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   Chapter 12 No.12

Arms and the Woman By Harold MacGrath Characters: 13538

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The golden summer moon was far up now, and the yellow light of it came into the window and illumined the grim face of the innkeeper, throwing a grotesque shadow of him onto the floor. The leaves rustled and purred against the eaves. As the branches moved so did the light and darkness move over the innkeeper's visage. He was silent and meditative.

"An epic?" I said.

"An epic."

"Innkeeper," said I, "if I give you my word of honor not to molest you or leave this room, will you let me be a witness?"

He passed into the gloom, then back into the light.

"This is no trick?" suspiciously. "I have a deal of regard for my bones, old as they are."

"On my honor."

"Well, I'll do it. It is in the blood of us all. But a false move on your part, and I promise you that this knife shall find a resting place in you."

He cut the ropes and I was free. But my arms ached.

The two of us took our stand by the window and waited for the principals in the drama about to be enacted in the clearing. I confess that my conscience was ill at ease; why, I knew not. I was dreading something, I knew not what. The inn-keeper's hand trembled on my arm.

"Sh! they come," he whispered.

As I looked beyond his finger I saw four figures advance over the sward. One of them, a slight boyish form, was new to me. The fellow walked briskly along at the side of Stahlberg, who was built on the plan of a Hercules. When they came to the clearing they stopped. The seconds went through the usual formalities of testing the temper of the swords. Somehow, I could not keep my eyes off the youngster, who was going to do battle with the veteran; and I could not help wondering where in the world he had come from, and why in the world he had chosen this place to settle his dispute in. There were plenty of convenient places in the village, in and around the barracks. He took his position, back to me, so I could not tell what he was like. The moon shone squarely in the lieutenant's face, upon which was an expression of contempt mingled with confidence. My heart thumped, for I had never seen a duel before.

"I do not know where you came from," I heard the lieutenant say; "but you managed nicely to pick a quarrel. It is all on your own head. It is too bad that cur of an Englishman had to run away."

The innkeeper's knife was so close that I could feel the point of it against my ribs. So I gave up the wild idea of yelling from the window that I hadn't run away.

The lieutenant's opponent shrugged. He placed himself on guard; that was his reply. Suddenly the two sprang forward, and the clash of swords followed. I could not keep track of the weapons, but I could see that the youngster was holding his own amazingly well. Neither was touched the first bout.

"Two minutes," murmured the old rascal at my side. "It will be over this time."

"You seem to have a good deal of confidence in your young man," said I.

"There is not a finer swords-swordsman in the kingdom, or on the continent, for that matter. There! they are at it again."

Step by step the lieutenant gave ground; the clashing had stopped; it was needle-like work now. Gradually they began to turn around. The blades flashed in the moonshine like heat lightning. My pulse attuned itself to every stroke. I heard a laugh. It was full of scorn. The laugh-it recalled to me a laugh I had heard before. Evidently the youngster was playing with the veteran. I became fascinated. And while the innkeeper and I watched a curious thing happened. Something seemed to be slipping from the youngster's head; he tried to put up his free hand, but the lieutenant was making furious passes! A flood of something dimly yellow suddenly fell about the lad's shoulders. Oh, then I knew! With a snarl of rage I took the inn-keeper by the throat and hurled him, knife and all, to the floor, dashed from the room, thence to the stairs, down which I leaped four at a time. Quick as I was, I was too late. The lieutenant's sword lay on the grass, and he was clasping his shoulder with the sweat of agony on his brow.

"Damnation!" he groaned; "a woman!" Then he tottered and fell in the arms of his subordinate. He had fainted.

"This will make a pretty story," cried the young officer, as he laid his superior lengthwise, and tried to staunch the flow of blood. "Here's a man who runs away, and lets a woman-God knows what sort-fight his duels for him, the cur!"

I never looked at him, but went straight to Gretchen. Stahlberg gave me a questioning glance, and made a move as though to step between.

"Stand aside, man!" I snapped. "Gretchen, you have dishonored me."

"It were better than to bury you"-lightly. "I assure you he caused me no little exertion."

Yet her voice shook, and she shuddered as she cast aside the sword.

"You have made a laughing stock of me. I am a man, and can fight my own battles," I said, sternly. "My God!" breaking down suddenly, "supposing you had been killed?"

"It was not possible. And the man insulted me, not you. A woman? Very well. I can defend myself against everything but calumny. Have I made a laughing stock of you? It is nothing to me. It would not have altered my-"

She was very white, and she stroked her forehead.

"Well?" said I.

"It would not have altered my determination to take the sword in hand again."

She put her hand to her throat as though something there had tightened.

"Ah, I am a woman, for I believe that I am about to faint! No!" imperiously, as I threw out my arms to catch her. "I can reach the door alone, without assistance."

And so we went along. I did not know what to do, nor yet what to say. A conflict was raging in my heart between shame and love; shame, that a woman had fought for me and won where I should have lost; love, that strove to spring from my lips in exultation. I knew not which would have conquered had I not espied the blood on Gretchen's white hand.

"You are wounded!" I cried.

She gazed at her hand as though she did not understand; then, with a little sob and a little choke she extended her arms toward me and stumbled. Was ever there a woman who could look on blood without fainting? Gretchen had not quite fainted, but the moon had danced, she said, and all had grown dim.

"Gretchen, why did you risk your life? In God's name, what manner of woman are you, and where did you learn to use the sword? Had you no thought of me?" I was somewhat incoherent.

"No thought of you?" She drew the back of her hand over her eyes. "No thought of you? I did it because-because I did not-I could not-you would have been killed!"

I was a man-human. I loved her. I had always loved her; I had never loved any one else. I was a coward to do what I did, but I could not help

it. I crushed her to my breast and kissed her lips, not once, but many times.

"How dare you!" weakly.

"How dare I, Gretchen, dear Gretchen?" I said. "I dare because I love you! I love you! What is it to me that you have dishonored me in the eyes of men? Nothing. I love you! Are you a barmaid? I care not. Are you a conspirator? I know not, nor care. I know but one thing: I love you; I shall always love you! Shall I tell you more? Gretchen, you love me!"

"No, no! it cannot be!" she sobbed, pushing me back. "I am the most wretched woman in the world! Do not follow me, Herr; leave me, I beg you to leave me. I have need of the little strength left. Leave me, leave me!"

And she passed through the doorway into the darkness beyond. I did not move from where I stood. I grew afraid that it was a dream, and that if I moved it would vanish. I could yet feel her lithe, warm body palpitating in my arms; my lips still tingled and burned with the flame of hers. An exultant wave swept over me; she loved me! She had not told me so, but I knew. She had put her heart before mine; my life was dearer to her than her own. I could have laughed for joy. She loved me! My love overwhelmed my shame, engulfed it. Then-

"I know you," said a harsh voice at my elbow. It startled me, and I wheeled swiftly. It was the lieutenant's brother officer. "I thought from what I heard of you that you were a man worth trouble and caution. Ach! you, the man we have scoured the country for? I should not have believed it. To let a woman fight for him! And she-she is more than a woman-she is a goddess!" with enthusiasm. "If I was betrothed to her I'd find her if I had to hunt in heaven and hell for her. And what does she see in you?" He snapped his fingers derisively. "I warn you that your race is run. You cannot leave a railway station within the radius of a hundred miles. The best thing you can do is to swim the river and stop in the middle. The Prince is at the village, and he shall know. Woe to you, you meddler!"

"Young man," said a voice from over my shoulder, from the doorway, "you should by right address those impertinent remarks to me. I am Hillars, the man you seek."

And I had forgotten his very existence! What did he know? What had he seen?

"You may inform Count von Walden," continued Dan, "that I shall await his advent with the greatest of impatience. Now let me add that you are treating this gentleman with much injustice. I'll stake my life on his courage. The Princess Hildegarde is alone responsible for what has just happened."

"The Princess Hildegarde!" I cried.

Hillars went on: "Why she did this is none of your business or mine. Why she substituted herself concerns her and this gentleman only. Now go, and be hanged to you and your Prince and your Count, and your whole stupid country. Come, Jack."

The fellow looked first at me, then at Dan.

"I apologize," he said to Dan, "for mistaking this man for you." He clicked his heels, swung around, and marched off.

"Come," said Dan.

I dumbly followed him up to my room. He struck a match and lit the candle.

"Got any tobacco?" he asked, taking out a black pipe. "I have not had a good smoke in a week. I want to smoke awhile before I talk."

I now knew that he had been a witness to all, or at least to the larger part of it.

"There is some tobacco on the table," I said humbly. I felt that I had wronged him in some manner, though unintentionally. "The Princess Hildegarde!" I murmured.

"The very person," said Hillars. He lit his pipe and sat on the edge of the bed. He puffed and puffed, and I thought he never would begin. Presently he said: "And you never suspected who she was?"

"On my word of honor, I did not, Dan," said I, staring at the faded designs in the carpet. The golden galleon had gone down, and naught but a few bubbles told where she had once so proudly ridden the waters of the sea. The Princess Hildegarde? The dream was gone. Castles, castles! "I am glad you did not know," said Dan, "because I have always believed in your friendship. Yet, it is something we cannot help-this loving a woman. Why, a man will lay down his life for his friend, but he will rob him of the woman he loves. It is life. You love her, of course."

"Yes." I took out my own pipe now. "But what's the use. She is a Princess. Why, I thought her at first a barmaid-a barmaid! Then I thought her to be in some way a lawbreaker, a socialist conspirator. It would be droll if it were not sad. The Princess Hildegarde!" I laughed dismally. "Dan, old man, let's dig out at once, and close the page. We'll talk it over when we are older."

"No, we will face it out. She loves you. Why not? So do I." He got off the bed and came over to me and rested his hands on my shoulders. "Jack, my son, next to her I love you better than anything in the world. We have worked together, starved together, smoked and laughed together. There is a bond between us that no human force can separate. The Princess, if she cannot marry you, shall not marry the Prince. I have a vague idea that it is written. 'The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on.' We cannot cancel a line of it."

"Dan, you will do nothing rash or reckless?"

"Sit down, my son; sit down. Premeditation is neither rashness nor recklessness. Jack, life has begun with you; with me it has come to an end. When there is nothing more to live for, it is time to die. But how? That is the question. A war would be a God-send; but these so-called war lords are a lazy lot, or cowardly, or both. Had I a regiment, what a death! Jack, do you not know what it is to fight the invisible death? Imagine yourself on the line, with the enemy thundering toward you, sabres flashing in the sunlight, and lead singing about your ears. It is the only place in the world to die-on a battlefield. Fear passes away as a cloud from the face of the sun. The enemy is bringing you glory-or death. Yes, I would give a good deal for a regiment, and a bad moment for our side. But the regiment non est; still, there is left-"

"Dan, what are you talking about?" I cried.

"Death; grim, gaunt and gray death, whose footstep is as noiseless as the fall of snow; death, the silent one, as the Indian calls him."

He knocked the ash from his pipe and stuffed the briar into his pocket.

"Jack, I am weary of it all. If I cannot die artistically, I wish to die a sudden and awful death. What! Do I look like a man to die in bed, in the inebriates' ward? For surely I shall land there soon! I am going to pieces like a sand house in a wind storm. I suppose I'm talking nonsense. After all, I haven't as much to say as I thought I had. Suppose we turn in? I'm tired. You see, those fellows moved me around to-day."

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