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   Chapter 9 No.9

Arms and the Woman By Harold MacGrath Characters: 12958

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


I took my pipe and strolled along the river bank. What had I stumbled into? Here was an old inn, with rather a feudal air; but it was only one in a thousand; a common feature throughout the Continent. And yet, why had the gods, when they cast out Hebe, chosen this particular inn for her mortal residence? The pipe solves many riddles, and then, sometimes, it creates a density. I put my pipe into my pocket and cogitated. Gretchen had brought about a new order of things. A philosophical barmaid was certainly a novelty. That Gretchen was philosophical I had learned in the rose gardens. That she was also used to giving commands I had learned in the onion patch. Hitherto I had held the onion in contempt; already I had begun to respect it. Above all, Gretchen was a mystery, the most alluring kind of mystery-a woman who was not what she seemed. How we men love mysteries, which are given the outward semblance of a Diana or a Venus! By and by, my journalistic instinct awoke. Who are those who fear the newspapers? Certainly it is not the guiltless. Of what was Gretchen guilty? The inn-keeper knew. Was she one of those many conspirators who abound in the kingdom? She was beautiful enough for anything. And whence came the remarkable likeness between her and Phyllis? Here was a mystery indeed. I had a week before me; in that time I might learn something about Gretchen, even if I could solve nothing. I admit that it is true, that had Gretchen been plain, it would not have been worth the trouble. But she had too heavenly a face, too wonderful an eye, too delicious a mouth, not to note her with concern.

I did not see Gretchen again that day; but as I was watching the moon climb up, thinking of her and smoking a few pipes as an incense to her shrine, I heard her voice beneath my window. It was accompanied by the bass voice of the inn-keeper.

"But he is a journalist. Is it safe? Is anything safe from them?" came to my ears in a worried accent, a bass.

So the inn-keeper, too, was a Socialist!

Said an impatient contralto: "So long as I have no fear, why should you?"

"Ach, you will be found out and dragged back!" was the lamentation in a throaty baritone. Anxiety raises a bass voice at least two pitches. "If you would but return to the hills, where there is absolute safety!"

"No; I will not go back there, where everything is so dull and dead. I have lived too long not to read a face at a glance. His eyes are honest."

"Thanks, Gretchen," murmured I from above. I was playing the listener; but, then, she was only a barmaid.

"And it is so long," went on the contralto, "since I have seen a man-a strong one, I wish to see if my power is gone."

"Aha!" thought I; "so you have already laid plans for my capitulation,

Gretchen?"

"But," said the bass voice once more, "supposing some of the military should straggle along? There might be one who has seen you before. Alas! I despair! You will not hide yourself; you will stay here till they find you."

I fell to wondering what in the world Gretchen had done.

"I have not been to the village since I was a little girl. Dressed as I am, who would recognize me? No one at the castle, for there is no one there but the steward. Would you send me away?"

"God forbid! But this American? You say you can read faces; how about the other one?"

Silence.

"Yes; how about him?"

Said Gretchen: "We are not infallible. And perhaps I was then much to blame."

"No; we are not infallible; that is the reason why you should take no chance," was the final argument of the innkeeper.

"Hush!" said Gretchen.

"Confound the pipe!" I muttered. It had fallen over the window sill.

Five minutes passed; I heard no sound. Glancing from the side of the window I saw that Gretchen and the innkeeper were gone.

Yes, there wasn't any doubt about it; Gretchen was a conspirator. The police were hunting for her, and she was threatened with discovery. It was beyond my imagination what she could have done. Moreover, she was rather courting danger; the military post was only five miles down the river. The one thing which bothered me was the "him" who had suddenly intruded upon the scene, invisible, but there, like Banquo's ghost. Perhaps her beauty had lured some fellow to follow her fortunes and his over-zeal, or lack of it, had brought ruin to some plot.

"Gretchen," said I, as I jumped into bed, "whoever he was, he must have been a duffer."

Her Serene Highness the Princess Hildegarde was in Jericho, and Hillars along with her, where I had consigned them.

Next morning Gretchen waited upon me at breakfast. She was quiet and answered my questions in monosyllables. Presently she laid something at the side of my plate. It was my pipe. I looked at her, but the leads of my eyes could not plumb the depths in hers.

"Thanks," said I. "It dropped from my window last night, while I was playing the disgraceful part of eavesdropper." I dare say she had expected anything but this candid confession. It was very cunning in me. She knew that I knew she knew. Had I lied I should have committed an irreparable blunder.

As it was she lifted her chin and laughed.

"Will you forgive me?"

"Yes; for you certainly wasted your time."

"Yes, indeed; for I am just as much in the dark as ever."

"And will remain so."

"I hope so. A mystery is charming while it lasts. Really, Gretchen, I did not mean to play the listener, and I promise that from now on--"

"From now on!" cried Gretchen. "Does not Herr leave to-day?"

"No; I am going to spend a whole week here."

There was a mixture of dismay and anger in her gaze.

"But, as I was going to say, I shall make no effort to pry into your affairs. Honestly, I am a gentleman."

"I shall try to believe you," said she, the corners of her mouth broadening into a smile.

She condescended to show me through the rose gardens and tell me what she knew about them. It was an interesting lecture. And in the evening she permitted me to row her about the river. We were getting on very well under the circumstances.

The week was soon gone, and Gretchen and I became very good friends. Often when she had nothing to do we would wander along the river through the forests, always, I noticed, by a route which took us away from the village. Each day I discovered some new accomplishment. Sometimes I would read Heine or Goethe to her, and she would grow rapt and silent. In the midst of some murmurous

stanza I would suddenly stop, only to see her start and look at me as though I had committed a sacrilege, in that I had spoiled some dream of hers. Then again I myself would become lost in dreams, to be aroused by a soft voice saying: "Well, why do you not go on?" Two people of the opposite sexes reading poetry in the woods is a solemn matter. This is not appreciated at the time, however. It comes back afterward.

In all the week I had learned nothing except that Gretchen was not what she pretended to be. But I feared to ask questions. They might have spoiled all. And the life was so new to me, so quiet and peaceful, with the glamour of romance over it all, that I believe I could have stayed on forever. And somehow Phyllis was fading away, slowly but surely. The regret with which I had heretofore looked upon her portrait was lessening each day; from active to passive. And yet, was it because Gretchen was Phyllis in the ideal? Was I falling in love with Gretchen because she was Gretchen, or was my love for Phyllis simply renewing itself in Gretchen? Was that the reason why the portrait of Phyllis grew less holding and interesting to me? It was a complex situation; one I frowned over when alone. It was becoming plainer to me every hour that I had a mystery all of my own to solve. And Gretchen was the only one to solve it.

I shall never forget that night under the chestnuts, on the bank of the wide white river. The leaves were gossiping among themselves; they had so much to talk about; and then, they knew so much! Had not they and their ancestors filtered the same moonbeams, century on century? Had not their ancestors heard the tramp of the armies, the clash of the sabre, the roar of the artillery? Had not the hand of autumn and the hand of death marked them with the crimson sign? Ah, the leaves! It is well to press them in books when they themselves have such fine stories to tell.

"Gretchen," said I, echoing my thoughts, "had I been born a hundred years ago I must have been a soldier. Napoleon was a great warrior."

"So was Blücher, since it was he who helped overcome the little

Corsican."

The Germans will never forgive Napoleon.

"But war is a terrible thing," went on Gretchen.

"Yes, but it is a great educator; it teaches the vanquished how little they know."

"War is the offspring of pride; that is what makes it so abhorred."

"It is also the offspring of oppression; that is what makes it so great."

"Yes; when the people take up arms it is well. War is the torch of liberty in the hands of the people. Oh, I envy the people, who are so strong, yet know it not. If I were a man I would teach the people that a king has no divine right, save when it is conferred upon him by them."

"Gretchen, I'm afraid that you're a bit of a Socialist."

"And who is not who has any love for humanity?"

"A beautiful woman who is a Socialist, Gretchen, is a menace to the King. Sometimes he fears her. At large, she is dangerous. He seeks her, and if he finds her, he takes away her liberty." All this was said with a definite purpose. It was to let Gretchen know that I knew her secret. "Gretchen, you are an embryo Socialist; a chrysalis, as it were."

"No, Herr," sadly; "I am a butterfly whose wings have been clipped."

I had not expected this admission,

"Never mind," said I. "Gretchen, I do not want you to call me Herr; call me Jack."

"Jack!" she said. It became an uncommon name now.

"Whatever your true name may be, I shall never call you anything but

Gretchen."

"Ah, Jack!" She laughed, and the lurking echoes clasped the music of that laughter in their wanton arms and hurried it across the river.

"Sing to me," said I.

Then imagine my surprise-I, who had heard nothing but German fall from her lips?-when in a heavenly contralto she sang a chanson from "La Fille de Madame Angot," an opera forgotten these ten years!

"Elle est tellement innocente!"

She had risen, and she stood there before me with a halo of moonshine above her head. The hot blood rushed to my ears. Barmaid, Socialist, or whatever she might be, she was lovable. In a moment I was kissing her hand, the hand so small, so white, and yet so firm. A thousand inarticulate words came to my lips-from my heart! Did the hand tremble? I thought so. But swiftly she drew it from my clasp, all the joy and gladness gone from her face and eyes.

"No, no!" she cried; "this must not be; it must not be!"

"But I--" I began eagerly.

"You must not say it; I command you. If you speak, Gretchen will be Gretchen no more. Yes, the King seeks Gretchen; but will you drive her away from her only haven?" with a choking sound.

"Gretchen, trust me. Shall I go to-morrow? Shall I leave you in peace?" Somehow I believed myself to be in danger. "Speak!"

There was an interval of stillness, broken only by the beating of hearts. Then:

"Stay. But speak no word of love; it is not for such as I. Stay and be my friend, for I need one. Cannot a woman look with favor upon a man but he must needs become her lover? I shall trust you as I have trusted other men. And though you fail me in the end, as others have done, still I shall trust you. Herr, I conspire against the King. For what? The possession of my heart. All my life I have stood alone, so alone."

"I will be your friend, Gretchen; I will speak no word of love. Will that suffice?"

"It is all I ask, dear friend. And now will you leave me?"

"Leave you?" I cried. "I thought you bade me stay?"

"Ah," putting out her hand; "you men do not understand. Sometimes a woman wishes to be alone when-when she feels that she-she cannot hold back her tears!"

Gravely I bent over her hand and kissed it. It seemed to me as I let the hand fall that I had never kissed a woman on the lips. I turned and went slowly down the path. Once I looked back. I saw something white lying at the foot of the tree. Heaven knows what a struggle it was, but I went on. I wanted to take her in my arms and tell her that I loved her. When I reached the inn I turned again, but I saw nothing. I sat in my room a long time that night, smoking my pipe till the candle gasped feebly and died in the stick, and the room was swallowed in darkness.

I did not know, I was not sure, but I thought that, so long as I might not love Phyllis, it would not be a very hard task to love her image, which was Gretchen. You see, Phyllis was so very far away and Gretchen was so near!

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