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   Chapter 25 No.25

Arms and the Woman By Harold MacGrath Characters: 12993

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


I was passing along the highway, a pipe between my teeth. It was the beginning of twilight, that trysting hour of all our reveries, when the old days come back with a perfume as sweet and vague as that which hovers over a jar of spiced rose leaves. I was thinking of the year which was gone; how I first came to the inn; of the hour when I first held her in my arms and kissed her, and vowed my love to her; of the parting, when she of her own will had thrown her arms about my neck and confessed. The shadows were thickening on the ground, and the voices of the forests were hushed. I glanced at the western sky. It was like a frame of tarnished gold, waiting for night with her diadem of stars to step within. The purple hills were wrapping themselves in robes of pearly mists; the flowing river was tinted with dun and vermilion; and one by one the brilliant planets burst through the darkening blues of the heavens. The inn loomed up against the sky, gray and lonely. Behind me, far away down the river, I could catch occasional glimpses of the lamps of the village. Presently there came a faint yellow glow in the east, and I knew that Diana was approaching.

She tosses loose her locks upon the night,

And, through the dim wood Dian threads her way.

A wild sweetness filled the air. I was quite half a mile from the inn, yet I could smell the odor of her roses, Gretchen's roses. It was a long and weary year which had intervened. And now she was there, only a short way from my arms. But she did not know that I was coming. A million diamonds sprang into the air whenever I struck the lush grasses with my cane. Everywhere I breathed the perfume of her roses. They seemed to hide along the hedges, to lurk among the bushes, red roses and white. On the hill, across the valley, I saw the little cemetery with its white stones. I arrested my steps and took off my hat. The dust of Hillars lay there. I stood motionless for some time. I had loved the man as it is possible for one man to love another. I had not thought of him much of late; but in this life we cannot always stand by the grave of those who have gone before. He had loved Gretchen with a love perhaps less selfish than mine, for he had sacrificed his life uselessly for her that she might-be mine! Mine! I thought. And who was I that she should love me instead of him? All the years I had known him I had known but little of him. God only knows the hearts of these men who rove or drift, who, anchorless and rudderless, beat upon the ragged reels of life till the breath leaves them and they pass through the mystic channel into the serene harbor of eternity. A sudden wave of dissatisfaction swept over me. What had I done in the world to merit attention? What had I done that I, and not he, should know the love of woman? Why should I live to-day and not he? From out the silence there came no answer; and I continued on. It was life. It was immutable, and there was no key.

The lights of the inn cheered me and lifted the gloom. Should I enter by stealth or boldly? I chose the second method. Gretchen and the innkeeper were in the old hall. I entered and threw my traps into a corner. As they turned and saw me consternation was written on their faces.

"I have found you at last," I said, holding out a hand to each of them. The innkeeper thrust his hands behind his back and sauntered leisurely toward the window. Gretchen showed signs of embarrassment, and her eyes were studiously fixed on the cracks which yawned here and there in the floor. My hands fell unnoticed.

"You have been looking for us?" she asked in even tones. "Why have you?"

Vaguely I gazed at her, at the innkeeper, then at my traps in the corner. It was apparent that I was an intruder. I struck my forehead in anger and despair. Triple fool that I was! I was nothing to her. She had told me so, and I had not believed.

"Yes; why?" asked the innkeeper, turning around.

"I believe," said I, my voice trembling, "that I am an unwelcome guest.

Is it not so?"

"Oh, as for that," said the innkeeper, observing Gretchen, "this is a public inn, on the highway. All wayfarers are of necessity welcome."

"Go, then, and prepare me a supper," said I. "I am indeed hungry, having journeyed far." I wanted him out of the room.

The innkeeper appeared not to have the slightest intention of leaving the room to do my bidding.

"Yes, Hermann," said Gretchen, coloring, "go and prepare Herr

Winthrop's supper."

"Thank you," said I, with a dismal effort to be ironical.

The innkeeper, a puzzling smile on his lips, passed out.

"Gretchen," I burst forth, "in heaven's name what does this mean? I have hunted for you day after day, week after week, month after month. I have traveled the four ends of the continent. I have lived-Oh, I do not know how I have lived! And when I do find you, it is for this!" My voice broke, and I was positively on the verge of tears.

"And was all this fair to her?" asked Gretchen, coldly.

"To her? I do not understand."

"I mean, was all this fair to my sister?"

"Gretchen," a light piercing the darkness, "has she not written to you?"

"A long time ago. She wanted to see me on an important matter, but I could not change my plans at the time. I shall see her at the palace next week. Ought you not to be with her instead of here?"

"Why should I be with her?"

Gretchen laughed, but the key was false.

"Are you not going to marry her? Surely, it is easy after the King has given his permission. Have you already fallen out of love with her, after all your efforts to make her a Princess? Truly, man is as unstable as sand and water! Ah, but you fooled us all to the top of our bent. You knew from the first that she was a Princess; but you could not find the proofs. Hermann and I were the means to the end. But who shall blame you? Not I! I am very grateful to you for having given to me a sister. And if you fooled me, I returned measure for measure. It is game and quit. Time hung heavy on my hands, and the victory, however short, was amusing."

"I never loved her!" I cried. Where were the words I needed?

"So much the worse for you," disdainfully. "But here comes Hermann to announce your supper."

"I shall not break the bread of inhospitality," said I, in the bitterness of my despair. I gathered up my traps-and then I let them tumble back. The needed words came with a rush to my lips. I went close to her. "Why did you humiliate yourself in beggi

ng my life of the Prince? Why, if my life was nothing to you? Answer. Why did you stoop to your knees to that man if I was worthless to you? Why?"

Her cheeks grew red, then white; her lips formed words which she could not speak.

"Herr Winthrop's supper is ready," announced the innkeeper.

"Go and eat it!" I said childishly.

"Your appetite is gone then?" imperturbably.

"Yes, and get you gone with it!"

The innkeeper surveyed me for a space. "Will you kindly tell me from whom you received the information that Her Highness was at the inn?"

I produced the unsigned letter. He read it carefully, while Gretchen looked on nervously.

"Ach!" said the innkeeper, "that Stahlberg! He shall be dismissed."

Unhappily for him, that individual was just passing along the corridor.

The innkeeper signaled him to approach.

"How dared you?" began the innkeeper, thrusting the letter under

Stahlberg's nose.

"Dare?-I?-Herr," said the big fellow, "I do not understand. What is it you accuse me of?"

"This," cried the innkeeper: "You have written to Herr Winthrop and told him that Her Highness was at the inn. And you were expressly forbidden to do so."

Stahlberg looked around blankly. "I swear to heaven, Herr-"

"Do not prevaricate!" the innkeeper interrupted. "You know that you wrote this."

"Stahlberg," I cried excitedly; "tell me why you wrote this note to me and I'll see that you are taken care of the rest of your days."

"I forbid him!" commanded Gretchen in alarm.

"As God hears me, Herr," said Stahlberg stoutly. "I wrote not a line to you or to any one."

"Oh!" cried the innkeeper, stamping. "And you deny that you have written here that you saw Her Highness in the garden three nights ago?"

Gretchen was beginning to grow terrified for some reason. I myself was filled with wonder, knowing well enough that nothing about a garden had been written in the note I had received.

"Do you dare deny," went on the implacable old man, "that you have written here that you saw Her Highness in the garden, and that she was weeping and murmuring this man's name?"

"Oh!" cried Gretchen, gazing wildly at the door.

The innkeeper suddenly took the bewildered giant by the shoulders and pushed him from the room, following him swiftly; and the door closed noisily behind them.

My heart was in flames. I understood all now, though I dare say Gretchen didn't. All at once, her head fell on the back of the chair from which she had but lately risen. She was weeping silently and deeply. I did not move, but stood watching her, drinking in with exultation the loveliness of a woman in tears. She was mine, mine, mine! The innkeeper had not really known her heart till the night in the garden to which he so adroitly referred; then he had made up his mind that things were not as they should be, and had sent me that anonymous note. Mine at last, I thought. Somehow, for the first time in my life I felt what is called masterful; that is to say, not all heaven and earth should take her away from me now. Softly I passed over to her side and knelt at her feet. I lifted the hem of her gown and pressed it to my lips.

"My Princess!" I murmured, "all mine." I kissed her unresisting hand. Then I rose and put my arms around her. She trembled but made no effort to withdraw. "I swear to you, Gretchen, that I will never leave you again, not if the King should send an army against me, which he will never do, since he has commanded that I marry you. Beware! It is a dangerous thing to trifle with a King's will. And then, even if the King should change his mind, I should not. You are mine. I should like to know if I haven't won you! Oh, they do well to call you Princess Caprice. Oh, Gretchen," falling back to humble tones, "what a weary year has been wasted. You know that I love you; you have never really doubted it; you know that you have not. Had you gone to your sister when she wrote to you, she would have told you that it was for you alone that I made her a Princess; that all my efforts were to make you free to wed. Gretchen, you will not send me away this time, will you? You will be kind and bid me to stay?"

"She loves you," whispered Gretchen.

This admitted no reply. I simply pressed my lips to her hair. The sobs were growing audibly less.

"I read it in her eyes," persisted Gretchen.

"Gretchen, answer me: do you love me?"

"Yes."

I placed my hands against her temples, and turned her head around so that those blue-green eyes, humid and tearful, looked into mine.

"Oh, I cannot deny it. If I wrong her in accepting your love, it is because I cannot help it. I love you better than all the world; so well do I love you that-" Her head sank on my heart, and her sobs began afresh.

"That what, Gretchen?" I asked.

"Nothing." By and by she said; "Keep faith with me, and I promise to love as few women can."

Then I kissed her lips. "Gretchen?"

"What is it?"

"I have an idea that we shall be very happy. Now let us go and make terms of peace with the innkeeper."

We found him alone in the barroom.

"Gretchen," said I, "read this note."

As her eyes ran over those six words, she blushed.

"Hermann," she said, "you have betrayed me."

"And when will Your Highness order me out to be shot?" asked he, smiling.

"At sunrise; but I shall blindfold the soldiers and take the charges from their guns. I forgive you."

"Now, Hermann," said I, "fill me up a stein." I held it high above my head. "A health! Long live the King! Long live Her Serene Highness the Princess-"

"Elizabeth," said Gretchen, gently. "I fear she has lost something which is never to be found again."

I drained the stein, and as I set it down I thought: Phyllis is so far away and Gretchen is so near!

"Let us go into the garden," said I.

For a long time we wandered here and there, saying nothing. I was thinking that I had found a castle at last which neither tides nor winds nor sudden awakenings could tumble down.

"Gretchen, you must never take up the sword again."

"Only in my lord's defence." From the movement of her arm, which clung to mine, I knew that she was laughing.

The moon had risen, the round and mellow moon of summer. The silver mists of night wavered and sailed through the aisles of the forests, and from the river came the cool fresh perfume of the river rush.

"And so you really love me?" I asked.

"I do."

"Why do you love me?"

"Because," said Gretchen.

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