THE GOOSE GIRL
With Illustrations by Andre Castaigne
Indianapolis The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers
I SOME IN RAGS II AN AMERICAN CONSULT III FOR HER COUNTRY IV THE YOUNG VINTNER V A COMPATRIOT VI AT THE BLACK EAGLE VII AN ELDER BROTHER VIII THE KING'S LETTER IX GRETCHEN'S DAY X AFFAIRS OF STATE XI THE SOCIALISTS XII LOVE'S DOUBTS XIII A DAY DREAM XIV FIND THE WOMAN XV THE WRONG MAN XVI HER FAN XVII AFTER THE VINTAGE XVIII A WHITE SCAR XIX DISCLOSURES XX THE KING XXI TWIN LOCKETS XXII A LITTLE FINGER XXIII HAPPINESS
SOME IN RAGS
An old man, clothed in picturesque patches and tatters, paused and leaned on his stout oak staff. He was tired. He drew off his rusty felt hat, swept a sleeve across his forehead, and sighed. He had walked many miles that day, and even now the journey's end, near as it really was, seemed far away. Ah, but he would sleep soundly that night, whether the bed were of earth or of straw. His peasant garb rather enhanced his fine head. His eyes were blue and clear and far-seeing, the eyes of a hunter or a woodsman, of a man who watches the shadows in the forest at night or the dim, wavering lines on the horizon at daytime; things near or far or roundabout. His brow was high, his nose large and bridged; a face of more angles than contours, bristling with gray spikes, like one who has gone unshaven several days. His hands, folded over the round, polished knuckle of his staff, were tanned and soiled, but they were long and slender, and the callouses were pink, a certain indication that they were fresh.
The afternoon glow of the September sun burned along the dusty white highway. From where he stood the road trailed off miles behind and wound up five hundred feet or more above him to the ancient city of Dreiberg. It was not a steep road, but a long and weary one, a steady, enervating, unbroken climb. To the left the mighty cliff reared its granite side to the hanging city, broke in a wide plain, and then went on up several thousand feet to the ledges of dragon-green ice and snow. To the right sparkled and flashed a wild mountain stream on its way to the broad, fertile valley, which, mistily green and brown and yellow with vineyards and hops and corn, spread out and on to the north, stopping abruptly at the base of the more formidable chain of mountains.
Across this lofty jumble of barren rock and glacial cleft, now purpling and darkening as the sun mellowed in its decline, lay the kingdom of Jugendheit; and toward this the wayfarer gazed meditatively, absorbing little or nothing of the exquisite panorama. By and by his gaze wavered, and that particular patch in the valley, brown from the beating of many iron-shod horses, caught and chained his interest for a space. It was the military field, and it glittered and scintillated as squadron after squadron of cavalry dashed from side to side or wheeled in bewildering circles.
"The philosophy of war is to prepare for it," mused the old man, with a jerk of his shoulders. "France! So the mutter runs. There is a Napoleon in France, but no Bonaparte. Clatter-clatter! Bang-bang!" He laughed ironically and cautiously glanced at his watch, an article which must have cost him many and many a potato-patch. He pulled his hat over his eyes, scratched the irritating stubble on his chin, and stepped forward.
He had followed yonder goose-girl ever since the incline began. Oft the little wooden shoes had lagged, but here they were, still a hundred yards or more ahead of him. He had never been close enough to distinguish her features. The galloping of soldiers up and down the road from time to time disturbed her flock, but she was evidently a patient soul, and relied valiantly upon her stick of willow. Once or twice he had been inclined to hasten his steps, to join her, to talk, to hear the grateful sound of his own voice, which he had not heard since he passed the frontier customs; yet each time he had subdued the desire and continued to lessen none of the distance between them.
The little goose-girl was indeed tired, and the little wooden shoes grew heavier and heavier, and the little bare feet ached dully; but her heart was light and her mind sweet with happiness. Day after day she had tended the geese in the valley and trudged back at evening alone, all told a matter of twelve miles; and now she was bringing them into the city to sell in the market on the morrow. After that she would have little to do save an hour or two at night in a tavern called the Black Eagle, where she waited on patrons.
On the two went, the old man in tatters, the goose-girl in wooden shoes. The man listened; she was singing brightly, and the voice was sweet and strong and true.
"She is happy; that is some recompense. She is richer than I am." And the peasant fell into a reverie.
Presently there was a clatter of horses, a jingle of bit and spur and saber. The old man stepped to the side of the road and sat down on the stone parapet. It would be wiser now to wait till the dust settled. Half a dozen mounted officers trotted past. The peasant on the parapet instantly recognized one of the men. He saluted with a humbleness which lacked sincerity. It was the grand duke himself. There was General Ducwitz, too, and some of his staff, and a smooth-faced, handsome young man in civilian riding-clothes, who, though he rode like a cavalryman, was obviously of foreign birth, an Englishman or an American. They were laughing and chatting amiably, for the grand duke of Ehrenstein bothered himself about formalities only at formal times. The outsider watched them regretfully as they went by, and there was some envy in his heart, too.
When the cavalcade reached the goose-girl, the peace of the scene vanished forthwith. Confusion took up the scepter. The silly geese, instead of remaining on the left of the road, in safety, straightway determined that their haven of refuge was on the opposite side. Gonk-gonk! Quack-quack! They scrambled, they blundered, they flew. Some tried to go over the horses, some endeavored to go under. One landed, full-winged, against the grand duke's chest and swept his vizored cap off his head and rolled it into the dust. The duke signed to his companions to draw up; to proceed in this undignified manner was impossible. All laughed heartily, however; all excepting the goose-girl. To her it was far from being a laughing matter. It would take half an hour to calm her stupid charges. And she was so tired.
"Stupids!" she cried despairingly.
"From pigs and chickens, good Lord deliver us!" shouted the civilian, sliding from his horse and recovering the duke's cap.
Now, the duke was a kind-hearted, thoughtful man, notwithstanding his large and complex affairs of state; as he ceased laughing, he searched a pocket, and tossed a couple of coins to the forlorn goose-girl.
"I am sorry, little one," he said gravely. "I hope none of your geese is hurt."
"Oh, Highness!" cried the girl, breathless from her recent endeavors and overcome with the grandeur of the two ducal effigies in her hand. She had seen the grand duke times without number, but she had never yet been so near to him. And now he had actually spoken to her. It was a miracle. She would tell them all that night in the dark old Krumerweg. And for the moment his prospect overshadowed all thought of her geese.
The civilian dusted the royal cap with his sleeve, returned it, and mounted. He then looked casually at the girl.
"By George!" he exclaimed, in English.
"What is it?" asked the duke, gathering up the reins.
"The girl's face; it is beautiful."
The duke, after a glance, readily agreed. "You Americans are always observant."
"Whenever there's a pretty face about," supplemented Ducwitz.
"I certainly shouldn't trouble to look at a homely one," the American retorted.
"Pretty figure, too," said one of the aides, a colonel. But his eye held none of the abstract admiration which characterized the American's.
The goose-girl had seen this look in other men's eyes; she knew. A faint color grew under her tan, and waned, but her eyes wavered not the breadth of a hair. It was the colonel who finally was forced to turn his gaze elsewhere, chagrined. His face was not unfamiliar to her.
"Beauty is a fickle goddess," remarked Ducwitz tritely, settling himself firmly in the saddle. "In giving, she is as blind as a bat. I know a duchess now—but never mind."
"Let us be going forward," interrupted the duke. There were more vital matters under hand than the beauty of a strolling goose-girl.
So the troop proceeded with dust and small thunder, and shortly passed the city gates, which in modern times were never closed. It traversed the lumpy cobbles of the narrow streets, under hanging gables, past dim little shops and markets, often unintentionally crowding pedestrians into doorways or against the walls. One among those so inconvenienced was a youth dressed as a vintner. He was tall, pliantly built, blond as a Viking, possessing a singular beauty of the masculine order. He was forced to flatten himself against the wall of a house, his arms extended on either side, in a kind of temporary crucifixion. Even then the stirrup of the American touched him slightly. But it was not the touch of the stirrup that startled him; it was the dark, clean-cut face of the rider. Once they were by, the youth darted into a doorway.
"He? What can he be doing here? No, it is utterly impossible; it is merely a likeness."
He ventured forth presently, none of the perturbation, however, gone from his face. He ran his hand across his chin; yes, he would let his beard grow.
The duke and his escort turned into the broad and restful sweep of the Koenig Strasse, with its fashionable residences, shops, cafes and hotels. At the end of the Strasse was the Ehrenstein Platz, the great square round which ran the palaces and the royal and public gardens. On the way many times the duke raised his hand in salutations; for, while not exactly loved, he was liked for his rare clean living, his sound sense of justice and his honest efforts to do what was right. Opera-singers came and went, but none had ever penetrated into the private suites of the palace. The halt was made in the courtyard, and all dismounted.
The American thanked the duke gratefully for the use of the horse.
"You are welcome to a mount at all times, Mr. Carmichael," replied the duke pleasantly. "A man who rides as well as yourself may be trusted anywhere with any kind of a horse."
The group looked admiringly at the object of this marked attention. Here was one who had seen two years of constant and terrible warfare, who had ridden horses under fire, and who bore on his body many honorable scars. For the great civil strife in America had come to its close but two years before, and Europe was still captive to her amazement at the military prowess of the erstwhile inconsiderable American.
As Carmichael saluted and turned to leave the courtyard, he threw a swift, searching glance at one of the palace windows. Did the curtain stir? He could not say. He continued on, crossing the Platz, toward the Grand Hotel. He was a bachelor, so he might easily have had his quarters at the consulate; but as usual with American consulates—even to the present time—it was situated in an undesirable part of the town, over a Bierhalle frequented by farmers and the middle class. Having a moderately comfortable income of his own, he naturally preferred living at the Grand Hotel.
Where had he seen that young vintner before?
* * * * *
Meanwhile, the goose-girl set resolutely about the task of remarshaling her awkward squad. With a soft, clucking sound she moved hither and thither. A feather or two drifted lazily about in the air. At last she gathered them in, all but one foolish, blank-eyed gander, which, poising on a large boulder, threatened to dive headforemost into the torrent. She coaxed him gently, then severely, but without success. The old man in patches came up.
"Let me get him for you, Kindchen," he volunteered.
The good-fellowship in his voice impressed her far more than the humble state of his dress. But she smiled and shook her head.
"It is dangerous," she affirmed. "It will be wiser to wait. In a little while he will come down of his own accord."
"Bah!" cried the old man. "It is nothing; I am a mountaineer."
In spite of his weariness, he proved himself to be a dexterous climber. Foot by foot he crawled up the side of the huge stone. A slip, and his life would not have been worth one of the floating feathers. The gander saw him coming and stirred uneasily. Nearer and nearer came this human spider. The gander flapped its wings, but hesitated to take the leap. Instantly a brown hand shot up and caught the scaly yellow legs. There was much squawking on the way down, but when his gandership saw his more tractable brothers and sisters peacefully waddling up the road, he subsided and took his place in the ranks without more ado.
"You are a brave man, Herr." There was admiration in the girl's eyes.
"To court danger and to overcome obstacles is a part of my regular business. I do not know what giddiness is. You are welcome to the service. It is a long walk from the valley."
"I have walked it many times this summer. But this is the last day. To-morrow I sell the geese in the market to the hotels. They have all fine livers"—lightly touching a goose with her willow stick.
"What, the hotels?"—humorously.
"No, no, my geese!"
"What was that song you were singing before the horses came up?"
"That? It was from the poet Heine"—simply.
He stared at her with a rudeness not at all intentional.
"Heine? Can you read?"
The other walked along beside her in silence. After all, why not? Why should he be surprised? From one end of the world to the other printer's ink was spreading and bringing light. But a goose-girl who read Heine!
"And the music?" he inquired presently.
"That is mine"—with the first sign of diffidence. "Melodies are always running through my head. Sometimes they make me forget things I ought to remember."
"Your own music? An impresario will be discovering you some fine day, and your fortune will be made."
The light irony did not escape her. "I am only a goose-girl."
He felt disarmed. "What is your name?"
"Nothing else"—wistfully. "I never knew any father or mother."
"So?" This was easier for the other to understand. "But who taught you to read?"
"A priest. Once I lived in the mountains, at an inn. He used to come in evenings, when the snow was not too deep. He taught me to read and write, and many things besides. I know that Italy has all the works of art; that France has the most interesting history; that Germany has all the philosophers, and America all the money," adding a smile. "I should like to see America. Sometimes I find a newspaper, and I read it all through."
"A little, and geography."
"With all this wide learning you ought to be something better than a tender of geese."
"It is honest work, and that is good."
"I meant nothing wrong, Kindchen. But you would find it easier in a milliner's shop, as a lady's maid, something of that order."
"With these?"—holding out her hands.
"It would not take long to whiten them. Do you live alone?"
"No. I live with my foster-mother, who is very old. I call her grandmother. She took me in when I was a foundling; now I am taking care of her. She has always been good to me. And what might your name be?"
"Ludwig what?"—inquisitive in her turn.
"Oh, the other does not matter. I am a mountaineer from Jugendheit."
"Jugendheit?" She paused to look at him more closely. "We are not friendly with your country."
"More's the pity. It is a grave blunder on the part of the grand duke. There is a mote in his eye."
"Wasn't it all about the grand duke's daughter?"
"Yes. But she has been found. Yet the duke is as bitter as of old. He is wrong, he was always wrong." The old man spoke with feeling. "What is this new-found princess like?"
"She is beautiful and kind."
The geese were behaving, and only occasionally was she obliged to use her stick. And as her companion asked no more questions, she devoted her attention to the flock, proud of their broad backs and full breasts.
On his part, he observed her critically, for he was more than curious now, he was interested. She was not tall, but her lithe slenderness gave her the appearance of tallness. Her hands, rough-nailed and sunburnt, were small and shapely; the bare foot in the wooden shoe might have worn without trouble Cinderella's magic slipper. Her clothes, coarse and homespun, were clean and variously mended. Her hair, in a thick braid, was the tone of the heart of a chestnut-bur, and her eyes were of that mystifying hazel, sometimes brown, sometimes gray, according to whether the sky was clear or overcast. And there was something above and beyond all these things, a modesty, a gentleness and a purity; none of the bold, rollicking, knowing manner so common in handsome peasant girls. He contemplated her through half-closed eyes and gave her in fancy the tariffing furbelows of a woman of fashion; she would have been beautiful.
"How old are you, Gretchen?"
"I do not know," she answered, "perhaps eighteen, perhaps twenty."
Again they went forward in silence. By the time they reached the gates the sun was no longer visible on the horizon, but it had gone down ruddy and uncrowned by any cloud, giving promise of a fair day on the morrow. The afterglow on the mountains across the valley was now in its prime glory; and once the two wayfarers paused and commented upon it. Once more the mountaineer was agreeably surprised; the average peasant is impervious to atmospheric splendor, beauty carries no message.
Arriving at length in the city, they passed through the crooked streets, sometimes so narrow that the geese were packed from wall to wall. Oft some jovial soldier sent a jest or a query to them across the now gray backs of the geese. But Gretchen looked on ahead, purely and serenely.
"Gretchen, where shall I find the Adlergasse?"
"We pass through it shortly. I will show you. You are also a stranger in Dreiberg?"
They took the next turn, and the weather-beaten sign Zum Schwartzen Adler, hanging in front of a frame house of many gables, caused the mountaineer to breathe gratefully.
"Here my journey ends, Gretchen. The Black Eagle," he added, in an undertone; "it is unchanged these twenty years. Heaven send that the beds are softer than aforetime!"
They were passing a clock-mender's shop. The man from Jugendheit peered in the window, which had not been cleaned in an age, but there was no clock in sight to give him warning of the time, and he dared not now look at his watch. He had a glimpse of the ancient clock-mender himself, however, huddled over a table upon which sputtered a candle. It touched up his face with grotesque lights. Here was age, mused the man outside the window; nothing less than fourscore years rested upon those rounded shoulders. The face was corrugated with wrinkles, like a frosted road; eyes heavily spectacled, a ragged thatch of hair on the head, a ragged beard on the chin. Aware of a shadow between him and the fading daylight, the clock-mender looked up from his work. The eyes of the two men met, but only for a moment.
The mountaineer, who felt rejuvenated by this contrast, straightened his shoulders and started to cross the street to the tavern.
"Good night, Gretchen. Good luck to you and your geese to-morrow."
"Thanks, Herr Ludwig. And will you be long in the city?"
"That depends; perhaps," adding a grim smile in answer to a grim thought.
He offered his hand, which she accepted trustfully. He was a strange old man, but she liked him. When she withdrew her hand, something cold and hard remained in her palm. Wonders of all the world! It was a piece of gold. Her eyes went up quickly, but the giver smiled reassuringly and put a finger against his lips.
"But, Herr," she remonstrated.
"Keep it; I give it to you. Do not question providence, and I am her handmaiden just now. Go along with you."
So Gretchen in a mild state of stupefaction turned away. Clat-clat! sang the little wooden shoes. A plaintive gonk rose as she prodded a laggard from the dank gutter. A piece of gold! Clat-clat! Clat-clat! Surely this had been a day of marvels; two crowns from the grand duke and a piece of gold from this old man in peasant clothes. Instinctively she knew that he was not a peasant. But what could he be? Comparison would have made him a king. She was too tired and hungry to make further deductions.
She was regarded with kindly eyes till the dark jaws of the Krumerweg swallowed up both her and her geese.
"Poor little goose-girl!" he thought. "If she but knew, she could make a bonfire of a thousand hearts. A fine day!" He eyed again the battered sign. It was then that he discerned another, leaning from the ledge of the first story of the house adjoining the tavern. It was the tarnished shield of the United States.
"What a penurious government it must be! Two weeks, tramping about the country in this unholy garb, following false trails half the time, living on crusts and cold meats. Ah, you have led me a merry dance, nephew, but I shall not forget!"
He entered the tavern and applied for a room, haggling over the price.
AN AMERICAN CONSUL
The nights in Dreiberg during September are often chill. The heavy mists from the mountain slip down the granite clifts and spread over the city, melting all sharp outlines, enfeebling the gas-lamps, and changing the moon, if there happens to be one, into something less than a moon and something more than a pewter disk. And so it was this night.
Carmichael, in order to finish his cigar on the little balcony fronting his window, found it necessary to put on his light overcoat, though he perfectly knew that he was in no manner forced to smoke on the balcony. But the truth was he wanted a clear vision of the palace and the lighted windows thereof, and of one in particular. He had no more sense than Tom-fool, the abetter of follies. She was as far removed from him as the most alien of the planets; but the magnet shall ever draw the needle, and a woman shall ever draw a man. He knew that it was impossible, that it grew more impossible day by day, and he railed at himself bitterly and satirically.
He sighed and teetered his legs. A sigh moves nothing forward, yet it is as essential as life itself. It is the safety-valve to every emotion; it is the last thing in laughter, the last thing in tears. One sighs in entering the world and in leaving it, perhaps in protest. A child sighs for the moon because it knows no better. Carmichael sighed for the Princess Hildegarde, understanding. It was sigh or curse, and the latter mode of expression wastes more vitality. Oh, yes; they made over him, as the world goes; they dined and wined him and elected him honorary member to their clubs; they patted him on the back and called him captain; but it was all in a negligent toleration that turned every pleasure into rust.
Arthur Carmichael was Irish. He was born in America, educated there and elsewhere, a little while in Paris, a little while at Bonn, and, like all Irishmen, he was baned with the wandering foot; for the man who is homeless by choice has a subtle poison in his blood. He was at Bonn when the Civil War came. He went back to America and threw himself into the fight with all the ardor that had made his forebears famous in the service of the worthless Stuarts. It wasn't a question with him of the mere love of fighting, of tossing the penny; he knew with which side he wished to fight. He joined the cavalry of the North, and hammered and fought his way to a captaincy. He was wounded five times and imprisoned twice. His right eye was still weak from the effects of a powder explosion; and whenever it bothered him he wore a single glass, abominating, as all soldiers do, the burden of spectacles. At the end of the conflict he returned to Washington.
And then the inherent curse put a hand on his shoulder; he must be moving. His parents were dead; there was no anchor, nor had lying ambition enmeshed him. There was a little property, the income from which was enough for his wants. Without any influence whatever, save his pleasing address and his wide education, he blarneyed the State Department out of a consulate. They sent him to Ehrenstein, at a salary not worth mentioning, with the diplomatic halo of dignity as a tail to the kite. He had been in the service some two years by now, and those who knew him well rather wondered at his sedative turn of mind. Two years in any one place was not in reckoning as regarded Carmichael; yet, here he was, caring neither for promotion nor exchange. So, then, all logical deductions simmered down to one: Cherchez la femme.
He knew that his case would never be tried in court nor settled out of it; and he realized that it would be far better to weigh anchor and set his course for other parts. But no man ever quite forsakes his dream-woman; and he had endued a princess with all the shining attributes of an angel, when, had he known it, she was only angelic.
The dreamer is invariably tripping over his illusions; and Carmichael was rather boyish in his dreams. What absurd romances he was always weaving round her! What exploits on her behalf! But never anything happened, and never was the grand duke called upon to offer his benediction.
It was all very foolish and romantic and impossible, and no one recognized this more readily than he. No American ever married a princess of a reigning house, and no American ever will. This law is as immovable as the law of gravitation. Still, man is master of his dreams, and he may do as he pleases in the confines of this small circle. Outside these temporary lapses, Carmichael was a keen, shrewd, far-sighted young man, close-lipped and observant, never forgetting faces, never forgetting benefits, loving a fight but never provoking one. So he and the world were friends. Diplomacy has its synonym in tact, and he was an able tactician, for all that an Irishman is generally likened to a bull in a china-shop.
"How the deuce will it end?"—musing half aloud. "I'll forget myself some day and trip so hard that they'll be asking Washington for my recall. I'll go over to the gardens and listen to the band. They are playing dirges to-night, and anything funereal will be a light and happy tonic to my present state of mind."
He was standing on the curb in front of the hotel, his decision still unrounded, when he noticed a closed carriage hard by the fountain in the Platz. The driver dozed on his box.
"Humph! There's a man who is never troubled with counting the fool's beads. Silver and copper are his gods and goddesses. Ha! a fare!"
A woman in black, thoroughly veiled and cloaked, came round from the opposite side of the fountain. She spoke to the driver, and he tumbled off the box, alive and hearty. There seemed to be a short interchange of words of mutual satisfaction. The lady stepped into the carriage, the driver woke up his ancient Bucephalus, and went clickety-clack down the Koenig Strasse toward the town.
To Carmichael it was less than an incident. He twirled his cane and walked toward the public gardens. Here he strolled about, watching the people, numerous but orderly, with a bright military patch here and there. The band struck up again, and he drifted with the crowd toward the pavilion. The penny-chairs were occupied, so he selected a spot off-side, near enough for all auditual purposes. One after another he carelessly scanned the faces of those nearest. He was something of an amateur physiognomist, but he seldom made the mistakes of the tyro.
Within a dozen feet of him, her arms folded across her breast, her eyes half shut in the luxury of the senses, stood the goose-girl. He smiled as he recalled the encounter of that afternoon. It was his habit to ride to the maneuvers every day, and several times he had noticed her, as well as any rider is able to notice a pedestrian. But that afternoon her beauty came home to him suddenly and unexpectedly. Had she been other than what she was, a woman well-gowned, for instance, riding in her carriage, his interest would have waned in the passing. But it had come with the same definite surprise as when one finds a rare and charming story in a dilapidated book.
"Why couldn't I have fallen in love with some one like this?" he cogitated.
With a friendly smile on his lips, he took a step toward her, but instantly paused. Colonel von Wallenstein of the general staff approached her from the other side, and Carmichael was curious to find out what that officer's object was. Wallenstein was a capital soldier, and a jolly fellow round a board, but beyond that Carmichael had no real liking for him. There were too many scented notes stuck in his pockets.
The colonel dropped his cigarette, leaned over Gretchen's shoulder and spoke a few words. At first she gave no heed. The colonel persisted. Without a word in reply, she resolutely sought the nearest policeman. Wallenstein, remaining where he was, laughed. Meantime the policeman frowned. It was incredible; his excellency could not possibly have intended any wrong, it was only a harmless pleasantry. Gretchen's lips quivered; the law of redress in Ehrenstein had no niche for the goose-girl.
"Good evening, colonel," said Carmichael pleasantly. "Why can't your bandmaster give us light opera once in a while?"
The colonel pulled his mustache in chagrin, but he did not give Carmichael the credit for bringing about this cheapening sense. For the time being Gretchen was freed from annoyance. The colonel certainly could not rush off to her and give this keen-eyed American an opportunity to witness a further rebuff.
"Light operas are rare at present," he replied, accepting his defeat amiably enough.
"Paris is full of them just now," continued Carmichael.
"Paris? Would you like a riot in the gardens?" asked the colonel, amused.
"A riot?" said Carmichael derisively. "Why, nothing short of a bombshell would cause a riot among your phlegmatic Germans."
"I believe you love your Paris better than your Dreiberg."
"Not a bit of doubt. And down in your heart you do, too. Think of the lights, the theaters, the cafes and the pretty women!" Carmichael's cane described a flourish as if to draw a picture of these things.
"Yes, yes," agreed the colonel reminiscently; "you are right. There is no other night equal to a Parisian night. Ach, Gott! But think of the mornings, think of the mornings!"—dolefully.
"On the contrary, let us not think of them!"—with a mock shudder.
And then a pretty woman rose from a chair near-by. She nodded brightly at the colonel, who bowed, excused himself to Carmichael, and made off after her.
"I believe I stepped on his toe that time," said Carmichael to himself.
Then he looked round for Gretchen. She was still at the side of the policeman. She had watched the scene between the two men, but was quite unconscious that it had been set for her benefit. She came back. Carmichael stepped confidently to her side and raised his hat.
"Did you get your geese together without mishap?" he asked.
The instinct of the child always remains with the woman. Gretchen smiled. This young man would be different, she knew.
"They were only frightened. But his highness"—eagerly—"was he very angry?"
"Angry? Not the least. He was amused. But he was nearly knocked off his horse. If you lived in America now, you might reap a goodly profit from that goose."
"You could put him in a museum and exhibit him as an intimate friend of the grand duke of Ehrenstein."
But Gretchen did not laugh. It was a serious thing to talk lightly of so grand a person as the duke. Still, the magic word America, where the gold came from, flamed her curiosity.
"You are from America?"
"Are you rich?"
"In fancy, in dreams"—humorously.
"Oh! I thought they were all rich."
"Only one or two of us."
"Is it very large, this America?"
"France, Spain, Prussia would be lonesome if set down in America. Only Russia has anything to boast of."
"Did you fight in the war?"
"Yes. Do you like music?"
"Were you ever wounded?"
"A scratch or two, nothing to speak of. But do you like music?"
"Very, very much. When they play Beethoven, Bach, or Meyerbeer, ach, I seem to live in another country. I hear music in everything, in the leaves, the rain, the wind, the stream."
It seemed strange to him that he had not noticed it at first, the almost Hanoverian purity of her speech and the freedom with which she spoke. The average peasant is diffident, with a vocabulary of few words, ignorant of art or music or where the world lay.
"What is your name?"
"It is a good name; it is famous, too."
"Goethe used it."
"So he did." Carmichael ably concealed his surprise: "You have some one who reads to you?"
"No, Herr. I can read and write and do sums in addition."
He was willing to swear that she was making fun of him. Was she a simple goose-girl? Was she not something more, something deeper? War-clouds were forming in the skies; they might gather and strike at any time. And who but the French could produce such a woman spy? Ehrenstein was not Prussia, it was true; but the duchy with its twenty thousand troops was one of the many pulses that beat in unison with this man Bismarck's plans. Carmichael addressed her quickly in French, aiming to catch her off her guard.
"I do not speak French, Herr,"—honestly.
He was certainly puzzled, but a glance at her hands dissolved his doubts. These hands were used to toil, they were in no way disguised. No Frenchwoman would sacrifice her hands for her country; at least, not to this extent. Yet the two things in his mind would not readily cohese: a goose-girl who was familiar with the poets and composers.
"You have been to school?"
"After a manner. My teacher was a kind priest. But he never knew that, with knowledge, he was to open the gates of discontent."
"Then you are not happy with your lot?"
"Is any one, Herr?"—quietly. "And who might you be, and what might you be doing here in Dreiberg, riding with the grand duke?"
"I am the American consul."
Gretchen took a step back.
"Oh, it is nothing that will bite you," he added.
"But perhaps I have been disrespectful!"
Gretchen found that she had no definite explanation to offer.
"What did Colonel Wallenstein say to you?"
"Nothing of importance. I am used to it. I am perfectly able to take care of myself," she answered.
"But he annoyed you."
"That is true," she admitted.
"What did the policeman say?"
"What would he say to a goose-girl?"
"Shall I speak to him?"
"Would it really do any good?"—skeptically.
"It might. The duke is friendly toward me, and I am certain he would not tolerate such conduct in his police."
"You would only make enemies for me; insolence would become persecution. I know. Yet, I thank you, Herr—"
"Carmichael. Now, listen, Gretchen; if at any time you are in trouble, you will find me at the Grand Hotel or at the consulate next door to the Black Eagle."
"I shall remember. Sometimes I work in the Black Eagle." And recollection rose in her mind of the old man who had given her the gold piece.
"Good night," he said.
"Thank you, Herr."
Gretchen extended her hand and Carmichael took it in his own, inspecting it.
"Why do you do that?"
"It is a good hand; it is strong, too."
"It has to be strong, Herr. Good night."
Carmichael raised his hat again, and Gretchen breathed contentedly as she saw him disappear in the crowd. That little act of courtesy made everything brighter. There was only one other who ever touched his hat to her respectfully. And as she stood there, dreaming over the unusual happenings of the day, she felt an arm slip through hers, gently but firmly, even with authority. Her head went round.
"Leo?" she whispered.
The young vintner whom Carmichael had pushed against the wall that day smiled from under the deep shade of his hat, drawn down well over his face.
"Gretchen, who was that speaking to you?"
"Herr Carmichael, the American consul."
"Carmichael!" The arm in Gretchen's stiffened.
"What is it, Leo?"
"Nothing. Only, I grow mad with rage when any of these gentlemen speak to you. Gentlemen! I know them all too well."
"This one means no harm."
"I would I were certain. Ah, how I love you!" he whispered.
Gretchen thrilled and drew his arm closely against her side.
"To me the world began but two weeks ago. I have just begun to live."
"I am glad," said Gretchen. "But listen."
The band was playing again.
"Sometimes I am jealous even of that."
"I love you none the less for loving it."
"I know; but I am sad and lonely to-night"—gloomily. "I want all your thoughts."
"Are they not always yours? And why should you be sad and miserable?"
"Leo, as much as I love you, there is always a shadow."
"It is always at night that I see you, rarely in the bright daytime. What do you do during the day? It is not yet vintage. What do you do?"
"Will you trust me a little longer, Gretchen, just a little longer?"
"Always, not a little longer, always. But wait till the music stops and I will tell you of my adventure."
"You have had an adventure?"—distrustfully.
"Yes. Be still."
There were tones in Gretchen's voice that the young vintner could never quite understand. There was a will little less than imperial, and often as he rebelled, he never failed to bow to it.
"What was this adventure?" he demanded, as the music stopped.
She told him about the geese, the grand duke, and the two crowns. He laughed, and she joined him, for it was amusing now.
The musicians were putting away their instruments, the crowd was melting, the attendants were stacking the chairs, so the two lovers went out of the gardens toward the town and the Krumerweg.
Meanwhile Carmichael had lectured the policeman, who was greatly disturbed.
"Your Excellency, I am sure Colonel von Wallenstein meant no harm."
"Are you truthfully sure?"
The policeman plucked at his beard nervously. "It is every man for himself, as your excellency knows. Had I spoken to the colonel, he would have had me broken."
"You could have appealed to the duke."
"Perhaps. I am sorry for the girl, but I have a family to take care of."
"Well, mark me; this little woman loves music; she comes here often. The next time she is annoyed by Wallenstein or any one else, you report it to me. I'll see that it reaches his highness."
"I shall gladly do that, your Excellency."
Carmichael left the gardens and wandered with aimless step. He was surprised to find that he was opposite the side gates to the royal gardens. His feet had followed the bent of his mind. Yet he did not cross the narrow side street. The sound of carriage wheels caused him to halt. He waited. The carriage he had seen by the fountain drew up before the gates, and the woman in black alighted. She spoke to the sentinel, who opened the gates and closed them. The veiled lady vanished abruptly beyond the shrubbery.
"I wonder who that was?" was Carmichael's internal question. "Bah! Some lady-in-waiting with an affair on hand."
FOR HER COUNTRY
"Count, must I tell you again not to broach that subject? There can be no alliance between Ehrenstein and Jugendheit."
"Why?" asked Count von Herbeck, chancellor, coolly returning the angry flash from the ducal eyes.
"There are a thousand reasons why, but it is not my purpose to name them."
"Name only one, your Highness, only one."
"Will that satisfy you?"
"One of my reasons is that I do not want any alliance with a country so perfidious as Jugendheit. What! I make overtures? I, who have been so cruelly wronged all these years? You are mad."
"But what positive evidence have you that Jugendheit wronged you?"
"Positive? Have I eyes and ears? Have I not seen and read and heard?" This time the duke struck the desk savagely. "Why do you always rouse me in this fashion, Herbeck? You know how distasteful all this is to me."
"Your highness knows that I look only to the welfare of the country. In the old days it was a foregone conclusion that this alliance was to be formed. Now, you persist in averring that the late king was the chief conspirator in abducting her serene highness, aided by Arnsberg, whose successor I have the honor to be. I have never yet seen any proofs. You have never yet produced them. Show me something which absolutely convicts them, and I'll surrender."
"On your honor?"
The grand duke struck the bell on the chancellor's desk.
"My secretary, and tell him to bring me the packet marked A. He will understand."
The two men waited without speaking, each busy with thought. The duke had been in his youth, and was still, a handsome man, splendidly set up, healthy and vigorous, keen mentally, and whatever stubbornness he possessed nicely balanced by common sense. He might have been guilty in his youth of a few human peccadillos, but the kingly and princely excesses which at that time were making the east side of the Rhine the scandal of the world had in no wise sullied his name. Ehrenstein means "stone of honor," and he had always carried the thought of this in his heart. He was frank in his likes and dislikes, he hated secrets, and he loved an opponent who engaged him in the open. Herbeck often labored with him over this open manner, but the mind he sought to work upon was as receptive to political hypocrisy as a wall of granite. It was this extraordinary rectitude which made the duke so powerful an aid to Bismarck in the days that followed. The Man of Iron needed this sort of character as a cover and a buckler to his own duplicities.
Herbeck was an excellent foil. He was as silent and secretive as sand. He moved, as it were, in circles, thus always eluding dangerous corners. He was tall, angular, with a thin, immobile countenance, well guarded by his gray eyes and straight lips. He was a born financier, with almost limitless ambition, though only he himself knew how far this ambition reached. He had not brought prosperity to Ehrenstein, but he had fortified and bastioned it against extravagance, and this was probably the larger feat of the two. He loved his country, and brooded over it as a mother broods over her child. Twice had he saved Ehrenstein from the drag-net of war, and with honor. So he was admired by fathers and revered by mothers.
The secretary came in and laid a thin packet of papers on the chancellor's desk. "It was the packet A, your Highness?"—his hand still resting upon the documents.
"Yes. You may go."
The secretary bowed and withdrew.
The duke stirred the papers angrily, took one of them and spread it out with a rasp.
"Look at that. Whose writing, I ask?"
Herbeck adjusted his glasses and scrutinized the slanting hieroglyphics. He ran over it several times. At length he opened a drawer in his desk, sorted some papers, and brought out a yellow letter. This he laid down beside the other.
"Yes, they are alike. This will be Arnsberg. But"—mildly—"who may say that it is not a cunning forgery?"
"Forgery!" roared the duke. "Read this one from the late king of Jugendheit to Arnsberg, then, if you still doubt."
Herbeck read slowly and carefully.
Then he rose and walked to the nearest window, studying the letter again in the sharper light. Presently his hands fell behind his back and met about the paper, while he himself stared over into the royal gardens. He remained in this attitude for some time.
"Well?" said the duke impatiently.
Herbeck returned to his chair. "I wish that you had shown me these long ago."
"To what end?"
"You accused the king?"
"Certainly, but he denied it."
"In a letter?"
"Yes. Here, read it."
Herbeck compared the two. "Where did you find these?"
"In Arnsberg's desk," returned the duke, the anger in his eyes giving place to gloomy retrospection. "Arnsberg, my boyhood playmate, the man I loved and trusted and advanced to the highest office in my power. Is that not the way? Do we ever trust any one fully without being in the end deceived? Well, dead or alive," the duke continued, his throat swelling, "ten thousand crowns to him who brings Arnsberg to me, dead or alive."
"He will never come back," said Herbeck.
"Not if he is wise. He was clever. He sent all his fortune to Paris, so I found, and what I confiscated was nothing but his estate. But do you believe me"—putting a hand against his heart—"something here tells me that some day fate will drag him back and give him into my hands?"
"You are very bitter."
"And have I not cause? Did not my wife die of a broken heart, and did I not become a broken man? You do not know all, Herbeck, not quite all. Franz also sought the hand of the Princess Sofia. He, too, loved her, but I won. Well, his revenge must have been sweet to him."
"But your daughter has been restored to her own."
"Due to your indefatigable efforts alone. Ah, Herbeck, nothing will ever fill up the gap between, nothing will ever restore the mother." The duke bowed his head.
Herbeck studied him thoughtfully.
"I love my daughter and she loves me, but I don't know what it is, I can't explain it," irresolutely.
"What can not your highness explain?"
"Perhaps the gap is too wide, perhaps the separation has been too long."
Herbeck did not press the duke to be more explicit. He opened another drawer and took forth a long hood envelope, crested and sealed.
"Your Highness, here is a letter from the prince regent of Jugendheit, formally asking the hand of the Princess Hildegarde for his nephew, Frederick, who will shortly be crowned. My advice is to accept, to let bygones be bygones."
"Write the prince that I respectfully decline."
"Do nothing in haste, your Highness. Temporize; say that you desire some time to think about the matter. You can change your mind at any time. A reply like this commits you to nothing, whereas your abrupt refusal will only widen the breach."
"The wider the breach the better."
"No, no, your Highness; the past has disturbed you. We can stand war, and it is possible that we might win, even against Jugendheit; but war at this late day would be a colossal blunder. Victory would leave us where we began thirty years ago. One does not go to war for a cause that has been practically dead these sixteen years. And an insult to Jugendheit might precipitate war. It would be far wiser to let me answer the prince regent, saying that your highness will give the proposal your thoughtful consideration."
"Have your way, then, but on your head be it if you commit me to anything."
The duke was about to gather up his documentary evidence, when Herbeck touched his hand.
"I have an idea," said the chancellor. "A great many letters reach me from day to day. I have an excellent memory. Who knows but that I might find the true conspirator, the archplotter? Leave them with me, your Highness."
"I shall not ask you to be careful with them, Herbeck."
"I shall treasure them as my life."
The duke departed, stirred as he had not been since the restoration of the princess. Herbeck sometimes irritated him, for he was never in the wrong, he was never impatient, he was never hasty, he never had to go over a thing twice. This supernal insight, which overlooked all things but results, set the duke wondering if Herbeck was truly all human. If only he could catch him at fault once in a while!
Count von Herbeck remained at his desk, his face as inscrutable as ever, his eyes without expression, and his lips expressing nothing. He smoothed out a sheet of paper, affixed the state seal, and in a flowing hand wrote a diplomatic note, considering the proposal of his royal highness, the prince regent of Jugendheit, on behalf of his nephew, the king. This he placed in the diplomatic pouch, called for a courier, and despatched him at once for the frontier.
The duke sought his daughter. She was in the music-room, surrounded by several of her young women companions, each holding some musical instrument in her hands. Hildegarde was singing. The duke paused, shutting his eyes and striving to recall the voice of the mother. When the voice died away and the young women leaned back in their chairs to rest, the duke approached. Upon seeing him all rose. With a smile he dismissed them.
"My child," he began, taking Hildegarde's hand and drawing her toward a window-seat, "the king of Jugendheit asks for your hand."
"Then I am to marry the king of Jugendheit?" There was little joy in her voice.
"Ah, we have not gone so far as that. The king, through his uncle, has simply made a proposal. How would you regard it, knowing what you do of the past, the years that you lived in comparative penury, amid hardships, unknown, and almost without name?"
"It is for you to decide, father. Whatever your decision is, I shall abide by it."
"It is a hard lesson we have to learn, my child. We can not always marry where we love; diplomacy and politics make other plans. But fortunately for you you love no one yet." He put his hand under her chin and searched the deeps of her gray eyes. These eyes were more like her mother's than anything else about her. "The king is young, handsome, they say, and rich. Politically speaking, it would be a great match."
"I am in your hands. You know what is best."
The duke was poignantly disappointed. Why did she not refuse outright, indignantly, contemptuously, as became one of the House of Ehrenstein? Anything rather than this complacency.
"What is he like?" disengaging his hand and turning her face toward the window.
"That no one seems to know. He has been to his capital but twice in ten years, which doubtless pleased his uncle, who loves power for its own sake. The young king has been in Paris most of the time. That's the way they educate kings these days. They teach them all the vices and make virtue an accident. Your father loves you, and if you are inclined toward his majesty, if it is in your heart to become a queen, I shall not let my prejudices stand in the way."
She caught up his hand with a strange passion and kissed it.
"Father, I do not want to marry any one," wistfully. "But a queen!" she added thoughtfully.
"It is only a sound, my dear; do not let it delude you. Herbeck advises this alliance, and while I realize that his judgment is right, my whole soul revolts against it. But all depends upon you."
"Would it benefit the people? Would it be for the good of the state?"
Here was reason. "Yes; my objections are merely personal," said the duke.
"For the good of my country, which I love, I am ready to make any sacrifice. I shall think it over."
"Very well; but weigh the matter carefully. There is never any retracing a step of this kind." He stood up, his heart heavy. Saying no more, he moved toward the door.
She gazed after him, and suddenly and silently she stretched out her arms, her eyes and face and lips yearning with love. Curiously enough, the duke happened to turn. He was at her side in a moment, holding her firm in his embrace.
"You are all I have, girl!" with a bit of break in his voice.
"My father!" She stroked his cheek.
When he left the room it was with lighter step.
The restoration of the Princess Hildegarde of Ehrenstein had been the sensation of Europe, as had been in the earlier days her remarkable abduction. For sixteen years the search had gone on fruitlessly. The cleverest adventuresses on the continent tried devious tricks to palm themselves off as the lost princess. From France they had come, from Prussia, Italy, Austria, Russia and England. But the duke and the chancellor held the secret, unknown to any one else—a locket. In a garret in Dresden the agents of Herbeck found her, a singer in the chorus of the opera. The newspapers and illustrated weeklies raged about her for a while, elaborated the story of her struggles, the mysterious remittances which had, from time to time, saved her from direst poverty, her ambition, her education which, by dint of hard work, she had acquired. It was all very puzzling and interesting and romantic. For what purpose had she been stolen, and by whom? The duke accused Franz of Jugendheit, but he did so privately. Search as they would, the duke and the chancellor never traced the source of the remittances. The duke held stubbornly that the sender of these benefactions was moved by the impulse of a guilty conscience, and that this guilty conscience was in Jugendheit. But these remittances, argued Herbeck, came long after the death of the old king. He had his agents, vowed the duke. Herbeck would not listen to this. He preferred to believe that Count von Arnsberg was the man.
There was an endless tangle of red tape before the girl became secure in her rights. But finally, when William of Prussia and Franz Josef of Austria congratulated the duke, everybody else fell into line, and every troop in the duchy came to Dreiberg to the celebration. Then the world ran away in pursuit of other adventures, and forgot all about her serene highness.
And was she happy with all this grandeur, with all these lackeys and attentions and environs? Who can say? Sometimes she longed for the freedom and lack-care of her Dresden garret, her musician friends, the studios, the crash and glitter of the opera. To be suddenly deprived of the fruits of ambition, to reach such a pinnacle without striving, to be no longer independent, somehow it was all tasteless with the going of the novelty.
She looked like a princess, she moved and acted like one, but after the manner of kindly fairy princesses in story-books. All fell in love with her, from the groom who saddled her horse, to the chancellor, who up to this time was known never to have loved anything but the state.
She was lovely enough to inspire fervor and homage and love in all masculine minds. She was witty and talented. Carmichael said she was one of the most beautiful women in Europe. Later he modified this statement by declaring that she was the most beautiful woman in Europe or elsewhere. Yet, often she went about as one in a waking dream. There was an aloofness which was not born of hauteur but rather of a lingering doubt of herself.
She was still in the window-seat when the chancellor was announced. She distrusted him a little, she knew not why; yet, when he bent over her hand she was certain that his whole heart was behind his salute.
"Your Highness," he said, "I am come to announce to you that there waits for you a high place in the affairs of the world."
"The second crown in Jugendheit?"
"Yes. He leaves the matter wholly in my hands."
The sparkle in his eyes was the first evidence of emotion she had ever seen in him. It rather pleased her.
"It is for the good of the state. A princess like yourself must never wed an inferior."
"Would a man who was brave and kind and resourceful, but without a title, would he be an inferior?"
"Assuredly, politically. And I regret to say that your marriage could never be else than a matter of politics."
"I am, then, for all that I am a princess, simply a certificate of exchange?"
His keen ear caught the bitter undercurrent. "The king of Jugendheit is young. I do not see how he can help loving you the moment he knows you. Who can?" And the chancellor enjoyed the luxury of a smile.
"But he may not be heart whole."
"He will be, politically."
"Politics, politics; how I hate the word! Sometimes I regret my garret."
The chancellor frowned. "Your Highness, I beg of you never to give that thought utterance in the presence of your father."
"Ah, believe me, I am not ungrateful; but all this is new to me, even yet. I am living in a dream, wondering and wondering when I shall wake."
The chancellor wrinkled his lips. It was more of a grimace than a smile.
"Will you consent to this marriage?"
"Would it do any good to reject it?"
"On the contrary, it would do Ehrenstein great harm."
"Give me a week," wearily.
"A week!" There was joy on the chancellor's face now, unmasked, unconcealed. "Oh, when the moment comes that I see the crown of Jugendheit on your beautiful head, all my work shall not have been in vain. So then, within seven days I shall come for your answer?"
"One way or the other, my answer will be ready then."
"There is one thing more, your Highness."
"There must not be so many rides in the morning with his excellency, Herr Carmichael."
She met his piercing glance with that mild duplicity known only to women. "He is a gentleman, he amuses me, and there is no harm. Grooms are always with us. And often he is only one of a party."
"It is politics again, your Highness; I merely offer the suggestion."
"Marry me to the king of Jugendheit, if you will, but in this I shall have my way." But she laughed as she laid down this law.
He surrendered his doubt. "Well, for a week. But once the banns are published, it will be neither wise nor—"
"Proper? That is a word, Count, that I do not like."
"Pardon me, your Highness. All this talk is merely for the sake of saving you needless embarrassment."
He bowed and took his leave of her.
"Jugendheit! Ah, I had rather my garret, my garret!"
And her gaze sped across the Platz and lingered about one of the little window-balconies of the Grand Hotel.
THE YOUNG VINTNER
The Black Eagle (Zum Schwartzen Adler) in the Adlergasse was a prosperous tavern of the second rate. The house was two hundred years old and had been in the Bauer family all that time.
Had Fraeu Bauer, or Fraeu-Wirtin, as she was familiarly called, been masculine, she would have been lightly dubbed Bauer VII. She was a widow, and therefore uncrowned. She had been a widow for many a day, for the novelty of being her own manager had not yet worn off. She was thirty-eight, plump, pretty in a free-hand manner, and wise. It was useless to loll about the English bar where she kept the cash-drawer; it was useless to whisper sweet nothings into her ear; it was more than useless, it was foolish.
"Go along with you, Herr; I wouldn't marry the best man living. I can add the accounts, I can manage. Why should I marry?"
"But marriage is the natural state!"
"Herr, I crossed the frontier long ago, but having recrossed it, never again shall I go back. One crown-forty, if you please. Thank you."
This retort had become almost a habit with the Fraeu-Wirtin; and when a day went by without a proposal, she went to bed with the sense that the day had not been wholly successful.
To-night the main room of the tavern swam in a blue haze of smoke, which rose to the blackened rafters, hung with many and various sausages, cheeses, and dried vegetables. Dishes clattered, there was a buzzing of voices, a scraping of feet and chairs, a banging of tankards, altogether noisy and cheerful. The Fraeu-Wirtin preferred waitresses, and this preference was shared by her patrons. They were quicker, cleaner; they remembered an order better; they were not always surreptitiously emptying the dregs of tankards on the way to the bar, as men invariably did. Besides, the barmaid was an English institution, and the Fraeu-Wirtin greatly admired that race, though no one knew why. The girls fully able to defend themselves, and were not at all diffident in boxing a smart fellow's ears. They had a rough wit and could give and take. If a man thought this an invitation and tried to take a kiss, he generally had his face slapped for his pains, and the Fraeu-Wirtin was always on the side of her girls.
The smoke was so thick one could scarcely see two tables away, and if any foreigner chanced to open a window there was a hubbub; windows were made for light, not air. There were soldiers, non-commissioned officers—for the fall maneuvers brought many to Dreiberg—farmers and their families, and the men of the locality who made the Black Eagle a kind of socialist club. Socialism was just taking hold in those days, and the men were tremendously serious and secretive regarding it, as it wasn't strong enough to be popular with governments which ruled by hereditary might and right.
Gretchen came in, a little better dressed than in the daytime, the change consisting of coarse stockings and shoes of leather, of which she was correspondingly proud.
"Will you want me, Fraeu-Wirtin, for a little while to-night?" she asked.
"Till nine. Half a crown as usual."
Gretchen sought the kitchen and found an apron and cap. These half-crowns were fine things to pick up occasionally, for it was only upon occasions that she worked at the Black Eagle.
In an obscure corner sat the young vintner. He had finished his supper and was watching and scrutinizing all who came in. His face brightened as he saw the goose-girl; he would have known that head anywhere, whether he saw the face or not. He wanted to go to her at once, but knew this action would not be wise.
In the very corner itself, his back to the vintner's, and nothing but the wall to look at, was the old man in tatters and patches, the mountaineer who possessed a Swiss watch and gave golden coins to goose-girls. He was busily engaged in gnawing the leg of a chicken. Between times he sipped his beer, listening.
Carmichael had forgotten some papers that day. He had dined early at the hotel and returned at once to the consulate. He was often a visitor at the Black Eagle. The beer was sweet and cool. So, having pocketed his papers, he was of a mind to carry on a bit of badinage with Fraeu Bauer. As he stepped into the big hall, in his evening clothes, he was as conspicuous as a passing ship at sea.
"Good evening, Fraeu-Wirtin."
"Good evening, your Excellency." She was quite fluttered when this fine young man spoke to her. He was the only person who ever caused her embarrassment, even though temporary. There was always a whimsical smile on his lips and in his eyes, and Fraeu Bauer never knew exactly how to take him. "What is on your mind?" brightly.
"Many things. You haven't aged the least since last I saw you."
"Which was day before yesterday!"
"Not any further back than that?"
"Not an hour."
She turned to make change, while Carmichael's eyes roved in search of a vacant chair. He saw but one.
"The goose-girl?" he murmured suddenly. "Is Gretchen one of your waitresses?"
"She comes in once in a while. She's a good girl and I'm glad to help her," Fraeu Bauer replied.
"I do not recollect having seen her here before."
"That is because you rarely come at night."
Gretchen carried a tray upon which steamed a vegetable stew. She saw Carmichael and nodded.
"I shall be at yonder table," he said indicating the vacant chair. "Will you bring me a tankard of brown Ehrensteiner?"
"At once, Herr."
Carmichael made his way to the table. Across the room he had not recognized the vintner, but now he remembered. He had crowded him against a wall two or three days before.
"This seat is not reserved, Herr?" he asked pleasantly, with his hand on the back of the chair.
"No." There was no cordiality in the answer. The vintner turned back the lid of his stein and drank slowly.
Carmichael sat down sidewise, viewing the scene with never-waning interest. These German taverns were the delight of his soul. Everybody was so kindly and orderly and hungry. They ate and drank like persons whose consciences were not overburdened. From the corner of his eye he observed that the vintner was studying him. Now this vintner's face was something familiar. Carmichael stirred his memory. It was not in Dreiberg that he had seen him before. But where?
Gretchen arrived with the tankard which she sat down at Carmichael's elbow.
"Will you not join me, Herr?" he invited.
"Thank you," said the vintner, without hesitation.
He smiled at Gretchen and she smiled at him. Carmichael smiled at them both tolerantly.
"What will you be drinking?"
"Brown," said the vintner.
Gretchen took up the empty tankard and made off. The eyes of the two men followed her till she reached the dim bar, then their glances swung round and met. Carmichael was first to speak, not because he was forced to, but because it was his fancy at that moment to give the vintner the best of it.
"She is a fine girl."
"She is the handsomest peasant I ever saw or knew."
"You know her?" There was a spark in the vintner's eyes.
"Only for a few days. She interests me." Carmichael produced a pipe and lighted it.
"Ah, yes, the pretty peasant girl always interests you gentlemen." There was a note of bitterness. "Did you come here to seek her?"
"This is the first time I ever saw her here. And let me add," evenly, "that my interest in her is not of the order you would infer. She is good and patient and brave, and my interest in her is impersonal. It is not necessary for me to make any explanations, but I do so."
"Pardon me!" The vintner was plainly abashed.
"Granted. But you, you seem to possess a peculiar interest."
The vintner flushed. "I have that right," with an air which rather mystified Carmichael.
"That explains everything. I do not recollect seeing you before in the Black Eagle."
"I am from the north; a vintner, and there is plenty of work here in the valleys late in September."
"The grape," mused Carmichael. "You will never learn how to press it as they do in France. It is wine there; it is vinegar this side of the Rhine."
"France," said the vintner moodily. "Do you think there will be any France in the future?"
Carmichael laughed. "France is an incurable cosmic malady; it will always be. It may be beaten, devastated, throttled, but it will not die."
"You are fond of France?"
"Do you think it wise to say so here?"
"I am the American consul; nobody minds my opinions."
"The American consul," repeated the vintner.
Gretchen could now be seen, wending her return in and out among the clustering tables. She set the tankards down, and Carmichael put out a silver crown.
"And do not bother about the change."
"Are all Americans rich?" she asked soberly. "Do you never keep the change yourselves?"
"Not when we are in our Sunday clothes."
"Then it is vanity." Gretchen shook her head wisely.
"Mine is worth only four coppers to-night," he said.
The vintner laughed pleasantly. Gretchen looked into his eyes, and an echo found haven in her own.
Carmichael thirstily drank his first tankard, thinking: "So this vintner is in love with our goose-girl? Confound my memory! It never failed me like this before. I would give twenty crowns to know where I have seen him. It's only the time and place that bothers me, not the face. A fine beer," he said aloud, holding up the second tankard.
The vintner raised his; there was an unconscious grace in the movement. A covert glance at his hand satisfied Carmichael in regard to one thing. He might be a vintner, but the hand was as soft and well-kept as a woman's, for all that it was stained by wind and sunshine. A handsome beggar, whoever and whatever he was. But a second thought disturbed him. Could a man with hands like these mean well toward Gretchen? He was a thorough man of the world; he knew innocence at first glance, and Gretchen was both innocent and unworldly. To the right man she might be easy prey. Never to a man like Colonel von Wallenstein, whose power and high office were alike sinister to any girl of the peasantry; but a man in the guise of her own class, of her own world and people, here was a snare Gretchen might not be able to foresee. He would watch this fellow, and at the first sign of an evil—Carmichael's muscular brown hands opened and shut ominously. The vintner did not observe this peculiar expression of the hands; and Carmichael's face was bland.
A tankard, rapping a table near-by, called Gretchen to her duties. There was something reluctant in her step, in the good-by glance, in the sudden fall of the smiling lips.
"She will make some man a good wife," said Carmichael.
The vintner scowled at his tankard.
"He is not sure of her," thought Carmichael. Aloud he said: "What a funny world it is!"
"Gretchen is beautiful enough to be a queen, and yet she is merely a Hebe in a tavern."
"Hebe?" suspiciously. The peasant is always suspicious of anything he doesn't understand.
"Hebe was a cup-bearer to the mythological gods in olden times," Carmichael explained. He had set a trap, but the vintner had not fallen into it.
"A fairy-story." The vintner nodded; he understood now.
Carmichael's glance once more rested on the vintner's hand. He would lay another trap.
"What happened to her?"
"Oh," said Carmichael, "she spilled wine on a god one day, and they banished her."
"It must have been a rare vintage."
"I suppose you are familiar with all valleys. Moselle?"
"Yes. That is a fine country."
The old man in tatters sat erect in his chair, but he did not turn his head.
"You have served?"
"A little. If I could be an officer I should like the army." The vintner reached for his pipe which lay on the table.
"Try this," urged Carmichael, offering his pouch.
"This will be good tobacco, I know." The vintner filled his pipe.
Carmichael followed this gift with many questions about wines and vintages; and hidden in these questions were a dozen clever traps. But the other walked over them, unhesitant, with a certainty of step which chagrined the trapper.
By and by the vintner rose and bade his table-companion a good night. He had not offered to buy anything, another sign puzzling to Carmichael. This frugality was purely of the thrifty peasant. But the vintner was not ungrateful, and he expressed many thanks. On his way to the door he stopped, whispered into Gretchen's ear, and passed out into the black street.
"Either he is a fine actor, or he is really what he says he is." Carmichael was dissatisfied. "I'll stake my chances on being president of the United States, which is safe enough as a wager, that this fellow is not genuine. I'll watch him. I've stumbled upon a pretty romance of some sort, but I fear that it is one-sided." He wrinkled his forehead, but that part of his recollection he aimed to stir remained fallow, in darkness.
The press in the room was thinning. There were vacant chairs here and there now. A carter sauntered past and sat down unconcernedly at the table occupied by the old man whose face Carmichael had not yet seen. The two exchanged not even so much as a casual nod. A little later a butcher approached the same table and seated himself after the manner of the carter. It was only when the dusty baker came along and repeated this procedure, preserving the same silence, that Carmichael's curiosity was enlivened. This curiosity, however, was only of the evanescent order. Undoubtedly they were socialists and this was a little conclave, and the peculiar manner of their meeting, the silence and mystery, were purely fictional. Socialism at that time revolved round the blowing up of kings, of demolishing established order. Neither kings were blown up nor order demolished, but it was a congenial topic over which to while away an evening. This was in the German states; in Russia it was a different matter.
Had Carmichael not fallen a-dreaming over his pipe he would have seen the old man pass three slips of paper across the table; he would have seen the carter, the butcher, and the baker pocket these slips stolidly; he would have seen the mountaineer wave his hand sharply and the trio rise and disperse. And perhaps it would have been well for him to have noted these singular manifestations of conspiracy, since shortly he was to become somewhat involved. It was growing late; so Carmichael left the Black Eagle, nursing the sunken ember in his pipe and surrendering no part of his dream.
Intermediately the mountaineer paid his score and started for the stairs which led to the bedrooms above. But he stopped at the bar. A very old man was having a pail filled with hot cabbage soup. It was the ancient clock-mender across the way. The mountaineer was startled out of his habitual reserve, but he recovered his composure almost instantly. The clock-mender, his heavy glasses hanging crookedly on his nose, his whole aspect that of a weary, broken man, took down his pail and shuffled noiselessly out. The mountaineer followed him cautiously. Once in his shop the clock-mender poured the steaming soup into a bowl, broke bread in it, and began his evening meal. The other, his face pressed against the dim pane, stared and stared.
"Gott in Himmel! It is he!" he breathed, then stepped back into the shadow, while the moisture from his breath slowly faded and disappeared from the window-pane.
Krumerweg was indeed a crooked way. It formed a dozen elbows and ragged half-circles as it slunk off from the Adlergasse. Streets have character even as humans, and the Krumerweg reminded one of a person who was afraid of being followed. The shadow of the towering bergs lay upon it, and the few stars that peered down through the narrow crevice of rambling gables were small, as if the brilliant planets had neither time nor inclination to watch over such a place. And yet there lived in the Krumerweg many a kind and loyal heart, stricken with poverty. In old times the street had had an evil name, now it possessed only a pitiful one.
It was half after nine when Gretchen and the vintner picked their way over cobbles pitted here and there with mud-holes. They were arm in arm, and they laughed when they stumbled, laughed lightly, as youth always laughs when in love.
"Only a little farther," said Gretchen, for the vintner had never before passed over this way.
"Long as it is and crooked, Heaven knows it is short enough!" He encircled her with his arms and kissed her. "I love you! I love you!" he said.
Gretchen was penetrated with rapture, for her ears, sharp with love and the eternal doubting of man, knew that falsehood could not lurk in such music. This handsome boy loved her. Buffeted as she had been, she could separate the false from the true. Come never so deep a sorrow, there would always be this—he loved her. Her bosom swelled, her heart throbbed, and she breathed in ecstasy the sweet chill air that rushed through the broken street.
"After the vintage," she said, giving his arm a pressure. For this handsome fellow was to be her husband when the vines were pruned and freshened against the coming winter.
"Aye, after the vintage," he echoed; but there was tragedy in his heart as deep and profound as his love.
"My grandmother—I call her that for I haven't any grandmother—is old and seldom leaves the house. I promised that after work to-night I'd bring my man home and let her see how handsome he is. She is always saying that we need a man about; and yet, I can do a man's work as well as the next one. I love you, too, Leo!" She pulled his hand to her lips and quickly kissed it, frightened but unashamed.
She stopped. "What is it?" keenly. "There was pain in your voice."
"The thought of how I love you hurts me. There is nothing else, nothing, neither riches nor crowns, nothing but you, Gretchen. How long ago was it I met you first?"
"Two weeks? Is it not years? Have I not always known and loved you?"
"And I! What an empty heart and head were mine till that wonderful day! You were tired and dusty and footsore; you had walked some twenty odd miles; yet you helped me with the geese. There were almost tears in your eyes, but I knew that your heart was a man's when you smiled at me." She stopped again and turned him round to her. "And you love me like this?"
"Whatever betide, Lieberherz, whatever befall." And he embraced her with a fierce tenderness, and so strong was he in the moment that Gretchen gave a cry. He kissed her, not on the lips, but on the fine white forehead, reverently.
They proceeded, Gretchen subdued and the vintner silent, until they came to the end of their journey at number forty in the Krumerweg. It was a house of hanging gables, almost as old as the town itself, solid and grim and taciturn. There are some houses which talk like gossips, noisy, obtrusive and provocative. Number forty was like an old warrior, gone to his chair by the fireside, who listens to the small-talk of his neighbors saturninely. What was it all about? Had he not seen battles and storms, revolutions and bloodshed? The prattle of children was preferable.
Gretchen's grandmother, Fraeu Schwarz, owned the house; it was all that barricaded her from poverty's wolves, and, what with sundry taxes and repairs and tenants who paid infrequently, it was little enough. Whatever luxuries entered at number forty were procured by Gretchen herself. At present the two stories were occupied; the second by a malter and his brood of children, the third by a woman who was partially bedridden. The lower or ground floor of four rooms she reserved for herself. As a matter of fact the forward room, with its huge middle-age fireplace and the great square of beamed and plastered walls and stone flooring, was sizable for all domestic purposes. Gretchen's pallet stood in a small alcove and the old woman's bed by the left of the fire.
Gretchen opened the door, which was unlocked. There was no light in the hall. She pressed her lover in her arms, kissed him lightly, and pushed him into the living-room. A log smoldered dimly on the irons. Gretchen ran forward, turned over the log, lighted two candles, then kissed the old woman seated in the one comfortable chair. The others were simply three-legged stools. There was little else in the room, save a poor reproduction of the Virgin Mary.
"Here I am, grandmother!"
"And who is here with you?" sharply but not unkindly.
"My man!" cried Gretchen gaily, her eyes bright as the candle flames.
"Bring him near me."
Gretchen gathered up two stools and placed them on either side of her grandmother and motioned to the vintner to sit down. He did so, easily and without visible embarrassment, even though the black eyes plunged a glance into his.
Her hair was white and thin, her nose aquiline, her lips fallen in, a cobweb of wrinkles round her eyes, down her cheeks, under her chin. But her sight was undimmed.
"Where are you from? You are not a Dreiberger."
"From the north, grandmother," forcing a smile to his lips.
The reply rather gratified her.
"Leopold Dietrich, a vintner by trade."
"You speak like a Hanoverian or a Prussian."
"I have passed some time in both countries. I have wandered about a good deal."
"Give me your hand."
The vintner looked surprised for a moment. Gretchen approved. So he gave the old woman his left hand. The grandmother smoothed it out upon her own and bent her shrewd eyes. Silence. Gretchen could hear the malter stirring above; the log cracked and burst into flame. A frown began to gather on the vintner's brow and a sweat in his palm.
"I see many strange things here," said the palmist, in a brooding tone.
"And what do you see?" asked Gretchen eagerly.
"I see very little of vineyards. I see riches, pomp; I see vast armies moving against each other; there is the smell of powder and fire; devastation. I do not see you, young man, among those who tramp with guns on their shoulders. You ride; there is gold on your arms. You will become great; but I do not understand. I do not understand," closing her eyes for a moment.
The vintner sat upright, his chin truculent, his arm tense.
"War!" he murmured.
Gretchen's heart sank; there was joy in his voice.
"Go on, grandmother," she whispered.
"Shall I live?" asked the vintner, whose belief in prescience till this hour had been of a negative quality.
"There is nothing here save death in old age, vintner." Her gnarled hand seized his in a vise. "Do you mean well by my girl?"
"Grandmother!" Gretchen remonstrated.
The vintner withdrew his hand slowly.
"Is this the hand of a liar and a cheat? Is it the hand of a dishonest man?"
"There is no dishonesty there; but there are lines I do not understand. Oh, I can not see everything; it is like seeing people in a mist. They pass instantly and disappear. But I repeat, do you mean well by my girl?"
"Before God and His angels I love her; before all mankind I would gladly declare it. Gretchen shall never come to harm at these hands. I swear it."
"I believe you." The old woman's form relaxed its tenseness.
"Thanks, grandmother," said Gretchen. "Now, read what my hand says."
The old woman took the hand. She loved Gretchen.
"I read that you are gentle and brave and cheerful, that you have a loyal heart and a pure mind. I read that you are in love and that some day you will be happy." A smile went over her face, a kind of winter sunset.
"You are not looking at my hand at all, grandmother," said Gretchen in reproach.
"I do not need, my child. Your life is written in your face." The grandmother spoke again to the vintner. "So you will take her away from me?"
"Will it be necessary?" he returned quietly. "Have you any objection to my becoming your foster grandchild, such as Gretchen is?"
The old woman made no answer. She closed her eyes and did not open them. Gretchen motioned that this was a sign that the interview was ended. But as he rose to his feet there was a sound outside. A carriage had stopped. Some one opened the door and began to climb the stairs. The noise ceased only when the visitor reached the top landing. Then all became still again.
"There is something strange going on up there," said Gretchen in a whisper.
"In what way?" asked the vintner in like undertones.
"Three times a veiled lady has called at night, three times a man muffled up so one could not see his face."
"Let us not question our twenty-crowns rent, Gretchen," interrupted the grandmother, waking. "So long as no one is disturbed, so long as the police are not brought to our door, it is not our affair. Leopold, Gretchen, give me your hands." She placed them one upon the other, then spread out her hands above their heads. "The Holy Mother bring happiness and good luck to you, Gretchen."
"And to me?" said the youth.
"I could not wish you better luck than to give you Gretchen. Now, leave me."
The vintner picked up his hat and Gretchen led him to the street.
He hurried away, giving no glance at the closed carriage, the sleepy driver, the weary horse. Neither did he heed the man dressed as a carter who, when he saw the vintner, turned and followed. Finally, when the vintner veered into the Adlergasse, he stopped, his hands clenched, his teeth hard upon each other. He even leaned against the wall of a house, his face for the moment hidden in his arm.
"Wretch that I am! Damnable wretch! Krumerweg, Krumerweg! Crooked way, indeed!" He flung down his arm passionately. "There will be a God up yonder," looking at the stars. "He will see into my heart and know that it is not bad, only young. Oh, Gretchen!"
"Gretchen?" The carter stepped into a shadow and waited.
* * * * *
Carmichael did not enjoy the opera that night. He had missed the first acts, and the last was gruesome, and the royal box was vacant. Outside he sat down on one of the benches near the fountains in the Platz. His prolific imagination took the boundaries. Ah! That morning's ride, down the southern path of the mountains, the black squirrels in the branches, the red fox in the bushes, the clear spring, and the drink out of the tin cup which hung there for the thirsty! How prettily she had wrapped a leaf over the rusted edge of the cup! The leaf lay in his pocket. He had kissed a dozen times the spot where her lips had pressed it. Blind fool! Deeper and deeper; he knew that he never could go back to that safe ledge of the heart-free. Time could not change his heart, not if given the thousand years of the wandering Jew.
Bah! He would walk round the fountain and cool his crazy pulse. He was Irish, Irish to the core. Would any one, save an Irishman, give way, day after day, to those insane maunderings? His mood was savage; he was at odds with the world, and most of all, with himself. If only some one would come along and shoulder him rudely! He laughed ruefully. He was in a fine mood to make an ass of himself.
He left the bench and strolled round the fountain, his cane behind his back, his chin in his collar. He had made the circle several times, then he blundered into some one. The fighting mood was gone now, the walk having calmed him. He murmured a short apology for his clumsiness and started on, without even looking at the animated obstacle.
"Just a moment, my studious friend."
"Wallenstein? I didn't see you." Carmichael halted.
"That was evident," replied the colonel jestingly. "Heavens! Have you really cares of state, that you walk five times round this fountain, bump into me, and start to go on without so much as a how-do-you-do?"
"I'm absent-minded," Carmichael admitted.
"Not always, my friend."
"No, not always. You have some other meaning?"
"That is possible. Now, I do not believe that it was absent-mindedness which made you step in between me and that pretty goose-girl, the other night."
"Ah!" Carmichael was all alertness.
"It was not, I believe?"
"It was coldly premeditated," said Carmichael, folding his arms over his cane which he still held behind his back. His attitude and voice were pleasant.