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   Chapter 15 THE WRONG MAN

The Goose Girl By Harold MacGrath Characters: 16947

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Herbeck dropped his quill, and there was a dream in his eyes. His desk was littered with papers, well covered with ink; flowing sentences, and innumerable figures. He was the watch-dog of the duchy. Never a bill from the Reichstag that did not pass under his cold eye before it went to the duke for his signature, his approval, or veto. Not a copper was needlessly wasted, and never was one held back unnecessarily. Herbeck was just both in great and little things. The commoners could neither fool nor browbeat him.

The dream in his eyes grew; it was tender and kindly. The bar of sunlight lengthened across his desk, and finally passed on. Still he sat there, motionless, rapt. And thus the duke found him. But there was no dream in his eyes; they were cold with implacable anger. He held a letter in his hand and tossed it to Herbeck.

"I shall throw ten thousand men across the frontier to-night, let the consequences be what they may."

"Ten thousand men?" The dream was shattered. War again?

"Read that. It is the second anonymous communication I have received within a week. As the first was truthful, there is no reason to believe this one to be false."

Herbeck read, and he was genuinely startled.

"What do you say to that?" triumphantly.

"This," with that rapid decision which made him the really great tactician he was. "Let them go quietly back to Jugendheit."

"No!" blazed the duke.

"Are we rich enough for war?"

"Always questions, questions! What the devil is my army for if not to uphold my dignity? Herbeck, you shall not argue me out of this."

"Rather let me reason. This is some prank, which I am sure does not concern Ehrenstein in the least. They would never dare enter Dreiberg for aught else. There must be a flaw in our secret service."

"Doubtless."

"I have seen this writing before," said Herbeck. "I shall make it my business to inquire who it is that takes this kindly interest in the affairs of state."

The duke struck the bell violently.

"Summon the chief of the police," he said to the secretary.

"Yes, yes, your Highness, let it be a police affair. This letter does not state the why and wherefore of their presence here."

"It holds enough for me."

"Will your highness leave the matter in my hands?"

"Herbeck, in some things you are weak."

"And in others I am strong," smiled the chancellor. "I am weak when there is talk of war; I am strong when peace is in the balance."

"Is it possible, Herbeck, that you do not appreciate the magnitude of the situation?"

"It is precisely because I do that I wish to move slowly. Wait. Let the police find out why they are here. There will be time enough then to declare war. They have never seen her highness. Who knows?"

"Ah! But they have violated the treaty."

"That depends upon whether their presence here is or is not a menace to the state. If they are here on private concerns which in no wise touch Ehrenstein, it would be foolhardy to declare war. Your highness is always letting your personal wounds blur your eyesight. Some day you will find that Jugendheit is innocent."

"God hasten the day and hour!"

"Yes, let us hope that the mystery of it all will be cleared up. You are just and patient in everything but this." Herbeck idled with his quill. The little finger of his right hand was badly scarred, the mutilation of a fencing-bout in his student days.

"What do you advise?" wearily. It seemed to the duke that Herbeck of late never agreed with him.

"My advice is to wait. In a day or so arrest them under the pretext that you believe them to be spies. If they remain mute, then the case is serious, and you will have them on the hip. If, on the other hand, this invasion is harmless and they declare themselves, the matter can be adjusted in this wise: ignore their declaration and confine them a day or two in the city prison, then publish the news broadcast. Having themselves broken the letter if not the spirit of the treaty, they will not dare declare war. Every court in Europe will laugh."

The duke struck his hands together. "You are always right, Herbeck. This plan could not have been devised better or more to my satisfaction." The duke laughed. "You are right. Ah, here is the chief."

Herbeck read the letter in part to the chief, who jotted down the words, repeating aloud in a kind of mutter: "A mountaineer, a vintner, a carter, a butcher, and a baker. You will give me their descriptions, your Excellency?"

Herbeck read the postscript.

"But you don't tell him who-"

"Why should he know?" said Herbeck, glancing shrewdly at the duke. "His ignorance will be all the better for the plot."

"Then this is big game, your Highness?" asked the chief.

"Big game."

"One is as big and powerful as a Carpathian bear. Look out," warned Herbeck.

"And he is?"

"The mountaineer."

"And the vintner?"

"Oh, he is a little fellow, and hasn't grown his bite yet," said Herbeck dryly.

The duke laughed again. It would be as good as a play.

"I thank you, Herbeck. You have neatly arranged a fine comedy. I do not think so clearly as I used to. When the arrest is made, give it as much publicity as possible. Take a squad of soldiers; it will give it a military look. Will you be on the field this afternoon?"

"No, your highness," touching the papers which strewed his desk; "this will keep me busy well into evening."

The duke waved his hand cheerfully and left the cabinet.

"Your excellency, then, really leaves me to work in the dark?" asked the chief uneasily.

"Yes," tearing up the note. "But you will not be in the dark long after you have arrested these persons. Begin with the mountaineer and the vintner; the others do not matter so much." Then Herbeck laughed. The chief raised his head. He had not heard his excellency laugh like that in many moons. "Report to me your progress. Unfortunately my informant does not state just where these fellows are to be found."

"That is my business, your Excellency."

"Good luck to you!" responded Herbeck, with a gesture of dismissal.

When her highness came in from her morning's ride she found the duke waiting in her apartments.

"Why, father," kissing him, "what brings you here?"

"A little idea I have in mind." He drew her down to the arm of the chair. "We all have our little day-dreams."

"Who does not, father?" She slid her arm round his neck. She was full of affection for this kindly parent.

"But there are those of us who must not accept day-dreams as realities; for then there will be heartaches and futile longings."

"You are warning me. About what, father?" There was a little stab in her heart.

"Herr Carmichael is a fine fellow, brave, witty, shrewd. If all Americans are like him, America will soon become a force in the world. I have taken a fancy to him; and you know what they say of your father-no formality with those whom he likes. Humanly, I am right; but in the virtue of everyday events in court life, I am wrong."

She moved uneasily.

He went on: "Herbeck has spoken of it, the older women speak of it; and they all say-"

"Say!" she cried hotly, leaping to her feet. "What do I care what they say? Are you not the grand duke, and am I not your daughter?"

In his turn the duke felt the stab.

"You must ride no more with Herr Carmichael. It is neither wise nor safe."

"Father!"

He was up, with his arms folding round her. "Child, it is only for your sake. Listen to me. I married your mother because I loved her and she loved me. The case is isolated, rare, out of the beaten path in the affairs of rulers. But you, you must be a princess. You must steel your heart against the invasion of love, unless it comes from a state equal or superior to your own. It is harsh and cruel, but it is a law that will neither bend nor break. Do you understand me?"

The girl stared blindly at the wall. "Yes, father."

"It is all my fault," said the duke, deeply agitated, for the girl trembled under his touch.

"I shall not ride with him any more."

"There's a good girl," patting her shoulder.

"I have been a princess such a little while."

He kissed the wheaten-colored hair. "Be a brave heart, and I shall engage to find a king for you."

"I don't want any playthings, father," with the old light touch; and then she looked him full in the eyes. "I promise to do nothing more to create comment if, on the other hand, you will promise to

give me two years more of freedom."

The duke readily assented, and shortly returned to his own suite, rather pleased that there had been no scene; not that he had expected any.

Now that she was alone, she slipped into the chair, beat a light tattoo with her riding-whip against her teeth, and looked fixedly at the wall again, as if to gaze beyond it, into the dim future. But she saw nothing save that she was young and that the days in Dresden, for all their penury, were far pleasanter than these.

Meantime the chief of police called his subaltern and placed in his hands the peculiar descriptions. The word vintner caused him to give vent to an ejaculation of surprise.

"He was in here last night. I have had him followed all day. He lives over the American consulate. Among his things was found the uniform of a colonel in the Prussian Uhlans."

"Ha! Arrest him tom-orrow, or the day after at the latest. But the mountaineer is the big game. Do not arrest the vintner till you have him. Where one is the other is likely to be. But on the moment of arrest you must have a squad of soldiers at your back."

"Soldiers?" doubtfully.

"Express orders of his highness."

"It shall be done."

Considerable activity was manifest in the police bureau the rest of that day.

To return to Carmichael. He had never before concerned himself with resignations. Up to this hour he had never resigned anything he had set his heart upon. So it was not an easy matter for him to compose a letter to the secretary of state, resigning the post at Dreiberg. True, he added that he desired to be transferred to a seaport town, France or Italy preferred. The high altitude in Dreiberg had affected his heart. However, in case there was no other available post, they would kindly appoint his successor at once. Carmichael never faltered where his courage was concerned, and it needed a fine quality of moral courage to write this letter and enclose it in the diplomatic pouch which went into the mails that night. It took courage indeed to face the matter squarely and resolutely, when there was the urging desire to linger on and on, indefinitely. That she was not going to marry the king of Jugendheit did not alter his affairs in the least. It was all hopeless, absurd, and impossible. He must go.

Some one was knocking on the door.

"Come in."

"A letter for your excellency," said the concierge.

"Wait till I read it. There may be an answer."

"If Herr Carmichael would learn the secret of number forty Krumerweg, let him attire himself as a vintner and be in the Krumerweg at eight o'clock to-night."

This note was as welcome to the recipient as the flowers in the spring. An adventure? He was ready, now and always. Anything to take his mind off his own dismal affairs. Then he recalled the woman in black; the letter could apply to none but her. More than this, he might light upon the puzzle regarding the vintner. He had met the fellow before. But where?

"What sort of clothes does a vintner wear?" he asked.

"A vintner, your Excellency?"

"Yes. I shall need the costume of a vintner this evening."

"Oh, that will be easy," affirmed the concierge, "if your excellency does not mind wearing clothes that have already been worn."

"My excellency will not care a hang. Procure them as soon as you can."

So it came about that Carmichael, dressed as a vintner, his hat over his eyes, stole into the misty night and took the way to the Krumerweg. He knew exactly where he wished to go: number forty. It was gray-black in the small streets; and but for the occasional light in a window the dark would have had no modification. Sometimes he would lose the point of the compass and blunder against a wall or find himself feeling for the curb, hesitant of foot. The wayside shrine was a rift in the gloom, and he knew that he had only a few more steps to take. After all, who was the lady in black and why should he bother himself about her? She probably came from the back stairs of the palace. And yet, the chancellor himself had been in this place. What should he do? Should he wait across the street? Should he knock at the door and ask to be admitted? No; he must skulk in the dark, on the opposite side. He picked his way over the street and stood for a moment in the denser black.

A step? He trained his ear. But even as he did so his arms were grasped firmly and twisted behind his back, and at the same time a cloth was wrapped round the lower part of his face, leaving only his eyes and nose visible. It was all so sudden and unexpected that he was passive the first few seconds; after that there was some scuffling, strenuous, too. He was fighting against three. Desperately he surged this way and that. Even in the heat of battle he wondered a little why no one struck him; they simply clung to him, and at length he could not move. His hands were tied, not roughly, but surely. In all this commotion, not a whisper, not a voice; only heavy breathing.

Then one of the three whistled. A minute or two after a closed carriage came into the Krumerweg, and Carmichael was literally bundled inside. His feet were now bound. Two of his captors sat on the forward seat, while the third joined the driver. Carmichael could distinguish nothing but outlines and shadows. He choked, for he was furious. To be trussed like this, without any explanation whatever! What the devil was going on? Unanswered.

The carriage began to move slowly. It had to; swift driving in the Krumerweg was hardly possible and at no time safe. Carmichael set himself to note the turns of the street. One turn after another he counted, fixing as well as he could the topography of the town through which they were passing. At last he realized that they were leaving Dreiberg behind and were going down the mountain on the north side, toward Jugendheit. Once the level road was reached, a fast pace was set and maintained for miles. At the Elirenstein barrier no question was asked, and Carmichael's one hope was shattered. At the Jugendheit barrier the carriage stopped. There were voices. Carmichael saw the flicker of a lantern. His captors got out. Presently there appeared at the door an old man dressed as a mountaineer. In his hand was the lantern.

"Pardon me, dear nephew-Fools!" he broke off, swinging round. "He has tricked you all. This is not he!"

Three astonished faces peered over the old man's shoulder. Carmichael eyed them evilly. He now saw that one was a carter, another a butcher, and the third a baker. He had seen them before, in the Black Eagle. But this signified nothing.

"Untie him and take off that rag. It may be Scharfenstein." The old man possessed authority.

Carmichael, freed, stretched himself.

"Well?" he said, with a dangerous quiet.

"Herr Carmichael, the American consul!" The old man nearly dropped the lantern. "Oh, you infernal blockheads!"

"Explanations are in order," suggested Carmichael.

"You are offered a thousand apologies for a stupid mistake. Now, may I ask how you came to be dressed in these clothes on this particular night?"

Carmichael's anger dissolved, and he laughed. All the mystery was gone with the abruptness of a mist under the first glare of the sun. He saw how neatly he had been duped. He still carried the note. This he gave to the leader of this midnight expedition.

"Humph!" said the old man in a growl. "I thought as much." He whispered to his companions. "Herr Carmichael, I shall have the honor of escorting you back to Dreiberg."

"But will it be as easy to go in as it was to come out?"

"Trust you for that. The American consul's word will be sufficient for our needs."

"And if I refuse to give that word?"

"In that case, you will have to use your legs," curtly.

"I prefer to ride."

"Thanks. I shall sit with the driver."

"That also will please me."

"And you ask no further questions?"

"Why should I? I know all I wish to know, which is more than you would care to have me."

The mountaineer swore.

"If we talk any longer I shall be late for breakfast."

"Forward, then!"

On the way, it all came back to Carmichael with the vividness of a forgotten photograph, come upon suddenly: Bonn, the Rhine, swift and turbulent, a tow-headed young fellow who could not swim well, his own plunge, his fingers in the flaxen hair, and the hard fight to the landing; all this was a tale twice told.

Vintner? Not much!

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