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   Chapter 21 TWIN LOCKETS

The Goose Girl By Harold MacGrath Characters: 15847

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Carmichael tramped about his room, restless, uneasy, starting at sounds. Half a dozen times his cigar had gone out, and burned matches lay scattered on the floor. He was waiting for Grumbach and his confrères. Now he looked out of a window, now he spun the leaves of a book, now he sat down, got up, and tramped again. Anything but this suspense. A full day! The duel in the Biergarten; the king of Jugendheit and the prince regent in the Stein-schloss; the flight of the ambassador to the palace, more like a madman than one noted for his calm and circumspection; Gretchen carried into the palace in a dead faint, and her highness weeping; the duke in a rage and brought over only after the hardest struggle Carmichael had ever experienced. And deeper, firmer, became his belief and conviction that Grumbach's affair vitally concerned her highness. What blunder had been made? He would soon know. He welcomed the knock on his door. Grumbach came in, carrying under his arm a small bundle. He was pale but serene, like a man who had put his worldly affairs in order.

"Well, Captain, what did his Highness say?"

"Where are your companions?"

"They are waiting outside."

"The duke agrees. He will give us an audience at eight-thirty. I had a time of it!"

"Did you mention my name

"No. I went roundabout. I also obtained his promise to say nothing to Herbeck till the interview was over. Again he demurred, but his curiosity saved the day. Now, Hans, the full story."

Grumbach spread out on the bed the contents of the bundle.

"Look at these and tell me what you see, Captain."

Carmichael inspected the little yellow shoes. He turned them over and over in his hand. He shook out the folds of the little cloak, and the locket fell on the bed.

"When did you get this?" he cried excitedly. "It is her highness'!"

"So it is, Captain; but I have carried it about me all these years."

"What?"

"Yes, Captain. Count von Herbeck is a great statesman, but he made a terrible mistake this time. Listen. As sure as we are in this room together, I believe that she whom we call the princess is not the daughter of the grand duke."

Carmichael sat down on the edge of the bed, numb and without any clear idea where he was. From the stony look on his face, Grumbach might have carried the head of Medusa in his hand. The blood beat into his head with many strange noises. But by and by the world became clearer and brighter till all things took on the rosal tint of dawn. Free! If she was not a princess, she was free, free!

The duke allowed the quartet to remain standing for some time. He strode up and down before them, his eyes straining at the floor, his hands behind his back. He was in fatigue-dress, and only the star of Ehrenstein glittered on his breast. He was never without this order. All at once he whirled round, and as a sailor plunges the lead into the sea, so he plumbed the very deeps of their eyes as if he would see beforehand what strange things were at work in their souls. "I do not recognize any of these persons," he said to Carmichael.

"Your highness does not recognize me, then?" asked the clock-mender.

"Come closer," commanded the duke. The clock-mender obeyed. "Take off those spectacles." The duke scanned the features, and over his own came the dawn of recollection. "Your eyes, your nose-Arnsberg, here and alive? Oh, this is too good to be true!" The duke reached out toward the bell, but Carmichael interposed.

"Your highness will remember," he warned.

"Ha! So you have trapped me blindly? I begin to understand. Who is this fellow Grumbach? Did I offer immunity to him?"

"I am Hans Breunner, Highness, and I ask for nothing."

"Breunner? Breunner? Hans Breunner, brother of Hermann, and you put yourself into my hands?" The tone developed into a suppressed roar. The duke took hold of Hans by the shoulders and drew him close. "You dog! So you ask for nothing? It shall be given to you. To-morrow morning I shall have you shot! Hans Breunner! God is good to me this night! Thanks, Herr Carmichael, a thousand thanks! And I need not ask who that damnable scoundrel is who has the black face and heart of a Gipsy. When I recollect what I have suffered at your hands! If only the late king were here, my joy would be complete!"

"Your Highness," said Von Arnsberg quietly, "all I have left in the world are these two withered hands, and may God cut them off if they ever wronged you in any act. I am innocent. Those letters purported to have been written by me were forgeries. I could not prove this, so I have been outlawed, with the sentence of death over my head. But to-night I shall leave this palace a free man, and you shall ask pardon for the wrong you have done me."

There was no fear in the voice; there was nothing but confidence. The duke glared at the speaker somberly, recalling what Herbeck had often said.

"What you say still remains to be proved. Now, what is at the bottom of all this?" was the demand. "You men have not obtained this interview for the sake of affirming your innocence. Herr Carmichael, here, declared to me on honor that you were in possession of a great secret. Out with it, without any more useless recrimination."

Hans replied not in words but in actions. He crossed the room to the duke's desk and spread out his treasures under the flickering candlelight. The duke, with a cry of terror, sprang toward the secret drawer. His first thought was that the shoes and cloak, upon which only his eyes ever rested now, had been stolen. He straightened. Nothing was missing. He glanced from face to face, from the articles on the desk to those in the drawer. He was overwhelmed. But he steadied himself; it was no moment for physical weakness. Slowly, ignoring every one, he came back to the desk and fingered the locket. Just then it was exceedingly quiet in the room, save that each man heard the quick breathing of his neighbor. The duke opened the locket, looked long and steadfastly at the portrait, and shut it. Then he went to the drawer again and returned with the counterparts. He laid them side by side. The likeness was perfect in all details.

"Carmichael," he said, "will you please help me? My eyes are growing old. Do I see these things, or do I not? And if I do, which is mine, and what does this signify?" The tremor in his voice was audible.

Grumbach answered. "This, Highness. I took these from the little princess with my own hands. They have never been out of my keeping. Those you have I know nothing about."

The duke rubbed his eyes. "My daughter?"

"The Princess Hildegarde is not your daughter, Highness," said Hans solemnly.

"Gott!" The duke smote the desk in despair, a despair which wrung the hearts of those who witnessed it. "Herbeck! I must send for Herbeck!"

"Not yet, Highness; later," Grumbach said.

"But if not Hildegarde-I believe I must be growing mad!"

"Patience, your Highness!" said Carmichael.

"Patience!" wearily. "You say patience when my heart is dying inside my breast? Patience? Who, then, is this woman I have called my child?"

"God knows, Highness!" Hans stood bowed before this parental agony.

"But what proof have you that she is not? What proof, I say?"

"Would there be two lockets, Highness?"

"More proof than this will be needed. Produce it. Prolong this agony of doubt not another instant."

"Speak," said Hans to the Gipsy, who was viewing the drama with the nonchalance of a spectator rather than a participant.

"Highness," said the Gipsy, bowing, "he speaks truly. He came with us. For fear that the little highness might be recognized as we traveled, we changed her clothes. He took them, together with the locket. One day the soldiers appeared in the distance. We all fled. We lost the little highness, and none of us ever knew what became of her. She wore the costume of my own children."

"We shall p

roduce that in time," said Von Arnsberg.

"Damnable wretch!" said the duke, addressing the Gipsy.

The other shrugged. He had been promised immunity; that was all he cared about, unless it was the bag of silver and gold this old clock-mender had given him a few hours gone.

"I am summoning her highness," said the duke, as he struck the bell.

"And, Highness," added Grumbach, "despatch some one for Gretchen, who lives at number forty the Krumerweg."

"The goose-girl? What does she know? Ah, I remember. She is even now with her highness. I shall send for them both."

Gretchen? Carmichael's bewilderment increased. What place had the goose-girl in this tragedy?

"Now, while we are waiting," resumed the duke, his agitation somewhat under control, "the proof, the definite proof!"

"Her highness stumbled one night," said Hans, "and fell upon the fire. I snatched her back, but not before her left arm was badly burned."

The Gipsy nodded. "I saw it, Highness."

And that was why Grumbach went to the military ball with opera-glasses! Carmichael was round-eyed. But Gretchen?

"The Princess Hildegarde has no scar upon either arm," continued Grumbach. "I have seen them. They are without a single flaw."

"More than that," reiterated the duke. "That is not enough."

They became silent. Now and then one or the other stirred. The duke never took his eyes off the door through which her highness would enter.

She came in presently, tender with mercy, an arm supporting Gretchen, who was red-eyed and white.

"You sent for us, father?"

How the word pierced the duke's heart! "Yes, my child," he answered; for it mattered not who she was or whither she had come, he had grown to love her.

"I am sorry you sent for Gretchen," said Hildegarde. "She is ill."

Gretchen sighed. To her the faces of the men were indistinct. And, besides, she was without interest, listless, drooped.

"My child, will you roll up your left sleeve?" said the duke.

"My sleeve?" Hildegarde thoughtfully looked round. Roll up her sleeve? What possessed her father?

"Do so at once."

"I can not roll up this sleeve, father," blushing and a trifle angry at so strange a request.

Hans opened his knife and laid bare her left arm. She uttered a little angry cry. "How dare you?" She tried to cover the arm.

"Let me look at it, Hildegarde," requested the duke.

To him she presented her arm, for she now understood that a serious affair was in progress. But there was neither mole nor scar upon the round and lovely arm.

"Why do you do this, father? What is the meaning?"

No one answered; no one had the heart to answer. Without waiting for the duke to bid him continue, Hans unceremoniously ripped open Gretchen's left sleeve. The ragged scar was visible to them all. And while they grouped round the astonished goose-girl they heard her highness cry out with surprise.

"What is this?" she said, pointing to the two pairs of shoes and the two cloaks. She held up the locket, the twin of which hung round her neck. "Where did these come from?"

"My child," the duke answered, unashamed of his tears, "only God knows as yet what it means; but the outward sign testifies to a strange and horrible blunder. The locket you hold in your hand was taken from you when you were an infant. The one you wear round your neck is, according to the statement of one of these men, not genuine."

"And the significance?" She grew tall, and the torn sleeve fell away from her arm.

"That what is done must be all undone. I know you to be brave. Strengthen your heart, then. I stand before you the most wretched man in all this duchy. These men affirm that I am not your father. They say that you are not my daughter."

"And that Gretchen is!" spoke Hans. His conscience was costing every one something dear.

"I?" Gretchen drew closer to Hildegarde.

The duke studied the portrait of the mother and then the faces of these two girls. Both possessed a resemblance, only it seemed now that Gretchen was nearest to the portrait and Hildegarde nearest to the doubt.

"You say she wore the costume of a Gipsy child when you lost her?" said the duke.

"Yes." Von Arnsberg took from under his coat a small bundle which he opened with shaking fingers. He had been in the Krumerweg that afternoon.

"Why, those are mine!" exclaimed Gretchen excitedly.

"You see?" said Von Arnsberg. "Would you not like to be a princess, Gretchen?"

A princess? Gretchen's heart fluttered. A princess? She saw the king shaking the bars of his cell; she heard his voice calling out his love for her. A princess? She laid her head on Hildegarde's shoulder. She was weak, and this was some dream.

"But who, then, am I?" asked Hildegarde. There was no sign of weakness here.

Again there was no answer.

"Tell what you know," said Hans to the Gipsy. "Highness, he alone knows the man who brought about all this."

"The archplotter of this damnable conspiracy?" The duke's eyes became alive, his face, his whole body. Every beat of his heart cried out for vengeance. "Who is he? Tell me! Give him to me, man, and all of you shall go free. Give him into these hands. His name!" The duke's hands worked convulsively as if they were already round the throat of this unseen, implacable enemy. He was terrible in this moment.

The Gipsy produced a letter. It had to be held carefully, as it was old and tattered. The duke read it. Beyond that it made the original offer it was worthless. The handwriting was palpably disguised. The duke flung the missive to the floor.

"Fool! Is that all you have? Tell me what you know, man, or I shall have you shot in the morning, immunity or no immunity! Quick!"

"Highness," said the Gipsy, thoroughly alarmed, "this is how it happened. My band was staying at the time in Dreiberg. We told fortunes and exhibited an Italian puppet-show. The letter came first. I was poor and sometimes desperate. I was to take her away and leave her with strange people."

"Ah!" interrupted the duke, with despairing gesture toward Grumbach, "why did you not leave us all in peace?"

"Highness, a great wrong has been done, and God brought me here to right it."

"You are a brave man," darkly.

"I am in your hands, Highness," sturdily. "In a mad moment I committed a crime. I shall abide by whatever punishment you may inflict."

"Continue," said the duke to the Gipsy.

"Well, Highness, I would not accept till I had talked personally with him. He came at last. His face was hidden and his voice muffled. But this I saw; when he gave me the first half of the money I was certain I should know him again."

"How?"

"By his little finger, Highness."

"His little finger?" Von Arnsberg repeated. The two women, large-eyed and bewildered, clung to each other's hand tensely. These were heart-breaking times. Gretchen's mind, however, absorbed nothing, neither the words nor the picture. Her thoughts revolved round one thing; if she were a princess she could be happy. But the other, from under whose feet all tangible substances seemed to be giving way, she was possessed by two thoughts which surged in her brain like combatants. If not a princess, what was she? If not a princess, she was free. She stole a swift glance at Carmichael, who seemed far removed from the heart of this black business; and had he been looking at her he would have seen the gates opening into Eden.

"What was this little finger like?" asked the duke, shuddering.

"One time it had been cut or mangled."

"The man was tall?"

"Yes, Highness."

The duke silently toyed with the little yellow shoes. Suddenly he laughed; but it was the terrible laughter of a madman. There were death and desolation in it.

"Come, all of you; you, Gretchen, and you, Hildegarde; come, Carmichael, and you, Arnsberg; all of you! Let us go and pay a visit to our good friend, Herbeck!"

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