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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesArms And The Woman: A Romance - Chapter 23
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Arms And The Woman: A Romance - Chapter 23 Post by :Arina Category :Long Stories Author :Harold Macgrath Date :May 2012 Read :2731

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Arms And The Woman: A Romance - Chapter 23

CHAPTER XXIII

When Pembroke and I arrived at the Strasburg inn, on the north road, neither the Prince nor Von Walden were in evidence. I stepped from our carriage and gazed interestedly around me. The scene was a picturesque one. The sun, but half risen, was of a rusty brass, and all east was mottled with purple and salmon hues. The clearing, a quarter of a mile away, where the Prince and I were to settle our dispute, was hidden under a fine white snow; and the barren trees which encircled it stood out blackly. Pembroke looked at his watch.

"They ought to be along soon; it's five after six. How do you feel?" regarding me seriously.

"As nerveless as a rod of steel," I answered. "Let us go in and order a small breakfast. I'm a bit cold."

"Better let it go at a cup of coffee," he suggested.

"It will be more consistent, that is true," I said. "Coffee and pistols for two."

"I'm glad to see that you are bright," said Pembroke. "Hold out your hand."

I did so.

"Good. So long as it doesn't tremble, I have confidence of the end."

We had scarcely finished our coffee when the Prince, followed by Von Walden, entered.

"Pardon me," he said, "for having made you wait."

"Permit me," said I, rising, "to present my second; Mr. Pembroke, His Highness Prince Ernst of Wortumborg."

The two looked into each other's eyes for a space, and the Prince nodded approvingly.

"I have heard of Your Highness," said my cousin, with a peculiar smile.

"Some evil report, I presume?" laughed the Prince.

"Many of them," was the answer.

The Prince showed his teeth. "Count, these Americans are a positive refreshment. I have yet to meet one who is not frankness itself. At your pleasure!"

And the four of us left the inn and crossed the field. The first shot fell to me. Pembroke's eyes beamed with exultant light. Von Walden's face was without expression. As for the Prince, he still wore that bantering smile. He was confident of the end. He knew that I was a tyro, whereas he had faced death many times. I sighed. I knew that I should not aim to take his life. I was absolutely without emotion; there was not the slightest tremble in my hand as I accepted the pistol. There is nothing like set purpose to still the tremors of a man's nerves. I thought of Hillars, and for a moment my arm stiffened; then I recalled Gretchen's last letter. . . . I fell to wondering where the bullet would hit me. I prayed that his aim might be sure.

"Many persons think that I am a man without compassion," said the Prince, as we were about to step to our places. "I have an abundance of it. You have everything to lose, and I have nothing to gain. If it is your desire, I shall be happy to explain that you wish to withdraw. But say the word."

He knew what my reply would be. "Withdraw," said I, "and have you laugh at me and tell your friends that I acted the poltroon? Really, you do me injustice."

"And do you hate me so very much?" mockery in his eyes.

"Not now. I did hate you, but hatred is a thing we should not waste any more than love. I have taken the bird and the nest from your hands; that is more than enough. You are merely an object for scorn and contempt and indifference now. No; I have no wish to withdraw."

"You read between the lines," he said. "Indeed, I should like nothing better than to have the privilege of calling you a poltroon and a coward and to tell your Princess of it." He sauntered back to his place leisurely.

"Aim the slightest to the left," whispered Pembroke; "the wind will carry it home."

I pressed his hand. A moment later I stood facing the Prince. I lifted the pistol and fired. Had the Prince been ten feet to the right he must have been hit. I threw the smoking pistol aside, let my arms fall and waited. I could see that Pembroke was biting his lip to hide his anxiety and disappointment. Slowly the Prince leveled the weapon at my breast. Naturally I shut my eyes. Perhaps there was a prayer on my lips. God! how long that wait seemed to me. It became so tedious that I opened my eyes again. The pistol arm of the Prince appeared to have frozen in the air.

"It is getting cold," I cried. "Shoot, for God's sake shoot, and end it!"

In reply the Prince fired into the air, took the pistol by the barrel and flung it at my feet. The rest of us looked on dumfounded.

"They are all of the same kidney, Count, these Americans," said he. "They would be dangerous as a nation were it not for their love of money." Then to me: "Go tell your Princess that I have given your life to you."

"The devil take you!" I cried. The strain had been terrible.

"All in good time," retorted the Prince, getting into his coat and furs. "Yesterday morning I had every intention of killing you; this morning it was farthest from my thoughts, though I did hope to see you waver. You are a man of courage. So was your friend. It is to be regretted that we were on different sides. Devil take the women; good morning!"

After the Count had gathered up the pistols, the two walked toward the inn. Pembroke and I followed them at a distance.

"I wonder if he had any idea of what a poor shot you were?" mused Pembroke. "It was a very good farce."

"I aimed ten feet to the right," said I.

"What?"

"Yes."

"Then you knew--"

"Pembroke," said I, "I had no intention of killing him, or even wounding him. And I never expected to leave this place alive. Something has occurred during the last twenty-four hours which we do not understand."

"He was taking great risks."

"It shows the man he is," said I; and the remainder of the distance was gone in silence.

The carriages were in the road, a short way from the inn. Pembroke and I got into ours. As the Prince placed a foot on the step of his he turned once more to me.

"Pardon me," he said, "but I came near forgetting to tell you why I did not kill you this morning. In some way your Princess came into the knowledge that we were going to fight it out as they did in the old days. She came to my rooms, and there begged me to spare your life. There was a condition. It was that she get down on her knees to sue--down on her knees. Ah, what was your life compared to the joy of her humiliation! Not in the figure of speech--on her living, mortal knees, my friend--her living knees!" The carriage door banged behind him.

It was only because Pembroke threw his arms around me that I did not leap out of the carriage.

"Sit still, Jack, sit still! If she begged your life, it was because she loves you."

And, full of rage, I saw the carriage of the Prince vanish. As the carriage vanished, so vanished the Prince from the scene of my adventures. It was but recently that I read of his marriage to the daughter of a millionaire money lender; and, unlike the villain in the drama, pursues the even tenor of his way, seemingly forgotten by retribution, which often hangs fire while we live.

"There are some curious people in this world," said Pembroke, when he had succeeded in quieting me.

I had no argument to offer. After a time I said: "To-morrow, cousin, we shall return to America, our native land. When we are older it will be pleasant to recount our adventures."

Arriving at our rooms, we found them in possession of a lieutenant of the guard hussars. He was drumming on the hearthstone with the end of his sword scabbard. As we entered he rose and briefly saluted us.

"Which of you two gentlemen is Herr Winthrop?" he asked.

"I am he," said I.

"His Majesty commands your immediate presence at the palace."

"The King?"

"Yes."

"Have you any idea what his desires are?"

"A soldier never presumes to know His Majesty's desires, only his commands. Let us begone at once, sir. I have been waiting for an hour. His Majesty likes dispatch."

"It cannot be anything serious," said I to Pembroke, who wore a worried frown.

Perhaps the King had heard of the duel. I was in a mood to care but little what the King had heard, or what he was going to do. The thing uppermost in my mind was that Gretchen had begged my life of the Prince--and then run away!

At the palace the Chancellor met me in the anteroom. His face was grave almost to gloominess.

"Have you ever seen a King angry?" he asked. "Ah, it is not a pleasant sight, on my word; least of all, to the one who has caused a King's anger."

"You alarm me," I said. "Have I done aught to bring the anger of the King upon my head?"

"Ah, but you have! The King is like a bear in his den. He walks back and forth, waving his hands, pulling his mustache and muttering dire threats."

"Might I not take to my legs?" I asked. After all, I cared more than I thought I should in regard to what the King might do to me.

The Chancellor gave my back a sounding thump, and roared with laughter.

"Cheerful, my son; be cheerful! You are a favorite already."

"You bewilder me."

"You have powerful friends; and if the King is angry you need have no fear."

"I should like to know--" I began.

"Ah!" interrupted the Chancellor, "the audience is ended; it is our turn. The Austrian Ambassador," he whispered as a gray-haired man passed us, bowing. There was an exchange of courtesies, and once more I stood before the King.

"I believe you have kept me waiting," said the King, "as Louis once said." He gazed at me from under knotted eyebrows. "I wish," petulantly, "that you had remained in your own country."

"So do I, Your Majesty," I replied honestly. The Chancellor shook with laughter, and the King glared at him furiously.

"What is your name?" asked the King in a milder tone. He was holding a missive in his hand.

"John Winthrop," I answered. I was wondering what it was all about.

"Were you born in America?"

"Yes, Your Majesty."

"Is your family an honored one in your country?"

"It is," I answered proudly.

"Then, why in heaven's name do you scribble?" cried the King.

"In my country one may have an honored name and still be compelled to earn a competence."

"Ah, yes! After all, scribbling is better than owning a shop." This is the usual argument of Kings. "Can you trace your pedigree very far back?" the King proceeded.

"My ancestors came over in the Mayflower," said I.

"The Mayflower?" said the King, puzzled.

"All the Americans," explained the Chancellor, "went over in the Mayflower. The ark and the Mayflower were the largest ships ever put to sea, Your Majesty." To hide his smile, the Chancellor passed over to the window and began drawing pictures on the frosted panes.

Continued the King: "If you loved one of my countrywomen, would you be willing to sacrifice your own country? I mean, would you be willing to adopt mine, to become a naturalized citizen, to uphold its laws, to obey the will of its sovereign, and to take up arms in its defense?"

My knees began to knock together. "I should be willing," I answered, "if I should never be called upon to bear arms against the country in which I was born."

"I should never ask you to do that," replied the King.

"No; His Majesty has too wholesome a respect for America," the Chancellor interpolated.

"Prince," said the King, "go and finish your window panes."

The Chancellor meekly obeyed.

"This is your answer?" said the King to me.

"Yes, Your Majesty."

"Then marry the Princess Elizabeth," he said, tossing the missive to me.

"Yes, marry her," said the irrepressible Chancellor; "and some day the King will put a medal on your breast and make you a baron of the realm. Your Majesty, come and help me with this last pane."

The Princess Elizabeth? I glanced at the writing on the envelope. It was Gretchen's. "And, Your Majesty," I read, "it is true that they love each other. Permit them to be happy. I ask your forgiveness for all the trouble I have caused you. I promise that from now on I shall be the most obedient subject in all your kingdom. Hildegarde." I dropped the letter on the table.

"Your Majesty," I began nervously, "there is some mistake. I do not love Her Highness the Princess Elizabeth."

The King and his Chancellor whirled around. The decorations on the panes remained unfinished. The King regarded me with true anger, and the Chancellor with dismay.

"I love the Princess Hildegarde," I went on in a hollow voice.

"Is this a jest?" demanded the King.

"No; on my honor." For once I forgot court etiquette, and left off "Your Majesty."

"Let me see the letter," said the Chancellor, with a pacific purpose. "There is some misunderstanding here." He read the letter and replaced it on the table--and went back to his window.

"Well?" cried the King, impatiently.

"I forgot, Your Majesty," said the Chancellor.

"Forgot what?"

"The letter was written by a woman. I remember when I was a boy," went on the Chancellor tranquilly, "I used to take great pleasure in drawing pictures on frosted window panes. Women always disturbed me."

"Perhaps, Your Majesty," said I, "it is possible that Her Highness . . . the likeness between her and her sister . . . perhaps, knowing that I have known Her Highness Phyllis . . . that is, the Princess Elizabeth . . . she may believe that I . . ." It was very embarrassing.

"Continue," said the King. "And please make your sentences intelligible."

"What I meant to say was that Her Highness the Princess Hildegarde, believes that I love her sister instead of herself . . . I thought . . . she has written otherwise . . ." And then I foundered again.

"Prince," said the King, laughing in spite of his efforts to appear angry, "for pity's sake, tell me what this man is talking about!"

"A woman," said the Chancellor. "Perhaps Her Highness the Princess Hildegarde. . . . That is, I believe. . . . She may love this man . . . perhaps thinking he loves the other. . ." He was mocking me, and my face burned.

"Prince, do not confuse the man; he is bad enough as it is." The King smoothed away the remnant of the smile.

"Your Majesty is right," said I, desperately. "I am confused. I know not what to say."

"What would you do in my place?" asked the King of the Chancellor.

"I should say in an ominous voice, 'Young man, you may go; but if you ever enter our presence again without either one or the other of the Hohenphalian Princesses as your wife, we shall confiscate your property and put you in a dungeon for the remainder of your natural days.' I put in the confiscation clause as a matter of form. Have you any property?"

"What I have," I answered, my confidence returning, "I can put in my pockets."

"Good," said the King. "What the Chancellor says is but just. See to it that his directions are followed."

"Now, my King," concluded the Chancellor, "put a medal on him and let him go."

"In time," replied the King. "You may go, Herr Winthrop."

"Go and scribble no more," added the Chancellor.

I could hear them laughing as I made my escape from the room. It could not be expected of me to join them. And Gretchen was as far away as ever. Phyllis love me? It was absurd. Gretchen had played me the fool. She had been laughing at me all the time. Yet, she had begged my life of the Prince, and on her knees. Or, was it a lie of his? Oh, it seemed to me that my brain would never become clear again.

In the afternoon at four I was ushered into the boudoir of Her Highness the Princess Elizabeth. It was Phyllis no longer; Phyllis had passed; and I became conscious of a vague regret.

"I am glad," she said, "that you were able to come. I wanted to speak to you about--about my sister."

"Your Highness--"

She laughed. "Our interview shall end at once if you call me by that title. Sir," with a gaiety which struck me as unnatural, "you are witnessing the passing of Phyllis. It will not be long before she shall pass away and never more return, and the name shall fade till it becomes naught but a dear memory. Phyllis has left the green pastures for the city, and Corydon followeth not."

"Phyllis," said I, "you are cutting me to the heart."

"But to the matter at hand," she said quickly. "There is a misunderstanding between you and my sister Hildegarde. She sent me this letter. Read it."

It differed but little from the one I had read in the King's chamber that morning. I gave it back to her.

"Do you understand?"

"I confess that I do not. It seems that I am never going to understand anything again."

Phyllis balanced the letter on the palm of her hand. "You are so very blind, my dear friend. Did you not tell her that there had been another affair? Do you not believe she thinks your regard for her merely a matter of pique, of consolation? It was very kind of her to sacrifice herself for me. Some women are willing to give up all to see the man they love made happy. My sister is one of those. But I shall refuse the gift. Jack, can you not see that the poor woman thinks that you love me?" Phyllis was looking at me with the greatest possible kindness.

"I know not what she thinks. I only know that she has written me that she is sorry for having played with my affections. Phyllis, if she loved me she would not leave me as she has done."

"Oh, these doubting Thomases!" exclaimed Phyllis. "How do you know that she does not love you? Have you one true proof that she does not? No; but you have a hundred that she does."

"But--"

"Do you love her?" demanded Phyllis, stamping her foot with impatience.

"Love her? Have I not told you that I do?" gloomily.

"And will you give her up because she writes you a letter? What has ink to do with love and a woman? If you do not set out at once to find her, I shall never forgive you. She is my sister, and by that I know that you cannot win her by sitting still. Go find her and tell her that you will never leave her till she is your wife. I do not mean to infer," with a smile, "that you will leave her after. Go to her as a master; that is the way a woman loves to be wooed. Marry her and be happy; and I shall come and say, 'Heaven bless you, my children.' I have accepted the renunciation of her claims so that she may be free to wed you. If you do not find her, I will. Since I have her promise to teach me the lesson of being a Princess, she cannot have gone far. And when you are married you will promise to visit me often? I shall be very lonely now; I shall be far away from my friends; I shall be in a prison, and men call it a palace."

"I will promise you anything you may ask," I said eagerly. A new hope and a new confidence had risen in my heart. I wonder where man got the idea that he is lord of creation when he depends so much upon woman? "And you will really be my sister, too!" taking her hands and kissing them. "And you will think of me a little, will you not?"

"Yes." She slowly withdrew her hands. "If you do not find her, write to me."

"Your Highness, it is my hope that some day you will meet a Prince who will be worthy of you, who will respect and honor you as I do."

"Who can say? You have promised the King to become a subject of Hohenphalia."

"Yes."

"Then you will be a subject of mine. It is my will--I am in a sovereign mood--that you at once proceed to find Hildegarde, and I will give her to you."

We had arrived at the head of the stairs. The departing light of the smoldering sun poured through the stained windows. The strands of her hair were like a thousand flames, and her eyes had turned to gold, and there was a smile on her lips which filled me with strange uneasiness. I kissed her hands again, then went down the stairs. At the foot I turned.

"Auf wiedersehen!"

"Good-by!"

My ear detected the barest falter in her voice, and something glistened on her eyelashes. . . . Ah! why could not the veil have remained before my eyes and let me gone in darkness? Suddenly I was looking across the chasm of years. There was a young girl in white, a table upon which stood a pitcher. It was a garden scene, and the air was rich with perfumes. The girl's hair and eyes were brown, and there were promises of great beauty. Then, as swiftly as it came, the vision vanished.

On reaching the street I was aware that my sight had grown dim and that things at a distance were blurred. Perhaps it was the cold air.

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CHAPTER XXIVImmediately Pembroke and I journeyed to the feudal inn. When we arrived a mixture of rain and snow was falling. But I laughed at that. What if I were drenched to the skin with chill rain and snow, my heart was warm, warmer than it had been in many a day. Woman is infallible when she reads the heart of another. Phyllis said that Gretchen loved me; it only remained for me to find her. Pembroke began to grumble. "I am wet through," he said, as our steaming horses plodded along in the melting snow.
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CHAPTER XXIIThe affair caused considerable stir. The wise men of diplomacy shook their heads over it and predicted grave things in store for Hohenphalia. Things were bad enough as they were, but to have a woman with American ideas at the head--well, it was too dreadful to think of. And the correspondents created a hubbub. The news was flashed to Paris, to London, thence to New York the illustrated weeklies printed full-page pictures of the new Princess who had but a few months since been one of the society belles. And everybody was wondering who the
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