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   Chapter 5 A COMPATRIOT

The Goose Girl By Harold MacGrath Characters: 18405

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Krumerweg was indeed a crooked way. It formed a dozen elbows and ragged half-circles as it slunk off from the Adlergasse. Streets have character even as humans, and the Krumerweg reminded one of a person who was afraid of being followed. The shadow of the towering bergs lay upon it, and the few stars that peered down through the narrow crevice of rambling gables were small, as if the brilliant planets had neither time nor inclination to watch over such a place. And yet there lived in the Krumerweg many a kind and loyal heart, stricken with poverty. In old times the street had had an evil name, now it possessed only a pitiful one.

It was half after nine when Gretchen and the vintner picked their way over cobbles pitted here and there with mud-holes. They were arm in arm, and they laughed when they stumbled, laughed lightly, as youth always laughs when in love.

"Only a little farther," said Gretchen, for the vintner had never before passed over this way.

"Long as it is and crooked, Heaven knows it is short enough!" He encircled her with his arms and kissed her. "I love you! I love you!" he said.

Gretchen was penetrated with rapture, for her ears, sharp with love and the eternal doubting of man, knew that falsehood could not lurk in such music. This handsome boy loved her. Buffeted as she had been, she could separate the false from the true. Come never so deep a sorrow, there would always be this-he loved her. Her bosom swelled, her heart throbbed, and she breathed in ecstasy the sweet chill air that rushed through the broken street.

"After the vintage," she said, giving his arm a pressure. For this handsome fellow was to be her husband when the vines were pruned and freshened against the coming winter.

"Aye, after the vintage," he echoed; but there was tragedy in his heart as deep and profound as his love.

"My grandmother-I call her that for I haven't any grandmother-is old and seldom leaves the house. I promised that after work to-night I'd bring my man home and let her see how handsome he is. She is always saying that we need a man about; and yet, I can do a man's work as well as the next one. I love you, too, Leo!" She pulled his hand to her lips and quickly kissed it, frightened but unashamed.

"Gretchen, Gretchen!"

She stopped. "What is it?" keenly. "There was pain in your voice."

"The thought of how I love you hurts me. There is nothing else, nothing, neither riches nor crowns, nothing but you, Gretchen. How long ago was it I met you first?"

"Two weeks."

"Two weeks? Is it not years? Have I not always known and loved you?"

"And I! What an empty heart and head were mine till that wonderful day! You were tired and dusty and footsore; you had walked some twenty odd miles; yet you helped me with the geese. There were almost tears in your eyes, but I knew that your heart was a man's when you smiled at me." She stopped again and turned him round to her. "And you love me like this?"

"Whatever betide, Lieberherz, whatever befall." And he embraced her with a fierce tenderness, and so strong was he in the moment that Gretchen gave a cry. He kissed her, not on the lips, but on the fine white forehead, reverently.

They proceeded, Gretchen subdued and the vintner silent, until they came to the end of their journey at number forty in the Krumerweg. It was a house of hanging gables, almost as old as the town itself, solid and grim and taciturn. There are some houses which talk like gossips, noisy, obtrusive and provocative. Number forty was like an old warrior, gone to his chair by the fireside, who listens to the small-talk of his neighbors saturninely. What was it all about? Had he not seen battles and storms, revolutions and bloodshed? The prattle of children was preferable.

Gretchen's grandmother, Fr?u Schwarz, owned the house; it was all that barricaded her from poverty's wolves, and, what with sundry taxes and repairs and tenants who paid infrequently, it was little enough. Whatever luxuries entered at number forty were procured by Gretchen herself. At present the two stories were occupied; the second by a malter and his brood of children, the third by a woman who was partially bedridden. The lower or ground floor of four rooms she reserved for herself. As a matter of fact the forward room, with its huge middle-age fireplace and the great square of beamed and plastered walls and stone flooring, was sizable for all domestic purposes. Gretchen's pallet stood in a small alcove and the old woman's bed by the left of the fire.

Gretchen opened the door, which was unlocked. There was no light in the hall. She pressed her lover in her arms, kissed him lightly, and pushed him into the living-room. A log smoldered dimly on the irons. Gretchen ran forward, turned over the log, lighted two candles, then kissed the old woman seated in the one comfortable chair. The others were simply three-legged stools. There was little else in the room, save a poor reproduction of the Virgin Mary.

"Here I am, grandmother!"

"And who is here with you?" sharply but not unkindly.

"My man!" cried Gretchen gaily, her eyes bright as the candle flames.

"Bring him near me."

Gretchen gathered up two stools and placed them on either side of her grandmother and motioned to the vintner to sit down. He did so, easily and without visible embarrassment, even though the black eyes plunged a glance into his.

Her hair was white and thin, her nose aquiline, her lips fallen in, a cobweb of wrinkles round her eyes, down her cheeks, under her chin. But her sight was undimmed.

"Where are you from? You are not a Dreiberger."

"From the north, grandmother," forcing a smile to his lips.

The reply rather gratified her.

"Your name."

"Leopold Dietrich, a vintner by trade."

"You speak like a Hanoverian or a Prussian."

"I have passed some time in both countries. I have wandered about a good deal."

"Give me your hand."

The vintner looked surprised for a moment. Gretchen approved. So he gave the old woman his left hand. The grandmother smoothed it out upon her own and bent her shrewd eyes. Silence. Gretchen could hear the malter stirring above; the log cracked and burst into flame. A frown began to gather on the vintner's brow and a sweat in his palm.

"I see many strange things here," said the palmist, in a brooding tone.

"And what do you see?" asked Gretchen eagerly.

"I see very little of vineyards. I see riches, pomp; I see vast armies moving against each other; there is the smell of powder and fire; devastation. I do not see you, young man, among those who tramp with guns on their shoulders. You ride; there is gold on your arms. You will become great; but I do not understand. I do not understand," closing her eyes for a moment.

The vintner sat upright, his chin truculent, his arm tense.

"War!" he murmured.

Gretchen's heart sank; there was joy in his voice.

"Go on, grandmother," she whispered.

"Shall I live?" asked the vintner, whose belief in prescience till this hour had been of a negative quality.

"There is nothing here save death in old age, vintner." Her gnarled hand seized his in a vise. "Do you mean well by my girl?"

"Grandmother!" Gretchen remonstrated.

"Silence!"

The vintner withdrew his hand slowly.

"Is this the hand of a liar and a cheat? Is it the hand of a dishonest man?"

"There is no dishonesty there; but there are lines I do not understand. Oh, I can not see everything; it is like seeing people in a mist. They pass instantly and disappear. But I repeat, do you mean well by my girl?"

"Before God and His angels I love her; before all mankind I would gladly declare it. Gretchen shall never come to harm at these hands. I swear it."

"I believe you." The old woman's form relaxed its tenseness.

"Thanks, grandmother," said Gretchen. "Now, read what my hand says."

The old woman took the hand. She loved Gretchen.

"I read that you are gentle and brave and cheerful, that you have a loyal heart and a pure mind. I read that you are in love and that some day you will be happy." A smile went over her face, a kind of winter sunset.

"You are not looking at my hand at all, grandmother," said Gretchen in reproach.

"I do not need, my child. Your life is written in your face." The grandmother spoke again to the vintner. "So you will take her away from me?"

"Will it be necessary?" he returned quietly. "Have you any objection to my becoming your foster grandchild, such as Gretchen is?"

The old woman made no answer. She closed her eyes and did not open them. Gretchen motioned that this was a sign that the interview was ended. But as he rose to his feet there was a sound outside. A carriage had stopped. Some one opened the door and began to climb the stairs. The noise ceased only when the visitor reached the top landing. Then all became still again.

"There is something strange going on up there," said Gretchen in a whisper.

"In what way?" asked the vintner in like undertones.

"Three times a veiled lady has called at night, three times a man muffled up so one could not see his face."

"Let us not question our twenty-crowns rent, Gre

tchen," interrupted the grandmother, waking. "So long as no one is disturbed, so long as the police are not brought to our door, it is not our affair. Leopold, Gretchen, give me your hands." She placed them one upon the other, then spread out her hands above their heads. "The Holy Mother bring happiness and good luck to you, Gretchen."

"And to me?" said the youth.

"I could not wish you better luck than to give you Gretchen. Now, leave me."

The vintner picked up his hat and Gretchen led him to the street.

He hurried away, giving no glance at the closed carriage, the sleepy driver, the weary horse. Neither did he heed the man dressed as a carter who, when he saw the vintner, turned and followed. Finally, when the vintner veered into the Adlergasse, he stopped, his hands clenched, his teeth hard upon each other. He even leaned against the wall of a house, his face for the moment hidden in his arm.

"Wretch that I am! Damnable wretch! Krumerweg, Krumerweg! Crooked way, indeed!" He flung down his arm passionately. "There will be a God up yonder," looking at the stars. "He will see into my heart and know that it is not bad, only young. Oh, Gretchen!"

"Gretchen?" The carter stepped into a shadow and waited.

* * *

Carmichael did not enjoy the opera that night. He had missed the first acts, and the last was gruesome, and the royal box was vacant. Outside he sat down on one of the benches near the fountains in the Platz. His prolific imagination took the boundaries. Ah! That morning's ride, down the southern path of the mountains, the black squirrels in the branches, the red fox in the bushes, the clear spring, and the drink out of the tin cup which hung there for the thirsty! How prettily she had wrapped a leaf over the rusted edge of the cup! The leaf lay in his pocket. He had kissed a dozen times the spot where her lips had pressed it. Blind fool! Deeper and deeper; he knew that he never could go back to that safe ledge of the heart-free. Time could not change his heart, not if given the thousand years of the wandering Jew.

Bah! He would walk round the fountain and cool his crazy pulse. He was Irish, Irish to the core. Would any one, save an Irishman, give way, day after day, to those insane maunderings? His mood was savage; he was at odds with the world, and most of all, with himself. If only some one would come along and shoulder him rudely! He laughed ruefully. He was in a fine mood to make an ass of himself.

He left the bench and strolled round the fountain, his cane behind his back, his chin in his collar. He had made the circle several times, then he blundered into some one. The fighting mood was gone now, the walk having calmed him. He murmured a short apology for his clumsiness and started on, without even looking at the animated obstacle.

"Just a moment, my studious friend."

"Wallenstein? I didn't see you." Carmichael halted.

"That was evident," replied the colonel jestingly. "Heavens! Have you really cares of state, that you walk five times round this fountain, bump into me, and start to go on without so much as a how-do-you-do?"

"I'm absent-minded," Carmichael admitted.

"Not always, my friend."

"No, not always. You have some other meaning?"

"That is possible. Now, I do not believe that it was absent-mindedness which made you step in between me and that pretty goose-girl, the other night."

"Ah!" Carmichael was all alertness.

"It was not, I believe?"

"It was coldly premeditated," said Carmichael, folding his arms over his cane which he still held behind his back. His attitude and voice were pleasant.

"It was not friendly."

"Not to you, perhaps. But that happens to be an innocent girl, Colonel. You're no Herod. There was nothing selfish in my act. You really annoyed her."

"Pretense; they always begin that way."

"I confess I know little about that kind of hunting, but I'm sure you've started the wrong quarry this time."

"You are positive that you were disinterested?"

"Come, come, Colonel, this sounds like the beginning of a quarrel; and a quarrel should never come into life between you and me. I taught you draw-poker; you ought to be grateful for that, and to accept my word regarding my disinterestedness."

"I do not wish any quarrel, my Captain; but that girl's face has fascinated me. I propose to see her as often as I like."

"I have no objection to offer; but I told Gretchen that if any one, no matter who, ever offers her disrespect, to report the matter to me at the consulate."

"That is meddling."

"Call it what you like, my Colonel."

"Well, in case she is what you consider insulted, what will you do?" a challenge in his tones.

"Report the matter to the police."

Wallenstein laughed.

"And if the girl finds no redress there," tranquilly, "to the chancellor."

"You would go so far?"

"Even further," unruffled.

"It looks as though you had drawn your saber," with irony.

"Oh, I can draw it, Colonel, and when I do I guarantee you'll find no rust on it. Come," and Carmichael held out his hand amicably, "Gretchen is already in love with one of her kind. Let the child be in peace. What! Is not the new ballerina enough conquest? They are all talking about it."

"Good night, Herr Carmichael!" The colonel, ignoring the friendly hand, saluted stiffly, wheeled abruptly, and left Carmichael staring rather stupidly at his empty hand.

"Well, I'm hanged! All right," with a tilt of the shoulders. "One enemy more or less doesn't matter. I'm not afraid of anything save this fool heart of mine. If he says an ill word to Gretchen, and I hear of it, I'll cane the blackguard, for that's what he is at bottom. Well, I was looking for trouble, and here it is, sure enough."

He saw a carriage coming along. He recognized the white horse as it passed the lamps. He stood still for a space, undecided. Then he sped rapidly toward the side gates of the royal gardens. The vehicle stopped there. But this time no woman came out. Carmichael would have recognized that lank form anywhere. It was the chancellor. Well, what of it? Couldn't the chancellor go out in a common hack if he wanted to? But who was the lady in the veil?

"I've an idea!"

As soon as the chancellor disappeared, Carmichael hailed the coachman.

"Drive me through the gardens."

"It is too late, Herr."

"Well, drive me up and down the Strasse while I finish this cigar."

"Two crowns."

"Three, if your horse behaves well."

"He's as gentle as a lamb, Herr."

"And doubtless will be served as one before long. Can't you throw back the top?"

"In one minute!" Five crowns and three made eight crowns; not a bad business these dull times.

Carmichael lolled in the worn cushions, wondering whether or not to question his man. But it was so unusual for a person of such particular habits as the chancellor to ride in an ordinary carriage. Carmichael slid over to the forward seat and touched the jehu on the back.

"Where did you take the chancellor to-night?" he asked.

"Du lieber Gott! Was that his excellency? He said he was the chief steward."

"So he is, my friend. I was only jesting. Where did you take him?"

"I took him to the Krumerweg. He was there half an hour. Number forty."

"Where did you take the veiled lady?"

The coachman drew in suddenly and apprehensively. "Herr, are you from the police?"

"Thousand thunders, no! It was by accident that I stood near the gate when she got out. Who was she?"

"That is better. They both told me that they were giving charity. I did not see the lady's face, but she went into number forty, the same as the steward. You won't forget the extra crown, Herr?"

"No; I'll make it five. Turn back and leave me at the Grand Hotel." Then he muttered: "Krumerweg, crooked way, number forty. If I see this old side-paddler stopping at the palace steps again, I'll take a look at number forty myself."

On the return to the hotel the station omnibus had arrived with a solitary guest. A steamer trunk and a couple of bags were being trundled in by the porter, while the concierge was helping a short, stocky man to the ground. He hurried into the hotel, signed the police slips, and asked for his room. He seemed to be afraid of the dark. He was gone when Carmichael went into the office.

"Your Excellency," said the concierge, rubbing his hands and smiling after the manner of concierges born in Switzerland, "a compatriot of yours arrived this evening."

"What name?" indifferently. Compatriots were always asking impossible things of Carmichael, introductions to the grand duke, invitations to balls, and so forth, and swearing to have him recalled if he refused to perform these offices.

The concierge picked up the slips which were to be forwarded to the police.

"He is Hans Grumbach, of New York."

"An adopted compatriot, it would seem. He'll probably be over to the consulate to-morrow to have his passports looked into. Good night."

So Hans Grumbach passed out of his mind; but for all that, fortune and opportunity were about to knock on Carmichael's door. For there was a great place in history ready for Hans Grumbach.

* * *

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