E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE PRINCESS ELOPES
Author of The Puppet Crown, The Grey Cloak, The Man on the Box
With Illustration by Harrison Fisher
[Frontispiece: Princess Hildegarde (Gretchen) playing the piano.]
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers Copyright 1905 The Bobbs-Merrill Company
TO MY WIFE
THE PRINCESS ELOPES
It is rather difficult in these days for a man who takes such scant interest in foreign affairs—trust a whilom diplomat for that!—to follow the continual geographical disturbances of European surfaces. Thus, I can not distinctly recall the exact location of the Grand Duchy of Barscheit or of the neighboring principality of Doppelkinn. It meets my needs and purposes, however, to say that Berlin and Vienna were easily accessible, and that a three hours' journey would bring you under the shadow of the Carpathian Range, where, in my diplomatic days, I used often to hunt the "bear that walks like a man."
Barscheit was known among her sister states as "the meddler," the "maker of trouble," and the duke as "Old Grumpy"—Brummbaer. To use a familiar Yankee expression, Barscheit had a finger in every pie. Whenever there was a political broth making, whether in Italy, Germany or Austria, Barscheit would snatch up a ladle and start in. She took care of her own affairs so easily that she had plenty of time to concern herself with the affairs of her neighbors. This is not to advance the opinion that Barscheit was wholly modern; far from it. The fault of Barscheit may be traced back to a certain historical pillar of salt, easily recalled by all those who attended Sunday-school. "Rubbering" is a vulgar phrase, and I disdain to use it.
When a woman looks around it is invariably a portent of trouble; the man forgets his important engagement, and runs amuck, knocking over people, principles and principalities. If Aspasia had not observed Pericles that memorable day; if there had not been an oblique slant to Calypso's eyes as Ulysses passed her way; if the eager Delilah had not offered favorable comment on Samson's ringlets; in fact, if all the women in history and romance had gone about their affairs as they should have done, what uninteresting reading history would be to-day!
Now, this is a story of a woman who looked around, and of a man who did not keep his appointment on time; out of a grain of sand, a mountain. Of course there might have been other causes, but with these I'm not familiar.
This Duchy of Barscheit is worth looking into. Imagine a country with telegraph and telephone and medieval customs, a country with electric lights, railways, surface-cars, hotel elevators and ancient laws! Something of the customs of the duchy must be told in the passing, though, for my part, I am vigorously against explanatory passages in stories of action. Barscheit bristled with militarism; the little man always imitates the big one, but lacks the big man's excuses. Militarism entered into and overshadowed the civic laws.
There were three things you might do without offense; you might bathe, eat and sleep, only you must not sleep out loud. The citizen of Barscheit was hemmed in by a set of laws which had their birth in the dark dungeons of the Inquisition. They congealed the blood of a man born and bred in a commercial country. If you broke a law, you were relentlessly punished; there was no mercy. In America we make laws and then hide them in dull-looking volumes which the public have neither the time nor the inclination to read. In this duchy of mine it was different; you ran into a law on every corner, in every park, in every public building: little oblong signs, enameled, which told you that you could not do something or other—"Forbidden!" The beauty of German laws is that when you learn all the things that you can not do, you begin to find out that the things you can do are not worth a hang in the doing.
As soon as a person learned to read he or she began life by reading these laws. If you could not read, so much the worse for you; you had to pay a guide who charged you almost as much as the full cost of the fine.
The opposition political party in the United States is always howling militarism, without the slightest idea of what militarism really is. One side, please, in Barscheit, when an officer comes along, or take the consequences. If you carelessly bumped into him, you were knocked down. If you objected, you were arrested. If you struck back, ten to one you received a beating with the flat of a saber. And never, never mistake the soldiery for the police; that is to say, never ask an officer to direct you to any place. This is regarded in the light of an insult. The cub-lieutenants do more to keep a passable sidewalk—for the passage of said cub-lieutenants—than all the magistrates put together. How they used to swagger up and down the Koenigsstrasse, around the Platz, in and out of the restaurants! I remember doing some side-stepping myself, and I was a diplomat, supposed to be immune from the rank discourtesies of the military. But that was early in my career.
In a year not so remote as not to be readily recalled, the United States packed me off to Barscheit because I had an uncle who was a senator. Some papers were given me, the permission to hang out a shingle reading "American Consul," and the promise of my board and keep. My amusements were to be paid out of my own pocket. Straightway I purchased three horses, found a capable Japanese valet, and selected a cozy house near the barracks, which stood west of the Volksgarten, on a pretty lake. A beautiful road ran around this body of water, and it wasn't long ere the officers began to pass comments on the riding of "that wild American." As I detest what is known as park-riding, you may very well believe that I circled the lake at a clip which must have opened the eyes of the easy-going officers. I grew quite chummy with a few of them; and I may speak of occasions when I did not step off the sidewalk as they came along. A man does more toward gaining the affection of foreigners by giving a good dinner now and then than by international law. I gained considerable fame by my little dinners at Mueller's Rathskeller, under the Continental Hotel.
Six months passed, during which I rode, read, drove and dined, the actual labors of the consulate being cared for by a German clerk who knew more about the business than I did.
By this you will observe that diplomacy has degenerated into the gentle art of exciting jaded palates and of scribbling one's name across passports; I know of no better definition. I forget what the largess of my office was.
Presently there were terrible doings. The old reigning grand duke desired peace of mind; and moving determinedly toward this end, he declared in public that his niece, the young and tender Princess Hildegarde, should wed the Prince of Doppelkinn, whose vineyards gave him a fine income. This was finality; the avuncular guardian had waited long enough for his wilful ward to make up her mind as to the selection of a suitable husband; now he determined to take a hand in the matter. And you shall see how well he managed it.
It is scarcely necessary for me to state that her Highness had her own ideas of what a husband should be like, gathered, no doubt, from execrable translations from "Ouida" and the gentle Miss Braddon. A girl of twenty usually has a formidable regard for romance, and the princess was fully up to the manner of her kind. If she could not marry romantically, she refused to marry at all.
I can readily appreciate her uncle's perturbation. I do not know how many princelings she thrust into utter darkness. She would never marry a man who wore glasses; this one was too tall, that one too short; and when one happened along who was without visible earmarks or signs of being shop-worn her refusal was based upon just—"Because!"—a weapon as invincible as the fabled spear of Parsifal. She had spurned the addresses of Prince Mischler, laughed at those of the Count of ——— - ——— (the short dash indicates the presence of a hyphen) and General Muerrisch, of the emperor's body-guard, who was, I'm sure, good enough—in his own opinion—for any woman. Every train brought to the capital some suitor with a consonated, hyphenated name and a pedigree as long as a bore's idea of a funny story. But the princess did not care for pedigrees that were squint-eyed or bow-legged. One and all of them she cast aside as unworthy her consideration. Then, like the ancient worm, the duke turned. She should marry Doppelkinn, who, having no wife to do the honors in his castle, was wholly agreeable.
The Prince of Doppelkinn reigned over the neighboring principality. If you stood in the middle of it and were a baseball player, you could throw a stone across the frontier in any direction. But the vineyards were among the finest in Europe. The prince was a widower, and among his own people was affectionately styled "der Rotnaesig," which, I believe, designates an illuminated proboscis. When he wasn't fishing for rainbow trout he was sleeping in his cellars. He was often missing at the monthly reviews, but nobody ever worried; they knew where to find him. And besides, he might just as well sleep in his cellars as in his carriage, for he never rode a horse if he could get out of doing so. He was really good-natured and easy-going, so long as no one crossed him severely; and you could tell him a joke once and depend upon his understanding it immediately, which is more than I can say for the duke.
Years and years ago the prince had had a son; but at the tender age of three the boy had run away from the castle confines, and no one ever heard of him again. The enemies of the prince whispered among themselves that the boy had run away to escape compulsory military service, but the boy's age precluded this accusation. The prince advertised, after the fashion of those times, sent out detectives and notified his various brothers; but his trouble went for nothing. Not the slightest trace of the boy could be found. So he was mourned for a season, regretted and then forgotten; the prince adopted the grape-arbor.
I saw the prince once. I do not blame the Princess Hildegarde for her rebellion. The prince was not only old; he was fat and ugly, with little, elephant-like eyes that were always vein-shot, restless and full of mischief. He might have made a good father, but I have nothing to prove this. Those bottles of sparkling Moselle which he failed to dispose of to the American trade he gave to his brother in Barscheit or drank himself. He was sixty-eight years old.
A nephew, three times removed, was waiting for the day when he should wabble around in the prince's shoes. He was a lieutenant in the duke's body-guard, a quick-tempered, heady chap. Well, he never wabbled around in his uncle's shoes, for he never got the chance.
I hadn't been in Barscheit a week before I heard a great deal about the princess. She was a famous horsewoman. This made me extremely anxious to meet her. Yet for nearly six months I never even got so much as a glimpse of her. Half of the six months she was traveling through Austria, and the other half she kept out of my way,—not intentionally; she knew nothing of my existence; simply, fate moved us about blindly. At court, she was invariably indisposed, and at the first court ball she retired before I arrived. I got up at all times, galloped over all roads, but never did I see her. She rode alone, too, part of the time.
The one picture of her which I was lucky enough to see had been taken when she was six, and meant nothing to me in the way of identification. For all I knew I might have passed her on the road. She became to me the Princess in the Invisible Cloak, passing me often and doubtless deriding my efforts to discern her. My curiosity became alarming. I couldn't sleep for the thought of her. Finally we met, but the meeting was a great surprise to us both. This meeting happened during the great hubbub of which I have just written; and at the same time I met another who had great weight in my future affairs.
The princess and I became rather well acquainted. I was not a gentleman, according to her code, but, in the historic words of the drug clerk, I was something just as good. She honored me with a frank, disinterested friendship, which still exists. I have yet among my fading souvenirs of diplomatic service half a dozen notes commanding me to get up at dawn and ride around the lake, something like sixteen miles. She was almost as reckless a rider as myself. She was truly a famous rider, and a woman who sits well on a horse can never be aught but graceful. She was, in fact, youthful and charming, with the most magnificent black eyes I ever beheld in a Teutonic head; witty, besides, and a songstress of no ordinary talent. If I had been in love with her—which I solemnly vow I was not!—I should have called her beautiful and exhausted my store of complimentary adjectives.
The basic cause of all this turmoil, about which I am to spin my narrative, lay in her education. I hold that a German princess should never be educated save as a German. By this I mean to convey that her education should not go beyond German literature, German history, German veneration of laws, German manners and German passivity and docility. The Princess Hildegarde had been educated in England and France, which simplifies everything, or, I should say, to be exact, complicates everything.
She possessed a healthy contempt for that what-d'-ye-call-it that hedges in a king. Having mingled with English-speaking people, she returned to her native land, her brain filled with the importance of feminine liberty of thought and action. Hence, she became the bramble that prodded the grand duke whichever way he turned. His days were filled with horrors, his nights with mares which did not have box-stalls in his stables.
Never could he anticipate her in anything. On that day he placed guards around the palace she wrote verses or read modern fiction; the moment he relaxed his vigilance she was away on some heart-rending escapade. Didn't she scandalize the nobility by dressing up as a hussar and riding her famous black Mecklenburg cross-country? Hadn't she flirted outrageously with the French attache and deliberately turned her back on the Russian minister, at the very moment, too, when negotiations were going on between Russia and Barscheit relative to a small piece of land in the Balkans? And, most terrible of all to relate, hadn't she ridden a shining bicycle up the Koenigsstrasse, in broad daylight, and in bifurcated skirts, besides? I shall never forget the indignation of the press at the time of this last escapade, the stroke of apoplexy which threatened the duke, and the room with the barred window which the princess occupied one whole week.
They burned the offensive bicycle in the courtyard of the palace, ceremoniously, too, and the princess had witnessed this solemn auto da fe from her barred window. It is no strain upon the imagination to conjure up the picture of her fine rage, her threatening hands, her compressed lips, her tearless, flashing eyes, as she saw her beautiful new wheel writhe and twist on the blazing fagots. But what the deuce was a poor duke to do with a niece like this?
For a time I feared that the United States and the Grand Duchy of Barscheit would sever diplomatic relations. The bicycle was, unfortunately, of American make, and the manufacturers wrote to me personally that they considered themselves grossly insulted over the action of the duke. Diplomatic notes were exchanged, and I finally prevailed upon the duke to state that he held the wheel harmless and that his anger had been directed solely against his niece. This letter was duly forwarded to the manufacturers, who, after the manner of their kind, carefully altered the phrasing and used it in their magazine advertisements. They were so far appeased that they offered me my selection from the private stock. Happily the duke never read anything but the Fliegende Blaetter and Jugend, and thus war was averted.
Later an automobile agent visited the town—at the secret bidding of her Highness—but he was so unceremoniously hustled over the frontier that his teeth must have rattled like a dancer's castanets. It was a great country for expeditiousness, as you will find, if you do me the honor to follow me to the end.
So the grand duke swore that his niece should wed Doppelkinn, and the princess vowed that she would not. The man who had charge of my horses said that one of the palace maids had recounted to him a dialogue which had taken place between the duke and his niece. As I was anxious to be off on the road I was compelled to listen to his gossip.
THE GRAND DUKE—In two months' time you shall wed the Prince of Doppelkinn.
THE PRINCESS—What! that old red-nose? Never! I shall marry only where I love.
THE GRAND DUKE—Only where you love! (Sneers.) One would think, to hear you talk, that you were capable of loving something.
THE PRINCESS—You have yet to learn. I warn you not to force me. I promise to do something scandalous. I will marry one of the people—a man.
THE GRAND DUKE—Bah! (Swears softly on his way down to the stables.)
But the princess had in her mind a plan which, had it gone through safely, would have added many grey hairs to the duke's scanty collection. It was a mighty ingenious plan, too, for a woman to figure out.
In his attitude toward the girl the duke stood alone. Behind his back his ministers wore out their shoes in waiting on the caprices of the girl, while the grand duchess, half-blind and half-deaf, openly worshiped her wilful but wholly adorable niece, and abetted her in all her escapades. So far as the populace was concerned, she was the daughter of the favorite son, dead these eighteen years, and that was enough for them. Whatever she did was right and proper. But the hard-headed duke had the power to say what should be what, and he willed it that the Princess Hildegarde should marry his old comrade in arms, the Prince of Doppelkinn.
As I have already remarked, I used frequently to take long rides into the country, and sometimes I did not return till the following day. My clerk was always on duty, and the work never appeared to make him round-shouldered.
I had ridden horses for years, and to throw a leg over a good mount was to me one of the greatest pleasures in the world. I delighted in stopping at the old feudal inns, of studying the stolid German peasant, of drinking from steins uncracked these hundred years, of inspecting ancient armor and gathering trifling romances attached thereto. And often I have had the courage to stop at some quaint, crumbling Schloss or castle and ask for a night's lodging for myself and horse. Seldom, if ever, did I meet with a refusal.
I possessed the whimsical habit of picking out strange roads and riding on till night swooped down from the snow-capped mountains. I had a bit of poetry in my system that had never been completely worked out, and I was always imagining that at the very next Schloss or inn I was to hit upon some delectable adventure. I was only twenty-eight, and inordinately fond of my Dumas.
I rode in grey whipcord breeches, tan boots, a blue serge coat, white stock, and never a hat or cap till the snow blew. I used to laugh when the peasants asked leave to lend me a cap or to run back and find the one I had presumably lost.
One night the delectable adventure for which I was always seeking came my way, and I was wholly unprepared for it.
I had taken the south highway: that which seeks the valley beyond the lake. The moon-film lay mistily upon everything: on the far-off lake, on the great upheavals of stone and glacier above me, on the long white road that stretched out before me, ribbon-wise. High up the snow on the mountains resembled huge opals set in amethyst. I was easily twenty-five miles from the city; that is to say, I had been in the saddle some six hours. Nobody but a king's messenger will ride a horse more than five miles an hour. I cast about for a place to spend the night. There was no tavern in sight, and the hovels I had passed during the last hour offered no shelter for my horse. Suddenly, around a bend in the road, I saw the haven I was seeking. It was a rambling, tottering old castle, standing in the center of a cluster of firs; and the tiles of the roofs and the ivy of the towers were shining silver with the heavy fall of dew.
Lady Chloe sniffed her kind, whinnied, and broke into a trot. She knew sooner than I that there was life beyond the turn. We rode up to the gate, and I dismounted and stretched myself. I tried the gate. The lock hung loose, like a paralytic hand. Evidently those inside had nothing to fear from those outside. I grasped an iron bar and pushed in the gate, Chloe following knowingly at my heels. I could feel the crumbling rust on my gloves. Chloe whinnied again, and there came an answering whinny from somewhere in the rear of the castle. Somebody must be inside, I reasoned.
There were lights in the left wing, but this part of the castle was surrounded by an empty moat, damp and weedy. This was not to be entered save by a ladder. There was a great central door, however, which had a modern appearance. The approach was a broad graveled walk. I tied Lady Chloe to a tree, knotted the bridle-reins above her neck to prevent her from putting her restless feet into them, and proceeded toward the door.
Of all the nights this was the one on which my usually lively imagination reposed. I was hungry and tired, and I dare say my little mare was. I wasn't looking for an adventure; I didn't want any adventure; I wanted nothing in the world but a meal and a bed. But for the chill of the night air—the breath of the mountain is cold at night—I should have been perfectly willing to sleep in the open. Down drawbridge, up portcullis!
I boldly climbed the steps and groped around for the knocker. It was broken and useless, like the lock on the gate. And never a bell could I find. I swore softly and became impatient. People in Barscheit did not usually live in this slovenly fashion. What sort of place was this?
Suddenly I grew erect, every fiber in my body tense and expectant.
A voice, lifted in song! A great penetrating yet silkily mellow voice; a soprano; heavenly, not to say ghostly, coming as it did from the heart of this gloomy ruin of stone and iron. The jewel song from Faust, too! How the voice rose, fell, soared again with intoxicating waves of sound! What permeating sweetness! I stood there, a solitary listener, as far as I knew, bewildered, my heart beating hard and fast. I forgot my hunger.
Had I stumbled upon one of my dreams at last? Had Romance suddenly relented, as a coquette sometimes relents? For a space I knew not what to do. Then, with a shrug—I have never been accused of lacking courage—I tried once more, by the aid of a match, to locate a bell. There was absolutely nothing; and the beating of my riding-crop on the panels of that huge door would have been as noisy as a feather. I grasped the knob and turned it impatiently. Behold! the door opened without sound, and I stepped into the hallway, which was velvet black.
The wonderful voice went on. I paused, with hands outstretched. Supposing I bumped into something! I took a step forward, another and another; I swung my crop in a half-circle; all was vacancy, I took another step, this time in the direction of the voice—and started back with a smothered curse. Bang-ang! I had run into a suit of old armor, the shield of which had clattered to the stone floor. As I have observed, I am not a coward, but I had all I could do to keep my legs—which were stirrup-weary, anyhow—from knocking under me!
The song died. All over that great rambling structure not even the reassuring chirp of a cricket! I stood perfectly still. What the deuce should I do? Turn back? As I formed this question in my mind a draft of wind slammed the door shut. I was in for it, sure enough; I was positive that I could never find that door again. There was nothing to do but wait, and wait with straining ears. Here were mysterious inhabitants.—they might be revolutionists, conspirators, counterfeiters.
Heaven knows how long I waited.
Soon I heard a laugh, light, infectious, fearless! Then I heard a voice, soft and pleading.
"Don't go; in mercy's name, don't go, Gretchen! You may be killed!"
English! I had actually heard a voice speak my native tongue.
"Nonsense, Betty! I am not afraid of any ghost that ever walked, rode or floated."
"Ghost? It may be a burglar!"
"Or Steinbock! We shall find nothing."
"Nothing but a rat, bungling about in the armor." The laughter came again. "You are not afraid, Betty?"
"Only cautious. But how can you laugh? A rat?" cried a voice rather anxiously. "Why, they are as big as dogs!"
"But arrant cowards."
So! one of these voices spoke English as its birthright; the other spoke with an accent, that is to say, by adoption. Into what had I fallen? Whither had my hunger brought me? I was soon to learn.
There came a faint thread of light on one side of the hall, such as may be likened to that which filters under a door-sill. Presently this was followed by the sound of jangling brass rings. A heavy velvet portiere—which I, being in darkness, had not discovered—slipped back. My glance, rather blinded, was first directed toward the flame of the candle. Then I lowered it—and surrendered for ever and for ever!
I beheld two faces in profile, as it were, one side in darkness, the other tinted and glowing like ancient ivory. I honestly confess to you that in all my wanderings—and they have been frequent and many—I never saw such an enchanting picture or two more exquisite faces. One peered forth with hesitant bravery; the other—she who held the candle—with cold, tranquil inquiry.
All my fears, such as they were, left me instantly. Besides, I was not without a certain amount of gallantry and humor. I stepped squarely into the light and bowed.
"Ladies, I am indeed not a ghost, but I promise you that I shall be if I am not offered something to eat at once!"
"What are you doing here?" asked she with the candle, her midnight eyes drawing down her brows into a frown of displeasure.
I bowed. "To begin with, I find a gate unlocked, and being curious, I open it; then I find a door unlatched, and I enter. Under these unusual circumstances I am forced to ask the same question of you: what are you doing here in this ruined castle? If it isn't ruined, it is deserted, which amounts to the same thing." This was impertinent, especially on the part of a self-invited guest.
"That is my affair, sir. I have a right here, now and at all times." Her voice was cold and authoritative. "There is an inn six miles farther down the road; this is a private residence. Certainly you can not remain here over night."
"Six miles?" I echoed dismally. "Madam, if I have seemed impertinent, pardon me. I have been in the saddle six hours. I have ridden nearly thirty miles since noon. I am dead with fatigue. At least give me time to rest a bit before taking up the way again, I admit that the manner of my entrance was informal; but how was I to know? There was not even a knocker on the door by which to make known my presence to you." The truth is, I did not want to go at once. No one likes to stumble into an adventure—enchanting as this promised to be—and immediately pop out of it. An idea came to me, serviceable rather than brilliant. "I am an American. My German is poor. I speak no French. I have lost my way, it would seem; I am hungry and tired. To ride six miles farther now is a physical impossibility; and I am very fond of my horse."
"He says he is hungry, Gretchen," said the English girl, dropping easily into the French language as a vehicle of speech. (I was a wretch, I know, but I simply could not help telling that lie; I didn't want to go; and they might be conspirators.) "Besides," went on the girl, "he looks like a gentleman."
"We can not always tell a gentleman in the candle-light," replied Gretchen, eying me critically and shrewdly and suspiciously.
As for me, I gazed from one to the ether, inquiringly, after the manner of one who hears a tongue not understandable.
"He's rather nice," was the English girl's comment; "and his eyes strike me as being too steady to be dishonest."
I had the decency to burn in the ears. I had taken the step, so now I could not draw back. I sincerely hoped that they would not exchange any embarrassing confidences. When alone women converse upon many peculiar topics; and conversing in a tongue which they supposed to be unknown to me, these two were virtually alone.
"But, my dear child," the other returned argumentatively, "we can not offer hospitality to a strange man this night of all nights. Think of what is to be accomplished."
(So something was to be accomplished? I was right, then, in deceiving them. To accomplish something on a night like this, far from habitation, had all the air of a conspiracy.)
"Feed him and his horse, and I'll undertake to get rid of him before that detestable Steinbock comes. Besides, he might prove a valuable witness in drawing up the papers."
"I never thought of that. It will not do to trust Steinbock wholly." Gretchen turned her searching eyes once more upon me. I confess that I had some difficulty in steadying my own. There are some persons to whom one can not lie successfully; one of them stood before me. But I rather fancy I passed through the ordeal with at least half a victory. "Will you go your way after an hour's rest?" she asked, speaking in the familiar tongue.
"I promise." It was easy to make this promise. I wasn't a diplomat for nothing. I knew how to hang on, to dodge under, to go about.
"Follow me," Gretchen commanded briefly.
(Who was she? What was going on?)
We passed through the gloomy salon. A damp, musty odor struck my sense of smell. I was positive that the castle was uninhabited, save for this night. Three candles burned on the mantel, giving to the gloom a mysterious, palpitating effect. The room beyond was the dining-room, richly paneled in wine-colored mahogany. This was better; it was cheerful. A log crackled in the fireplace. There were plenty of candles. There was a piano, too. This belonged to the castle; a heavy tarpaulin covering lay heaped at one side. There was a mahogany sideboard that would have sent a collector of antiques into raptures, and a table upon which lay the remains of a fine supper. My mouth watered. I counted over the good things: roast pheasant, pink ham, a sea-food salad, asparagus, white bread and unsalted butter, an alcohol-burner over which hung a tea-pot, and besides all this there was a pint of La Rose which was but half-emptied. Have you ever been in the saddle half a day? If you have, you will readily appreciate the appetite that was warring with my curiosity.
"Eat," bade she who was called Gretchen, shortly.
"And my horse?"
"Where is it?"
"Tied to a tree by the gate."
She struck a Chinese gong. From the kitchen appeared an elderly servitor who looked to me more fitted to handle a saber than a carving-knife; at least, the scar on his cheek impressed me with this idea. (I found out later that he was an old soldier, who lived alone in the castle as caretaker.)
"Take this gentleman's horse to the stables and feed him," said Gretchen. "You will find the animal by the gate."
With a questioning glance at me the old fellow bowed and made off.
I sat down, and the two women brought the various plates and placed them within reach. Their beautiful hands flashed before my eyes and now and then a sleeve brushed my shoulder.
"Thank you," I murmured. "I will eat first, and then make my apologies."
This remark caught the fancy of Gretchen. She laughed. It was the same laughter I had heard while standing in the great hall.
"Will you drink tea, or would you prefer to finish this Bordeaux?" she asked pleasantly.
"The wine, if you please; otherwise the effect of the meal and the long hours in the wind will produce sleepiness. And it would be frightfully discourteous on my part to fall asleep in my chair. I am very hard to awake."
The English girl poured out the wine and passed the goblet to me. I touched my lips to the glass, and bent my head politely. Then I resolutely proceeded to attack the pheasant and ham. I must prove to these women that at least I was honest in regard to my hunger. I succeeded in causing a formidable portion of the food to disappear.
And then I noticed that neither of the young women seated herself while I ate. I understood. There was no hostility in this action; nothing but formality. They declined to sit in the presence of an unwelcome stranger, thus denying his equality from a social point of view. I readily accepted this decision on their part. They didn't know who I was. They stood together by the fireplace and carried on a conversation in low tones.
How shall I describe them? The elder of the two, the one who seemed to possess all the authority, could not have been more than twenty. Her figure was rather matured, yet it was delicate. Her hair was tawny, her skin olive in shade and richly tinted at the cheek-bones. Her eyes, half framed by thick, black-arching brows, reminded me of woodland pools in the dusk of evening,—depths unknown, cool, refreshing in repose. The chin was resolute, the mouth was large but shapely and brilliant, the nose possessed the delicate nostrils characteristic of all sensitive beings—that is to say, thoroughbreds; altogether a confusing, bewildering beauty. At one moment I believed her to be Latin, at the next I was positive that she was Teutonic. I could not discover a single weak point, unless impulsiveness shall be called weakness; this sign of impulsiveness was visible in the lips.
The other—well, I couldn't help it. It was Kismet, fate, the turn in the road, what you will. I fell heels over head in love with her at once. She was charming, exquisite, one of those delicate creatures who always appear in enchantments; a Bouguereau child grown into womanhood, made to fit the protecting frame of a man's arms. Love steals into the heart when we least expect him; and before we are aware, the sly little god has unpacked his trunk and taken possession!
Eyes she had as blue as the Aegean Sea on windy days, blue as the cloud-winnowed sky of a winter's twilight, blue as sapphires—Irish eyes! Her hair was as dark and silken as a plume from the wings of night. (Did I not say that I had some poetry in my system?) The shape of her mouth—Never mind; I can recall only the mad desire to kiss it. A graceful figure, a proud head, a slender hand, a foot so small that I wondered if it really poised, balanced or supported her young body. Tender she must be, and loving, enclitical rather than erect like her authoritative companion. She was adorable.
All this inventory of feminine charms was taken by furtive glances, sometimes caught—or were they taking an inventory of myself? Presently my appetite became singularly submissive. Hunger often is satisfied by the feeding of the eyes. I dropped my napkin on the table and pushed back my chair. My hostesses ceased conversing.
"Ladies," said I courteously, "I offer you my sincere apologies for this innocent intrusion." I looked at my watch. "I believe that you gave me an hour's respite. So, then, I have thirty minutes to my account."
The women gazed at each other. One laughed, and the other smiled; it was the English girl who laughed this time. I liked the sound of it better than any I had yet heard.
(Pardon another parenthesis. I hope you haven't begun to think that I am the hero of this comedy. Let it be furthest from your thoughts. I am only a passive bystander.)
"I sincerely trust that your hunger is appeased," said the one who had smiled.
"It is, thank you." I absently fumbled in my coat pockets, then guiltily dropped my hands. What a terrible thing habit is!
"You may smoke," said the Bouguereau child who was grown into womanhood. Wasn't that fine of her? And wasn't it rather observant, too? I learned later that she had a brother who was fond of tobacco. To her eyes my movement was a familiar one.
"With your kind permission," said I gratefully. I hadn't had a smoke in four hours.
I owned a single good cigar, the last of my importation. I lighted it and blew forth a snowy billow of heavenly aroma. I know something about human nature, even the feminine side of it. A presentable young man with a roll of aromatic tobacco seldom falls to win the confidence of those about him. With that cloud of smoke the raw edge of formality smoothed down.
"Had you any particular destination?" asked Gretchen.
"None at all. The road took my fancy, and I simply followed it."
"Ah! that is one of the pleasures of riding—to go wherever the inclination bids. I ride."
We were getting on famously.
"Do you take long journeys?" I inquired.
"Often. It is the most exhilarating of sports," said the Enchantment. "The scenery changes; there are so many things that charm and engage your interest: the mountains, the waterways, the old ruins. Have you ever whistled to the horses afield and watched them come galloping down to the wall? It is fine. In England—" But her mouth closed suddenly. She was talking to a stranger.
I love enthusiasm in a woman. It colors her cheeks and makes her eyes sparkle, I grew a bit bolder.
"I heard a wonderful voice as I approached the castle," said I.
"I haven't heard its equal outside Berlin or Paris," I went on.
"Paris?" said Gretchen, laying a neat little trap for me into which my conceit was soon to tumble me. "Paris is a marvelous city."
"There is no city to equal it. Inasmuch as we three shall never meet again, will you not do me the honor to repeat that jewel song from Faust?" My audacity did not impress her in the least.
"You can scarcely expect me to give a supper to a stranger and then sing for him, besides," said Gretchen, a chill again stealing into her tones. "These Americans!" she observed to her companion in French.
I laid aside my cigar, approached the piano, and sat down. I struck a few chords and found the instrument to be in remarkably good order. I played a Chopin Polonaise, I tinkled Grieg's Papillon, then I ceased.
"That is to pay for my supper," I explained.
Next I played Le Courier, and when I had finished that I turned again, rising.
"That is to pay for my horse's supper," I said.
Gretchen's good humor returned.
"Whoever you are, sir," her tone no longer repellent, "you are amusing. Pray, tell us whom we have the honor to entertain?"
"I haven't the vaguest idea who my hostess is,"—evasively.
"It is quite out of the question. You are the intruder."
"Call me Mr. Intruder, then," said I.
It was, you will agree, a novel adventure. I was beginning to enjoy it hugely.
"Who do you suppose this fellow is?" Gretchen asked.
"He says he is an American, and I believe he is. What Americans are in Barscheit?"
"I know of none at all. What shall we do to get rid of him?"
All this was carried on with unstudied rudeness. They were women of high and noble quality; and as I was an interloper, I could take no exception to a conversation in a language I had stated I did not understand. If they were rude, I had acted in a manner unbecoming a gentleman. Still, I was somewhat on the defensive. I took out my watch. My hour was up.
"I regret that I must be off," I said ruefully. "It is much pleasanter here than on the road."
"I can not ask you to remain here. You will find the inn a very comfortable place for the night," was Gretchen's suggestion.
"Before I go, may I ask in what manner I might serve as a witness?" Ere the words had fully crossed my lips I recognized that my smartness had caused me to commit an unpardonable blunder for a man who wished to show up well in an adventure of this sort. (But fate had a hand in it, as presently you shall see.)
Gretchen laughed, but the sound was harsh and metallic. She turned to her companion, who was staring at me with startled eyes.
"What did I tell you? You can not tell a gentleman in the candle-light." To me she said:
"I thought as much. You have heard Faust in Paris, but you know nothing of the French language. You claimed to be a gentleman, yet you have permitted us to converse in French."
"Was it polite of you to use it?" I asked. "All this," with a wave of the hand, "appears mysterious. This is not a residence one would expect to find inhabited—and by two charming women!" I bowed. "Your presence here is even less satisfactorily explained than mine. If I denied the knowledge of French it was because I wasn't sure of my surroundings. It was done in self-defense rather than in the desire to play a trick. And in this language you speak of witnesses, of papers, of the coming of a man you do not trust. It looks very much like a conspiracy." I gathered up my gloves and riding-crop. I believed that I had extricated myself rather well.
"This is my castle," said Gretchen, gently shaking off the warning hand of her companion. "If I desire to occupy it for a night, who shall gainsay me? If I leave the latches down, that is due to the fact that I have no one to fear. Now, sir, you have eaten the bread of my table, and I demand to know who you are. If you do not tell me at once, I shall be forced to confine you here till I am ready to leave."
"Confine me!"—nonplussed. This was more than I had reckoned on.
"Yes." She reached out to strike the gong. (I can not be blamed for surrendering so tamely. I didn't know that the old servitor was the only man around.)
"I am the American consul at Barscheit."
The two women drew together instinctively, as if one desired to protect the other from some unknown calamity. What the deuce was it all about? All at once Gretchen thrust aside her friend and approached. The table was between us, and she rested her hands upon it. Our glances met and clashed.
"Did the duke send you here?" she demanded repellently.
"The duke?" I was getting deeper than ever. "The duke?"
"Yes. I am the Princess Hildegarde."
The Princess Hildegarde of Barscheit! My gloves and riding-crop slipped from my nerveless fingers to the floor. A numbing, wilting sensation wrinkled my spine. The Princess Hildegarde of Barscheit! She stood opposite me, the woman—ought I not to say girl?—for whom I had been seeking, after a fashion, all these months! The beautiful madcap who took the duchy by the ears, every now and then, and tweaked them! The princess herself, here in this lonely old castle into which I had so carelessly stumbled! Romance, enchantment! Oddly enough, the picture of her riding a bicycle flashed through my brain, and this was followed by another, equally engaging, of the hussar who rode cross-country, to the horror of the conservative element at court.
"The Princess Hildegarde!" I murmured stupidly.
"Yes. I have asked you a question, sir. Or shall I put the question in French?"—ironically. "Was it the duke who sent you here?"
There was a look in her superb eyes which told me that it would have been to her infinite pleasure to run a sword through my black and villainous heart. Presently I recovered. With forced calm I stooped and collected my gloves and crop.
"Your Highness, what the deuce has the duke to do with my affairs, or I with his? As an American, you would scarcely expect me to meddle with your private affairs. You are the last person in the world I thought to meet this night. I represent the United States in this country, and though I am inordinately young, I have acquired the habit of attending to my own affairs."
From the angry face in front of me I turned to the dismayed face beyond. There must have been a question in my glance. The young woman drew herself up proudly.
"I am the Honorable Betty Moore."
(The princess' schoolmate in England!)
Her Highness stood biting the knuckle of a forefinger, undecided as to what path of action to enter, to reach a satisfactory end. My very rudeness convinced her more than anything else that I spoke the truth.
"How, then, did you select this particular road?"—still entertaining some doubt.
"It is a highway, free to all. But I have already explained that," I answered quietly. I moved deliberately toward the door, but with a cat-like movement she sprang in front of me. "Well, your Highness?"
"Wait!" she commanded, extending an authoritative arm (lovely too!). "Since you are here, and since you know who I am, you must remain."
"Must?" I repeated, taken aback.
"Must! My presence here ought not to be known to any one. When you witness that which shall take place here to-night, you will understand." Her tone lost its evenness; it trembled and became a bit wild.
"In what manner may I be of service to your Highness?" I asked pleasantly, laying aside my gloves and crop again. "I can easily give you my word of honor as a gentleman not to report your presence here; but if I am forced to remain, I certainly demand—"
"Desire," she corrected, the old fire in her eyes.
"Thank you. I desire, then, to know the full reason; for I can not be a party to anything which may reflect upon the consulate. For myself, I do not care." What hare-brained escapade was now in the air?
The princess walked over to the mantel and rested her arms upon it, staring wide-eyed into the fire. Several minutes passed. I waited patiently; but, to tell the truth, I was on fire with curiosity. At length my patience was rewarded.
"You have heard that I am to marry the Prince of Doppelkinn?" she began.
"Doubtless you have also heard of my determination not to marry him?" she went on.
Again I nodded.
"Well, I am not going to marry him."
I was seized with the desire to laugh, but dared not. What had all this to do with my detention in the castle?
"Betty," said the princess, turning imploringly to her companion (what a change!), "you tell him."
"I?" The Honorable Betty drew back.
(Had they kidnapped old Doppelkinn? I wondered.)
"I can not tell him," cried her Highness miserably, "I simply can not. You must do it, Betty. It is now absolutely necessary that he should know everything; it is absolutely vital that he be present. Perhaps Heaven has sent him. Do you understand? Now, tell him!"
And, wonders to behold! she who but a few minutes gone had been a princess in everything, cold, seeing, tranquil, she fled from the room. (Decidedly this was growing interesting. What had they done?) Thus, the Honorable Betty Moore and his Excellency, the American consul at Barscheit, were left staring into each other's eyes fully a minute.
"You will, of course, pledge me your word of honor?" She who had recently been timid now became cool and even-pulsed.
"If in pledging it I am asked to do nothing to discredit my office. I am not an independent individual,"—smiling to put her more at ease. (I haven't the least doubt that I would have committed any sort of folly had she required it of me.)
"You have my word, sir, that you will be asked to do nothing dishonorable. On the other hand, you will confer a great favor upon her Highness, who is in deep trouble and is seeking a way to escape it."
"Command me," said I promptly.
"Her Highness is being forced into marriage with a man who is old enough to be her grandfather. She holds him in horror, and will go to any length to make this marriage an impossibility. For my part, I have tried to convince her of the futility of resisting her royal uncle's will." (Sensible little Britisher!) "What she is about to do will be known only to four persons, one of whom is a downright rascal."
"A rascal?" slipped my lips, half-unconsciously. "I trust that I haven't given you that impression," I added eagerly. (A rascal? The plot was thickening to formidable opaqueness.)
"No, no!" she cried hastily, with a flash of summer on her lips. (What is more charming than an English woman with a clear sense of the humorous?) "You haven't given me that impression at all."
"Thank you." My vanity expanded under the genial warmth of this knowledge. It was quite possible that she looked upon me favorably.
"To proceed. There is to be a kind of mock marriage here to-night, and you are to witness it." She watched me sharply.
"Patience! Not literally a mock marriage, but the filling out of a bogus certificate."
"I do not understand at all."
"You have heard of Hermann Steinbock, a cashiered officer?"
"Yes. I understand that he is the rascal to whom you refer."
"Well, this certificate is to be filled out completely. To outwit the duke, her Highness commits—"
"It is a terrible thing to do, but she has gone too far to withdraw now. She is to become the wife of Hermann Steinbock. She wishes to show the certificate to the duke."
"But the banns have not been made public."
"That does not matter."
"But why detain me?" I was growing restless. It was all folly, and no good would come of it.
"It is necessary that a gentleman should be present. The caretaker is not a gentleman. I have said that Steinbock is a rascal. As I review the events, I begin to look upon your arrival as timely. Steinbock is not a reliable quantity."
"I begin to perceive."
"He is to receive one thousand crowns for his part in the ceremony; then he is to leave the country."
"But the priest's signature, the notary's seal, the iron-clad formalities which attend all these things!" I stammered.
"You will recollect that her Highness is a princess of the blood. Seldom is she refused anything in Barscheit." She went to a small secretary and produced a certificate, duly sealed and signed. There lacked nothing but Steinbock's name.
"But the rascal will boast about it! He may blackmail all of you. He may convince the public that he has really married her Highness."
"I thank not. We have not moved in this blindly. Steinbock we know to have forged the name of the minister of finance. We hold this sword above his head. And if he should speak or boast of it, your word would hold greater weight than his. Do you understand now?"
"Yes, I understand. But I believe that I am genuinely sorry to have blundered into this castle to-night."
"Oh, if you lack courage!"—carelessly.
I laughed. "I am not afraid of twenty Steinbocks."
Her laughter echoed mine. "Come, Mr.—by the way, I believe I do not know your name."
"That is a very good English name, and a gentleman possessing it will never leave two women in a predicament like this. You will understand that we dare not trust any one at court. Relative to her Highness, the duke succeeds in bribing all."
"But a rascal like Steinbock!"
"I know,"—a bit wearily.
"It is pardonable to say that I believe her Highness has been very foolish."
The girl made a gesture which conceded this fact. "It is too late to retreat, as I have told you. Steinbock is already on the way. We must trust him. But you?"
"After all, what does a consulate amount to?"
This seemed to be answer enough. She extended her hand in a royal fashion. I took it in one of mine, bent and kissed it respectfully. Apparently she had expected the old-fashioned handshake familiar to our common race, for I observed that she started as my lips came into contact with the back of her hand. As for me, when my lips touched the satin flesh I knew that it was all over.
"Your Highness!" she called.
The princess returned. She looked at me with a mixture of fierceness and defiance, humility and supplication. I had always supposed her to be a sort of hobbledehoy; instead, she was one of those rare creatures who possess all the varying moods of the sex. I could readily imagine all the young fellows falling violently in love with her; all the young fellows save one. I glanced furtively at the Honorable Betty.
"He knows all?" asked her Highness, her chin tilted aggressively.
"What must you think of me?" There was that in her Highness' tone which dared me to express any opinion that was not totally complimentary.
"I am not sufficiently well-born to pass an opinion upon your Highness' actions," I replied, with excusable irony.
"Excellent!" she exclaimed. "I have grown weary of sycophants. You are not afraid of me at all."
"Not in the slightest degree," I declared.
"You will not regret what you are about to do. I can make it very pleasant for you in Barscheit—or very unpleasant." But this threatening supplement was made harmless by the accompanying smile.
"May I offer the advice of rather a worldly man?"
"When Steinbock comes bid him go about his business."
The Honorable Betty nodded approvingly, but her Highness shrugged.
"Since you are decided,"—and I bowed. "Now, what time does this fellow put in his appearance?"
Her Highness beamed upon the Honorable Betty. "I like the way he says 'this fellow'; it reassures me. He is due at nine o'clock; that is to say, in half an hour. I will give you these directions. I do not wish Steinbock to know of your presence here. You will hide in the salon, close to the portieres, within call. Moreover, I shall have to impose upon you the disagreeable duty of playing the listener. Let nothing escape your ear or your eye. I am not certain of this fellow Steinbock, though I hold a sword above his head."
"But where are your men?" I asked.
She smiled. "There is no one here but Leopold."
"Your Highness to meet Steinbock alone?"
"I have no fear of him; he knows who I am."
"Everything shall be done as you wish." I secretly hoped I might have the opportunity to punch Steinbock's head.
"Thank you." The transition of her moods always left me in wonder. "Play something; it is impossible to talk." She perched herself on the broad arm of the Honorable Betty's chair, and her arm rested lightly but affectionately on her shoulder.
It was something for a man to gain the confidence, in so short a time, of two such women. I felt as brave as Bavard. So I sat down before the piano and played. My two accomplishments are horseback riding and music, and I candidly tell you that I am as reckless at one as at the other. I had a good memory. I played something from Chaminade, as her fancies are always airy and agreeable and unmelancholy. I was attacking The Flatterer when her Highness touched my arm.
We all listened intently. The sound of beating hoofs came distinctly. A single horseman was galloping along the highway toward the castle. The sound grew nearer and nearer; presently it ceased. I rose quietly.
"It is time I hid myself, for doubtless this rider is the man."
The princess paled for a moment, while her companion nervously plucked at the edges of her handkerchief.
"Go," said the former; "and be watchful."
I then took up my position behind the portieres. Truly I had stumbled into an adventure; but how to stumble out again? If the duke got wind of it, it would mean my recall, and I was of a mind, just then, that I was going to be particularly fond of Barscheit.
All was silent. A door closed, and then came the tread of feet. I peered through the portieres shortly to see the entrance of two men, one of whom was the old caretaker. His companion was a dark, handsome fellow, of Hungarian gipsy type. There was a devil-may-care air about him that fitted him well. It was Steinbock. He was dressed with scrupulous care, in spite of the fact that he wore riding clothes. It is possible that he recognized the importance of the event. One did not write one's name under a princess' signature every day, even in mockery. There was a half-smile on his face that I did not like.
"Your Highness sees that I am prompt,"—uncovering.
"It is well. Let us proceed at once to conclude the matter in hand," she said.
"Wholly at your service!"
(Hang the fellow's impudence! How dared he use that jovial tone?)
I heard the crackle of parchment. The certificate was being unfolded. (It occurred to me that while she was about it the princess might just as well have forged the rascal's name and wholly dispensed with his services. The whole affair struck me as being ineffective; nothing would come of it. If she tried to make the duke believe that she had married Steinbock, her uncle would probe the matter to the bottom, and in the end cover her with ridicule. But you can not tell a young woman anything, when she is a princess and in the habit of having her own way. It is remarkable how stupid clever women can be at times. The Honorable Betty understood, but her Highness would not be convinced. Thus she suffered this needless affront. Pardon this parenthesis, but when one talks from behind a curtain the parenthesis is the only available thing.) There was silence. I saw Steinbock poise the pen, then scribble on the parchment. It was done. I stirred restlessly.
"There!" cried Steinbock. His voice did not lack a certain triumph. "And now for the duplicate!"
Her Highness stuffed the document into the bosom of her dress. "There will be no duplicate." The frigidity of her tones would have congealed the blood of an ordinary rascal. But Steinbock was not ordinary.
"But suppose the duke comes to me for verification?" he reasoned.
"You will be on the other side of the frontier. Here are your thousand crowns."
The barb of her contempt penetrated even his thick epidermis. His smile hardened.
"I was once a gentleman; I did not always accept money for aiding in shady transactions."
"Neither your sentiments nor your opinions are required. Now, observe me carefully," continued her Highness. "I shall give you twenty-four hours to cross the frontier in any direction you choose. If after that time you are found in Barscheit, I promise to hand you over to the police."
"It has been a great day," said the rascal, with a laugh. "A thousand crowns!"
I separated the portieres an inch. He stood at the side of the piano, upon which he leaned an elbow. He was certainly handsome, much sought after by women of a low class. The princess stood at Steinbock's left and the Honorable Betty at his right, erect, their faces expressing nothing, so forced was the repose.
"I never expected so great an honor. To wed a princess, when that princess is your Highness! Faith, it is fine!"
"You may go at once," interrupted her Highness, her voice rising a key. "Remember, you have only twenty-four hours between you and prison. You waste valuable time."
"What! you wish to be rid of me so soon? Why, this is the bridal night. One does not part with one's wife at this rate."
Leopold, the caretaker, made a warning gesture.
"Come, Leopold, I must have my jest," laughed Steinbock.
"Within certain bounds," returned the old man phlegmatically. "It is high time you were off. You are foolhardy to match your chances with justice. Prison stares you in the face."
"Bah! Do you believe it?"
"It is a positive fact," added the princess.
"But to leave like this has the pang of death!" Steinbock remonstrated, "What! shall I be off without having even kissed the bride?"
"The bargain is concluded on all sides; you have your thousand crowns."
"But not love's tribute. I must have that. It is worth a thousand crowns. Besides," with a perceptible change in his manner, "shall I forget the contempt with which you have always looked upon me, even in the old days that were fair and prosperous? Scarcely! Opportunity is a thing that can not be permitted to pass thus lightly." Then I observed his nose wrinkle; he was sniffing. "Tobacco! I did not know that you smoked, Leopold."
"Begone!" cried the old fellow, his hands opening and shutting.
"Presently!" With a laugh he sprang toward her Highness, but Leopold was too quick for him.
There was a short struggle, and I saw the valiant old man reel, fall and strike his head on the stone of the hearth. He lay perfectly motionless. So unexpected was this scene to my eyes that for a time I was without any particular sense of movement. I stood like stone. With an evil laugh Steinbock sprang toward her Highness again. Quick as light she snatched up my crop, which lay on the table, and struck the rascal full across the eyes, again and again and again, following him as he stepped backward. Her defense was magnificent. But, as fate determined to have it, Steinbock finally succeeded in wresting the stick from her grasp. He was wild with pain and chagrin. It was then I awoke to the fact that I was needed.
I rushed out, hot with anger. I caught Steinbock by the collar just in time to prevent his lips from touching her cheek. I flung him to the floor, and knelt upon his chest. I am ashamed to confess it, but I recollect slapping the fellow's face as he struggled under me.
"You scoundrel!" I cried, breathing hard.
"Kill him!" whispered her Highness. She was furious; the blood of her marauding ancestors swept over her cheeks, and if ever I saw murder in a woman's eyes it was at that moment.
"Hush, Hildegarde, hush!" The English girl caught the princess in her arms and drew her back. "Don't let me hear you talk like that. It is all over."
"Get up," I said to Steinbock, as I set him free.
He crawled to his feet. He was very much disordered, and there were livid welts on his face. He shook himself, eying me evilly. There was murder in his eyes, too.
"Empty your pockets of those thousand crowns!"—peremptorily.
"I was certain that I smelled tobacco," he sneered. "It would seem that there are other bridegrooms than myself."
"Those crowns, or I'll break every bone in your body!" I balled my fists. Nothing would have pleased me better at that moment than to pummel the life out of him.
Slowly he drew out the purse. It was one of those limp silk affairs so much affected by our ancestors. He balanced it on his hand. Its ends bulged with gold and bank-notes. Before I was aware of his intention, he swung one end of it in so deft a manner that it struck me squarely between the eyes. With a crash of glass he disappeared through the window. The blow dazed me only for a moment, and I was hot to be on his tracks. The Honorable Betty stopped me.
"He may shoot you!" she cried. "Don't go!"
Although half through the window, I crawled back, brushing my sleeves. Something warm trickled down my nose.
"You have been cut!" exclaimed her Highness.
"It is nothing. I beg of you to let me follow. It will be all over with that fellow at large."
"Not at all." Her Highness' eyes sparkled wickedly. "He will make for the nearest frontier. He knows now that I shall not hesitate a moment to put his affairs in the hands of the police."
"He will boast of what he has done."
"Not till he has spent those thousand crowns." She crossed the room and knelt at the side of Leopold, dashing some water into his face. Presently he opened his eyes. "He is only stunned. Poor Leopold!"
I helped the old man to his feet, and he rubbed the back of his head grimly. He drew a revolver from his pocket.
"I had forgotten all about it," he said contritely. "Shall I follow him, your Highness?"
"Let him go. It doesn't matter now. Betty, you were right, as you always are. I have played the part of a silly fool. I would have my own way in the matter. Well, I have this worthless paper. At least I can frighten the duke, and that is something."
"Oh, my dear, if only you would have listened to my advice!" the other girl said. There was deep discouragement in her tones. "I warned you so often that it would come to this end."
"Let us drop the matter entirely," said her Highness.
I gazed admiringly at her—to see her sink suddenly into a chair and weep abandonedly! Leopold eyed her mournfully, while the English girl rushed to her side and flung her arms around her soothingly.
"I am very unhappy," said the princess, lifting her head and shaking the tears from her eyes. "I am harassed on all sides; I am not allowed any will of my own. I wish I were a peasant!—Thank you, thank you! But for you that wretch would have kissed me." She held out her hand to me, and I bent to one knee as I kissed it. She was worthy to be the wife of the finest fellow in all the world. I was very sorry for her, and thought many uncomplimentary things of the duke.
"I shall not ask you to forget my weakness," she said.
"It is already forgotten, your Highness."
Under such circumstances I met the Princess Hildegarde of Barscheit; and I never betrayed her confidence until this writing, when I have her express permission.
Of Hermann Steinbock I never saw anything more. Thus the only villain passes from the scene. As I have repeatedly remarked, doubtless to your weariness, this is not my story at all; but in parenthesis I may add that between the Honorable Betty Moore and myself there sprang up a friendship which later ripened into something infinitely stronger.
This, then, was the state of affairs when, one month later, Max Scharfenstein poked his handsome blond head over the frontier of Barscheit; cue (as the dramatist would say), enter hero.
He came straight to the consulate, and I was so glad to see him that I sat him down in front of the sideboard and left orders that I was at home to no one. We had been class-mates and room-mates at college, and two better friends never lived. We spent the whole night in recounting the good old days, sighed a little over the departed ones, and praised or criticized the living. Hadn't they been times, though? The nights we had stolen up to Philadelphia to see the shows, the great Thanksgiving games in New York, the commencements, and all that!
Max had come out of the far West. He was a foundling who had been adopted by a wealthy German ranchman named Scharfenstein, which name Max assumed as his own, it being as good as any. Nobody knew anything about Max's antecedents, but he was so big and handsome and jolly that no one cared a hang. For all that he did not know his parentage, he was a gentleman, something that has to be bred in the bone. Once or twice I remember seeing him angry; in anger he was arrogant, deadly, but calm. He was a god in track-linen, for he was what few big men are, quick and agile. The big fellow who is cat-like in his movements is the most formidable of athletes. One thing that invariably amused me was his inordinate love of uniforms. He would always stop when he saw a soldier or the picture of one, and his love of arms was little short of a mania. He was an expert fencer and a dead shot besides. (Pardon the parenthesis, but I feel it my duty to warn you that nobody fights a duel in this little history, and nobody gets killed.)
On leaving college he went in for medicine, and his appearance in the capital city of Barscheit was due obviously to the great medical college, famous the world over for its nerve specialists. This was Max's first adventure in the land of gutturals. I explained to him, and partly unraveled, the tangle of laws; as to the language, he spoke that, not like a native, but as one.
Max was very fond of the society of women, and at college we used to twit him about it, for he was always eager to meet a new face, trusting that the new one might be the ideal for which he was searching.
"Well, you old Dutchman," said I, "have you ever found that ideal woman of yours?"
"Bah!"—lighting a pipe. "She will never be found. A horse and a trusty dog for me; those two you may eventually grow to understand. Of course I don't say, if the woman came along—the right one—I mightn't go under, I'm philosopher enough to admit that possibility. I want her tall, hair like corn-silk, eyes like the cornflower, of brilliant intellect, reserved, and dignified, and patient. I want a woman, not humorous, but who understands humor, and I have never heard of one. So, you see, it's all smoke; and I never talk woman these times unless I'm smoking,"—with a gesture which explained that he had given up the idea altogether. "A doctor sees so much of women that he finally sees nothing of woman."
"Oh, if you resort to epigrams, I can see that it's all over."
"All over. I'm so used to being alone that I shouldn't know what to do with a wife." He puffed seriously.
Ah! the futility of our desires, of our castles, of our dreams! The complacency with which we jog along in what we deem to be our own particular groove! I recall a girl friend of my youth who was going to be a celibate, a great reformer, and toward that end was studying for the pulpit. She is now the mother of several children, the most peaceful and unorative woman I know. You see, humanity goes whirring over various side-tracks, thinking them to be the main line, till fate puts its peculiar but happy hand to the switch. Scharfenstein had been plugging away over rusty rails and grass-grown ties—till he came to Barscheit.
"Hope is the wings of the heart," said I, when I thought the pause had grown long enough. "You still hope?"
"In a way. If I recollect, you had an affair once,"—shrewdly.
I smoked on. I wasn't quite ready to speak.
"You were always on the hunt for ideals, too, as I remember; hope you'll find her."
"Max, my boy, I am solemnly convinced that I have."
"Good Lord, you don't mean to tell me that you are hooked?" he cried.
"I see no reason why you should use that particular tone," I answered stiffly.
"Oh, come now; tell me all about it. Who is she, and when's the wedding?"
"I don't know when the wedding's going to be, but I'm mighty sure that I have met the one girl. Max, there never was a girl like her. Witty she is, and wise; as beautiful as a summer's dawn; merry and brave; rides, drives, plays the 'cello, dances like a moon-shadow; and all that,"—with a wave of the hand.
"You've got it bad. Remember how you used to write poetry at college? Who is she, if I may ask?"
"The Honorable Betty Moore, at present the guest of her Highness, the Princess Hildegarde,"—with pardonable pride.
Max whistled. "You're a lucky beggar. One by one we turn traitor to our native land. A Britisher! I never should have believed it of you, of the man whose class declamation was on the fiery subject of patriotism. But is it all on one side?"
"I don't know, Max; sometimes I think so, and then I don't."
"How long have you known her?"
"Little more than a month."
"A month? Everything moves swiftly these days, except European railway cars."
"There's a romance, Max, but another besides her is concerned, and I can not tell you. Some day, when everything quiets down, I'll get you into a corner with a bottle, and you will find it worth while."
"From rumors I've heard, this princess is a great one for larks; rides bicycles and automobiles, and generally raises the deuce. What sort is she?"
"If you are going to remain in Barscheit, my boy, take a friendly warning. Do not make any foolish attempt to see her. She is more fascinating than a roulette table."
This was a sly dig. Max smiled. A recent letter from him had told of an encounter with the goddess of Monte Carlo. Fortune had been all things but favorable.
"I'm not afraid of your princess; besides, I came here to study."
"And study hard, my boy, study hard. Her Highness is not the only pretty woman in Barscheit. There's a raft of them."
"I'll paddle close to the shore," with a smile.
"By the way, I'll wake you up Thursday."
"A bout at Mueller's Rathskeller. Half a dozen American lads, one of whom is called home. Just fixed up his passports for him. You'll be as welcome as the flowers in the spring. Some of the lads will be in your classes."
"Put me down. It will be like old times. I went to the reunion last June. Everything was in its place but you. Hang it, why can't time always go on as it did then?"
"Time, unlike our watches, never has to go to the jeweler's for repairs," said I owlishly.
Max leaned over, took my bull-terrier by the neck and deposited him on his lap.
"Good pup, Artie—if he's anything like his master. Three years, my boy, since I saw you. And here you are, doing nothing and lallygagging at court with the nobility. I wish I had had an uncle who was a senator. 'Pull' is everything these days."
"You Dutchman, I won this place on my own merit,"—indignantly.
"You are impertinent."
"But truthful, always."
And then we smoked a while in silence. The silent friend is the best of the lot. He knows that he hasn't got to talk unless he wants to, and likewise that it is during these lapses of speech that the vine of friendship grows and tightens about the heart. When you sit beside a man and feel that you need not labor to entertain him it's a good sign that you thoroughly understand each other. I was first to speak.
"I don't understand why you should go in for medicine so thoroughly. It can't be money, for heaven knows your father left you a yearly income which alone would be a fortune to me."
"Chivalry shivers these days; the chill of money is on everything. A man must do something—a man who is neither a sloth nor a fool. A man must have something to put his whole heart into; and I despise money as money. I give away the bulk of my income."
"Marry, and then you will not have to," I said flippantly.
"You're a sad dog. Do you know, I've been thinking about epigrams."
"Yes. I find that an epigram is produced by the same cause that produces the pearl in the oyster."
"That is to say, a healthy mentality never superinduces an epigram? Fudge!" said I, yanking the pup from his lap on to mine. "According to your diagnosis, your own mind is diseased."
"Have I cracked an epigram?"—with pained surprise.
"Well, you nearly bent one," I compromised. Then we both laughed, and the pup started up and licked my face before I could prevent him.
"Did I ever show you this?"—taking out a locket which was attached to one end of his watch-chain. He passed the trinket to me.
"What is it?" I asked, turning it over and over.
"It's the one slender link that connects me with my babyhood. It wag around my neck when Scharfenstein picked me up. Open it and look at the face inside."
I did so. A woman's face peered up at me. It might have been beautiful but for the troubled eyes and the drooping lips. It was German in type, evidently of high breeding, possessing the subtle lines which distinguish the face of the noble from the peasant's. From the woman's face I glanced at Max's. The eyes were something alike.
"Who do you think it is?" I asked, when I had studied the face sufficiently to satisfy my curiosity.
"I've a sneaking idea that it may be my mother. Scharfenstein found me toddling about in a railroad station, and that locket was the only thing about me that might be used in the matter of identification. You will observe that there is no lettering, not even the jeweler's usual carat-mark to qualify the gold. I recall nothing; life with me dates only from the wide plains and grazing cattle. I was born either in Germany or Austria. That's all I know. And to tell you the honest truth, boy, it's the reason I've placed my woman-ideal so high. So long as I place her over my head I'm not foolish enough to weaken into thinking I can have her. What woman wants a man without a name?"
"You poor old Dutchman, you! You can buy a genealogy with your income. And a woman nowadays marries the man, the man. It's only horses, dogs and cattle that we buy for their pedigrees. Come; you ought to have a strawberry mark on your arm," I suggested lightly; for there were times when Max brooded over the mystery which enveloped his birth.
In reply he rolled up his sleeve and bared a mighty arm. Where the vaccination scar usually is I saw a red patch, like a burn. I leaned over and examined it. It was a four-pointed scar, with a perfect circle around it. Somehow, it seemed to me that this was not the first time I had seen this peculiar mark. I did not recollect ever seeing it on Max's arm. Where had I seen it, then?
"It looks like a burn," I ventured to suggest.
"It is. I wish I knew what it signifies. Scharfenstein said that it was positively fresh when he found me. He said I cried a good deal and kept telling him that I was Max. Maybe I'm an anarchist and don't know it,"—with half a smile.
"It's a curious scar. Hang me, but I've seen the device somewhere before!"
"You have?"—eagerly. "Where, where?"
"I don't know; possibly I saw it on your arm in the old days."
He sank back in his chair. Silence, during which the smoke thickened and the pup whined softly in his sleep. Out upon the night the cathedral bell boomed the third hour of morning.
"If you don't mind, Artie," said Max, yawning, "I'll turn in. I've been traveling for the past fortnight."
"Take a ride on Dandy in the morning. He'll hold your weight nicely. I can't go with you, as I've a lame ankle."
"I'll be in the saddle at dawn. All I need is a couple of hours between sheets."
As I prodded my pillow into a comfortable wad under my cheek I wondered where I had seen that particular brand. It was a brand. I knew that I had seen it somewhere, but my memory danced away when I endeavored to halter it. Soon I fell asleep, dreaming of somebody who wasn't Max Scharfenstein, by a long shot.
That same evening the grand duke's valet knocked on the door leading into the princess' apartments, and when the door opened he gravely announced that his serene Highness desired to speak to the Princess Hildegarde. It was a command. For some reason, known best to herself, the princess chose to obey it.
"Say that I shall be there presently," she said, dismissing the valet.
As she entered her uncle's study—so called because of its dust-laden bookshelves, though the duke sometimes disturbed their contents to steady the leg of an unbalanced chair or table—he laid down his pipe and dismissed his small company of card-players.
"I did not expect to see you so soon," he began. "A woman's curiosity sometimes has its value. It takes little to arouse it, but a great deal to allay it."
"You have not summoned me to make smart speeches, simply because I have been educated up to them?"—truculently.
"No. I have not summoned you to talk smart, a word much in evidence in Barscheit since your return from England. For once I am going to use a woman's prerogative. I have changed my mind."
The Princess Hildegarde trembled with delight. She could put but one meaning to his words.
"The marriage will not take place next month."
"Wait a moment,"—grimly. "It shall take place next week."
"I warn you not to force me to the altar," cried the girl, trembling this time with a cold fury.
"My child, you are too young in spirit and too old in mind to be allowed a gateless pasture. In harness you will do very well." He took up his pipe and primed it. It was rather embarrassing to look the girl in the eye. "You shall wed Doppelkinn next week."
"You will find it rather embarrassing to drag me to the altar,"—evenly.
"You will not," he replied, "create a scandal of such magnitude. You are untamable, but you are proud."
The girl remained silent. In her heart she knew that he had spoken truly. She could never make a scene in the cathedral. But she was determined never to enter it. She wondered if she should produce the bogus certificate. She decided to wait and see if there were no other loophole of escape. Old Rotnaesig? Not if she died!
When these two talked without apparent heat it was with unalterable fixedness of purpose. They were of a common race. The duke was determined that she should wed Doppelkinn; she was equally determined that she should not. The gentleman with the algebraic bump may figure this out to suit himself.
"Have you no pity?"
"My reason overshadows it. You do not suppose that I take any especial pleasure in forcing you? But you leave me no other method."
"I am a young girl, and he is an old man."
"That is immaterial. Besides, the fact has gone abroad. It is now irrevocable."
"I promise to go out and ask the first man I see to marry me!" she declared.
"Pray Heaven, it may be Doppelkinn!" said the duke drolly.
"Oh, do not doubt that I have the courage and the recklessness. I would not care if he were young, but the prince is old enough to be my father."
"You are not obliged to call him husband." The duke possessed a sparkle to-night which was unusual in him. Perhaps he had won some of the state moneys which he had paid out to his ministers' that day. "Let us not waste any time," he added.
"I shall not waste any,"—ominously.
"Order your gown from Vienna, or Paris, or from wherever you will. Don't haggle over the price; let it be a good one; I'm willing to go deep for it."
"You loved my aunt once,"—a broken note in her voice.
"I love her still,"—not unkindly; "but I must have peace in the house. Observe what you have so far accomplished in the matter of creating turmoil." The duke took up a paper.
"Let us call them your transgressions. Listen. You have ridden a horse as a man rides it; you have ridden bicycles in public streets; you have stolen away to a masked ball; you ran away from school in Paris and visited Heaven knows whom; you have bribed sentries to let you in when you were out late; you have thrust aside the laws as if they meant nothing; you have trifled with the state papers and caused the body politic to break up a meeting as a consequence of the laughter."
The girl, as she recollected this day to which he referred, laughed long and joyously. He waited patiently till she had done, and I am not sure that his mouth did not twist under his beard. "Foreign education is the cause of all this," he said finally. "Those cursed French and English schools have ruined you. And I was fool enough to send you to them. This is the end."
"Or the beginning,"—rebelliously.
"Doppelkinn is mild and kind."
"Mild and kind! One would think that you were marrying me to a horse! Well, I shall not enter the cathedral."
"How will you avoid it?"—calmly.
"I shall find a way; wait and see." She was determined.
"I shall wait." Then, with a sudden softening, for he loved the girl after his fashion: "I am growing old, my child. If I should die, what would become of you? I have no son; your Uncle Franz, who is but a year or two younger than I am, would reign, and he would not tolerate your madcap ways. You must marry at once. I love you in spite of your wilfulness. But you have shown yourself incapable of loving. Doppelkinn is wealthy. You shall marry him."
"I will run away, uncle,"—decidedly.
"I have notified the frontiers,"—tranquilly. "From now on you will be watched. It is the inevitable, my child, and even I have to bow to that."
She touched the paper in her bosom, but paused.
"Moreover, I have decided," went on the duke, "to send the Honorable Betty Moore back to England."
"Yes. She is a charming young person, but she is altogether too sympathetic. She abets you in all you do. Her English independence does not conform with my ideas. After the wedding I shall notify her father."
"Everything, everything! My friends, my liberty, the right God gives to every woman—to love whom she will! And you, my uncle, rob me of these things! What if I should tell you that marriage with me is now impossible?"—her lips growing thin.
"I should not be very much surprised."
"Please look at this, then, and you will understand why I can not marry Doppelkinn." She thrust the bogus certificate into his hands.
The duke read it carefully, not a muscle in his face disturbed. Finally he looked up with a terrifying smile.
"Poor, foolish child! What a terrible thing this might have turned out to be!"
"What do you mean?"
"Mean? Do you suppose anything like this could take place without my hearing of it? And such a dishonest unscrupulous rascal! Some day I shall thank the American consul personally for his part in the affair. I was waiting to see when you would produce this. You virtually placed your honor and reputation, which I know to be above reproach, into the keeping of a man who would sell his soul for a thousand crowns."
The girl felt her knees give way, and she sat down. Tears slowly welled up in her eyes and overflowed, blurring everything.
The duke got up and went over to his desk, rummaging among the papers. He returned to the girl with a letter.
"Read that, and learn the treachery of the man you trusted."
The letter was written by Steinbock. In it he disclosed all. It was a venomous, inciting letter. The girl crushed it in her hand.
"Is he dead?" she asked, all the bitterness in her heart surging to her lips.
"To Barscheit,"—briefly. "Now, what shall I do with this?"—tapping the bogus certificate.
"Give it to me," said the girl wearily. She ripped it into halves, into quarters, into infinitesimal squares, and tossed them into the waste-basket. "I am the unhappiest girl in the world."
"I am sorry," replied the grand duke. "It isn't as if I had forced Doppelkinn on you without first letting you have your choice. You have rejected the princes of a dozen wealthy countries. We are not as the common people; we can not marry where we will. I shall announce that the marriage will take place next week."
"Do not send my friend away," she pleaded, apparently tamed.
"I will promise to give the matter thought. Good night."
She turned away without a word and left him. When he roared at her she knew by experience that he was harmless; but this quiet determination meant the exclusion of any further argument. There was no escape unless she ran away. She wept on her pillow that night, not so much at the thought of wedding Doppelkinn as at the fact that Prince Charming had evidently missed the last train and was never coming to wake her up, or, if he did come, it would be when it was too late. How many times had she conjured him up, as she rode in the fresh fairness of the mornings! How manly he was and how his voice thrilled her! Her horse was suddenly to run away, he was to rescue her, and then demand her hand in marriage as a fitting reward. Sometimes he had black hair and eyes, but more often he was big and tall, with yellow hair and the bluest eyes in all the world.
The princess rose at dawn the following day. She routed out Hans, the head groom, and told him to saddle Artemis, the slim-limbed, seal-brown filly which an English nobleman had given to her. Ten minutes later she was in the saddle, and the heaviness on her heart seemed to rise and vanish like the opal mists on the bosom of the motionless lake. A pale star blinked at her, and the day, flushed like the cheek of a waking infant, began drowsily to creep over the rolling mountains.
How silent all the city was! Only here and there above the chimneys rose a languid film of smoke. The gates of the park shut behind her with a clang, and so for a time she was alone and free. She touched Artemis with a spur, and the filly broke into a canter toward the lake road. The girl's nostrils dilated. Every flower, the thousand resinous saps of the forest, the earth itself, yielded up a cool sweet perfume that was to the mind what a glass of wine is to the blood, exhilaration.
Mottled with pink, and gray, and blue, and gold, the ever-changing hues of the morning, the surface of the lake was as smooth as her mirror and, like it, always reflecting beauty. Fish leaped forth and fell with a sounding splash, and the circles would widen and gradually vanish. A blackbird dipped among the silent rushes; a young fox barked importantly; a hawk flashed by. The mists swam hither and thither mysteriously, growing thinner and fainter as the gold of day grew brighter and clearer. Suddenly—in the words of the old tent-maker—the false morning died, and it was day.
I'm afraid that somewhere among the princess' ancestors there was a troubadour; for she was something of a poet. Indeed, I have already remarked that she wrote verses. The atmospheric change of the morning turned her mind into sentimental channels. How she envied the peasant woman, who might come and go at will, sleep in the open or in the hut, loving or hating with perfect freedom! Ah, Prince Charming, Prince Charming! where were you? Why did you loiter? Perhaps for her there was no Prince Charming. It might be so. She sighed.
She would never marry Doppelkinn—never. That horrible Steinbock! She was glad, glad that she had struck him, again and again, across his lying eyes and evil mouth. She had believed that she knew the world; it was all yet a mystery; the older she grew the less she understood. Wasn't anybody good? Was everybody to be distrusted? Which way should she turn now? The world was beautiful enough; it was the people in it. Poor Betty! She had her troubles, too; but somehow she refused to confide them. She acted very much as if she were in love.
She gazed at the hawk enviously. How proud and free he was, so high up there, circling and circling. Even the fox was freer than she; the forests were his, and he might go whither he listed. And the fish that leaped in frolic from the water, and the blackbird in the rushes! She could not understand.
She would never marry Doppelkinn—never.
But how should she escape—how? On Wednesday night she would be given her quarterly allowance of a thousand crowns, and on Thursday she must act. . . . Yes, yes, that was it! How simple! She would slip over into Doppelkinn, where they never would think to search for her. She knew a place in which to hide. From Doppelkinn she would go straight to Dresden and seek the protection of her old governess, who would hide her till the duke came to his senses. If only she had an independent fortune, how she would snap her fingers at them all!
She was distracted by the sound of jangling steel. Artemis had cast a shoe. How annoying! It would take ten minutes to reach old Bauer's smithy, and ten minutes more to put on a shoe. She brought the filly down to a walk.
What was the use of being a princess if one was not allowed to act in a royal fashion? It wasn't so terrible to wear men's clothes, and, besides, they were very comfortable for riding a horse; and as for riding a bicycle in the public streets, hadn't that ugly Italian duchess ridden through the streets of Rome, and in knickerbockers, too? Nobody seemed to mind it there. But in Barscheit it had been little short of a crime. She recalled the flaming fagots and the red-hot wire of her unfortunate wheel. A smile rippled over her face, but it passed quickly. There was nothing left to smile over. They were going to force her to marry a tomb, a man in whom love and courage and joy were as dead things. Woe to Doppelkinn, though—woe to him! She would lead him a dance, wild and terrible.
If only she were Betty, free to do what she pleased, to go and come at will! She wasn't born to be a princess; she wasn't commonplace enough; she enjoyed life too well. Ah, if only she might live and act like those English cousins of hers with whom she went to school! They could ride man-fashion, hunt man-fashion, shoot, play cards and bet at the races man-fashion, and nobody threatened them with Doppelkinns. They might dance, too, till the sun came into the windows and the rouge on their faces cracked. But she! (I use the italics to illustrate the decided nods of her pretty head.) Why, every sweet had to be stolen!
She would never marry Doppelkinn—never. She would never watch his old nose grow purple at the table. She would run away. And since Prince Charming was nowhere to be seen, it were better to die an old maid.
Presently the smithy came into view, emerging from a cluster of poplars. She rode up to the doors, dismounted and entered. Old Bauer himself was at the bellows, and the weird blue light hissing up from the blown coals discovered another customer. She turned and met his frank glance of admiration. (If she hadn't turned! If his admiration hadn't been entirely frank!) Instantly she sent Bauer a warning glance which that old worthy seemed immediately to understand. The stranger was tall, well-made, handsome, with yellow hair, and eyes as blue as the sky is when the west wind blows.
He raised his cap, and the heart of the girl fluttered. Wherever had this seemly fellow come from?
"Good morning," said the stranger courteously. "I see that you have had the same misfortune as myself."
"You have lost a shoe? Rather annoying, when one doesn't want a single break in the going." She uttered the words carelessly, as if she wasn't at all interested.
The stranger stuffed his cap into a pocket. She was glad that she had chosen the new saddle. The crest and coat of arms had not yet been burned upon the leather nor engraved upon the silver ornaments, and there was no blanket under the English saddle. There might be an adventure; one could not always tell. She must hide her identity. If the stranger knew that she belonged to the House of Barscheit, possibly he would be frightened and take to his heels.
But the Princess Hildegarde did not know that this stranger never took to his heels; he wasn't that kind. Princess or peasant, it would have been all the same to him. Only his tone might have lost half a key.
Bauer called to his assistant, and the girl stepped out into the road. The stranger followed, as she knew he would. It will be seen that she knew something of men, if only that they possess curiosity.