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   Chapter 10 AFFAIRS OF STATE

The Goose Girl By Harold MacGrath Characters: 12842

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The grand duke stamped back and forth with a rumble as of distant thunder. He would search the very deeps of this matter. He was of a patient mold, but this was the final straw. He would have his revenge if it upset the whole continent. They would play with him, eh? Well, they had loosed the lion this time. He had sent his valet to summon her highness and Herbeck.

"And tell them to put everything else aside."

He kneaded the note in his hand powerfully. It was anonymous, but it spoke clearly like truth. It had been left with one of the sentries, who declared that a small boy had delivered it. The sender remained undiscoverable.

His highness had just that hour returned from the military field. He was tired; and it was not the psychological moment for a thing like this to turn up. Had he not opposed it for months? And now, having surrendered against his better judgment, this gratuitous affront was offered him! It was damnable. He smote the offending note. He would soon find out whether it was true or not. Then he flung the thing violently to the floor. But he realized that this burst of fury would not translate the muddle, so he stooped and recovered the missive. He laughed, but the laughter had a grim Homeric sound. War! Nothing less. He was prepared for it. Twenty thousand troops were now in the valley, and there were twenty thousand reserves. What Franz Josef of Austria or William of Prussia said did not amount to the snap of his two fingers. To avenge himself of the wrongs so long endured of Jugendheit, to wipe out the score with blood! Did they think that he was in his dotage, to offer an insult of this magnitude? They should see, aye, that they should! It did not matter that the news reached him through subterranean channels or by treachery; there was truth here, and that sufficed.

"Enter!" he cried, as some one knocked on the door.

Herbeck came in, as calm, as imperturbable as ever.

"Your highness sent for me?"

"I did. Why the devil couldn't you have left well enough alone? Read this!" flinging the note down on his desk.

Herbeck picked it up and worked out the creases. When he had read to the final word, his hand, even as the duke's, closed spasmodically over the stiff paper.

"Well?" The query tingled with rage.

The answer on the chancellor's lips was not uttered. Hildegarde came in. She blew a kiss at her father, who caught the hand and drew her toward him. He embraced her and kissed her brow.

"What is it, father?"

Herbeck waited.

"Read," said the duke.

As the last word left Herbeck's lips, she slipped from her father's arms and looked with pity at the chancellor.

"What do you think of this, Hildegarde?"

"Why, father, I think it is the very best thing in the world," dryly.

"An insult like this?" The duke grew rigid. "You accept it calmly, in this fashion?"

"Shall I weep and tear my hair over a boy I have never seen? No, thank you. I was about to make known to you this very evening that I had reconsidered the offer. I shall never marry his majesty."

"A fine time!" The duke's hand trembled. "Why, in God's name, did you not refuse when the overtures were first made? The truth, Herbeck, the whole truth; for there is something more than this."

Herbeck, in few words and without evasion, explained the situation.

"Your Highness, the regent is really not to blame, for his majesty had given him free rein in the matter; and his royal highness, working as I have been for the best interests of the two countries, never dreamed that the king would rebel. All my heart and all my mind have been working toward this end, toward a greater peace and prosperity. The king has been generous enough to leave the publicity in our hands; that is to say, he agrees to accept the humiliation of being rejected by her serene highness."

"That is very generous of him!" said the duke sarcastically. "Send for Ducwitz."

"Ducwitz, your Highness?" cried the chancellor, chilled.

"Immediately!"

"Father!"

"Must I give an order twice?"

"Your Highness, if you call Ducwitz I shall surrender my portfolio to you." The chancellor spoke without anger, quietly but firmly.

"Do so. There are others to take up your work." The duke, for the moment, had thrown reason to the winds. Revenge, the clamor of revenge, was all the voice he heard.

The chancellor bowed, turned to leave the room, when Hildegarde flew to the duke's side and snatched at his sleeve.

"Father, you are mad!"

"At least I am master in Ehrenstein. Herbeck, you will have the kindness to summon General Ducwitz."

"Your Highness," replied Herbeck, "I have worked long and faithfully in your service. I can not recollect that I ever asked one personal favor. But I do so now. Do not send for Ducwitz to-night. See him in the morning. This is no time for haste. You will throw the army into Jugendheit, and there will follow a bloody war. For I have to inform you that the prince regent, recognizing the false position he is in, has taken the ram by the horns. His troops are already bivouacked on the other side of the pass. This I learned to-day. He will not strike first; he will wait for you."

"I will have my revenge!" stubbornly.

"Father, listen to me. I am the affronted person; I, I alone, have the right to say what shall be done in the matter. And I say to you if you do these cruel things, dismiss his excellency and bring war and death to Ehrenstein, I will never forgive you, never, never! You are wrong, wrong, and I, your daughter, tell you so frankly. Leave it to me. There will be neither war nor humiliation."

As the duke gazed at her the wrath gathering in his throat receded and his admiration grew. His daughter! She was a princess, indeed, as she stood there, fearless, resolute, beautiful. And her very beauty gave recurrence to his wrath. A fool of a king he was, a fool of a king!

"My dear child," he said, "I have suffered too much at the hands of Jugendheit. It was my daughter the first time; it is my honor now," proudly.

"Will it balance war and devastation?" the girl asked quietly. "Is it not pride rather than honor? The prince regent made a pardonable blunder. Do not you, my father, make an unpardonable one. The king is without blame, for you appeal to his imagination as a man who deeply wronged his father. I harbor no ill-feeling against him or his uncle, because I look at the

matter from an impersonal point of view; it was for the good of the state. This blunder can be undone; therefore it is not wise to double it, to make it irreparable."

"A Portia to the judgment!" said the chancellor, his eye kindling. "Let it all rest upon my shoulders. I alone am to blame. It was I who first suggested the alliance. We all have dreams, active or passive, futile or purposeful. My ambition was to bring about a real and lasting peace. Your Highness, I have failed signally. There is nothing to do now but to appoint my successor." All the chancellor's force and immobility of countenance gave way, and he looked the broken man.

Notwithstanding that he was generally hasty, the duke was a just man. In his heart of hearts he understood. He offered his hand, with half a smile; and when he smiled he was a handsome old man.

"You are bidding me farewell, your Highness?" said Herbeck.

"No, Count. I would not let you go for half my duchy. What should I do without your solid common sense? No; remain; we are both of us too old to quarrel. Even a duke may be a fool sometimes."

Herbeck laid his cold hand upon the duke's. Then he went over to her highness and kissed her hand gratefully, for it was truly at her feet the wreath of victory lay.

"Highness," he said softly, "you are the fairest, finest princess in the world, and you shall marry when you will."

"And where?"

"I would that I could make it so. But there is a penalty for being placed so high. We can not change this unwritten law."

"Heaven did not write it," she replied.

"No, my daughter," said the duke. "Man is at the bottom of all the kinks and twists in this short life; not Heaven. But Herbeck is right; you shall marry when you will."

She sprang into his arms and kissed him. It was, however, a traitorous kiss; for she was saying in her heart that now she would never marry. Herbeck's eyes wandered to the portrait over the fireplace. It was the girl's mother.

The knock of the valet was again heard.

"Your Highness, there is a young woman, a peasant, who desires to speak to her serene highness."

"Where is she?" asked the duke.

"She is outside, your Highness."

"What! She enters the palace without any more trouble than this?"

"By my orders, father," said Hildegarde, who gathered that this privileged visitor must be Gretchen of the Krumerweg. "Admit her."

"Truly we are becoming socialists," said the duke, appealing to Herbeck, who replied with his usual grim smile.

Gretchen was ushered in. Her throat was a little full as she recognized the three most important persons in the grand duchy. Outwardly she was composed. She made a curtsy to which the duke replied with his most formal bow of state. The sparkle of amusement was in his eyes.

"The little goose-girl!" he said half-audibly.

"Yes, Highness." Gretchen's face was serious and her eyes were mournful. She carried an envelope in her hand tightly.

"Come to me, Gretchen," said the princess.

"What is it?"

Gretchen's eyes roamed undecidedly from the duke to Herbeck.

"She is dead, Highness, and I found this letter under her pillow."

It was Herbeck's hand that took the envelope. But he did not open it at once.

"Dead?" Hildegarde's eyes filled.

"Who is dead?" demanded the duke.

"Emma Schultz, father. Oh, I know you will forgive me for this deception. She has been in Dreiberg for a month, dying, and I have often stolen out to see her." She let her tears fall unrestrained.

The duke stared at the rug. Presently he said: "Let her be buried in consecrated ground. Wrong or right, that chapter is closed, my child, and I am glad you made her last moments happy. It was like you. It was like your mother. What is in the letter, Herbeck?"

Herbeck was a strong man; he was always far removed from tears; but there was a mist over the usual clarity of his vision. He ripped down the flap. It was only a simple note to her serene highness, begging her to give the enclosed banknotes to one Gretchen who lived in the Krumerweg. The notes represented a thousand crowns.

"Take them, little goose-girl," said the duke; "your ship has come in. This will be your dowry."

An icy shiver ran up and down Gretchen's spine, a shiver of wonder, delight, terror. A thousand crowns! A fortune!

"Hold out your hand," requested Herbeck. One by one he laid the notes on the goose-girl's hand. "This is only a just reward for being kind and gentle to the unfortunate."

"And I shall add to it another thousand," said Hildegarde. "Give them to me, father."

In all, this fortune amounted to little more than four hundred dollars; but to Gretchen, frugal and thrifty, to whom a single crown was a large sum, to her it represented wealth. She was now the richest girl in the lower town. Dreams of kaleidoscopic variety flew through her head. Little there was, however, of jewels and gowns. This vast sum would be the buffer between her and hunger while she pursued the one great ambition of her life-music. She tried to speak, to thank them, but her voice was gone. Tears sprang into her eyes. She had the power to do no more than weep.

The duke was the first to relieve the awkwardness of the moment.

"Count, has it not occurred to you that we stand in the presence of two very beautiful young women?"

Herbeck scrutinized Gretchen with care; then he compared her with the princess. The duke was right. The goose-girl was not a whit the inferior of the princess. And the thing which struck him with most force was that, while each possessed a beauty individual to herself, it was not opposite, but strangely alike.

The goose-girl had returned to her gloomy Krumerweg, the princess had gone to her apartments, and Herbeck to his cabinet. The duke was alone. For a long period he stood before the portrait of his wife. The beauties of his courtship trooped past him; for God had given to the grand duke of Ehrenstein that which He denies most of us, high or low, a perfect love.

"Always, always, dear heart," he whispered; "in this life and in the life to come. To love, what is the sickle of death?"

He passed on to his secretary and opened a drawer. He laid a small bundle on the desk and untied the string. One by one he ranged the articles; two little yellow shoes, a little cloak trimmed with ermine. There had been a locket, but that was now worn by her highness.

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