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   Chapter 16 HER FAN

The Goose Girl By Harold MacGrath Characters: 16137

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


It was dawn when they began to pull up the road to Dreiberg. The return had been leisurely despite Carmichael's impatience. In the military field the troops were breaking camp for their departure to the various posts throughout the duchy. Only the officers, who were to attend the court ball that evening, and the resident troops would remain. The maneuvers were over; the pomp of miniature war was done. Carmichael peered through the window. What a play yonder scene was to what he had been through! To break camp before dawn, before breakfast, rain and hail and snow smothering one; when the frost-bound iron of the musket caught one's fingers and tore the skin; the shriek of shot overhead, the boom of cannon and the gulp of impact; cold, hungry, footsore, sleepy; here and there a comrade crumpling up strangely and lying still and white; the muddy ruts in the road; the whole world a dead gray like the face of death! What did those yonder know of war?

The carriage stopped.

"I shall not intrude, I trust?" said the old man, opening the door and getting in.

"Not now," replied Carmichael. "What is all this about?"

"A trifle; I might say a damn-fool trifle. But what did you mean when you said you knew all you wanted to know?" The mountaineer showed some anxiety.

"Exactly what I said. The only thing that confuses me is the motive."

The old man thought for a while. "Suppose you had a son who was making a fool of himself?"

"Or a nephew?"

"Well, or a nephew?"

"Making a fool of himself over what?"

"A woman."

"Nothing unusual in that. But what kind of a woman?"

"A good woman, honest, too good by far for any man."

"Oh!"

"Suppose she was vastly his inferior in station, that marriage to him was merely a political contract? What would you do?"

"I believe I begin to understand."

"I am grateful for that."

"But the risks you run!"

"I believed them all over last night."

"But you would dare handle him in this way?"

"When the devil drives, my friend!" The other smiled. "I was born in the heart of a war. I have taken so many risks that the sense of danger no longer has a keen edge. But now that you understand, I am sure a soldier like yourself will pardon the blunder of last night."

"Your nephew is an ungrateful wretch."

"What?" coldly.

"He knew all along who I was. I dragged him out of the Rhine upon a certain day, and he plays this trick!"

"You? Carmichael, Carmichael; of course; I should have remembered the name, as he wrote me at the time. Thank you! And you knew him all the while?"

"No; I recalled his face, but the time and place were in the dark till this early morning. Here we are at the gates. What's this? Guards? I never saw them at these gates before."

"You will make yourself known to them?"

"Yes. But if they question me?"

"Wink. Every soldier knows what that means."

"When a fellow turns in early in the morning?" Carmichael laughed hilariously.

"I ask you frankly not to let them question me. When I left the city last night I never expected to return."

"I'll do what I can."

Carmichael bared his head and leaned out of the window. He recognized one of the guards. A policeman in military uniform!

"Good morning!" said Carmichael.

"Herr Carmichael?" surprised. "Your excellency?"

"Yes. I've been having a little junket, I and my friend here." And Carmichael winked.

"Ah!"

"But what-"

"Sh! Very important affair," said the disguised officer. "Go on."

But after the carriage had passed it occurred to him that Carmichael wore a dress like a vintner's and that his friend was a mountaineer! Du lieber Himmel! What kind of a mix-up was this? The chancellor never could have meant Carmichael!

"Thanks!" whispered the old man.

"Did you see the soldier?"

"Yes."

"He is one of the police in disguise. Be on your guard. If you don't mind I'll use this carriage to the hotel."

"You are a thousand times welcome. I will leave you here. And take the advice of an old man who has seen the four sides of humanity: leave falling in love to poets and to fools!"

The mountaineer got out quickly, closed the door, spoke a word to the driver, and slipped into an alleyway.

Carmichael arrived at the Grand Hotel in time to see her serene highness, accompanied by two of her ladies and an escort of four soldiers, start out for her morning ride. The zest of his own strange adventure died. He waited till they had passed, then slunk into the hotel. The concierge gazed at him in amazement. Carmichael winked. The concierge smiled. He understood. Americaner or Ehrensteiner, the young fellows were all the same.

"Police at the gates," mused Carmichael, as he soaked his head and face in cold water. "By George, it looks as if my friend the vintner was in for some excitement! Far be it that I should warn him. He had his little joke; I can wait for mine."

Gretchen! Carmichael stopped, his collar but half-way around his throat. Gretchen, brave, kindly, beautiful Gretchen! Now, by the Lord, that should not be! He would wring the vintner's neck. He snapped the collar viciously. He was not in an amiable mood this fair September morning. And when some one hammered on the door he called sharply.

Grumbach entered.

"You are angry about something," he said.

"So I am, but you are always welcome."

"You have overslept?"

"No; on the contrary."

"Poker?"

"After a fashion," said Carmichael, the grumble gone from his voice. "I was beaten by three of a kind."

"So?"

"But I found a good hand later."

"Kings."

"Four?"

"Oh, no; only one. I haven't drawn yet."

"You are not telling me all."

"No. You are going to the ball to-night?"

"I would not miss it for five thousand crowns," sadly.

"You look as if you were going to a funeral instead of the greatest event of the year in Dreiberg."

"I didn't sleep well either."

"Out?"

"No; one does not have to go out in order not to sleep."

"I'd like to know what's going on in that bullet-head of yours."

"Nothing is going on; everything has stopped."

"Can't you make a confidant of me, Hans?"

"Not yet, Captain."

"When you are ready it may be too late. I leave Dreiberg for good in a few weeks."

"No!" For the first time Grumbach showed interest.

"I have resigned the consulship."

"And for what reason

Carmichael silently drew on his coat.

"Ach! So you have one, too?"

"One what?"

"One secret."

"Yes. But it's the kind we can't talk about."

"I understand. Have you had breakfast?"

"Neither have I. Let us go together. It may be we need each other's company this morning. You and I won't have to bother about talking."

"You make a good comrade, Hans."

* * *

There was a large crowd outside the palace that night, which was clear and starry. A troop of cavalry patrolled the fence. Carriage after carriage rolled in through the gates, coming directly from the opera. It was eleven o'clock. All the great in the duchy were on hand that night. Often a cheer rose from the ranks of the outsiders as some popular general or some famous beauty passed. It was an orderly crowd, jostling and good-natured, held only by curiosity. Every window in the palace presented a glowing square of light; and beams crisscrossed the emerald lawns and died in the arms of the lurking shadows. The gardens were illuminated besides. It was fairy-land, paid for by those who were not entitled to enter. Few, however, thought of this inconsistency. A duchy is a duchy; nothing more need be said.

Carmichael was naturally democratic. To ride a block in a carriage was to him a waste of time. And he rather liked to shoulder into a press. With the aid of his cane and a frequent push of the elbow he worked his way to the gates. And close by the sentry-box he saw Gretchen and her vintner. Carmichael could not resist stopping a moment. He raised his hat to Gretchen, to the wonder of those nearest. The vintner would have gladly disappeared, but the human wall behind made this impossible. But

he was needlessly alarmed. Carmichael only smiled ironically.

"Do you know where the American consulate is?" he asked low, so that none but Gretchen and the vintner heard.

"Yes," said the vintner, blushing with shame.

"I live above the agency."

"Good! I shall expect to see you in the morning."

But the vintner was determined that he shouldn't. He would be at work in the royal vineyards on the morrow.

"To-morrow?" repeated Gretchen, to whom this by-play was a blank. "Why should he wish to see you?"

"Who knows? Let us be going. They are pressing us too close to the gates."

"Very well," acquiesced Gretchen, somewhat disappointed. She wanted to see all there was to be seen.

"It is half-after ten," he added, as if to put forward some logical excuse for leaving at this moment.

A man followed them all the way to the Krumerweg.

Carmichael threw himself eagerly into the gaiety of the dance. Never had he seen the ball-room so brilliant with color. Among all those there his was the one somber dress. The white cambric stock and the frill in his shirt were the only gay touches. It was not his fault: the rules of the service compelled him thus to dress. But he needed no brass or cloth of gold. There was not a male head among all the others to compare with his.

He was an accomplished waltzer, after the manner of that day, when one went round and round like some mechanical toy wound up. Strauss and Waldteufel tingled his feet; and he whirled ambassadors' wives till they were breathless and ambassadors' daughters till they no longer knew or cared where they were. He was full of subtle deviltry this night, with an undercurrent of malice toward every one and himself in particular. This would be the last affair of the kind for him, and he wanted a full memory of it. Between times he exchanged a jest or two with the chancellor or talked battles with old Ducwitz; twice he caught the grand duke's eye, but there was only a friendly nod from that august personage, no invitation to talk. Thrice, while on the floor, her highness passed him; but there was never a smile, never a glance. He became careless and reckless. He would seek her and talk to her and smile at her even if the duke threw a regiment in between. The Irish blood in him burned to-night, capable of any folly. He no longer danced. He waited and watched; and it was during one of these waits that he saw Grumbach in the gallery.

"Now, what the devil is the Dutchman doing with a pair of opera-glasses!"

It required some time and patience to discover the object of this singular attention on the part of Grumbach. Carmichael was finally convinced that this object was no less a person than her serene highness!

Later her highness stood before one of the long windows in the conservatory, listlessly watching the people in the square. And these poor fools envied her! To envy her, who was a prisoner, a chattel to be exchanged for war's immunity, who was a princess in name but a cipher in fact! All was wrong with the world. She had stolen out of the ball-room; the craving to be alone had been too strong. Little she cared whether they missed her or not. She left the window and sat on one of the divans, idly opening and shutting her fan. Was that some one coming for her? She turned.

It was Carmichael.

What an opportunity for scandal! She laughed inwardly. The barons and their wives, the ambassadors' wives and their daughters, would miss them both. And the spirit of deviltry lay also upon her heart. She smiled at the man and with her fan bade him be seated at her side. The divinity that hedges in a king did not bother either of them just then.

"You have not asked me to dance to-night," she declared.

"I know it."

"Why?"

"I am neither a prince nor an ambassador."

"But you have danced with me."

"Yes; I have been to Heaven now and then."

"And do you eject yourself thus easily?"

"By turning myself out my self-esteem remains unruffled."

"Then you expected to be turned out?"

"Sooner or later."

"Why?"

Again that word! To him it was the most tantalizing word in the language. It crucified him.

"Why?" she repeated, her eyes soft and dreamy.

"As I have said, I am not a prince. I am only a consul, not even a diplomat, simply a business arm of my government. My diplomacy never ascends above the quality of hops and wines imported. I am supposed to take in any wandering sailor, feed him, and ship him home. I am also the official guide of all American tourists."

"That is no reason."

"Your father-" He should have said the grand duke.

"Ah, yes; my father, the chancellor, the ambassadors, and their wives and daughters! I begin to believe that you have grown afraid of them."

"I confess that I have. I had an adventure last night. Would you like to hear about it?"

How beautiful she was in that simple gown of white, unadorned by any jewels save the little crown of sparkling white stones in her hair!

"Tell me."

He was a good story-teller. It was a crisp narrative he made.

"A veiled lady," she mused. "What would you say if I told you that your mystery is no mystery at all? I am the veiled lady. And the person I went to see was my old nurse, my foster-mother, with whom I spent the happiest, freest days of my life, in the garret at Dresden. Pouf! All mysteries may be dispelled if we go to the right person. So you are to be recalled?"

"I have asked for my recall, your Highness."

"And so Dreiberg no longer appeals to you? You once told inc that you loved it."

"I am cursed with wanderlust, your Highness." He regretted that he had not remained in the ball-room. He was in great danger.

"You promised to tell me what she is like." Suddenly all his fear went away, all his trepidation; the spirit of recklessness which had vised him a little while ago again empowered him. He was afraid of nothing. His face flushed and there were bright points of fire in his eyes. She saw what she had roused, and grew afraid herself. She pretended to become interested in the Watteau cupids on her fan.

"How shall I describe her?" he said. "I have seen only paintings and marbles, and these are inanimate. I have never seen angels, so I can not draw a comparison there. Have you ever seen ripe wheat in a rain-storm? That is the color of her hair. There is jade and lapis-lazuli in her eyes. And Ole Bull could not imitate the music of her voice." He leaned toward her. "And I love her better than life, better than hope; and between us there is the distance of a thousand worlds. So I must give up the dream and go away, as an honorable man should."

Neither of them heard the chancellor's approach.

"And because I love her."

The fan in her hand slipped unheeded to the floor.

"Your Highness," broke in the cold even tones of Herbeck, "your father is making inquiries about you."

Carmichael rose instantly, white as the frill in his shirt.

Hildegarde, however, was a princess. She gained her feet leisurely, with half a smile on her lips.

"Count, Herr Carmichael tells me that he is soon to leave Dreiberg."

"Ah!" There was satisfaction in Herbeck's ejaculation, satisfaction of a frank order. But there was a glint of admiration in his eyes as he recognized the challenge in Carmichael's. He saw that he must step carefully in regard to this hot-headed young Irishman. "We shall miss Herr Carmichael."

Her highness moved serenely toward the door. Carmichael waited till she was gone from sight, then he stooped and picked up the fan. Herbeck at once held out his hand.

"Give it to me, Herr Captain," he said, with a melancholy gentleness. "I will return it to her highness."

Carmichael deliberately thrust the fan into a pocket and shook his head.

"Your Excellency, I do not know how long you stood behind us, but you were there long enough to learn that I have surrendered my dream. Nothing but force will cause me to surrender this fan."

"Keep it, then, my son," replied the chancellor, with good understanding.

* * *

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