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Arms and the Woman By Harold MacGrath Characters: 15925

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


When I whispered these words I expected a gentle pressure from Gretchen's fingers, which rested lightly on my arm. But there was no sign, and I grew troubled. The blue-green eyes sparkled, and the white teeth shone between the red lips. Yet something was lacking.

"Let us go into the conservatory," she said. "It was merely a ruse of mine. I want no supper. I have much to say to you."

Altogether, I had dreamed of a different reception. When I entered the doorway, and she first saw me, it was Gretchen; but now it was distinctly a Princess, a woman of the world, full of those devices which humble and confuse us men.

Somehow we selected, by mutual accord, a seat among the roses. There was a small fountain, and the waters sang in a murmurous music. It seemed too early for words, so we drew our thoughts from the marble and the water. As for me, I looked at, but did not see, the fountain. It was another scene. There was a garden, in which the roses grew in beautiful disorder. The sunbeams straggled through the chestnuts. Near by a wide river moved slowly, and with a certain majesty. There was a man and a woman in the garden. She was culling roses, while the man looked on with admiring eyes.

"Yes," said the Princess, "all that was a pretty dream. Gretchen was a fairy; and now she has gone from your life and mine-forever. My dear friend, it is a prosaic age we live in. Sometimes we forget and dream; but dreams are unreal. Perhaps a flash of it comes back in after days, that is all; and we remember that it was a dream, and nothing more. It is true that God designs us, but the world molds us and fate puts on the finishing touches." She was smiling into my wonder-struck face. "We all have duties to perform while passing. Some of us are born with destinies mapped out by human hands; some of us are free to make life what we will. I am of the first order, and you are of the second. It is as impossible to join the one with the other as it is to make diamonds out of charcoal and water. Between Gretchen and the Princess Hildegarde of Hohenphalia there is as much difference as there is between-what simile shall I use?-the possible and the impossible?"

"Gretchen-" I began.

"Gretchen?" The Princess laughed amusedly. "She is flown. I beg you not to waste a thought on her memory."

Things were going badly for me. I did not understand the mood. It brought to mind the woman poor Hillars had described to me in his rooms that night in London. I saw that I was losing something, so I made what I thought a bold stroke. I took from my pocket a withered rose. I turned it from one hand to the other.

"It appears that when Gretchen gave me this it was as an emblem of her love. Still, I gave her all my heart."

"If that be the emblem of her love, Herr, throw it away; it is not worth the keeping."

"And Gretchen sent me a letter once," I went on.

"Ah, what indiscretion!"

"It began with 'I love you,' and ended with that sentence. I have worn the writing away with my kisses."

"How some men waste their energies!"

"Your Highness," said I, putting the rose back into my pocket, "did Gretchen ever tell you how she fought a duel for me because her life was less to her than mine?"

The Princess Hildegarde's smile stiffened and her eyes closed for the briefest instant.

"Ah, shall I ever forget that night!" said I. "I held her to my heart and kissed her on the lips. I was supremely happy. Your Highness has never known what a thing of joy it is to kiss the one you love. It is one of those things which are denied to people who have their destinies mapped out by human hands."

The Princess opened her fan and hid her lips.

"And do you know," I continued, "when Gretchen went away I had a wonderful dream?"

"A dream? What was it?" The fan was waving to and fro.

"I dreamed that a Princess came in Gretchen's place, and she threw her arms around my neck and kissed me of her own free will."

"And what did she say, Herr?" Certainly the voice was growing more like Gretchen's.

I hesitated. To tell her what the dream Princess had said would undo all I had thus far accomplished, which was too little.

"It will not interest Your Highness," said I.

"Tell me what she said; I command it!" And now I was sure that there was a falter in her voice.

"She said-she said that she loved me."

"Continue."

"And that, as she was a Princess and-and honor bound, it could never be." I had to say it.

"That is it; that is it. It could never be. Gretchen is no more. The

Princess who, you say, came to you in a dream was then but a woman-"

"Aye, and such a woman!" I interrupted. "As God hears me, I would give ten years of my life to hold her again in my arms, to kiss her lips, to hear her say that she loved me. But, pardon me, what were you going to say?"

"Your dream Princess was but a woman-ah, well; this is Tuesday;

Thursday at noon she will wed the Prince. It is written."

"The devil!" I let slip. I was at the start again.

"Sir, you do him injustice."

"Who?-the Prince?" savagely.

"No; the-the devil!" She had fully recovered, and I had no weapon left.

"Gretchen, did you really ever love me?"

There was no answer.

"No; I do not believe you did. If you had loved me, what to you would have been a King, a Prince, a principality? If you broke that promise who would be wronged? Not the King, not the Prince."

"No, I should not have wronged them, but," said the Princess rising, "I should have wronged my people whom I have sworn to protect; I should have wronged my own sense of honor; I should have broken those ties which I have sworn to hold dear and precious as my life; I should have forsaken a sacred duty for something I was not sure of-a man's love!"

"Gretchen!"

"Am I cruel? Look!" Phyllis stood at the other end of the conservatory. "Does not there recur to you some other woman you have loved? You start. Come; was not your love for Gretchen pique? Who is she who thus mirrors my own likeness? Whoever she is, she loves you! Let us return; I shall be missed." It was not the woman but the Princess who spoke.

"You are breaking two hearts!" I cried, my voice full of disappointment, passion and anger.

"Two? Perhaps; but yours will not be counted."

"You are-"

"Pray, do not lose your temper," icily; and she swept toward the entrance.

I had lost.

As the Princess drew near to Phyllis the brown eyes of the one met the blue-green eyes of the other. There was almost an exclamation on Phyllis's lips; there was almost a question on Gretchen's; both paled. Phyllis understood, but Gretchen did not, why the impulse to speak came. Then the brown eyes of Phyllis turned their penetrating gaze to my own eyes, which I was compelled to shift. I bowed, and the Princess and I passed on.

By the grand staircase we ran into the Prince. His face wore a dissatisfied air.

"I was looking for Your Highness," he said to Gretchen. "Your carriage is at the curb. Permit me to assist you. Ah, yes," in English, "it is Herr Winthrop. I regret that the interview of to-morrow will have to be postponed till Monday."

"Any time," said I, watching Gretchen whose eyes widened, "will be agreeable to me."

Gretchen made as though to speak, but the Prince anticipated her.

"It is merely a little discussion, Your Highness," he said, "which Herr

Winthrop and I left unfinished earlier in the evening. Good night."

On the way to the cloak room it kept running through my mind that I had lost. Thursday?-she said Thursday was the day of her wedding? It would be an evil day for me.

Pembroke was in the cloak room.

"Going?" he asked.

"Yes."

"Well, let us go together. Where shall it be-Egypt or the steppes of

Siberia?"

"Home first," said I; "then we shall decide."

When we got into the carriage we lit cigars. For some reason Pembroke was less talkative than usual. Suddenly he pulled down the wi

ndow, and a gust of snow blew in. Then up went the window again, but the cigar was gone.

"Has anything gone wrong?" I asked.

"'One more unfortunate. . . . Make no deep scrutiny!'" he quoted. "Jack, she wouldn't think of it, not for a moment. Perhaps I was a trifle too soon. Yes, she is a Princess, indeed. As for me, I shall go back to elephants and tigers; it's safer."

"'The Bridge of Sighs,'" said I. "Let us cross it for good and all."

"And let it now read 'Sighs Abridged.'"

He asked me no questions, and I silently thanked him. Once in our rooms, he drank a little more brandy than I thought good for one "who may or may not live the year out." I told him so. He laughed. And then I laughed. Both of us did it theatrically; it was laughter, but it was not mirth.

"Cousin," said I, "that's the idea; let us laugh. Love may sit on the windowsill and shiver to death."

"That fellow Anacreon was a fool," said Pembroke. "If the child of Venus had been left then and there, what a lot of trouble might have been averted! What do you say to this proposition; the north, the bears and the wolves? I've a friend who owns a shooting box a few miles across the border. There's bears and gray wolves galore. Eh?"

"I must get back to work," said I, but half-heartedly.

"To the devil with your work! Throw it over. You've got money; your book is gaining you fame. What's a hundred dollars a week to you, and jumping from one end of the continent to the other with only an hour's notice?"

"I'll sleep on it."

"Good. I'll go to bed now, and you can have the hearth and the tobacco to yourself."

"Good night," said I.

Yes, I wanted to be alone. But I did not smoke. I sat and stared into the flickering flames in the grate. I had lost Gretchen. . . . To hold a woman in your arms, the woman you love, to kiss her lips, and then to lose her! Oh, I knew that she loved me, but she was a Princess, and her word was given, and it could not be. The wind sang mournfully over the sills of the window; thick snow whitened the panes; there was a humming in the chimneys. . . . She was jealous of Phyllis; that was why I knew that she loved me. . . . And the subtle change in Phyllis's demeanor towards me; what did it signify? . . . Gretchen was to be married Thursday because there were no proofs that Phyllis was her sister. . . . What if Gretchen had been Phyllis, and Phyllis had been Gretchen. . . . Heigho! I threw some more coals on the fire. The candle sank in the socket. There are some things we men cannot understand; the sea, the heavens and woman. . . . Suddenly I brought both hands down on my knees. The innkeeper! The innkeeper! He knew! In a moment I was rummaging through the stack of time tables. The next south-bound train left at 3:20. I looked at the clock; 2:20. My dress suit began to fly around on various chairs. Yes; how simple it was! The innkeeper knew; he had known it all these years. I threw my white cravat onto the table and picked up the most convenient tie. In ten minutes from the time the idea came to me I was completely dressed in traveling garments. I had a day and a half. It would take twenty hours to fetch the innkeeper. I refused to entertain the possibility of not finding him at the inn. I swore to heaven that the nuptials of the Princess Hildegarde of Hohenphalia and the Prince Ernst of Wortumborg should not be celebrated at noon, Thursday. I went into the bedroom.

"Pembroke?"

"What is it?" came drowsily.

"I am going on a journey."

"One of those cursed orders you get every other day?" he asked.

"No. It's one on my own account this time. I shall be back in twenty-four hours. Goodby!" And I left him there, blinking in the dim light of the candle.

I rushed into the street and looked up and down it. Not a vehicle in sight. I must run for it. The railway station was a long way off. A fine snow pelted my face. I stopped at the first lamp and pulled out my watch. It was twenty minutes to three. What if the time-tables had been changed? A prayer rose to my lips; there was so much in the balance. Down this street I ran, rounding this corner and that. I knocked down a drunken student, who cursed me as he rolled into the gutter. I never turned, but kept on. One of the mounted police saw me rushing along. He shaded his eyes for a moment, then called to me to stop. I swore under my breath.

"Where are you going at such a pace and at this time of morning?" he demanded.

"To the station. I beg of you not to delay me. I am in a great hurry to catch the 3:20 south-bound train. If you doubt me, come to the station with me." An inspiration came to me. "Please see," I added impressively, "that no one hinders me. I am on the King's business."

"His Majesty's business? Ach! since when has His Majesty chosen an Englishman to dispatch his affairs? I will proceed with you to the station."

And he kept his word. When he saw the gateman examine my ticket and passports and smile pleasantly, he turned on his heel, convinced that there was nothing dangerous about me. He climbed on his horse and galloped away. He might have caused me no end of delay, and time meant everything in a case like mine. Scarcely had I secured a compartment in a first-class carriage than the wheels groaned and the train rolled out of the station. My brow was damp; my hands trembled like an excited woman's. Should I win? I had a broken cigar in my pocket. I lit the preserved end at the top of the feeble carriage lamp. I had the compartment alone. Sleep! Not I. Who could sleep when the car wheels and the rattling windows kept saying, "The innkeeper knows! The innkeeper knows!" Every stop was a heartache. Ah, those eight hours were eight separate centuries to me. I looked careworn and haggard enough the next morning when I stepped on the station platform. I wanted nothing to eat; not even a cup of coffee to drink.

To find conveyance to the inn was not an easy task. No one wanted to take the drive. Finally I secured a horse. There was no haggling over the price. And soon I was loping through the snowdrifts in the direction of the old inn. The snow whirled and eddied over the stubble fields; the winds sang past my ears; the trees creaked and the river flowed on, black and sluggish. It was a dreary scene. It was bitter cold, but I had no mind for that. On, on I went. Two miles were left in the rear. The horse was beginning to breathe hard. Sometimes the snow was up to his knees. What if the old man was not there? The blood sank upon my heart. Once the horse struck a slippery place and nearly fell, but I caught him in time. I could now see the inn, perhaps a mile away, through the leafless trees. It looked dismal enough. The vines hung dead about it, the hedges were wild and scrawny, the roses I knew to be no more, and the squirrel had left his summer home for a warmer nest in the forest. A wave of joy swept over me as I saw a thin stream of smoke winding above the chimney. Some one was there. On, on; presently I flew up the roadway. A man stood on the porch. It was Stahlberg. When I pushed down my collar his jaw dropped. I flung the reins to him.

"Where is the innkeeper?" I cried with my first breath.

"In the hall, Herr. But-"

I was past him and going through the rooms. Yes, thank God, there he was, sitting before the huge fireplace, where the logs crackled and seethed, his grizzled head sunk between his shoulders, lost in some dream. I tramped in noisily. He started out of his dream and looked around.

"Gott!" he cried. He wiped his eyes and looked again. "Is it a dream or is it you?"

"Flesh and blood!" I cried. "Flesh and blood!"

I closed the door and bolted it. He followed my movements with a mixture of astonishment and curiosity in his eyes.

"Now," I began, "what have you done with the proofs which you took from your wife-the proofs of the existence of a twin sister of the Princess Hildegarde of Hohenphalia?"

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