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Arms and the Woman By Harold MacGrath Characters: 15887

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The suddenness of this demand overwhelmed him, and he fell back into the chair, his eyes bulging and his mouth agape.

"Do you hear me?" I cried. "The proofs!" going up to him with clenched fists. "What have you done with those proofs? If you have destroyed them I'll kill you."

Then, as a bulldog shakes himself loose, the old fellow got up and squared his shoulders and faced me, his lips compressed and his jaws knotted. I could see by his eyes that I must fight for it.

"Herr Winthrop has gone mad," said he. "The Princess Hildegarde never had a sister."

"You lie!" My hands were at his throat.

"I am an old man," he said.

I let my hands drop and stepped back.

"That is better," he said, with a grim smile. "Who told you this impossible tale, and what has brought you here?"

"It is not impossible. The sister has been found."

"Found!" I had him this time. "Found!" he repeated. "Oh, this is not credible!"

"It is true. And to-morrow at noon the woman you profess to love will become the wife of the man she abhors. Why? Because you, you refuse to save her!"

"I? How in God's name can I save her?" the perspiration beginning to stand out on his brow.

"How? I will tell you how. Prince Ernst marries Gretchen for her dowry alone. If the woman I believe to be her sister can be proved so, the Prince will withdraw his claims to Gretchen's hand. Do you understand? He will not marry for half the revenues of Hohenphalia. It is all or nothing. Now, will you produce those proofs? Will you help me?" The minute hand of the clock was moving around with deadly precision.

"Are you lying to me?" he asked, breathing hard.

"You fool! can't you see that it means everything to Gretchen if you have those proofs? She will be free, free! Will you get those proofs, or shall your god-child live to curse you?"

This was the most powerful weapon I had yet used.

"Live to curse me?" he said, not speaking to me, but to the thought. He sat down again and covered his face with his hands. The minute which passed seemed very long. He flung away his hands from his eyes with a movement which expressed despair and resignation. "Yes, I will get them. It is years and years ago," he mused absently; "so long ago that I had thought it gone and forgotten. But it was not to be. I will get the proofs," turning to me as he left the chair. "Wait here." He unbolted the door and passed forth. . . . It was a full confession of the deception, written by the mother herself, and witnessed by her physician, the innkeeper and his wife. Not even the King could contest its genuineness.

"Where is this Dr. Salzberg?"

The innkeeper leaned against the side of the fireplace, staring into the flames.

"He is dead," briefly.

"Who was he?"

"Her late Highness's court-physician. Oh, have no fear, Herr; this new-found Princess of yours will come into her own," with a bitter smile.

"And why have you kept silent all these years?" I asked.

"Why?" He raised his arms, then let them fall dejectedly. "I loved the Princess Hildegarde. I was jealous that any should share her greatness. I have kept silent because I carried her in my arms till she could walk. Because her father cursed her, and refused to believe her his own. Because she grew around my heart as a vine grows around a rugged oak. And the other? She was nothing to me. I had never seen her. My wife spirited her away when it was night and dark. I took the proofs of her existence as a punishment to my wife, who, without them, would never dare to return to this country again. Herr, when a man loads you with ignominy and contempt and ridicule for something you are not to blame, what do you seek? Revenge. The Prince tried to crush this lonely child of his. It was I who brought her up. It was I who taught her to say her prayers. It was I who made her what she is to-day, a noble woman, with a soul as spotless as yonder snowdrift. That was my revenge."

"Who are you?" I cried. For this innkeeper's affection and eloquence seemed out of place.

"Who am I?" The smile which lit his face was wistful and sad. "The law of man disavows me-the bar sinister. In the eyes of God, who is accountable for our being, I am Gretchen's uncle, her father's brother."

"You?" I was astounded.

"And who knows of this?"

"The King, the Prince-and you."

I thrust a hand toward him. "You are a man."

"Wait. Swear to God that Her Highness shall never know."

"On my honor."

Then he accepted my clasp and looked straight into my eyes.

"And all this to you?"

"I love her."

"And she?"

"It is mutual. Do you suppose she would have put her life before mine if not? She knew that the lieutenant would have killed me."

"Ach! It never occurred to me in that light. I understood it to be a frolic of hers. Will you make her happy?"

"If an honest man's love can do it," said I. "Now, get on your hat and coat. You must go to the capital with me. The King would send for you in any case. The next train leaves at five, and to save Gretchen, these proofs must be in the Chancellor's hands to-morrow morning."

"Yes, my presence will be necessary. Perhaps I have committed a crime; who knows?" His head fell in meditation. "Herr, and this other sister, has she been happy?"

"Happier than ever Gretchen."

He had the sleigh brought around. Stahlberg was to ride my horse back to the village and return with the sleigh. We climbed into the seat, there was a crunching of snow, a jangle of bells, and we were gliding over the white highway. As I lay back among the robes, I tried to imagine that it was a dream, that I was still in New York, grinding away in my den, and not enacting one of the principal roles in a court drama; that I was not in love with a woman who spoke familiarly to kings and grand dukes and princes, that I was not about to create a Princess of whom few had vaguely heard and of whom but one had really known; that Phyllis and I were once more on the old friendly grounds, and that I was to go on loving her till the end of time-till the end of time.

"You have known this sister?" asked the innkeeper.

"For many years," said I.

And those were the only words which passed between us during that five-mile drive. At the station I at once wired the Chancellor that the proofs had been found, and requested him to inform the King and Prince Ernst. And then another eight hours dragged themselves out of existence. But Gretchen was mine!

The King was dressed in a military blouse, and, save for the small cross suspended from his neck by a chain of gold, there was nothing about him to distinguish his rank. He strode back and forth, sometimes going the whole length of the white room. The Chancellor sat at a long mahogany table, and the Prince and Mr. Wentworth were seated at either side of him. The innkeeper stood before the Chancellor, at the opposite side of the table. His face might have been cut from granite, it was so set and impressive. I leaned over the back of a chair in the rear of the room. The King came close to me once and fixed his keen blue eyes on mine.

"Was this the fellow, Prince," he asked, "who caused you all the trouble and anxiety?"

I felt uneasy. My experience with Kings was not large.

"No, Your Majesty," answered the Prince. "The gentleman to whom you refer has departed the scene." The Prince caught the fire in my eye, and laughed softly.

"Ah," said the King, carelessly. "It is a strange story. Proceed," with a nod to the Chancellor.

"What is your name?" the Chancellor asked, directing his glance at the innkeeper.

The innkeeper gazed at the King for a space. The Prince was watching him with a mocking smile.

"Hermann Breunner, Your Excellency."

The King stood still. He had forgotten the man, but not the name.

"Hermann Breunner," he mused.

"Yes, Your Majesty," said the innkeeper.

"The keeper of the feudal inn," supplemented t

he Prince.

The glance the innkeeper shot him was swift. The Prince suddenly busied himself with the papers.

"Are you aware," went on the Chancellor, who had not touched the undercurrent, "that you are guilty of a grave crime?"

"Yes, Your Excellency."

"Which is punishable by long imprisonment?"

The innkeeper bent his head.

"What have you to say in your defense?"

"Nothing," tranquilly meeting the frowning eyes of the King.

"What was your object in defrauding the Princess-" the Chancellor opened one of the documents which lay before him-"the Princess Elizabeth of her rights?"

"I desired the Princess Hildegarde to possess all," was the answer. It

was also a challenge to the Prince to refute the answer if he dared.

"I acknowledge that I have committed a crime. I submit to His

Majesty's will," bowing reverentially.

The King was stroking his chin, a sign of deep meditation in him.

"Let Their Highnesses be brought in," he said at last.

The Chancellor rose and passed into the anteroom. Shortly he returned, followed by Gretchen. I could see by the expression in her face that she was mystified by the proceeding.

"Her Highness the Princess Elizabeth is just leaving the carriage," announced the Chancellor, retiring again.

Gretchen looked first at the King, then at the Prince. As she saw the innkeeper, a wave of astonishment rippled over her face.

"Be seated, Your Highness," said the King, kindly.

She knew that I was in the room, but her eyes never left the King.

The Prince was plucking at his imperial. The innkeeper's eyes were riveted on the door. He was waiting for the appearance of her whom he had wronged. Presently Phyllis came in. Her cheeks were red, and her eyes sparkled with excitement. Wentworth nodded reassuringly. The innkeeper was like one stricken dumb. He stared at Phyllis till I thought his eyes would start from their sockets.

"Your Majesty has summoned me?" said Gretchen.

"Yes. Explain," said the King to the Chancellor.

"Your Highness," began the Chancellor, "it has been proved by these papers here and by that man there," pointing to the innkeeper, "that your mother of lamented memory gave birth to twins. One is yourself; the other was spirited away at the request of your mother. We shall pass over her reasons. It was all due to the efforts of this clever journalist here-" Gretchen was compelled to look at me now, while the King frowned and the Prince smiled-"that your sister has been found."

Gretchen gave a cry and started to go to Phyllis with outstretched arms; but as Phyllis stood motionless she stopped, and her arms fell.

"Your Highness," said the King to Phyllis, "it is your sister, the

Princess Hildegarde. Embrace her, I beg you."

The King willed it. But it occurred to me that there was a warmth lacking in the embrace. Gretchen lightly brushed with her lips the cheek of her sister, and the kiss was as lightly returned. There was something about it all we men failed to understand.

"Moreover," said the King, "she desires you to remain the sovereign

Princess of Hohenphalia."

"Nay, Your Majesty," said Gretchen, "it is I who will relinquish my claims. Your Majesty is aware that I have many caprices."

"Indeed, yes," said the King. "And I can assure you that they have caused me no small anxiety. But let us come to an understanding, once and for all. Do you wish to abdicate in favor of your sister?"

Gretchen gave me the briefest notice.

"Yes, Your Majesty."

Phyllis was regarding me steadfastly.

"This is final?" said the King.

"It is."

"And what is your will?" to Phyllis. "Yes, the likeness is truly remarkable," communing aloud to his thought.

I could not suppress the appeal in my eyes.

"Your Majesty," said Phyllis, "if my sister will teach me how to become a Princess, I promise to accept the responsibility."

"You will not need much teaching," replied the King, admiringly.

"You will do this?-you, my sister?" asked Gretchen eagerly.

"Yes." There was no color now in Phyllis's cheeks; they were as white as the marble faun on the mantel.

"Remember, Your Highness," said the King, speaking to Gretchen, "there shall be no recall."

"Sire," said the Prince, rising, "I request a favor."

"And it shall be granted," said the King, "this being your wedding day."

It was Gretchen who now paled; the hands of the innkeeper closed; I clutched the chair, for my legs trembled. To lose, after all!

"Ah," said the Prince, "I thank Your Majesty. The favor I ask is that you will postpone this marriage-indefinitely."

"What!" cried the King. He was amazed. "Have I heard you aright, or do my ears play me false?"

"It is true. I thank Your Majesty again," said the Prince, bowing.

"But this is beyond belief," cried the King in anger. "I do not understand. This marriage was at your own request, and now you withdraw. Since when," proudly, "was the hand of the Princess Hildegarde to be ignored?"

"It is a delicate matter," said the Prince, turning the ring on his finger. "It would be impolite to state my reasons before Her Highness. Your Highness, are you not of my opinion, that, as matters now stand, a marriage between us would be rather absurd?"

"Now, as at all times," retorted Gretchen, scornfully. "It has never been my will," a furtive glance at the King.

"But-" began the King. He was wrathful.

"Your Majesty," said the innkeeper, "you are a great King; be a generous one."

All looked at him as though they expected to see the King fly at him and demolish him-all but I. The King walked up to the bold speaker, took his measure, then, with his hands clasped behind his back, resumed his pacing. After a while he came to a standstill.

"Your Highness," he said to Phyllis, "what shall I do with this man who has so grossly wronged you?"

"Forgive him."

The King passed on. I was not looking at him, but at the innkeeper. I saw his lip tremble and his eyes fill. Suddenly he fell upon his knees before Phyllis and raised her hand to his lips.

"Will Your Highness forgive a sinner who only now realizes the wrong he has done to you?"

"Yes, I forgive you," said Phyllis. "The only wrong you have done to me is to have made me a Princess. Your Majesty will forgive me, but it is all so strange to me who have grown up in a foreign land which is dearer to my heart than the land in which I was born."

I felt a thrill of pride, and I saw that Mr. Wentworth's lips had formed into a "God bless her!"

"It is a question now," said the King, "only of duty."

"And Your Majesty's will regarding my marriage?" put in the Prince, holding his watch in his hand. It was ten o'clock.

"Well, well! It shall be as you desire." Then to me: "I thank you in the name of Their Highnesses for your services. And you, Mr. Wentworth, shall always have the good will of the King for presenting to his court so accomplished and beautiful a woman as Her Highness the Princess Elizabeth. Hermann Breunner, return to your inn and remain there; your countenance brings back disagreeable recollections. I shall expect Your Highnesses at dinner this evening. Prince, I leave to you the pleasant task of annulling your nuptial preparations. Good morning. Ah! these women!" as he passed from the room. "They are our mothers, so we must suffer their caprices."

And as we men followed him we saw Gretchen weeping silently on

Phyllis's shoulder.

The innkeeper touched the Prince.

"I give you fair warning," he said. "If our paths cross again, one of us shall go on alone."

"I should be very lonely without you," laughed the Prince. "However, rest yourself. As the King remarked, your face recalls unpleasant memories. Our paths shall not cross again."

When the innkeeper and the Chancellor were out of earshot, I said: "She is mine!"

"Not yet," the Prince said softly. "On Tuesday morn I shall kill you."

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