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   Chapter 20 THE KING

The Goose Girl By Harold MacGrath Characters: 17768

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The vintner slowly lowered the pistol till it touched the table; then he released it.

"That is better, your Majesty."

"Why do you call me that?"

"Certainly I do not utter it as a compliment," retorted Carmichael dryly.

"You speak positively."

"With absolute authority on the subject, sire. Your face was familiar, but I failed at first to place it rightly. It was only after you had duped me into going after the veiled lady that I had any real suspicion. You are Frederick Leopold of Jugeudheit."

"I shall not deny it further," proudly. "And take care how you speak to me, since I admit my identity."

"Oho!" Carmichael gave rein to his laughter. "This is Ehrenstein; here I shall talk to you as I please."

The king reddened, and his hand closed again over the pistol.

"I have saved your majesty twice from death. You force me to recall it to your mind."

The king had the grace to lower his eyes.

"The first time was at Bonn. Don't you recollect the day when an American took you out of the Rhine, an American who did not trouble himself to come round and ask for your thanks, who, in truth, did not learn till days after what an important person you were, or were going to be?" There was a bite in every word, for Carmichael felt that he had been ill-treated.

"For that moment, Herr, I thank you."

"And for that in the garden below?"

"For that also. Now, why are you here? You have not come for the purpose of recalling these two disagreeable incidents to my mind."

"No." Carmichael went over to the table, his jaws set and no kindly spirit in his eyes. "No, I have another purpose." He bent over the table, and with his face close to that of the king, "I demand to know what your intentions are toward that friendless goose-girl."

"And what is that to you?" said the king, the smoke of anger in his eyes.

"It is this much: if you have acted toward her otherwise than honorably-Well!"

"Go on; you interest me!"

"Well, I promise to break every bone in your kingly body. In this room it is man to man; I recognize no king, only the physical being."

The king pushed aside the table, furious. No living being had ever spoken to him like that before. He swung the flat of his hand toward Carmichael's face. The latter caught the hand by the wrist and bore down upon it. The king was no weakling. There was a struggle, and Carmichael found himself well occupied for a time. But his age and build were in his favor, and presently he jammed the king to the wall and pinioned his arms.

"There! Will you be patient for a moment?"

"You shall die for this insult!" said the king, as quietly as his hard breathing would allow. He saw flashes of red between his face and the other's.

"I have heard that before. But how?" banteringly.

"I will waive my crown; man to man!"

"Sword-sticks, sabers or hop-poles? Come," savagely, "what do you mean by the goose-girl?"

So intent on the struggle were they that neither heard the door open and close.

"Yes, my dear nephew; what do you mean by Gretchen?"

Carmichael released the king, and with feline quickness stooped and secured the pistol which had fallen to the floor. Not sure of the new arrival's purpose, he backed to the wall. He knew the voice and he recognized its owner.

"Put it in your pocket, Mr. Carmichael. And let us finish this discussion in English, since there are many ears about the place."

"His royal highness?" murmured the king.

"Yes, sire! True to life!"

Carmichael dropped the pistol into a pocket, and the king smoothed down his crumpled sleeves.

"A fine comedy!" cried Herr Ludwig jovially, folding his arms over his deep chest. "A rollicking adventure! Where's the story-book to match it? A kingdom, working in the dark, headless; fine reading for these sneaking journalists! Thunder and blazes!" with an amiability which had behind it a good leaven of despair. "Well, nephew, you have not as yet answered either Mr. Carmichael's question or my own. What do you mean by Gretchen?"

"I love her," nobly. "And well for you, my uncle, that you come as you do. I would have married her! Wrong her? What was a crown to me who, till now, have never worn one save in speech? You have been the king."

"Bodies must have heads, kingdoms must have kings. I have tried an experiment, and this is the result. I wanted you to be a man, a human man; I wanted you to grow up unfettered by power; I wanted you to mingle with peoples, here and there, so, when you became their head physician, you could ably minister to their political diseases. And all this fine ambition tumbles down before the wooden shoes of a pretty goose-girl. Nothing makes so good a philosopher as a series of blunders and mistakes. I am beaten; I admit it. I did my best to save you from this tangle; but it was written that you should put your foot in it. But on top of this you have made a greater mistake than you dream of, nephew. The Princess Hildegarde is as fine a woman as ever your Gretchen. Mr. Carmichael will agree to that," maliciously.

Carmichael gave no sign that he understood; but there was no mistaking the prince regent's inference, however. The recipient of this compliment stubbornly refused to give the prince the satisfaction of seeing how neatly the barb had gone home.

"But, Mr. Carmichael, what is your interest in Gretchen?"

Carmichael trembled with joy. Here was an opening for a double shot. "My interest in her is better than yours, for I have not asked her to become a king's mistress."

His royal highness bit his lip.

"Uncle!" cried the king, horrified at this revelation.

"Mr. Carmichael evidently has applied his ear to some keyhole."

"No, thank you! The window was open. My clerk heard you plainly."

"Uncle, is this damnable thing true?"

"Yes. What would you? You were determined to make a fool of yourself. But rest easy. She is ignorant where this offer came from, and, moreover, she spurned it, as Mr. Carmichael's clerk will affirm. Oh, Gretchen is a fine little woman, and I would to God she was of your station!" And the mask fell from the regent's face, leaving it bitter and careworn. "Our presence is known in Dreiberg; it has been known for three days at least. And in coming up here I had another errand. Oh, I haven't forgotten it. In the street there are at least ten soldiers under the sub-chief of the police; rather a curious conjunction."

The king turned white. So it had come at last!

Carmichael ran to the rear window. He shrugged. "There's half a dozen in the garden, too."

"Is there any way to the roofs?"

"None that would serve you."

"Mr. Carmichael," said the king, offering his hand, his handsome face kindly and without rancor, "I should be an ungrateful wretch if I did not ask your full pardon. I am indebted to you twice for my life, little as it amounts to. And in my kingdom you will always be welcome. Will you accept my hand, as one man to another?"

"With happiness, your Majesty. And I ask that you pardon my own hasty words."

"Thank you."

"He is only young," sighed Ludwig.

The king emptied the drawer, put the contents in his pack, tied the strings, and put it under his arm.

"What are you going to do?" asked the uncle, vaguely perturbed.

"I am going down to the soldiers. I am no longer a vintner, I am a king!" And he said this in a manner truly royal.

"Gott!" burst from the prince regent. "This boy has marrow in his bones, after all!"

"As you will find, dear uncle, the day after the coronation. You will, of course, go down to them with me?"

"As I am your uncle! But the incarceration will not be long," Ludwig grumbled. "There are ten thousand troops on the other side of the passes, and they have been there ever since I learned that you had gone a-wooing."

"Ten thousand? Well, they shall stay there," said the king determinedly. "I shall not begin my reign with war. I am in the wrong; I had no business to be here. Technically I have broken the treaty, though not in spirit."

"What will you do?"

"Tell the duke the truth. He will not dare go far."

"He will be a good politician, too," said Ludwig, with a smile of approval at Carmichael. "No, boy, there will be no war. And yet I was prepared for it; nor was I wrong in doing so. Already, but for Herbeck, there would be plenty of fighting in the passes. Ach! Could you but see the princess!"

"I have seen her," replied the king. "Heaven would have been kinder had I seen her months ago."

"Say to his serene highness, then, that you are willing to marry her."

"I'm afraid you do not understand, uncle," the king replied sadly. "I have the supreme happiness to love and to be loved. Of that nothing can rob me. And for some time to come, uncle mine, I shall treasure that happiness."

"And the little Gretchen?"

"Yes, yes! I have been a sco

undrel." And the king's eyes grew moist. "You are happy, Mr. Carmichael; you have no crown to weigh against your love."

"Has he not?" mocked Ludwig.

"That, uncle, is neither kind nor gallant."

And from that moment Carmichael's heart warmed toward the young man, whose sorrow was greater than his own. For the king was giving up the woman who loved him, while Carmichael was only giving up the woman he loved, which is a distinction.

"I ask Mr. Carmichael's pardon," said Prince Ludwig frankly. "But my temper has been sadly tried. Will you grant me a favor?"

"If it is in my power," said Carmichael.

"Go at once to our embassy and notify them what has taken place."

"I will do that at once. If only I could find some way for you to escape!"

"There is none," said the king. "Come, uncle; let us see what is going on down-stairs."

Carmichael followed them down.

"There they are, men!" cried the sub-chief. "You are under arrest!"

I am the king of Jugendheit," calmly announced Frederick Leopold. "Will you subject me to public arrest?"

"And I," said the uncle, "am Ludwig, prince regent. Let us go to prison as quickly as possible, blockheads!"

The sub-chief laughed uproariously, and even the disciplined soldiers smiled. The king of Jugendheit and the prince regent! This was a good joke, indeed!

"Your majesty and your royal highness," said the sub-chief, his eyes twinkling, "will do me, a poor sub-chief of the police, the honor of accompanying me to the Stein-schloss."

"Lead on, lead on!" cried Ludwig. "But wait! I forgot. There can be no harm in asking why we are arrested."

"You are accused of being military spies from Jugendheit. That is sufficient for the present."

"Frederick, they do not believe us. So much the better!" Ludwig pursed his lips into a whistle.

"May I retain this bundle?" inquired the king.

"Yes. I know what is in it. Forward, march!"

The soldiers formed into a square, and in the center the prisoners were placed. Carmichael made as though to protest, but Prince Ludwig signed for him to be silent.

"Remember!" he said.

The king looked in vain for Gretchen. Then he beckoned to Carmichael, and whispered brokenly: "If you see her, do not tell her what has happened. Better to let her think that I have gone. And she will see nothing in the arrest of the king of Jugendheit."

"I promise."

The troop marched along the street, followed by many curious ones, and many heads popped in and out of the gabled windows. Carmichael watched them till they veered round a corner, and then he returned to the consulate. There he left a note for the clerk, telling him that he would not be in the office again that day. Directly after, he hurried off to the Jugendheit embassy.

An hour later Gretchen appeared before Fr?u Bauer. Gretchen had gone home immediately after the termination of the fight in the garden. It had been the will of her lord and master for her to remain at home throughout the day; but this she could not do. She was worried.

"He was not hurt, Fr?u?" she asked timidly.

"Oh, no! The two of them gave themselves up readily. They are snug in the Stein-schloss by this time."

"The Stein-schloss!" Gretchen blanched. "Holy Mother, what has happened?"

"Why, your vintner and Herr Ludwig were arrested an hour ago, accused of being spies from Jugendheit."

"It is a lie!" cried Gretchen hollowly. She groped blindly for the door.

"Where are you going, Gretchen?" Fr?u Bauer inquired anxiously.

"To her highness! She will save him!"

Her highness was dreaming. She had fallen into this habit of late. A flame in the fireplace, a cloud in the sky, a dash of rain on the window, all these drew her fancy. What the heart wishes the mind will dream. Sunshine was without, clear, brilliant; shadow was within, mellow, nebulous. But to-day her dream was short. A maid of honor announced that the young woman Gretchen sought her presence.

"Admit her. She will be a tonic," said Hildegarde.

Gretchen appeared, red-eyed and disheveled. Instantly she flung herself at the feet of the princess.

"Why, Gretchen!"

"They will not let me see him, Highness!" Gretchen choked.

"What has happened, child?"

"They have arrested him as a spy from Jugendheit, and he is innocent. Save him, Highness!"

"How can I save him?"

"He is not a spy."

"That must be proved, Gretchen. I can not go to the Stein-schloss and order them to liberate him." She lifted Gretchen to her feet.

"I have been there, and they will not let me see him. I love him so!"

"I can arrange that for you. I will go with you myself to the prison."

"Thanks, Highness, thanks!" Gretchen was hysterical.

The Stein-schloss had been the feudal keep; now it served as the city prison. Its grim gray stones were battle-scarred and time-worn; a place of deep dungeons, huge bolts and bars, and narrow slits in the stone for windows. The prison was both civil and military, but was patrolled and sentineled by soldiers. The king and his uncle had been given adjoining cells on the ground floor. These cells were dry, and light entered from the modern windows in the wall of the corridor. The princess and her protégée were admitted without objection. The sergeant in charge of that floor even permitted them to go into the corridor unattended.

Voices.

"Hush!" whispered her highness, pressing Gretchen's arm.

"Ach! Wail, dear nephew, beat your hands upon the bars, curse, waste your breath on stone. Did I not warn you against this very thing when you proposed this mad junket? Well, there are two of us. A fine scandal! They will laugh at us for months to come."

"Woe to the duke for this affront!"

Gretchen started to speak, but the princess quickly put her hand over the goose-girl's mouth.

"Ha! So war is gathering in your veins?"

"I will have revenge for this!"

"Good! Bang-bang! Slash and cut! War is a great invention-on paper. Come, my boy; you were sensible enough when they brought us here. Control yourself. Be a king in all the word implies. For my part, I begin to see."

"And what do you see?"

"I see that the duke knows who we are, even if his police do not. He will keep us here a day or two, and then magnanimously liberate us with profuse apologies. We shall be escorted to the frontier with honors. His highness loves a jest too well to let this chance escape. Besides, I see in the glass the fine Italian hand of Herbeck. I have always heard that he was a great statesman. Swallow your wrath, even if your tongue goes down with it."

"Gretchen, Gretchen!" said the king.

Gretchen could stand it no longer. She wrenched herself free from the grasp of the princess, who, with pitying heart, understood all now. Poor unhappy Gretchen!

"Here I am, Leopold!" the goose-girl cried, pressing her body against the bars and thrusting her hands through them.

"The devil!" murmured the man in the other cell.

"You here, Gretchen?" The king covered her hands with passionate kisses.

"Yes, yes! They have made a dreadful mistake. You are no spy from Jugendheit."

"No, Gretchen," said the voice from the next cell. "He is far worse than that. He is the king, Gretchen, the king."

"Uncle!" in anguish.

"Let us have it over with," replied Prince Ludwig sadly.

"The king?" Gretchen laughed shrilly. "What jest is this, Leopold?"

The king, still holding her hands, looked down.

"Leopold?" plaintively.

Still he did not speak, still he averted his head. But God knew that his heart was on the rack.

The princess, remaining in the background, not daring to interfere, felt the smart of tears in her eyes. Ah, the poor tender little goose-girl! The pity of it! This king was a scoundrel.

"Leo, look at me! You are laughing! Why, did we not work together in the vineyards, and did we not plan for the future? Ah, yes! You are a king only to me. I see. But it is a cruel jest, Leopold. Smile at me! Say something!" Gretchen was hanging to the bars now; her body, held in the vise of growing terror, was almost a dead weight.

"Gretchen, forgive me!" despairingly.

"He asks me to forgive him!" dully. "For what?"

"For being a villain! Yes," his voice keen with agony. "I am the king of Jugendheit. But am I less a man for that? Ah, God help me, I have a right to love like other men! Do not doubt me, Gretchen; do not think that I played with you. I love you better than my crown, better than my honor!"

"Take care, nephew!" came Prince Ludwig's warning. "Some one else is near."

"I care not! Before all the world I would gladly proclaim it. I love her. I swear that I shall never marry, that my heart is breaking! Gretchen, Gretchen! My God, she is falling! Help her!" wildly; and he shook the bars with supernatural strength till his hands were bleeding.

But Gretchen did not answer.

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