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   Chapter 14 No.14

Arms and the Woman By Harold MacGrath Characters: 10971

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

A bar of sunlight suddenly pervaded the room; red sunlight, lighting in its passing a tableau I shall never forget. Gretchen stood at her full height, her arms held closely to her sides and her hands clenched. On her face there was that half smile called consciousness of triumph. Hillars was gazing at her with his soul swimming in his eyes. And I-I had a wild desire to throw myself at her feet, then and there. Over the hard-set visage of the innkeeper the bar of sunlight traveled; over the scowling countenance of the Prince, over the puzzled brow of the Count, and going, left a golden purple in its wake, which imperceptibly deepened.

The Prince was first to speak. "I protest," said he.

"Against what?" asked Gretchen.

"It is the King's will that you become my wife. He will not tolerate this attitude of yours. Your principality is in jeopardy, let me tell you."

"Does the fact that I have promised the King to become your wife detract from my power? Not a jot. Till you are my husband, I am mistress here-and after."

"As to that, we shall see," said the Prince. "Then you intend to keep your promise?"

"Is there man or woman who can say that I ever broke one?"

"Your Highness, what are your commands?" It was the innkeeper who spoke. His fingers were twitching about the hammer of his carbine. He nodded approvingly toward me. My assault upon the Prince had brought me again into his good graces.

Gretchen did not answer him, but she smiled kindly.

"Ah, yes!" said the Prince. "This is that Breunner fellow."

The innkeeper made a movement. The Prince saw it, and so did I. Prince Ernst of Wortumborg was never so near death in all his life as at that moment. He knew it, too.

"Your Highness has a very good memory," said the innkeeper, dryly.

"There are some things it were best to forget," replied the Prince.

"I am pleased that Your Highness shares my opinion," returned the old fellow. The muzzle of the carbine was once more pointed at the ceiling.

The rest of us looked on, but we understood nothing of these passes.

Even Gretchen was in the dark.

"We met long ago," said the innkeeper.

"Yes; but I have really forgotten what the subject of Our discussion was," said the Prince, regarding the innkeeper through half-closed lids. "Perhaps he can explain."

"It is very kind of Your Highness," said the innkeeper, laughing maliciously. "But I am old, and my memory serves me ill."

The Prince shrugged. "But we have drifted away from the present matter. Your Highness, then, promises to bend to the will of the King?"

"Yes," said Gretchen. "I gave the King my promise because I had wearied of resistance, having no one to turn to-then. I shall marry you, though I detest you; but I shall be your wife only in name, and not in the eyes of God."

"The latter sacrifice was not asked of you," smiled the Prince.

"I shall depart this day for the capital," continued Gretchen. "I warn you not to inflict your presence upon me during the journey. Now go. The air while you remain is somewhat difficult to breathe."

The Prince surveyed the menacing faces which surrounded him, then gathered up his hat and gloves.

"I see that Your Highness will be a dutiful wife," he said, smoothing the silk of his hat with his elbow. He blew into his gloves and carefully drew them over his hands. "A pleasant journey to Your Highness," he added. "Come, Count. And these?" waving his hand toward Hillars and me.

"They have my fullest protection."

He smiled villainously, then walked to the door with a measured tread. At the door he turned. There was a flash of rage in his eyes, but he quickly subdued it.

"Auf wiedersehen!" with a sweeping glance which took in all of us, and particularly me.

He passed out, the Count following him soberly. The two cavalrymen thrust their sabres into the scabbards with a clank, and made as though to follow.

"Wait," said Gretchen. "I shall have need of you. You will escort me to the station. Now you may go."

They saluted gravely. They appreciated the situation. The Princess was their bread and butter.

"Your Highness," said Hillars, "there has been a mistake."

"A mistake?" repeated Gretchen, wonderingly.

"Yes. They have made you a Princess, whereas they should have made you a Queen. Will you forgive me the trouble I have caused?"

"It is I who must ask forgiveness of you," she said, with a sad smile.

"You may kiss my hand, sir."

Hillars remained somewhat long over it.

"And how comes it that you gentlemen know each other?" she asked.

"Damon and Pythias, Your Highness," answered Hillars. "We were brought up together, and we have shared our tents and kettles. I recommend Pythias to you as a brave gentleman." Then he came to me. "You are a brave fellow, Jack," grasping my hand. "Good luck to you. I had an idea; it has returned. Now, then, innkeeper, come with me."

"With you, and where?" asked the innkeeper. If there was one thing for which he could not account, it was the presence of Hillars at the inn.

"Never mind where, but come," answered Hillars, gayly. He bent and whispered something into the old fellow's ear. It was something which pleased him, for he screwed his lips into a smile, and took the white hand of the whisperer in his brawny fist and nigh crushed it.

"Well, well! it doesn't matter where you came from. Here, you," to the trio behind him, "go back to the stables." They filed out. Then the innkeeper

took Hillars by the arm. "Come along; time passes."

"And where are you going?" I asked anxiously. Hillars should not have passed from my sight but for Gretchen.

"We'll be back shortly," he answered. "You will know all about then, my son."

He stood on the sill of the door, a handsome picture. His gray eyes sparkled, his face was full of excitement and there was a color in his cheeks. There was no sign here of the dissipated man of the night before. It was Hillars as I had seen him in the old days. But for his 19th century garb, he might have just stepped down from a frame-a gallant by Fortuny, who loved the awakened animal in man. The poise was careless, but graceful, and the smile was debonair. His eyes were holding Gretchen's. A moment passed; another and another.

Then: "Long live and God bless her Serene Highness the Princess

Hildegarde!" And he was gone.

And as he disappeared a shadow of some sort passed before my eyes, and a something dull and heavy pressed upon my heart. Presently came the sound of beating hoofs, and then all became still.

Gretchen and I were alone.

Gretchen appeared to be studying the blue veins in her hands which she listlessly held before her. An interval of three or four minutes passed, still she remained in that pathetic attitude, silent and motionless.

"Gretchen," said I, "have you nothing to say?"

"Yes." Her eyes raised to the level of mine, and I saw that they were deep in tears. "Herr, I shall say to you that which I have never said to any man, and that which I shall never say to any man again. I may say it now because it is sinless. I love you! I love you, and, loving you, God knows what the future without you shall be. Yes! I love you. Take me once in your arms and kiss me, and let me go-forever."

Then with a smile which partly shielded a sob, her arms went around my neck and her face lay close to mine. Heaven knows which was the greater, the joy or the pain.

"Gretchen, think!" I cried, distractedly. "What is a Prince or a King to you and me, who love?"

"There is honor," gently. She caressed my cheek with her fingers.

"Honor!" I cried, vehemently. "Is it honorable to marry the man you do not love and break the heart of the one you do?"

She did not answer, but her arms fell from my neck, and she approached the window. The passing river was reflected in her eyes. Her reverie was a short one.

"Listen, Herr; I will tell you why it is honorable. The Prince and the King? I fear the one as little as I do the other. It is not the Prince, it is not the King, it is not the principality. Herr, I have come near to being a very wicked woman, who was about to break the most sacred promise a sovereign can make. Before I came here a delegation of my people approached me. On bended knees they asked me not to voluntarily return the principality to the King, who was likely to give them a ruler rapacious or cruel or indifferent. And while they understood what a sacrifice it meant to me, they asked me to bend my will to the King's and wed the Prince, vowing that I alone should be recognized as their sovereign ruler. Since my coronation they said that they had known the first happiness in years. Herr, it was so pathetic! I love my people, who, after all, are not adopted since I was born here. So I gave my promise, and, heaven forgive me, I was about to break it! There are some things, Herr, which the publican does not understand. One of these is the duty a sovereign owes to the people. The woman in me wishes to follow your fortunes, though they carry her to the ends of the world; but the sovereign sees but one path-honor and duty. What is one human heart to a hundred thousand? A grain of sand. Herr, let mine be broken; I shall not murmur. Alas! to be a princess, a puppet in this tinsel show of kings and queens! It is my word and the King's will which have made my happiness an impossibility. Though I love you, I wish never to see you again. I shall be wife but in name, yet I may not have a lover. I am not a woman of the court. I am proud of my honor, though the man who is to be my husband doubts that."

"No, Gretchen," said I, "he does not doubt it, but he wishes me to do so. I believe in your innocence as I believe in your love."

"It is sad, is it not," said she, "that we must go through our days loving each other and all the world standing between? I have never loved a man before; I did not want to love you. I did not know that I loved you till I saw that your life was in danger. Yet I am glad that I have lived for a brief second, for till a woman loves she does not live. I am brave; do you be likewise. I shall go back to the world, and who shall know of the heart of fire beneath the ice! Not even the man I love. Kiss me; it is the last kiss I shall take from the lips of any man."

And it seemed to me that our souls met in that last kiss, melted and became one. Her hands dropped to her side, and swiftly she sped from the room.

She had entered the coach. The cavalrymen were perched upon the box. There was a crack of the lash, and the coach rolled away. I watched it, standing in the road. A cloud of yellow dust partially obscured it from view. Half a mile beyond rose a small hill. This the coach mounted, and the red gold of the smoldering sun engulfed it. Was it a face I saw at the window? Perhaps. Then over the hill all disappeared, and with it the whole world, and I stood in emptiness, alone.

Gretchen had gone.

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