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   Chapter 3 FOR HER COUNTRY

The Goose Girl By Harold MacGrath Characters: 18391

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


"Count, must I tell you again not to broach that subject? There can be no alliance between Ehrenstein and Jugendheit."

"Why?" asked Count von Herbeck, chancellor, coolly returning the angry flash from the ducal eyes.

"There are a thousand reasons why, but it is not my purpose to name them."

"Name only one, your Highness, only one."

"Will that satisfy you?"

"Perhaps."

"One of my reasons is that I do not want any alliance with a country so perfidious as Jugendheit. What! I make overtures? I, who have been so cruelly wronged all these years? You are mad."

"But what positive evidence have you that Jugendheit wronged you?"

"Positive? Have I eyes and ears? Have I not seen and read and heard?" This time the duke struck the desk savagely. "Why do you always rouse me in this fashion, Herbeck? You know how distasteful all this is to me."

"Your highness knows that I look only to the welfare of the country. In the old days it was a foregone conclusion that this alliance was to be formed. Now, you persist in averring that the late king was the chief conspirator in abducting her serene highness, aided by Arnsberg, whose successor I have the honor to be. I have never yet seen any proofs. You have never yet produced them. Show me something which absolutely convicts them, and I'll surrender."

"On your honor?"

"My word."

The grand duke struck the bell on the chancellor's desk.

"My secretary, and tell him to bring me the packet marked A. He will understand."

The two men waited without speaking, each busy with thought. The duke had been in his youth, and was still, a handsome man, splendidly set up, healthy and vigorous, keen mentally, and whatever stubbornness he possessed nicely balanced by common sense. He might have been guilty in his youth of a few human peccadillos, but the kingly and princely excesses which at that time were making the east side of the Rhine the scandal of the world had in no wise sullied his name. Ehrenstein means "stone of honor," and he had always carried the thought of this in his heart. He was frank in his likes and dislikes, he hated secrets, and he loved an opponent who engaged him in the open. Herbeck often labored with him over this open manner, but the mind he sought to work upon was as receptive to political hypocrisy as a wall of granite. It was this extraordinary rectitude which made the duke so powerful an aid to Bismarck in the days that followed. The Man of Iron needed this sort of character as a cover and a buckler to his own duplicities.

Herbeck was an excellent foil. He was as silent and secretive as sand. He moved, as it were, in circles, thus always eluding dangerous corners. He was tall, angular, with a thin, immobile countenance, well guarded by his gray eyes and straight lips. He was a born financier, with almost limitless ambition, though only he himself knew how far this ambition reached. He had not brought prosperity to Ehrenstein, but he had fortified and bastioned it against extravagance, and this was probably the larger feat of the two. He loved his country, and brooded over it as a mother broods over her child. Twice had he saved Ehrenstein from the drag-net of war, and with honor. So he was admired by fathers and revered by mothers.

The secretary came in and laid a thin packet of papers on the chancellor's desk. "It was the packet A, your Highness?"-his hand still resting upon the documents.

"Yes. You may go."

The secretary bowed and withdrew.

The duke stirred the papers angrily, took one of them and spread it out with a rasp.

"Look at that. Whose writing, I ask?"

Herbeck adjusted his glasses and scrutinized the slanting hieroglyphics. He ran over it several times. At length he opened a drawer in his desk, sorted some papers, and brought out a yellow letter. This he laid down beside the other.

"Yes, they are alike. This will be Arnsberg. But"-mildly-"who may say that it is not a cunning forgery?"

"Forgery!" roared the duke. "Read this one from the late king of Jugendheit to Arnsberg, then, if you still doubt."

Herbeck read slowly and carefully.

Then he rose and walked to the nearest window, studying the letter again in the sharper light. Presently his hands fell behind his back and met about the paper, while he himself stared over into the royal gardens. He remained in this attitude for some time.

"Well?" said the duke impatiently.

Herbeck returned to his chair. "I wish that you had shown me these long ago."

"To what end?"

"You accused the king?"

"Certainly, but he denied it."

"In a letter?"

"Yes. Here, read it."

Herbeck compared the two. "Where did you find these?"

"In Arnsberg's desk," returned the duke, the anger in his eyes giving place to gloomy retrospection. "Arnsberg, my boyhood playmate, the man I loved and trusted and advanced to the highest office in my power. Is that not the way? Do we ever trust any one fully without being in the end deceived? Well, dead or alive," the duke continued, his throat swelling, "ten thousand crowns to him who brings Arnsberg to me, dead or alive."

"He will never come back," said Herbeck.

"Not if he is wise. He was clever. He sent all his fortune to Paris, so I found, and what I confiscated was nothing but his estate. But do you believe me"-putting a hand against his heart-"something here tells me that some day fate will drag him back and give him into my hands?"

"You are very bitter."

"And have I not cause? Did not my wife die of a broken heart, and did I not become a broken man? You do not know all, Herbeck, not quite all. Franz also sought the hand of the Princess Sofia. He, too, loved her, but I won. Well, his revenge must have been sweet to him."

"But your daughter has been restored to her own."

"Due to your indefatigable efforts alone. Ah, Herbeck, nothing will ever fill up the gap between, nothing will ever restore the mother." The duke bowed his head.

Herbeck studied him thoughtfully.

"I love my daughter and she loves me, but I don't know what it is, I can't explain it," irresolutely.

"What can not your highness explain?"

"Perhaps the gap is too wide, perhaps the separation has been too long."

Herbeck did not press the duke to be more explicit. He opened another drawer and took forth a long hood envelope, crested and sealed.

"Your Highness, here is a letter from the prince regent of Jugendheit, formally asking the hand of the Princess Hildegarde for his nephew, Frederick, who will shortly be crowned. My advice is to accept, to let bygones be bygones."

"Write the prince that I respectfully decline."

"Do nothing in haste, your Highness. Temporize; say that you desire some time to think about the matter. You can change your mind at any time. A reply like this commits you to nothing, whereas your abrupt refusal will only widen the breach."

"The wider the breach the better."

"No, no, your Highness; the past has disturbed you. We can stand war, and it is possible that we might win, even against Jugendheit; but war at this late day would be a colossal blunder. Victory would leave us where we began thirty years ago. One does not go to war for a cause that has been practically dead these sixteen years. And an insult to Jugendheit might precipitate war. It would be far wiser to let me answer the prince regent, saying that your highness will give the proposal your thoughtful consideration."

"Have your way, then, but on your head be it if you commit me to anything."

The duke was about to gather up his documentary evidence, when Herbeck touched his hand.

"I have an idea," said the chancellor. "A great many letters reach me from day to day. I have an excellent memory. Who knows but that I might find the true conspirator, the archplotter? Leave them with me, your Highness."

"I shall not ask you to be careful with them, Herbeck."

"I shall treasure them as my life."

The duke departed, stirred as he had not been since the restoration of the princess. Herbeck sometimes irritated him, for he was never in the wrong, he was never impatient, he was never hasty, he never had to go over a thing twice. This supernal insight, which overlooked all things but results, set the duke wondering if Herbeck was truly all human. If only he could catch him at fault once in a while!

Count von Herbeck remained at his desk, his face as inscrutable as ever, his eyes without expression, and his lips expressing nothing. He smoothed out a sheet of paper, affixed the state seal, and in a flowing hand wrote a diplomatic note, considering the proposal of his royal highness, the prince regent of Jugendheit, on behalf of his nephew, the king. This he placed in the diplomatic pouch, called for a courier, and despatched him at once for the frontier.

The duke sought his daughter. She was in the music-room, surrounded by several of her young women companions, each holding some musical instrument in her hands. Hildegarde was singing. The duke paused, shutting his eyes and striving to recall the voice of the mother. When the voice died away and the young women leaned back in their chairs to rest, the duke approached. Upon

seeing him all rose. With a smile he dismissed them.

"My child," he began, taking Hildegarde's hand and drawing her toward a window-seat, "the king of Jugendheit asks for your hand."

"Mine, father?"

"Even so."

"Then I am to marry the king of Jugendheit?" There was little joy in her voice.

"Ah, we have not gone so far as that. The king, through his uncle, has simply made a proposal. How would you regard it, knowing what you do of the past, the years that you lived in comparative penury, amid hardships, unknown, and almost without name?"

"It is for you to decide, father. Whatever your decision is, I shall abide by it."

"It is a hard lesson we have to learn, my child. We can not always marry where we love; diplomacy and politics make other plans. But fortunately for you you love no one yet." He put his hand under her chin and searched the deeps of her gray eyes. These eyes were more like her mother's than anything else about her. "The king is young, handsome, they say, and rich. Politically speaking, it would be a great match."

"I am in your hands. You know what is best."

The duke was poignantly disappointed. Why did she not refuse outright, indignantly, contemptuously, as became one of the House of Ehrenstein? Anything rather than this complacency.

"What is he like?" disengaging his hand and turning her face toward the window.

"That no one seems to know. He has been to his capital but twice in ten years, which doubtless pleased his uncle, who loves power for its own sake. The young king has been in Paris most of the time. That's the way they educate kings these days. They teach them all the vices and make virtue an accident. Your father loves you, and if you are inclined toward his majesty, if it is in your heart to become a queen, I shall not let my prejudices stand in the way."

She caught up his hand with a strange passion and kissed it.

"Father, I do not want to marry any one," wistfully. "But a queen!" she added thoughtfully.

"It is only a sound, my dear; do not let it delude you. Herbeck advises this alliance, and while I realize that his judgment is right, my whole soul revolts against it. But all depends upon you."

"Would it benefit the people? Would it be for the good of the state?"

Here was reason. "Yes; my objections are merely personal," said the duke.

"For the good of my country, which I love, I am ready to make any sacrifice. I shall think it over."

"Very well; but weigh the matter carefully. There is never any retracing a step of this kind." He stood up, his heart heavy. Saying no more, he moved toward the door.

She gazed after him, and suddenly and silently she stretched out her arms, her eyes and face and lips yearning with love. Curiously enough, the duke happened to turn. He was at her side in a moment, holding her firm in his embrace.

"You are all I have, girl!" with a bit of break in his voice.

"My father!" She stroked his cheek.

When he left the room it was with lighter step.

The restoration of the Princess Hildegarde of Ehrenstein had been the sensation of Europe, as had been in the earlier days her remarkable abduction. For sixteen years the search had gone on fruitlessly. The cleverest adventuresses on the continent tried devious tricks to palm themselves off as the lost princess. From France they had come, from Prussia, Italy, Austria, Russia and England. But the duke and the chancellor held the secret, unknown to any one else-a locket. In a garret in Dresden the agents of Herbeck found her, a singer in the chorus of the opera. The newspapers and illustrated weeklies raged about her for a while, elaborated the story of her struggles, the mysterious remittances which had, from time to time, saved her from direst poverty, her ambition, her education which, by dint of hard work, she had acquired. It was all very puzzling and interesting and romantic. For what purpose had she been stolen, and by whom? The duke accused Franz of Jugendheit, but he did so privately. Search as they would, the duke and the chancellor never traced the source of the remittances. The duke held stubbornly that the sender of these benefactions was moved by the impulse of a guilty conscience, and that this guilty conscience was in Jugendheit. But these remittances, argued Herbeck, came long after the death of the old king. He had his agents, vowed the duke. Herbeck would not listen to this. He preferred to believe that Count von Arnsberg was the man.

There was an endless tangle of red tape before the girl became secure in her rights. But finally, when William of Prussia and Franz Josef of Austria congratulated the duke, everybody else fell into line, and every troop in the duchy came to Dreiberg to the celebration. Then the world ran away in pursuit of other adventures, and forgot all about her serene highness.

And was she happy with all this grandeur, with all these lackeys and attentions and environs? Who can say? Sometimes she longed for the freedom and lack-care of her Dresden garret, her musician friends, the studios, the crash and glitter of the opera. To be suddenly deprived of the fruits of ambition, to reach such a pinnacle without striving, to be no longer independent, somehow it was all tasteless with the going of the novelty.

She looked like a princess, she moved and acted like one, but after the manner of kindly fairy princesses in story-books. All fell in love with her, from the groom who saddled her horse, to the chancellor, who up to this time was known never to have loved anything but the state.

She was lovely enough to inspire fervor and homage and love in all masculine minds. She was witty and talented. Carmichael said she was one of the most beautiful women in Europe. Later he modified this statement by declaring that she was the most beautiful woman in Europe or elsewhere. Yet, often she went about as one in a waking dream. There was an aloofness which was not born of hauteur but rather of a lingering doubt of herself.

She was still in the window-seat when the chancellor was announced. She distrusted him a little, she knew not why; yet, when he bent over her hand she was certain that his whole heart was behind his salute.

"Your Highness," he said, "I am come to announce to you that there waits for you a high place in the affairs of the world."

"The second crown in Jugendheit?"

"Your father-?"

"Yes. He leaves the matter wholly in my hands."

The sparkle in his eyes was the first evidence of emotion she had ever seen in him. It rather pleased her.

"It is for the good of the state. A princess like yourself must never wed an inferior."

"Would a man who was brave and kind and resourceful, but without a title, would he be an inferior?"

"Assuredly, politically. And I regret to say that your marriage could never be else than a matter of politics."

"I am, then, for all that I am a princess, simply a certificate of exchange?"

His keen ear caught the bitter undercurrent. "The king of Jugendheit is young. I do not see how he can help loving you the moment he knows you. Who can?" And the chancellor enjoyed the luxury of a smile.

"But he may not be heart whole."

"He will be, politically."

"Politics, politics; how I hate the word! Sometimes I regret my garret."

The chancellor frowned. "Your Highness, I beg of you never to give that thought utterance in the presence of your father."

"Ah, believe me, I am not ungrateful; but all this is new to me, even yet. I am living in a dream, wondering and wondering when I shall wake."

The chancellor wrinkled his lips. It was more of a grimace than a smile.

"Will you consent to this marriage?"

"Would it do any good to reject it?"

"On the contrary, it would do Ehrenstein great harm."

"Give me a week," wearily.

"A week!" There was joy on the chancellor's face now, unmasked, unconcealed. "Oh, when the moment comes that I see the crown of Jugendheit on your beautiful head, all my work shall not have been in vain. So then, within seven days I shall come for your answer?"

"One way or the other, my answer will be ready then."

"There is one thing more, your Highness."

"And that?"

"There must not be so many rides in the morning with his excellency, Herr Carmichael."

She met his piercing glance with that mild duplicity known only to women. "He is a gentleman, he amuses me, and there is no harm. Grooms are always with us. And often he is only one of a party."

"It is politics again, your Highness; I merely offer the suggestion."

"Marry me to the king of Jugendheit, if you will, but in this I shall have my way." But she laughed as she laid down this law.

He surrendered his doubt. "Well, for a week. But once the banns are published, it will be neither wise nor-"

"Proper? That is a word, Count, that I do not like."

"Pardon me, your Highness. All this talk is merely for the sake of saving you needless embarrassment."

He bowed and took his leave of her.

"Jugendheit! Ah, I had rather my garret, my garret!"

And her gaze sped across the Platz and lingered about one of the little window-balconies of the Grand Hotel.

* * *

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