was on the outskirts of the city. Far away to my left I could see the flickering lights of the palaces; a yellowish haze hung over all. Once within the building I noted with surprise the luxurious appointments. Plainly it was no common inn, a resort for the middle and traveling classes; whether it was patronized by the nobility I could only surmise.

"We shall continue to speak in French," she said, as she threw back her cloak and lifted her veil. "Monsieur has probably heard that the Princess Hildegarde is a creature of extravagant caprices; and he expects an escapade."

"Your Highness wrongs me," I protested. "I am an obscure American; your Highness does not share your-that is--"

I stopped, not wishing to give the term escapade to anything she might do. As a matter of fact she has caused her royal guardian, the King, no end of trouble. She went to Paris once unattended; at another time she roamed around Heidelberg and slashed a fencing master; she had donned a student's garb. She is said to be the finest swordswoman on the Continent. Yet, notwithstanding her caprices, she is a noble-minded woman. She does all these things called social vagaries because she has a fine scorn for the innate hypocrisy of the social organization of this country. She loves freedom not wisely but too well. To go on:

"Monsieur wrongs me also," she said. "In what are termed my escapades I am alone. You appealed to me," with a directness which amazed me, "because of your handsome face, your elegant form, your bright eyes. You are a man who loves adventure which has the spice of danger in it. My countrymen--." She crooked one of her bare shoulders, which shone like yellow ivory in the subdued light. This rank flattery cooled me. A woman who has any regard for a man is not likely to flatter him in respect to his looks on so short and slight an acquaintance. "Monsieur," she proceeded, "this is to be no escapade, no caprice. I ask your aid as a desperate woman. At court I can find no one to succor me, save at the peril of that which is dearer to me than my life. Among the commoners, who would dare? An Englishman? It is too much trouble. A Frenchman? I would trust him not quite so far as the door. You are the first American, not connected with the legation, I have ever met. Will you help me?"

"If what you ask me to do is within my capabilities, I am yours to command."

"The reward will be small," as if to try me. I laughed. I was so insanely happy, I suppose. "There will be danger," she persisted; "secret danger: there will be scandal."

"The more danger, the merrier," I cried.

"Ah, yes," smiling; "it is the man of Balkistan."

I leaned over the table and inhaled the ineffable perfumes which

emanated from her person. "Tell me, from what must I succor the

Princess? Is she a prisoner in a castle over which some ogre rules?

Well, then, I'll be Sir Galahad."

My jesting tone jarred on her nerves. She straightened in her chair.

"Monsieur is amused," she said coldly.

"And he asks a thousand pardons!" I cried contritely. "Command me," and I grew chilled and serious.

"You have heard that I am to wed Prince Ernst of Wortumborg?"

"Yes." I gnawed the ends of my mustache.

"Monsieur, it is against my will, my whole being. I have no desire to contribute a principality and a wife to a man who is not worthy of one or the other. I refuse to become the King's puppet, notwithstanding his power to take away my principality and leave me comparatively without resources. I detest this man so thoroughly that I cannot hate him. I abhor him. It is you who must save me from him; it is you who must also save me my principality. Oh, they envy me, these poor people, because I am a Princess, because I dwell in the tinsel glitter of the court. Could they but know how I envy their lives, their homes, their humble ambitions! Believe me, monsieur, as yet I love no man; but that is no reason why I should link my life to that of a man to whom virtue in a woman means nothing. He caused my mother great sorrow. He came between her and my father. He spoiled her life, now he wishes to spoil mine. But I will not have it so. I will give up my principality rather. But first let me try to see if I cannot retain the one and rid myself of the other. Listen. To-morrow night there will be a dinner here. The King and the inner court will hold forth. But they will cast aside their pomp and become, for the time being, ordinary people. The Prince will be in Brussels, and therefore unable to attend. You are to come in his stead."

"I?" in astonishment.

"Even so," she smiled. "While the festivities are at their height you and I will secretly leave and return to the city. We shall go immediately to the station, thence to France."

I looked at her as one in a dream. "I!-You!-thence to France?"

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