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   Chapter 5 No.5

Arms and the Woman By Harold MacGrath Characters: 14074

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Hillars went to the sideboard and emptied half a glass of brandy.

Coming back to his chair he remained in a reverie for a short time.

Then he resumed his narrative.

The Princess looked up into my face and smiled.

"Yes; thence to France. Ah, I could go alone. But listen, monsieur. Above all things there must be a scandal. A Princess elopes with an American adventurer. The Prince will withdraw his suit. The King may or may not forgive me; but I will risk it. He is still somewhat fond of me, notwithstanding the worry I have caused him. This way is the only method by which I may convince him how detestable this engagement is to me. Yet, my freedom is more to me than my principality. Let the King bestow it upon whom he will. I shall become a teacher of languages, or something of that sort. I shall be free and happy. Oh, you will have a merry tale to tell, a merry adventure. You will return to your country. You will be the envy of your compatriots. You will recount at your clubs a story such as men read, but never hear told!" She was growing a bit hysterical. As she looked at me she saw that my face was grave.

"Is there no other way?" I asked. "Can it not be accomplished without scandal?"

"No. There must be scandal. Otherwise I should be brought back and forgiven, and no one would know. In a certain sense, I am valuable. The Hohenphalians love me; I am something of an idol to them. The King appreciates my rule. It gives him a knowledge that there will be no internal troubles in Hohenphalia so long as matters stand as they now do. Still, there are limits to the King's patience; and I am about to try them severely. But monsieur hesitates; he will withdraw his promise."

"No, your Highness," said I, "I have given my word. As for the scandal, it is not for myself that I care. It will be a jolly adventure for me; and then, I shall have such a clever story to tell my friends at the clubs."

She saw that I was offended. "Forgive me, monsieur; I know that you would do no such thing. But let me explain to you. At the station we will be intercepted by two trusted and high officials at court."

"What!" I exclaimed; "do they know?"

"No; but I shall write to them anonymously, the note to be placed in their hands immediately we leave the premises."

I looked at the woman in wonder.

"But this is madness!" I cried.

"Directly you will see the method in the madness. Without their knowing there could be no scandal. They will try to stop us. You will over-power and bind them. There will also be several other witnesses who will not be participants. Through them it will become known that I have eloped with an American. Oh, it is a well-laid plan."

"But, supposing I am overpowered myself, thrown into jail and I know not what?" All this was more than I had bargained for.

"Nothing of the kind will happen. Monsieur will hold a pistol in each hand when the carriage door is opened. You will say: 'I am a desperate man; one of you bind the other, or I fire!' It will be done. You will spring upon the remaining one and I will help you to bind him likewise. Oh, you will accomplish it well; you are a strong man; moreover, you are rapid."

I sat in my chair, speechless. Here was a woman of details. I had never met one before.

"Well, does monsieur accept the adventure or does he politely decline?"

There was a subtle taunt in her tones. That decided me.

"Your Highness, I should be happy to meet a thousand Uhlans to do you service. What you ask me to do is quite simple." I knew that I should lose my head in case of failure. I rose and bowed as unconcernedly as though she had but asked me to join her with a cup of tea.

"Ah, monsieur, you are a man!" And she laughed softly as she saw me throw back my shoulders. There was unmistakable admiration in her eyes. "And yet," with a sudden frown, "there will be danger. You may slip; you may become injured. Yes, there is danger."

"Your Highness," said I lowly, compelling her eyes to meet mine, "it is not the danger of the adventure or its results that I most fear." I was honest enough to make my meaning clear.

She blushed. "I said that I trusted monsieur's honor," was her rejoinder. "Come," with a return of her imperiousness; "it is time that we were gone!" She drew on her cloak and dropped the veil. "I might add," she said, "that we will remain in France one hour. From there you may go your way, and I shall go secretly to my palace."

And the glamour fell away like the last leaves of the year.

I had to wake up the driver, who had fallen asleep.

"Where shall I say?" I asked.

"To your hotel. I shall give the driver the remaining instructions."

"But you haven't told me," said I, as I took my place in the carriage, "how I am to become a guest at the dinner to-morrow evening."

"I spoke to the King this morning. I said that I had a caprice. He replied that if I would promise it to be my last he would grant it. I promised. I said that it was my desire to bring to the dinner a person who, though without rank, was a gentleman-one who would grace any gathering, kingly or otherwise. My word was sufficient. I knew before I asked you that you would come. Twenty-four hours from now we, that is, you and I, will be on the way to the French frontier. I shall be ever in your debt."

Silence fell upon us. I knew that I loved her with a love that was burning me up, consuming me. And the adventure was all so unheard of for these prosaic times! And so full of the charm of mystery was she that I had not been a man not to have fallen a victim. What possibilities suggested themselves to me as on we rode! Once across the frontier I should be free to confess my love for her. A Princess? What of that? She would be only a woman-the woman I loved. I trembled. Something might happen so that she would have to turn to me. If the King refused to forgive her, she was mine! Ah, that plain carriage held a wonderful dream that night. At length-too shortly for me-the vehicle drew up in front of my hotel. As I was about to alight her hand stretched toward me. But instead of kissing it, I pressed my lips on her round white arm. As though my lips burned, she drew back.

"Have a care, monsieur; have a care," she said, icily. "Such a kiss has to be won."

I stammered an apology and stepped out. Then I heard a low laugh.

"Good night, Mr. Hillars; you are a brave gentleman!"

The door closed and the vehicle sped away into the darkness.

I stood looking after it, bewildered. Her last words were spoken in pure English.

With the following evening came the dinner; and I as a guest, a nervous, self-conscious guest, who started at every footstep. I was presented to the King, who eyed me curiously. Seeing that I wore a medal such as his Chancellor gives to men who sometimes do his country service, he spoke to me and inquired how I had obtained it. It was an affair similar to the Balkistan; only there was not an army, but a mob. The Princess was enchanting. I grew rec

kless, and let her read my eyes more than once; but she pretended not to see what was in them. At dinner a toast was given to his Majesty. It was made with those steins I showed you, Jack.

The Princess said softly to me, kissing the rim of the stein she held: "My toast is not to the King, but to the gentleman!" I had both steins bundled up and left with the host, together with my address.

It was not long after that the eventful moment for our flight arrived. I knew that I was basely to abuse the hospitality of the King. But what is a King to a man in love? Presently we two were alone in the garden, the Princess and myself. She was whispering instructions, telling me that I was a man of courage.

"It is not too late to back out," she said.

"I would face a thousand kings rather," I replied.

We could see at the gate the carriage which was to take us to the station. Now came the moment when I was tried by the crucible and found to be dross. I committed the most foolish blunder of my life. My love suddenly overleapt its bounds. In a moment my arms were around her lithe body; my lips met hers squarely. After it was done she stood very still, as if incapable of understanding my offence. But I understood. I was overwhelmed with remorse, love, and regret. I had made impossible what might have been.

"Your Highness," I cried, "I could not help it! Before God I could not! It is because I love you better than anything in the world-you cannot be of it!-and all this is impossible, this going away together."

Her bosom heaved, and her eyes flashed like a heated summer sky.

"I will give you one minute to leave this place," she said, her tones as even and as cold as sudden repression of wrath could make them. "I trusted you, and you have dared to take advantage of what seemed my helplessness. It is well indeed for you that you committed this outrage before it is too late. I should have killed you then. I might have known. Could ever a woman trust a man?" She laughed contemptuously. "You would have made me a thing of scorn; and I trusted you!"

"As God is my judge," I cried, "my respect for you is as high as heaven itself. I love you; is there nothing in that? I am but human. I am not a stone image. And you have tempted me beyond all control. Pardon what I have done; it was not the want of respect-."

"Spare me your protestations. I believe your minute is nearly gone," she interrupted.

And then-there was a crunch on the gravel behind us. The Princess and I turned in dismay. We had forgotten all about the anonymous note. Two officers were approaching us, and rapidly. The elder of the two came straight to me. I knew him to be as inexorable as his former master, the victor of Sedan. The Princess looked on mechanically.

"Come," said the Count, in broken English; "I believe your carriage is at the gate."

I glanced at the Princess. She might have been of stone, for all the life she exhibited.

"Come; the comedy is a poor one," said the Count.

I followed him out of the garden. My indifference to personal safety was due to a numbness which had taken hold of me.

"Get in," he said, when we reached the carriage. I did so, and he got in after me. The driver appeared confused. It was not his fare, according to the agreement. "To the city," he was briefly told. "Your hotel?" turning to me. I named it. "Do you understand German?"

"But indifferently," I answered listlessly.

"It appears that you understand neither the language nor the people.

Who are you?"

"That is my concern," I retorted. I was coming about, and not unnaturally became vicious.

"It concerns me also," was the gruff reply.

"Have your own way about it."

"How came you by that medal?" pointing to my breast.

"Honestly," said I.

"Honestly or dishonestly, it is all the same." He made a move to detach it, and I caught his hand.

"Please don't do that. I am extremely irritable; and I might throw you out of the window. I can get back to my hotel without guidance."

"I am going to see you to your lodgings," asserted the Count, rubbing his wrist, for I had put some power into my grasp.

"Still, I might take it into my head to throw you out."

"You'd better not try."

"Are you afraid?"

"Yes. There would be a scandal. Not that I would care about the death of a miserable adventurer, but it might possibly reflect upon the virtue of her Highness the Princess Hildegarde."

"What do you want?" I growled.

"I want to see if your passports are proper so that you will have no difficulty in passing over the frontier."

"Perhaps it would be just as well to wake the American Minister?" I suggested.

"Not at all. If you were found dead there might be a possibility of that. But I should explain to him, and he would understand that it was a case without diplomatic precedent."

"Well?"

"You are to leave this country at once, sir; that is, if you place any value upon your life."

"Oh; then it is really serious?"

"Very. It is a matter of life and death-to you. Moreover, you must never enter this country again. If you do, I will not give a pfennig for your life."

He found my passports in good order. I permitted him to rummage through some of my papers.

"Ach! a damned scribbler, too!" coming across some of my notes.

"Quite right, Herr General," said I. I submitted because I didn't care.

My luggage was packed off to the station, where he saw that my ticket was for Paris.

"Good morning," he said, as I entered the carriage compartment. "The devil will soon come to his own; ach!"

"My compliments to him when you see him!" I called back, not to be outdone in the matter of courtesy.

"And that is all, Jack," concluded Hillars. "For all these months not an hour has passed in which I have not cursed the folly of that moment. Instead of healing under the balm of philosophy, the wound grows more painful every day. She did not love me, I know, but she would have been near me. And if the King had taken away her principality, she would have needed me in a thousand ways. And it is not less than possible that in time she might have learned the lesson of love. But now-if she is the woman I believe her to be, she never could love me after what has happened. And knowing this, I can't leave liquor alone, and don't want to. In my cups I do not care."

"I feel sorry for you both," said I. "Has the Prince married her yet?"

"No. It has been postponed. Next Monday I am going back. I am going in hopes of getting into trouble. I may never see her again, perhaps. To-morrow, to-morrow! Who knows? Well, I'm off to bed. Good night."

And I was left alone with my thoughts. They weren't very good company. To-morrow indeed, I thought. I sat and smoked till my tongue smarted. I had troubles of my own, and wondered how they would end. Poor Hillars! As I look back to-day, I marvel that we could not see the end. The mystery of life seems simple to us who have lived most of it, and can look down through the long years.

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