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   Chapter 10 No.10

Arms and the Woman By Harold MacGrath Characters: 13266

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


I lowered the glasses. I discerned them to be cavalrymen, petty officers. They were mounted on spirited horses.

"Gretchen," said I, "they are cavalrymen. They do not wear the Hohenphalian uniform; so, perhaps, it would be just as well for you to go to your room and remain there till they are gone. Ah," said I, elevating the glasses again; "they wear his Majesty's colors. You had best retire."

"I refuse. They may be thirsty."

"I'll see to that," I laughed.

"But-" she began.

"Oh, Gretchen wishes to see new faces," said I, with chagrin.

"If it pleases you, sir," mischievously.

"What if they are looking for-for-"

"That is the very reason why I wish to see them."

"You are determined?"

"I am."

"Very well," said I; "you had best eat an onion."

"And for what purpose?"

"As a preventive to offensive tactics," looking slyly at her.

Her laugh rang out mockingly.

"Do you not know that aside from dueling, the German lives only for his barmaid, his beer and his knoblauch? Nevertheless, since you wish it I will eat one-for your sake."

"For my sake?" I cried in dismay. "Heaven forfend!"

"Does Herr--"

"Jack," said I.

"Does Herr Jack think," her eyes narrowing till naught but a line of their beautiful blue-green could be seen, "that one of those would dare take a liberty with me?"

"I hope he will not. I should have the unpleasant duty of punching his head." If I could not kiss Gretchen nobody else should.

"You are very strong."

"Yes; and there are some things which add threefold to a man's strength."

"Such as --" She looked at me daringly.

"Yes, such as --" Her eyes fell before my glance, A delicate veil of rose covered her face for a moment. I wondered if she knew that it was only because I clinched my fists till the nails cut, that I did not do the very thing I feared the stragglers coming down the road might do. "Come," said I, peremptorily; "there is no need of your welcoming them here."

So we entered the inn; and she began furbishing up the utensils, just to tease me more than anything else.

Outside there was a clatter of hoofs, the chink of the spur, intermingled with a few oaths; and then the two representatives of the King came in noisily. They gazed admiringly at Gretchen as she poured out their beer. She saw the rage in my eyes. She was aggravating with her promiscuous smiles. The elder officer noticed my bulldog pipe.

"English?" he inquired, indifferently. The German cannot disassociate an Englishman and a briarwood bulldog pipe.

"English," I answered discourteously. It mattered nothing to me whether he took me for an Englishman or a Zulu; either answered the purpose.

He wore an eyeglass, through which he surveyed me rather contemptuously.

"What is your name, fraulein?" he asked turning to Gretchen.

"Gretchen," sweetly.

"And what is the toll for a kiss?"

"Nothing," said Gretchen, looking at me. The lieutenant started for her, but she waved him off. "Nothing, Herr Lieutenant, because they are not for sale."

I moved closer to the bar.

"Out for a constitutional?" I asked, blowing the ash from the live coal in my pipe.

"We are on his Majesty's business," with an intonation which implied that the same was none of mine. "Gretchen, we shall return to-night, so you may lay two plates at a separate table," with an eye on me. He couldn't have hated me any more than I hated him. "Then, there is no way of getting a kiss?"

"No," said Gretchen.

"Then I'll blow you one;" and Gretchen made a pretty curtesey.

I nearly bit the amber stem off my pipe. They were soon gone, and I was glad of it.

"Herr Jack is angry," said Gretchen.

"Not at all," I growled. "What right have I to be angry?"

"Does Herr Jack wish Gretchen always to be sad?"

"Certainly not: but sometimes your joy is irritating. You are sad all day, then some strangers come, and you are all smiles. Your smiles do not come in my direction as often as I should like."

"Well, then, look at me," said Gretchen.

The smile would have dazzled an anchorite, let alone a man who didn't know whether he loved her for certain, but who was willing to give odds that he did!

"Gretchen!" I cried, starting toward her.

But with a low laugh she disappeared behind the door. Gretchen was a woman. As a man must have his tobacco, so must a woman have her coquetry. It was rather unfair of Gretchen, after what I had promised. It was like getting one in a cage and then offering sweetmeats at a safe distance.

It now became a question of analysis. So I went to the river and sat down in the grass. A gentle wind was stirring the leaves, and the sunbeams, filtering through the boughs, fell upon the ground in golden snowflakes. What was Gretchen to me that I should grow jealous of her smiles? The night before I could have sworn that I loved her; now I was not so sure. A week ago all the sunshine in the world had come from Phyllis's face; a shadow had come between. Oh, I knew the symptoms. They were not new to me. They had visited me some five years back, and had clung to me with the tenacity of a creditor to a man with expectations. When a man arrives at that point where he wants the society of one woman all to himself, the matter assumes serious proportions. And a man likes to fall in love with one woman and continue to love her all his days; it is more romantic. It annoys him to face the fact that he is about to fall in love with another. In my case I felt that there was some extenuation. Gretchen looked like Phyllis. When I saw Gretchen in the garden and then went to my room and gazed upon the likeness of Phyllis, I was much like the bachelor Heine tells about-I doddered.

The red squirrel in the branches above me looked wisely. He was wondering how long before the green burrs would parch and give him their brown chestnuts. I was contemplating a metaphysical burr. I wanted to remain true to Phyllis, though there wasn't any sense in my doing so. Had Gretchen resembled any one but Phyllis I never should have been in such a predicament. I should have gone away the day after my arrival. Here I was going into my second week. My assistant in London was probably worrying, having heard nothing from me during that time. As matters stood it was evident that I could not be true either to Phyllis or Gretchen, since I did not know positively which I loved. I knew that I loved one. So much was gained. I wanted to throw up a coin, heads for Phyllis, tails for Gretchen, but I couldn't bring myself to gamble on the matter. I threw a stick at his squirrelship, and he scurried into

the hole in the crotch of the tree. A moment later he peered at me, and, seeing that nothing was going to follow the stick, crept out on the limb again, his tail bristling with indignation.

"If it hadn't been for Gretchen," said I, "you would have been a potpie long ago."

He must have understood my impotence, for he winked at me jeeringly.

A steamer came along then, puffing importantly, sending a wash almost at my feet. I followed it with my eye till it became lost around the bend. Over there was Austria and beyond, the Orient, a new world to me.

"If I could see them together!" I mused aloud.

The squirrel cocked his head to one side as if to ask: "Austria and

Turkey?"

"No," said I, looking around for another stick; "Phyllis and Gretchen. If I could see them together, you know, I could tell positively then which I love. As it is, I'm in doubt. Do you understand?"

The squirrel ran out to the end of the limb and sat down. It was an act of deliberation.

"Well, why don't you answer?"

I was startled to my feet by the laughter which followed my question.

A few yards behind me stood Gretchen.

"Can't you find a better confidant?" she asked,

"Yes, but she will not be my confidant," said I. I wondered how much she had heard of the one-sided dialogue. "Will you answer the question I just put to that squirrel of yours?"

"And what was the question?" with innocence not feigned.

"Perhaps it was, Why should Gretchen not revoke the promise to which she holds me?"

"You should know, Herr," said Gretchen, gently.

"But I do not. I only know that a man is human and that a beautiful woman was made to be loved." Everything seemed solved now that Gretchen stood at my side.

But she turned as if to go.

"Gretchen," I called, "do not go. Forgive me; if only you understood!'"

"Perhaps I do understand," she replied with a gentleness new to me.

"Do you remember why I asked you to stay?"

"Yes; I was to be your friend."

"This time it is for me to ask whether I go or stay."

"Stay, Gretchen!" But I was a hypocrite when I said it.

"I knew that you would say that," simply.

"Gretchen, sit down and I'll tell you the story of my life, as they say on the stage." I knocked the dead ash from my pipe and stuffed the bowl with fresh weed. I lit it and blew a cloud of smoke into the air. "Do you see that, Gretchen?"

"Yes, Herr," sitting down, the space of a yard between us.

"It is pretty, very; but see how the wind carries it about! As it leaves my throat it looks like a tangible substance. Reach for it and it is gone. That cloud of smoke is my history."

"It disappears," said Gretchen.

"And so shall I at the appointed time. That cloud of smoke was a fortune. I reached for it, and there was nothing but the air in my hand. It was a woman's love. For five years I watched it curl and waver. In it I saw many castles and the castles were fair, indeed. I strove to grasp this love; smoke, smoke. Smoke is nothing, given a color. Thus it is with our dreams. If only we might not wake!"

Gretchen's eyes were following the course of the languid river.

"Once there was a woman I thought I loved; but she would have none of it. She said that the love I gave her was not complete because she did not return it. She brought forth the subject of affinities, and ventured to say that some day I might meet mine. I scoffed inwardly. I have now found what she said to be true. The love I gave her was the bud; the rose- Gretchen," said I, rising, "I love you; I am not a hypocrite; I cannot parade my regard for you under the flimsy guise of friendship."

"Go and give the rose to her to whom you gave the bud," said Gretchen.

The half smile struck me as disdainful. "You are a strange wooer."

"I am an honest one." I began plucking at the bark of the tree. "No; I shall let the rose wither and die on the stem. I shall leave to-morrow, Gretchen. I shall feel as Adam did when he went forth from Eden. Whatever your place in this world is it is far above mine. I am, in truth, a penniless adventurer. The gulf between us cannot be bridged."

"No," said Gretchen, the smile leaving her lips, "the gulf cannot be bridged. You are a penniless adventurer, and I am a fugitive from-the law, the King, or what you will. You are a man; man forgets. You have just illustrated the fact. His memory and his promises are like the smoke; they fade away but soon. I shall be sorry to have you go, but it is best so."

"Do you love any one else?"

"I do not; I love no one in the sense you mean. It was not written that I should love any man."

"Gretchen, who are you, and what have you done?"

"What have I done? Nothing! Who am I? Nobody!"

"Is that the only answer you can give?"

"It is the only answer I will give."

There was something in Gretchen's face which awed me. It was power and resolution, two things man seldom sees in a woman's face.

"Supposing, Gretchen, that I should take you in my arms and kiss you?" I was growing reckless because I felt awed, which seems rather a remarkable statement. "I know you only as a barmaid; why, not?"

She never moved to go away. There was no alarm in her eyes, though they narrowed.

"You would never forgive yourself, would you?"

I thought for a moment. "No, Gretchen, I should never forgive myself. But I know that if I ask you to let me kiss your hand before I go, you will grant so small a favor."

"There," and her hand stretched toward me. "And what will your kiss mean?"

"That I love you, but also respect you, and that I shall go."

"I am sorry."

It was dismal packing. I swore a good deal, softly. Gretchen was not in the dining-room when I came down to supper. It was just as well. I wanted to be cool and collected when I made my final adieu. After supper I lit my pipe (I shall be buried with it!) and went for a jaunt up the road. There was a train at six the next morning. I would leave on that. Why hadn't I taken Gretchen in my arms and kissed her? It would have been something to remember in the days to come. I was a man, and stronger; she would have been powerless. Perhaps it was the color of her eyes.

I had not gone up the highway more than 100 yards when I saw the lonely figure of a man tramping indirectly toward me and directly toward the inn. Even in the dusk of twilight there was something familiar about that stride. Presently the man lifted up his voice in song. The "second lead," as they say back of the scenes, was about to appear before the audience.

Evidently Hillars had found "Jericho" distasteful and had returned to protest.

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