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   Chapter 22 A LITTLE FINGER

The Goose Girl By Harold MacGrath Characters: 7559

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The king of Jugendheit, Prince Ludwig, and the chancellor sat in the form of a triangle. Herbeck was making a pyramid of his finger-tips, sometimes touching his chin with his thumbs. His face was cheerful. His royal highness, still in the guise of a mountaineer, sat stiffly in his chair, the expression on his face hardly translatable; that on the king's not at all. He was dressed in the brilliant uniform of a colonel in the Prussian Uhlans, an honor conferred upon him recently by King William. Prior to his advent into the Grand Duchy of Ehrenstein he had been to Berlin. A whim, for which he was now grateful, had cozened him into carrying this uniform along with him on his adventures. It was only after he met Gretchen that there came moments when he forgot he was a king. He was pale. From hour to hour his heart seemed to grow colder and smaller and harder, till it now rested in his breast with the heaviness of a stone, out of which life and the care of living had been squeezed. He rarely spoke, leaving the burden of the conversation to rest upon his uncle's tongue.

"So your royal highness will understand," said Herbeck, "that it was the simplest move I could make, and the safest. Were it known, or had it been known this morning, that the king of Jugendheit and the prince regent had entered Dreiberg in disguise and had been lodged in the Stein-schloss, there would have been a serious riot in the city. So I had you arrested as spies. Presently a closed carriage will convey you to the frontier, and the unfortunate incident will be ended."

"Thanks!" said Prince Ludwig.

"And when you cross the frontier, it would be wise to disperse the troops waiting there for you."

Prince Ludwig smiled. "It was only an army of defense. The duke had nearly twenty thousand men at the maneuvers. I have no desire for war; but, on the other hand, I am always ready for it."

"There will never be any war between us," prophetically. "The duke grows impatient at times, but I can always rouse his sense of justice. You will, of course, pardon the move I made. There will be no publicity. There will be no newspaper notoriety, for the journalists will know nothing of what has really happened."

"For that consideration your excellency has my deepest thanks," replied Prince Ludwig.

"I thought it best to let you go without seeing the duke. The meeting between you two might be painful."

"That also is thoughtful of your excellency," said the king. "I have no desire to see or speak to his highness."

"There is, however, one favor I should like to ask," said the prince.

"Can I grant it?"

"Easily. I wish to leave a sum of money in trust, to be paid to one Gretchen Schwarz, who lives in the Krumerweg. She is ambitious to become a singer. Let nothing stand between her and her desires."

"Granted."

The heart of the king, at the sound of that dear name, suddenly expanded and stifled him. The stiffness went out of his shoulders.

"Ah, this little world of ours, the mistakes and futile schemes we make upon it!" The chancellor dallied with his quill pen. "It was a cynical move of fate that your majesty should see the goose-girl first."

"Enough!" cried the king vehemently. "Let us have no more retrospection, if you please. Moreover, I shall be obliged to you if you will summon at once the carriage which is to take us to the frontier. The situation has been amicably and satisfactorily explained. I see no reason why we should be detained any longer."

"Nor I," added Prince Ludwig. "I am rather weary of these tatters. I should even like a bath."

The three of them were immediately attracted by a singular noise outside in the corridor. The door swung in violently, crashing against the wall and shivering into atoms the Vene

tian mirror. The king, the prince, and the chancellor were instantly upon their feet. The king clutched the back of his chair with a grip of iron: Gretchen? Her highness? What was Gretchen doing here? Ah, could he have flown! He muttered a curse at the chancellor for the delay. But happily Gretchen did not see him.

The duke came in first, and he waited till the others were inside; then he shut the door with lesser violence and rushed over to the chancellor.

"Herbeck, you villain!"

The chancellor stared at the Gipsy, at Von Arnsberg, at Grumbach.

"Herbeck, you black scoundrel!" cried the duke. "Can you realize how difficult it is not to take you by the throat and strangle you here and now?"

"He is mad!" said Herbeck, bracing himself against the desk.

"Yes. I am mad, but it is the sane madness of a terribly wronged man. Come here, you Gipsy!" The duke seized Herbeck's hand and pressed it down fiercely on the desk. "Look at that and tell me if it is not the hand of a Judas!"

"That is the hand, Highness," said the Gipsy, without hesitation.

The duke flung the hand aside. As he did so something snapped in Herbeck's brain, though at that instant he was not conscious of it.

"It was you, you! It was your hand that wrecked my life, yours! Ah, is there such villainy? Are such men born and do they live? My wife dead, my own heart broken, Arnsberg ruined and disgraced! And these two children: which is mine?"

To the king of Jugendheit the ceiling reeled and the floor revolved under his feet.

"Villain, what have you to say? What was your purpose?"

How many years, thought Herbeck, had he been preparing for this moment? How long had he been steeling his heart against this very scene? Futile dream! He drew himself together with a supreme effort. He would face this hour as he had always planned to face it. Found out! He looked at his finger, touched it with an impersonal curiosity. He had forgotten all about such a possibility. Where had he read that there is no crime but leaves some evidence, infinitesimally small though it be, which shall lead to the truth? After all, he was glad. The strain, borne so long, was gradually killing him. A little finger, to have stopped the wheel of so great a scheme! Irony!

"Your Highness," he said, his voice soft and strangely clear, "I have been waiting for this hour. So I am found out! How little we know what God intends!"

"You speak of God? You blaspheme!"

"Bear with me for a space. I shall not hold you long."

"But why? What have I done to you that you should wreck all I hold dear?"

"For you I have always had a strong affection, strange as it may sound." Herbeck fumbled with his collar, which was tightening round his throat like a band of hot iron. "I have practically governed this country for sixteen years. In that time I have made it prosperous and happy; I have given you a substantial treasury; I have made you an army; I have brought peace where you would have brought war. To my people God will witness that I have done my duty as I saw it. One day I fell the victim of a mad dream. And to think that I almost won!"

"And I?" said Hildegarde, her hands clenched and pressed against her bosom. "What have you done to me, who am innocent of any wrong? What have you done to me?"

"You, my child? I have wronged you greatest of all. The wrong I have done to you is irreparable. Ah, have not my arms hungered for the touch of you, my heart ached for the longing of you? To see you day after day, always humble before you, always glad to kiss the back of your hand! Have I not lived in hell, your Highness?" turning to the duke.

"What am I, and who am I?" whispered Hildegarde, her heart almost ceasing to beat.

"I am your father!" simply.

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