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   Chapter 13 No.13

Arms and the Woman By Harold MacGrath Characters: 11164

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Hillars and I stood in the middle of the road. He held the binoculars.

"How many can you make out?" I asked.

"Four; all on horseback. There's a coach of some sort following on behind. But everything is blurred and my hand trembles; the whiskey here is terrible. Here, look for yourself," handing the glasses to me. "Tell me what you see."

"There's one with a white cap-ah, it is Count von Walden! There are two soldiers in the Hohenphalian uniform; cavalry. I do not know who the fourth fellow is."

"Describe him to me," said Hillars, trying to roll a cigarette with his trembling fingers. "Curse it!" throwing away the rice paper, "I've got so bad that I can't roll a cigarette. Well, what's he look like?"

"He's in civilian dress; little black mustache and an imperial."

"Look anything like Napoleon III?"

"You've hit it. Who is he?"

"They say he's Prince Ernst of Wortumborg," said Hillars; "but it is my opinion that he's the devil on a furlough."

"Then he is the man-" I began.

"He is. Your love affair is all over once he gets here; unless-" Dan looked at the sky as though he was undecided about the weather.

"Unless what?" I asked.

"O, just unless," said he. "I'd give 5 pounds for a glass of home-made whiskey."

"You've got a plan of some sort," said I. "Speak it out."

"It wasn't a plan; it was just an idea. It's gone now. Maybe it will come back later. Are you going to stay here, or come with me and tackle a bottle of the innkeeper's Rhine wine? The German vinegar used to make you hilarious."

"What's the coach for?" I asked. "Are they going to carry us off like a couple of chickens?"

"I presume it is for her Serene Highness. I wonder how they found out she was here? Probably the lieutenant you were going to fight, but didn't, informed them. At any rate, the coach will not be for us. The Prince will not bother with you and me while the Princess is here. I don't know what they will do with us; possibly nothing, possibly put us in jail. Come along; I'm thirsty."

It was late in the afternoon of the day following. I had not seen her Serene Highness, the Princess Hildegarde-Gretchen. She had remained in her room, and all efforts of mine to hold communication with her had proved futile. I had stood at her door and supplicated; she had told me to go away. The innkeeper had scowled when I suggested that he carry a note to his mistress. He had refused.

"The Princess receives no notes," he had said. "Gretchen-it was a different matter."

And Hillars had slept till after noon. It had been a bad morning for me. The wounded lieutenant had been carried away the night before, and there had not been anything for me to do but wander about-waiting.

"Will you help me with the Rhine wine?" asked Hillars.

"No. My head is fuddled enough as it is."

"Then you must let me do all the talking."

"And why you?"

"I shall know better how to irritate them," with a laugh. "They will not take any particular interest in you when they set eyes on me. Homo sum! I am the man they are looking for. They will find plenty of me. I shall be a syndicate in myself; where they expect to find one man, they will find a dozen, all alive and kicking. It will be good sport."

"What the devil are you up to?" I demanded.

"Wait and see; wait and see. Come, let us receive them in the hall. The affair must be conducted on the line of court etiquette. First, we shall try to avert hostilities by the aid of diplomacy; if that fails the Princess herself will be made to vindicate us. And why not?"

"You are not going to drag her in!" I exclaimed.

"My dear Jack, of course not. The Prince and the Count will do that for us. You understand that she is concerned in all that is to take place, do you not? Well, then, it will cost her but little."

"But this fellow, the Prince!" I cried. "Let us get out while there is time."

Dan regarded me seriously.

"You aren't afraid of him; what do you want to run away for? My son, there will be some very good sport before this is done. You will miss it by running away."

"It's meeting the man who is to marry her-the woman I love. That is the reason."

"To marry her-the woman I love!" he repeated softly. "Yes, it is hard. But it isn't any worse for you than for me."

"Forgive me, Dan! You know-"

"Yes, yes; I know," crossly. "Hang it! can't I punch it into your head that I am taking all this trouble on your account? If it were not for you, do you suppose I'd wait? The Prince shall never marry the Princess. Will that satisfy you? Now, look pleasant, as the photographer says, for here they are."

The Count entered first, then the Prince, who was followed by two cavalrymen. Hillars and I stood silently by our chairs, and waited. The Prince, a man with a hooked nose, black eyes with half-shut lids, regarded me curiously. He had the air of one amused.

When his eyes grew accustomed to the semi-darkness of the room, the

Count sounded a note of satisfaction.

"Ah! so you are here? You have given me a devil of a chase."

"I return the compliment, Herr General," said Hillars, with a good-humored smile. "But, may I ask, what the devil have you been chasing me for?"

For reply the Count turned to the cavalryman.

"Arrest that man and bind him," he said.

"You might make the order wholesale," said I stepping over to the side of Hillars.

"I told you there would be some sport," whispered Dan. He put his arm across my shoulders.

"And who, in the name of Weimer, are you?" bawled the Count. He scrutinized me intently;

then a light of recognition broke over his face. "The other one! A nest of them!"

"Count," interposed the Prince, seating himself at the table, "let me have a short talk with them before you act. There may be extenuating circumstances. Anything of this sort amuses and interests me. Let us use a little diplomacy in the matter."

"Yes," said Hillars; "let us lie a little."

"And who can do it better than a journalist?" the Prince laughed.

"Diplomatists," Hillars sent back.

"What is her Serene Highness to you?" resumed the Prince.

"Nothing-positively nothing."

"Then you are afraid to acknowledge your regard for her?"

"I?" Hillars dropped his arm from my shoulders. "I am not afraid of anything-not even the Count here." Then he laughed. "If her Serene Highness was anything to me, your Highness, I should not be afraid to say so before the King himself."

"You impudent-" But a wave of the Prince's hand silenced the Count.

"Have patience, my friend. This is not impudence; it is courage and prudence. I believe," re-addressing Hillars, "that once you were on the point of eloping with the Princess Hildegarde."

Hillars thrust his hands into his pockets.

"So they say."

"And yet you deny your regard for her!"

"Oh, as to that affair," said Hillars, easily, "it was the adventure more than anything else. It is not every man in my position who has such a chance. And then, perhaps, I saw a good newspaper story." The muscles in his jaws hardened, despite the airy tone he used.

"I see that there is nothing to be gotten from you." Then the Prince directed his glance to me. "And you, sir; what is she to you? What is her Serene Highness to you?"

"She is everything in the world to me," said I.

The consternation which followed cannot be described here. The Count stepped back, dumb-founded. Hillars regarded me as though he thought I had suddenly gone mad. The countenance of the Prince alone remained unruffled.

"Count," he said, laughing, "it seems that the Princess gathers lovers as a woolen coat does teasels. Her lovers-there must now be a legion!"

"You lie!" said Hillars, in an oddly suppressed tone. "You know that you lie."

The Prince's lips drew to a thin line, but that was all.

"Still, who will disprove it?" he asked.

"If you will allow me," said a voice behind us.

We beheld the Princess framed in the doorway. There was a pallor and a look of utter weariness in her face. At the sight of her the Count uncovered and the Prince rose.

"Your arrival is quite timely," said he. "Here are two champions of yours. Come, which do you love?"

A fury sprang to my head, and I said, "You have too much confidence in our patience. I warn you that I have no fear of the sabres back of you."

The same sabres leapt from their scabbards and fell stiffly against their owners' shoulders, instinctively.

"Has it come to this," said the Princess, a superb scorn in her eyes, "that my honor must needs be defended by strangers and aliens?" For the briefest space her glance plunged into my eyes. She moved toward the Prince. "And you, sir, are to be my husband?"

"It is the will of the King," said the Prince, a mocking smile on his lips.

How I lusted for his blood!

"And though my honor is doubtful," went on the woman I loved, "you still would marry me?"

"Your Highness," said the Prince, with a bow which entailed the sweeping of his hands, "I would marry you were your honor as-"

"Hell!" roared Hillars in English.

But he was a moment too late. My hands were around the throat of Prince Ernst of Wortumborg, and I was shaking him till his teeth chattered on each other like castanets. Surely I would have throttled him but for the intervention of the Count and the cavalrymen. The Count swung his arm around my neck, while the cavalrymen, their sabre points at Hillars' breast, wrenched loose my hands. I stood glaring at him, panting and furious. He leaned against the table, gasping and coughing. Finally he recovered his composure.

"Count, I was wrong; you were right. These fellows are dangerous."

"I will fight you on any terms!" I fired back at him.

"I shall send you one of my lackeys," he replied. "Take them away, and shoot them if they resist."

"Liberate the gentlemen," said Gretchen.

The Count gazed at her in amazement.

"Liberate them?" he cried.

"I command it."

"You?" said the Prince.

"Yes. This is my principality; these are my soldiers; I command here."

This was a coup indeed.

"But we represent his Majesty!" cried the Count, still holding me by the throat. I was all but strangled myself.

"I care not whom you represent," said Gretchen. "I am obedient only to the King, not his minions. Release the gentlemen."

The Count's arm slowly unwound. Hillars pressed down the sabre points with his hands and shook off the hand of one of the cavalrymen.

"If it be Your Highness' will," he said, "we will throw these intruders into the road. Might is right," waving his hand to the door which led to the barroom.

The innkeeper and three others filed into the room, grimly and silently. They were armed.

For the first time the Prince lost patience.

"This is all very well, Your Highness," he sneered. "You misunderstand the limits of your power to command."

"Not in any part," said Gretchen. "I am sovereign here, notwithstanding the King's will is paramount to my own. These people are my people; these soldiers are fed of my bounty; this is my country till the King takes it back. You will act further at your peril."

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