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   Chapter 8 No.8

Arms and the Woman By Harold MacGrath Characters: 18786

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


As I came along the road, the dust of which had been laid that afternoon by an odorous summer rain, the principal thing which struck my eyes was the quaintness and unquestioned age of the old inn. It was a relic of the days when feudal lords still warred with one another, and the united kingdom was undreamt of. It looked to be 300 years old, and might have been more. From time to time it had undergone various repairs, as shown by the new stone and signs of modern masonry, the slate peeping out among the moss-covered tiles. It sat back from the highway, and was surrounded by thick rows of untrimmed hedges, and was partly concealed from view by oaks and chestnuts. The gardens were full of roses all in bloom, and their perfumes hung heavy on the moist air. And within a stone's throw of the rear the Danube noiselessly slid along its green banks. All I knew about the inn was that it had been by a whim of nature the birthplace of that beautiful, erratic and irresponsible young person, her Serene Highness the Princess Hildegarde. It was here I thought to find Hillars; though it was idle curiosity as much as anything which led me to the place.

The village was five miles below. I could see the turrets of the castle which belonged to the Princess. She was very wealthy, and owned as many as three strongholds in the petty principality of Hohenphalia. Capricious indeed must have been the woman who was ready to relinquish them for freedom.

The innkeeper was a pleasant, ruddy-cheeked old man, who had seen service. He greeted me with some surprise; tourists, he said, seldom made this forgotten, out-of-the-way village an objective point. I received a room which commanded a fine view of the river and a stretch of the broad highway. I was the only guest. This very loneliness pleased me. My travel-stained suit I exchanged for knickerbockers and a belted jacket. I went down to supper; it was a simple affair, and I was made to feel at home. From the dining-room I caught a momentary flash of white skirts in the barroom.

"Ah," I thought; "a barmaid. If she is pretty it will be a diversion."

In the course of my wanderings I had seen few barmaids worth looking at twice.

When the table was cleared I lit a cigar and strolled into the gardens. The evening air was delicious with the smell of flowers, still wet with rain. The spirit of the breeze softly whispered among the branches above me. Far up in the darkening blues a hawk circled. The west was a thread of yellow flame; the moon rose over the hills in the east; Diana on the heels of Apollo! And the river! It was as though Nature had suddenly become lavish in her bounty and had sent a stream of melting silver trailing over all the land. There is nothing more beautiful to see than placid water as it reflects a summer's twilight. The blue Danube! Who has heard that magic name without the remembrance of a face close to your own, an arm, bare, white, dazzling, resting and gleaming like marble on your broadcloth sleeve, and above all, the dreamy, swinging strains of Strauss? There was a face once which had rested near mine. Heigho! I lingered with my cigar and watched the night reveal itself. I lay at the foot of a tree, close to the water's edge, and surrendered to the dream-god. Some of my dreams knew the bitterness of regret. "Men have died and worms have eaten them, but not for love." Yet, no man who has loved and lost can go through his allotted time without the consciousness that he has missed something, something which leaves each triumph empty and incomplete.

And then, right in the midst of my dreams, a small foot planted itself. I turned my head and saw a woman. On seeing the bright end of my cigar, she stopped. She stood so that the light of the moon fell full upon her face.

My cigar trembled and fell.

"Phyllis!" I cried, springing to my feet, almost dumbfounded, my heart nigh suffocating me in its desire to leap forth. "Phyllis!-and here? What does this mean?"

The woman looked at me with a puzzled frown, but did not answer. Then, as I started toward her with outstretched arms, she turned and fled into the shadows, leaving with me nothing but the echo of her laughter, the softest, sweetest laughter! I made no effort to follow her, because I was not quite sure that I had seen anything.

"Moonlight!" I laughed discordantly.

Phyllis in this deserted place? I saw how impossible that was. I had been dreaming. The spirit of some wood-nymph had visited me, and for a brief space had borrowed the features of the woman I loved. In vain I searched the grove. The vision was nowhere to be found. I went back to the inn somewhat shaken up.

Several old veterans were seated in the barroom, smoking bad tobacco and drinking a final bout. Their jargon was unintelligible to me.

"Where's your barmaid?" I asked of the inn-keeper.

His faded blue eyes scanned me sharply. I read a question in them and wondered.

"She went into the garden to get a breath of fresh air," he said. "She does not like the smoke."

It annoyed me. I had seen some one, then. What would Phyllis, proud Phyllis, say, I mused, when she heard that a barmaid was her prototype? This thought had scarcely left me when the door in the rear of the bar opened and in came the barmaid herself. No, it was not Phyllis, but the resemblance was so startling that I caught my breath and stared at her with a persistency which bordered on rudeness. The barmaid was blonde, whereas Phyllis was neither blonde nor brunette, but stood between the extremes, and there was a difference in the eyes: I could see that even in the insufficient light.

"Good evening, fraulein," said I, with apparent composure. "And what might your name be?"

"It is Gretchen, if it please you," with a courtesy. I had a vague idea that this courtesy was made mockingly.

"Gretchen? I have heard the name before," said I, "and you remind me of some one I have seen."

"Herr has been to the great city?"

B-- is the greatest city in the world to the provincial.

"Yes," said I; "but you remind me of no one I ever saw there."

She plucked a leaf from the rose she wore and began nibbling at it.

Her mouth was smaller than the one belonging to Phyllis.

"The person to whom I refer," I went on, "lives in America, where your compatriots brew fine beer and wax rich."

"Ah, Herr is an American? I like Americans," archly. "They are so liberal."

I laughed, but I did not tell her why. All foreigners have a great love of Americans-"They are so liberal."

"So you find Americans liberal? Is it with money or with compliments?"

Said Gretchen: "The one when they haven't the other."

A very bright barmaid, thought I.

Then I said: "Is this your home?"

"Yes," said Gretchen. "I was born here and I have tended the roses for ever so long."

"I have heard of Gretchen of the steins, but I never before heard of a

Gretchen of the roses."

"Herr must have a large store of compliments on hand to begin this early."

"It is a part of my capital," said I. "Once in Switzerland I complimented an innkeeper, and when my bill was presented I found that all extras had been crossed off."

Gretchen laughed. It was a low laugh, a laugh which appeared to me as having been aroused not at what I had said, but at something which had recurred to her. I wanted to hear it again.

So I said: "I suppose you have a stein here from which the King has drunk; all taverns and inns have them."

Gretchen only smiled, but the smile was worth something.

"No; the King has never been within five miles of this inn."

"So much the worse for the King."

"And why that?"

"The King has missed seeing Gretchen."

It was then Gretchen laughed.

"I have never heard compliments like Herr's before."

"Why, I have any amount of them. I'll drink half a litre to your health."

She filled one of the old blue earthen steins.

"I haven't seen your roses in the gardens, but I'll drink to those in your cheeks," said I, and I drew back the pewter lid.

"How long does Herr intend to stay?" asked Gretchen.

"To the day is the evil thereof."

"Ah, one must be happy with nothing to do."

"Then you have the ambition common to all; to sit around and let others wait upon you?"

"No, that is not my ambition. I wish only to wait upon my own desires and not those of the-the others."

"It is all the same," said I. "Some must serve, others must be served."

When I went upstairs to my room it was my belief that a week or so at the inn would not hang heavy on my hands. I had forgotten for the moment the Princess, or that I was hunting for Hillars. It is strange how a face may upset one's plans. Gretchen's likeness to Phyllis, whom I loved, upset mine for many days to come.

As I gazed from my window the next morning I beheld the old innkeeper and Gretchen engaged in earnest conversation. He appeared to be pleading, nay, entreating, while she merely shook her head and laughed. Finally the old man lifted his hands to heaven and disappeared around the wing. When I came down Gretchen was in the gardens culling roses. She said they were for the table.

"Very well," said I; "give me one now."

"You may have them all at the table."

"But I shall not want them then."

She gave me an enigmatical glance, then cut a rose for me which was withered and worm-eaten.

"Gretchen is unkind," I observed.

"What matters it whether the rose be fresh or withered? It dies sooner or later. Nothing lasts, not even the world itself. You wish a rose, not because it is a rose, fresh and fragrant, but because I give it to you."

"You wrong me, Gretchen; I love a rose better than I love a woman. It never smiles falsely, the rose, nor plays with the hearts of men. I love a rose because it is sweet, and because it was made for man's pleasure and not for his pain."

"That sounds like a copy-book," laughed Gretchen. "The withered rose should teach you a lesson."

"What lesson?"

"That whatever a woman gives to man withers in the exchange; a rose, a woman's love."

Said I reproachfully: "You are spoiling a very pretty picture. What do you know about philosophy?"

"What does Herr know about roses?" defiantly.

"Much; one cannot pick too many fresh ones. And let me tell you a lesson which you should have learned among these roses. Nature teaches us to love all things fresh and beautiful; a rose, a face, a woman's love."

"Here," holding forth a great red rose.

"No," said I, "I'll keep this one."

She said nothing, but went on snipping a red rose here, a white one there. She wore gloves several sizes too large for her, so I judged that her hands were small and tender, perhaps white. And there was a grace in her movements, dispite the ungainly dress and shoes, which suggested a more intimate knowledge of velvets and silks than of calico. In my mind's eye I placed her at the side of Phyllis. Phyllis reminded me of a Venus whom Nature had whimsically left unfinished. Then she had turned from Venus to Diana, and Gretchen became evolved: a Diana, slim and willowy. A sculptor would have said that Phyllis might have been a goddess, and Gretchen a wood nymph, had not Nature suddenly changed her plans. What I admired in Phyllis was her imperfect beauties. What I admired in Gretchen was her beautiful perfections. And they were so alike and yet so different. Have you ever seen a body of fresh water, ruffled by a sudden gust of wind, the cool blue-green tint which follows? Then you have seen the color of Gretchen's eyes. Have you ever seen ripe wheat in a sun-shower? Then you have seen the color of Gretchen's hair. All in all, I was forced to admit that, from an impartial and artistic view Gretchen the barmaid was far more beautiful than Phyllis. From the standpoint of a lover it was altogether a different matter.

"Gretchen," said I, "you are very good-looking."

"It would not be difficult to tell Herr's nationality."

"Which means--?"

"That the American says in one sentence what it would take a German or a Frenchman several hundred sentences to say."

Gretchen was growing more interesting every minute.

"Then your mirror and I are not the only ones who have told you that you are as beautiful as Hebe herself?"

"I am not Hebe," coldly. "I am a poor barmaid, and I never spill any wine."

"So you understand mythology?" I cried in wonder.

"Does Herr think that all barmaids are as ignorant as fiction and ill-meaning novelists depict them? I have had a fair education."

"If I ever was guilty of thinking so," said I, answering her question,

"I promise never to think so again."

"And now will Herr go to his breakfast and let me attend to my duties?"

"Not without regret," I said gallantly. I bowed to her as they bowed in the days of the beaux, while she looked on suspiciously.

At the breakfast table I proceeded to bombard the innkeeper. I wanted to know more about Gretchen.

"Is Gretchen your daughter?" I began.

"No, I am only her godfather," he said. "Does Herr wish another egg?"

"Thanks. She is very well educated for a barmaid."

"Yes. Does Herr wish Rhine wine?"

"Coffee is plenty. Has Gretchen seen many Americans?"

"Few. Perhaps Herr would like a knoblauch with salt and vinegar?"

It occurred to me that Gretchen was not to be discussed. So I made for another channel.

"I have heard," said I, "that once upon a time a princess was born in this inn?"

The old fellow elevated both eyebrows and shoulders-a deprecating movement.

"They say that of every inn; it has become a trade."

If I had known the old man I might have said that he was sarcastic.

"Then there is no truth in it?" disappointedly.

"Oh, I do not say there is no truth in the statement; if Herr will pardon me, it is something I do not like to talk about."

"Ah, then there is a mystery?" I cried, with lively interest, pushing back my chair.

But the innkeeper shook his head determinedly.

"Very well," I laughed; "I shall ask Gretchen."

He smiled. The smile said: "Much good it will do you."

Gretchen was in the barroom arranging some roses over the fireplace. Her hands were bare; they were small and white, and surprisingly well kept.

"Gretchen," said I, "I want you to tell me the legend of the inn."

"The legend?"

"Yes; about the Princess who was born here."

Gretchen laughed a merry laugh. The laugh said: "You are an amusing person!"

"Ah, the American is always after legends when he has tired of collecting antiquities. Was there a Princess born here? Perhaps. At any rate it is not a legend; history nor peasantry make mention of it. Will Herr be so kind as to carry the ladder to the mantel so I may wind the clock?"

I do so. Even at this early stage I could see that Gretchen had the faculty of making persons forget what they were seeking, and by the mere sound of her voice. And it was I who wound the clock.

"Gretchen," said I, "time lags. Make a servant out of me this morning."

"Herr does the barmaid too much honor," with lowered eyes.

"I, am in the habit of doing anything I please."

"Ah, Herr is one of those millionaires I have read about!"

"Yes, I am very rich." I laughed, but Gretchen did not see the point.

"Come, then, with me, and you shall weed the knoblauch patch."

She was laughing at me, but I was not to be abashed.

"To the patch be it, then!" I cried. "An onion would smell as sweet under any other name."

So Gretchen and I went into the onion patch, and I weeded and hoed and hoed and weeded till my back ached and my hands were the color of the soil. Nothing was done satisfactorily to Gretchen. It was, "There, you have ruined the row back of you!" or "Pull the weeds more gently!" and sometimes, "Ach! could your friends see you now!" I suppose that I did not make a pretty picture. The perspiration would run down my face. I would forget the condition of my hands and push back my hair, which fell like a mop over my brow, whereat she would laugh. Once I took her hand and helped her to jump over a row. I was surprised at the strength of her grasp.

"What does Herr do for a living, he works so badly as a gardener?"

"I am a journalist," I answered, leaning on my hoe and breathing heavily.

"Ach! one of those men who tell such dreadful stories about kings and princes? Who cause men to go to war with each other? Who rouse the ignorant to deeds of violence? One of those men who are more powerful than a king, because they can undo him?" She drew away from me.

"Hold on!" I cried, dropping the hoe; "what do you know about it?"

"Enough," sadly. "I read the papers. I always look with fear upon one of those men who can do so much good, and yet who would do so much evil."

I had never looked at it in that light before.

"It seems to me, Gretchen," I said quietly, "that you are about as much a barmaid as I am a weeder of knoblauches."

The color of excitement fled from Gretchen's cheeks, her eyes grew troubled and she looked away.

"Gretchen has a secret," said I. "It is nothing to me what Gretchen's secret is; I shall respect it, and continue to think of her only as a barmaid with-with a superior education." I shouldered the hoe. "Come, let us go back; I'm thirsty."

"Thank you, Herr," was the soft reply. Then Gretchen became as dumb, and our return to the inn was made in silence. Once there, however, she recovered. "I am sorry to have put you at such a disadvantage," glancing at my clothes, which were covered with brown earth.

"Let that be the least of your troubles!" I cried gayly. Then I hummed in English:

So, ho! dear Gretchen, winsome lass,

I want no tricky wine,

But amber nectar bring to me,

Whose rich bouquet will cling to me,

Whose spirit voice will sing to me

From out the mug divine

So, here's your toll-a kiss-away,

You Hebe of the Rhine!

No goblet's gold means cheer to me,

Let no cut glass get near to me-

Go, Gretchen, haste the beer to me,

And put it in the stein!

I thought I saw a smile on her lips, but it was gone before I was certain.

"Gott in Himmel!" gasped the astonished innkeeper, as I went into the barroom. I still had the hoe over my shoulder.

"Never mind, mein host. I've been weeding your knoblauch patch as a method of killing time."

"But-" He looked at Gretchen in dismay.

"It was I who led him there," said Gretchen, in answer to his inquiring eyes.

A significant glance passed between them. There was a question in his, a command in hers. I pretended to be examining the faded tints in the stein I held in my hand.

I was thinking: "Since when has an innkeeper waited on the wishes of his barmaid?"

There was a mystery after all.

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