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   Chapter 23 HAPPINESS

The Goose Girl By Harold MacGrath Characters: 12419

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The grand duke of Ehrenstein beheld the chancellor with that phase of astonishment which leaves the mind unclouded. The violent storm in his heart gave way to a calm, not at all menacing, but tinctured with a profound pity. What a project! What a mind to conceive it, to perfect it down to so small a detail as a jeweler's mark in the gold of the locket! And a little finger to betray it! In a flash he saw vividly all this man had undergone, day by day, unfaltering, unhesitant, forgetting nothing, remembering everything but the one insignificant item which was to overthrow him. He felt that he was confronted with a great problem; what to do with the man?

Prince Ludwig took off his hat. "Herbeck, you are a great politician."

"No, prince," replied Herbeck, with ineffable sadness. "Had I been a great politician I should have succeeded. Ah, give this to my merit; self never entered into this dream. For you, my child, only for you. And so great was this dream that I almost made you a queen! You are my flesh and blood, the child of my wife, whom I loved. She was only a singer in the opera, at Dresden, but her soul was great, like yours. It is a simple story."

Hildegarde did not move, nor had she moved since the revelation. Carmichael, a secret joy in his heart, watched the girl for the slightest swaying, that inevitable prelude to fainting. But Hildegarde was not the kind of woman who faints in the face of a catastrophe, however great it might be. The only sign of life lay in her beautiful eyes, the gaze of which remained unswervingly fixed upon the chancellor's ashen countenance.

"Hildegarde," said the duke, "you shall become my daughter, and you shall dwell here till the end of your days. I will try to right the wrong that has been done to you."

"No, your Highness," she replied. "There is but one place for me, and that is at my father's side." And resolutely she walked to the chancellor's left and her hand stole down and met his firmly. "My father, I forgive you," she said, with quiet dignity.

"They are all wrong, Frederick," whispered Prince Ludwig. "She is as much a princess as the other."

"You forgive me?" The chancellor could not believe his ears.

"Yes, father."

Then, recalling all the child-hunger in his arms and heart, he swept her to his breast convulsively; and the unloosed tears dropped upon her bright head.

"And who am I?" said Gretchen.

"Breunner, you say this little goose-girl is my daughter?"

"I solemnly swear it, Highness. Look into her face again carefully."

The duke did so, a hand on either cheek. He scrutinized every contour, the color of the eyes, the low, broad brow, the curve of the chin. Out of the past he conjured up the mother's face. Yes, beyond any doubt, there was a haunting likeness, and he had never noted it before.

"But who will prove it to the world?" he cried hopelessly, still holding Gretchen's wondering face between his hands.

"I shall prove it," said the king.

"You? And how?"

"I shall marry Gretchen; I shall make her a queen. That will be proof enough."

"A fine stroke, nephew; a bold stroke!" Prince Ludwig laid his hand upon the king's shoulder with rare affection.

"If you accept her without further proof, I, her father, can do no less." And the duke kissed Gretchen on the forehead and led her over to the king, gravely joining their hands.

"Gretchen!" murmured the king.

"I do not know how to act like a princess."

"I shall teach you."

Gretchen laid her head on his breast. She was very tired and much bewildered.

The duke paced the length of the cabinet several times. No one interrupted his meditation.

Back and forth, one hand hanging to the opposite shoulder, the other folding over his chin. Then he paused with abruptness.

"Your Majesty, I regret that your father is not alive to accept my apologies for so baselessly misjudging him. Arnsberg, nothing that I can do will restore these wasted years. But I offer you the portfolio."

"I am only a broken man, your Highness; too old."

"It is my will."

Arnsberg bent his head in submission.

"As for you," said the duke to the Gipsy, "go, and if you ever step this side the frontier again you will be shot out of hand." He stopped again in front of Grumbach. "I promised to have you shot in the morning. That promise holds. But a train leaves for Paris a little after midnight. My advice is for you not to miss it."

"And my father, your Highness?" said Hildegarde bravely.

"Herbeck, your estates are confiscated, your name is struck from the civic and military lists. Have you any ready funds?"

"A little, your Highness."

"Enough to take you for ever out of this part of the world?"

"Yes, your Highness."

"You do not ask to be forgiven, and I like that. I have judges in Dreiberg. I could have you tried and condemned for high treason, shot or imprisoned for life. But to-night I shall not use this prerogative. You have, perhaps, three hours to get your things in order. To-morrow you will be judged and condemned. But you, Hildegarde-"

"No, your Highness; we shall both take the train for Paris. Gretchen, you will be happy."

Gretchen ran and flung herself into Hildegarde's arms; and the two of them wept. Hildegarde pushed Gretchen away gently.

"Come, father, we have so little time."

And this was the sum of the duke's revenge.

* * *

It never took Carmichael long to make up his mind definitely. He found his old friend the cabman in the Platz, and they drove like mad to the consulate. An hour here sufficed to close his diplomatic career and seal it hermetically. The clerk, however, would go on like Tennyson's brook, for ever and for ever. Next he went to the residence of his banker in the K?nig Strasse and got together all his available funds. Eleven o'clock found him in his rooms at the Grand Hotel, feverishly packing his trunk and bag. Paris! He would go, also, even if they passed on to the remote ends of the world.

The train stood waiting in the gloomy Bahnhof. The guards patrolled the platform. Presently three men came out of the station door. Two were officers; the third, Colonel von Wallenstein, was in civilian dress.

He was sullen and depressed.

Said one of the officers: "And it is the express command of General Ducwitz that you will return here under the pain of death. Is that explicit?"

"It is." The colonel got into his compartment and slammed the door viciously.

In the next compartment sat Grumbach. He was smoking his faithful pipe. He was, withal, content. This was far more satisfactory than standing up before the firing-line. And, besides, he had made history in Ehrenstein that night; they would not forget the name of Breunner right away. To America, with a clean slate and a reposeful conscience; it was more than he had any reasonable right to expect. Tekla! He laughed sardonically. She was no doubt sound asleep by this time, and the end of the chapter would never be written for her. What fools these young men a-courting were! War and famine and pestilence; did these not always follow at the heels of women?

As the station-master's bell rang, the door opened and a man jumped in. He tossed his bag into the corner and plumped down in the seat.

"Captain?"

"You, Hans?"

"Yes. Where are you going?"

"I am weary of Dreiberg, so I am taking a little vacation."

"For how long?" suspiciously.

"Oh, for ever so long!" evasively. And Carmichael lifted his feet to the opposite seat and prepared to go to sleep.

Hans said nothing more. He was full of wisdom. He had an idea. The fleeing chancellor and his daughter were on the train, and he was certain that his friend Carmichael knew it.

The lights of the city presently vanished, and the long journey began, through the great clefts in the mountains, over gorges, across rivers, along wide valleys, and into the mountains again; a journey of nearly seventy hours. At each stop Carmichael got out, and every time he returned Hans could read disappointment on his face. Still he said nothing. He was an admirable comrade.

By the aid of certain small briberies on the train and in Paris Carmichael gathered, bit by bit, that the destination of the woman he loved was America. But never once did he set eyes upon her till she and her father mounted the gang-plank to the vessel which was to carry them across the wide Atlantic. The change in Herbeck was pitiable. His face had aged twenty years in these sixty odd hours. His clothes, the same he had worn that ever-memorable night, hung loosely about his gaunt frame, and there was a vacancy in his eyes which was eloquent of mental collapse. The girl quietly and tenderly guided him to the deck and thence to his stateroom. Carmichael abided his time.

A French newspaper contained a full account of Herbeck's coup and his subsequent flight. It also recounted the excitement of the following day, the appearance of Gretchen on the steps of the palace, and the great shouting of the people as they acclaimed her the queen of Jugendheit.

The second day out Carmichael's first opportunity came. He discovered Herbeck and his daughter leaning against the rail. He watched them uneasily, wondering how he might approach without startling her. At last he keyed up his courage.

"Good morning, your Highness," he stammered, and inwardly cursed his stupidity.

At the sound of his voice she turned, and there was no mistaking the gladness in her eyes.

"Mr. Carmichael?"

"Yes. I was surprised to learn that you were taking the same boat as myself."

How clumsy he was! she thought. For she had known his every move since the train drew out of Dreiberg.

"Father, here is our friend, Herr Carmichael."

"Carmichael?" said Herbeck slowly. "Ah, yes. Good morning."

And Carmichael instantly comprehended that his name recalled nothing to the other man's remembrance.

"You are returning to America?" she asked.

"For good, perhaps. To tell the truth, I ran away, deserted my post, though technically I have already resigned. But America has been calling me for some days. You have never been to sea before?"

"No; it is all marvelous and strange to me."

"Let us walk, my child," said Herbeck.

"You will excuse me, Mr. Carmichael?" she said. Never more the rides in the fair mornings. Never more the beautiful gardens, the music, the galloping of soldiers who drew their sabers whenever they passed her. Never more any of these things.

"Can I be of any assistance?" he said, in an undertone.

"No," sadly.

The days, more or less monotonous, went past. Sometimes he saw her alone on deck, but only for a little while. Her father was slowly improving, but with this improvement came the natural desire for seclusion; so he came on deck only at night.

The night on which the vessel bore into the moist, warm air of the Gulf Stream was full of moonshine, of smooth, phosphorescent billows. Herbeck had gone below. The girl leaned over the rail, alone and lonely. And Carmichael, seeing her, could no longer still the desire in his heart. He came up to her.

"See!" she exclaimed, pointing to the little eddies of foam speeding along the hull. "Do you know what they remind me of? Mermaids' fingers, grasping and clutching at the boat as if to drag it down below."

How beautiful she was with the frost of moonlight on her hair!

"You must not talk like that," he admonished.

"I am very unhappy."

"And when you say that you make me so, too."

"Why?" She had spoken the word at last.

"Do you remember the night you dropped your fan?" leaning so closely toward her that his arm pressed against hers.

"I remember."

"You put that word then. In honor I dared not answer. You were a princess! I was only a soldier of fortune. But now that you are in trouble, now that you have need of me, I may answer. I may tell you now why, why I have thrown ambition and future to the winds, why I am here at your side to-night. Need I tell you? Do you not know, and have you not known? Am I cruel to speak of love in the moment of your great affliction? Well, I must be cruel. I love you! Faithfully and loyally, now and hereafter, through this sad day into happier ones. I ask nothing for this love I offer; I ask only that I may use it in your service, in good times or bad."

"Ask what you will," she whispered. "I am happy now!"

* * *

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