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   Chapter 11 No.11

Arms and the Woman By Harold MacGrath Characters: 13402

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Hello, there!" he hailed, seeing but not recognizing me; "have you seen any cavalry pass this way?"

"No, I have not," I answered in English.

"Eh? What's that?" not quite believing it was English he had heard.

"I said that no cavalry has passed this way since this afternoon. Are they looking for you, you jail-bird in perspective?"

He was near enough now. "Well, I be dam'!" he cried. "What the devil are you doing here, of all places?"

"I was looking for you," said I, locking my arm in his.

"Everybody has been making that their occupation since I left Austria," cursing lowly. "I never saw such people."

"What have you been doing this time?"

"Nothing; but I want to do something right away. They have been hounding me all over the kingdom. What have I done? Nothing, absolutely nothing. It makes me hot under the collar. These German blockheads! Do they think to find the Princess Hildegarde by following me around? I'd give as much as they to find her."

"So you haven't seen anything of her?"

"Not a sign. I came here first, but not a soul was at the castle. Nobody knows where she is. I came here this time to throw them off the track, but I failed. I had a close shave this noon. I'll light out to-morrow. It isn't safe in these parts. It would be of no use to tell them that I do not know where the princess is. They have connected me with her as they connect one link of a chain to another. You can kill a German, but you can't convince him. How long have you been here?"

I did not reply at once. "About ten days."

"Ten days!" he echoed. "What on earth has kept you in this ruin that long?"

"Rest," said I, glibly. "But I am going away to-morrow. We'll go together. They will not know what to do with two of us."

"Yes, they will. You will be taken for my accomplice. . . . Hark! What's that?" holding his hand to his ear. "Horses. Come, I'm not going to take any risk."

So we made a run for the inn. In the twilight haze we could see two horsemen coming along the highway at a brisk gallop.

"By the Lord Harry!" Hillars cried excitedly; "the very men I have been dodging all day. Hurry! Can you put me somewhere for the time being? The garret; anywhere."

"Come on; there's a place in the garret where they'll never find you."

I got him upstairs unseen. If no one but I knew him to be at the inn, so much the better.

"O, say! This'll smother me," said Dan, as I pushed him into the little room.

"They'll put you in a smaller place," I said. "Hang it all Jack; I'd rather have it out with them."

"They have their pistols and sabres."

"That's so. In that case, discretion is the better part of valor, and they wouldn't appreciate any coup on my side. Come back and let me out as soon as they go."

I descended into the barroom and found the two officers interrogating the innkeeper. They were the same fellows who had visited the inn earlier in the day. Gretchen was at her place behind the bar. She was paler than usual.

"Ah," said the innkeeper, turning to me, "am I not right in saying that you are the only guest at the inn, and that no American has been here?"

I did not understand his motive, for he knew that I was an American.

"It is perfectly true," said I, "that I am your only guest."

"Ah, the Englishman!" said the lieutenant, suspiciously. "We are looking for a person by the name of Hillars whom we are charged to arrest. Do you know anything about him?"

"It is not probable," said I, nonchalantly.

I glanced at Gretchen. I could fathom nothing there.

"Well," snarled the lieutenant, "I suppose you will not object to my seeing your passports?"

"Not in the least," said I. But I felt a shock. The word "American" was written after the nationality clause in my passports. I was in for some excitement on my own account. If I returned from my rooms saying that I could not find my passports they would undoubtedly hold me till the same were produced. "I'll go and bring them for you," said I. I wanted some time in which to mature a plan of action, if action became necessary.

There was rather a sad expression in Gretchen's eyes. She understood to a fuller extent than I what was likely to follow when it was found that I had misrepresented myself. I cursed the folly which had led me to say that I was English. And I swore at the innkeeper for meddling. As I left the room I smiled at Gretchen, but she did not answer it. Perhaps I was gone five minutes. In that time I made up my mind to show the passports, and trust to luck for the rest. When I came back Gretchen had engrossed their attention. They took no notice of me. I have never understood how it came about, but all at once the lieutenant bent forward and kissed Gretchen on the cheek. She started back with a cry, then looked at me. That swift glance told me what to do. I took the lieutenant by the collar and flung him into the corner. The surprise on his face was not to be equaled. Then, as he rose to his feet, the veins in his neck swelled with rage.

"I'll pay you for that, you meddling beef-eater!" he roared.

"Don't mention it," said I, with an assumption of blandness which I did not feel. "That was simply gratuitous. It is a sample of what I shall do to you if you do not immediately ask this lady's pardon for the gross insult you have just offered her."

"Insult! To kiss a common barmaid an insult!" he yelled, now purpling.

"Why-why-what is this woman to you-this tavern wench, this-"

"Be careful," I warned.

Gretchen was calmly wiping her cheek; but her eyes were like polished emeralds.

"You came here, I believe," said I, "to see if my passports were proper."

"Damn you and your passports! Are you a gentleman?"

"Would you recognize one if you saw him?" I laughed.

"Can you fight?"

"Certainly," said I, thinking of the weapons nature in her kindness had given to me.

"Good! Otto, have the horses brought around. We will cut for the barracks and get the colonel's weapons-the rapiers."

The word "rapier" sent an icy chill up my spine. A duel!

"The devil!" said I, under my breath. I knew less about fencing than I did about aerial navigation, which was precious little. The fact that Gretchen was now smiling aggravated the situation. I could not help the shudder. Why, the fellow would make a sieve out of me!

"Will you look at my passports now?" I asked. "You may not have the opportunity again."

"Your passports from now on will be void," was the retort. "But I shall be pleased to give you a passport to the devil. I shall kill you," complacently.

"Think of my family," said I, a strange humor taking possession of me.

"You should have thought of you

r family before you struck me that blow," he replied.

My laughter was genuine; even Gretchen smuggled a smile. The lieutenant had taken my remark in all seriousness.

"You will not run away?" he asked.

"I shall probably be obliged to run away to-morrow," said I, smoothly. "I should not be able to account for your presence here. But I shall await your return from the barracks, never fear." All this was mere bravado; honestly, I shrunk within my clothes and shivered in my shoes. But I had an unfailing mental nerve. Some call it bluff.

Gretchen had been whispering to the innkeeper. When he moved from her side, she was smiling.

"What the deuce is she smiling about?" I wondered. "Does the woman take me for a modern D'Artagnan?"

"Innkeeper," said the lieutenant, "if this man is not here when I return, I'll take satisfaction out of your hide."

The innkeeper shrugged. "I have never heard of an Englishman running away."

"And I have seen many a German do that," I put in. "How am I to know that your going to the barracks is not a ruse?"

He gasped. The words would not come which would do justice to his feelings. He drew off one of his gloves and threw it into my face. It stung me. I should have knocked him down, but for the innkeeper stepping between.

"No, Herr," he said; "do not disable him."

"You had best go to the barracks at once," said I to the lieutenant.

My clothes were too small for me now, and I did not shiver in my shoes.

My "Yankee" blood was up. I would have fought him with battle axes.

"Herr," said the innkeeper, when the two had made off for the barracks, "you are a man of courage."

"Thanks," said I.

"Do you know anything about rapiers?" he asked.

"I know the handle from the blade; that's all. But that does not make any difference. I'd fight him with any weapon. He struck me; and then-then, he kissed Gretchen."

"I have wiped it off, Herr," said Gretchen, dryly. Then she passed from the room.

I went upstairs too. I looked out of my window. There was moonlight; possibly the last time I should ever see moonlight in the land of the living. Nothing but a mishap on my opponent's part, and that early in the combat, would save my epidermis. The absurd side of the affair struck me, and I laughed, mirthlessly, but none the less I laughed. If it had been pistols the chances would have been equal. A German does not like pistols as a dueling apparatus. They often miss fire. A sword is a surer weapon. And then, the French use them-the pistols-in their fiascoes. Rapiers? I was as familiar with the rapier as I was with the Zulu assegai. I unstrapped my traveling case and took out Phyllis's photograph. I put it back. If I was to have a last look at any woman it should be at Gretchen. Then I got out my cane and practiced thrusting and parrying. My wrist was strong.

"Well," I mused, "there's consolation in knowing that in two hours I shall be either dead or alive."

I flung the cane into the corner. To pass away the time I paced back and forth. It passed too quickly; and it was not long ere I heard the clatter of the returning cavalrymen. Some one knocked at my door. I swung it open and-was thrown to the floor, bound and gagged in a tenth of a minute.

"Put him on the bed," whispered the leader of my assailants. When this was done the voice added: "Now you can go to the stables and wait there till I call you."

It was the innkeeper. He surveyed me for a moment and scratched his chin.

"Will Herr keep perfectly quiet if I take the handkerchief from his mouth?" he asked.

I nodded, bewildered.

"What in tophet does this mean?" I gasped. I did not say tophet, but it looks better in writing.

"It means nothing and everything," was the answer. "In the first place, Herr will fight no duel. The man with whom you were to fight was sent on an errand to this out-of-the-way place as a punishment for dueling at the capital. I know him by reputation. He is a brawler, but a fair swordsman. He would halve you as I would a chicken. There is another who has a prior claim on him. If there is anything left of Herr Lieutenant at the end of the fray, you are welcome to it. Yes, there will be a duel, but you will not be one of the principals. It is all arranged."

"But I do not understand," I cried.

"It is not necessary that you should." He laughed and rubbed his hands in pleasurable anticipation. "There is a young man downstairs, who arrived a few moments before the lieutenant. He has a special affair. There were words. Herr Lieutenant is mad enough to fight a whole company."

"Then, why in heaven's name am I up here in this condition?" I cried. "Let me go and be the young man's second; though I can't for the life of me see where he has come from so suddenly, and I might say, opportunely. Come, cut me loose."

"It is too late!"

"Too late?"

"Yes. Herr Lieutenant has been informed that you ran away."

"Ran away!" I roared. "You told him that I ran away? Damn your insolence! I'll break every bone in your body for this!" I cried, straining at the ropes.

"The ropes are new," said he; "you'll hurt yourself."

"You told him that I ran away?" This was too much.

"Yes. Ah, but you will be surprised. The duel will last five minutes. Herr Lieutenant will thrust; the thrust will be parried. He will feint; useless. Thrust on thrust; parry on parry. Consternation will take the place of confidence; he will grow nervous; he will try all his little tricks and they will fail. Then his eyes will roll and his breath come in gasps. Suddenly he thinks he sees an opening; he lunges-ach! the fool; it is all over!" The old man's voice quivered with excitement. He had passed his time in the barracks and had seen many a sword skirmish.

"Well, are you going to take off these ropes?"

"No. You would break every bone in my body."

"Damn it, man!" I groaned, in exasperation.

"You will soon be out of breath."

Oh! could I have but loosened those cords!

"Stahlberg, who left the service a year ago, will act in the capacity of second." Stahlberg was at the head of the vineyard. "I shall watch the affair from the window here; the scene of action will take place in the clearing beyond. It will be an affair worth witnessing."

"And where is Gretchen?"

"Where she should be; at the bar, a dutiful bar-maid." Then I heard nothing but the deep cachinations of the innkeeper. There was something in the affair which appealed to his humor. I could not see it. For ten minutes my vocabulary was strictly unprintable.

"Will you kindly tell me what the meaning of all this is?"

"Herr Winthrop, the idyl has come to an end; the epic now begins."

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