I was wandering aimlessly through the rose gardens, when the far-off sound o_alloping hoofs came on the breeze. Nearer and nearer it drew. I ran out int_he highway. I saw a horse come wildly dashing along. It was riderless, and a_t came closer I saw the foam of sweat dripping from its flanks and shoulders.
As the animal plunged toward me, I made a spring and caught the bridle, hanging on till the brute came to a standstill. It was quivering from fright.
There was a gash on its neck, and it was bleeding and turning the white flake_f sweat into a murky crimson.
"Good Lord!" I ejaculated. "It's one of the cavalry horses. Hillars or th_nnkeeper has been hurt."
I was of the mind to mount the animal and go in search of them, whe_tahlberg, who had come to my assistance, said that I had best wait. A quarte_f an hour passed. Then we could see another horse, perhaps half a mile away, coming toward the inn at a canter. From what I could see in the pale light, the horse carried a double burden. A sheet of ice seemed to fall on my heart.
What had happened? Had Dan and the Prince come to blows? Alas, I could hav_ried out in anguish at the sight which finally met my gaze. The innkeepe_eld the reins, and, propped up in front of him, was Hillars, to al_ppearances dead.
"Gott!" cried the innkeeper, discovering me, "but I am glad to see you, Herr.
Your friend has been hurt, badly, badly."
"My God!" I cried. The hand and wrist of the innkeeper which encircled Hillar_ere drenched in blood.
"Yes. A bullet somewhere in his chest. Help me down with him. He is not dea_et. I'll tell you the story when we have made it comfortable for him."
Tenderly we carried the inanimate form of poor Hillars into the inn and lai_t on the sofa. I tore back his blood-wet shirt. The wound was slightly belo_he right lung. The bullet had severed an artery, for I could see that th_lood gushed. We worked over him for a few moments, and then he opened hi_yes. He saw me and smiled.
"There wasn't any regiment, old man, but this will suffice. My hand trembled.
But he'll never use his right arm again, curse him!"
"Dan, Dan!" I cried, "what made you do it?"
"When I am a man's friend, it is in life and death. He was in the way. He ma_hank liquor that he lives." The lids of his eyes contracted. "Hurts a little, but it will not be for long, my son. I am bleeding to death inside. Jack, th_oman loves you, and in God's eyes, Princess or not, she belongs to you. Yo_nd I cannot understand these things which make it impossible for a man and _oman who love each other to wed. Let me hold your hand. I feel like an ol_oman. Give me a mouthful of brandy. Ah, that's better! Innkeeper, you_ourage is not to be doubted, but your judgment of liquor is. Any way, Jack, _uppose you will not forget me in a week or so, eh?"
"Dan!" was all I could say, bending over his hand to hide my tears.
"Jack, you are not sorry?"
"Dan, you are more to me than any woman in the world."
"Oh, say! You wouldn't—hold me up a bit higher; that's it—you wouldn't have m_ang on now, would you? I haven't anything to live for, no matter how you pu_t. Home? I never had one. The only regret I have in leaving is that th_rince will not keep me company. Put an obol in my hand, and Charon will se_e over the Styx.
> "And when, like her, O Saki, you shall pass > Among the guests star-scattered on the grass, > And in your joyous errand, reach the spot > Where I made one—turn down an empty glass!
"Well, hang me, Jack, if you aren't crying! Then you thought more of me than _elieved; a man's tears mean more than a woman's… . A man must die, and wha_s a year or two? How much better to fold the tent when living become_asteless and the cup is full of lees! … The Prince was a trifle cruel; bu_erhaps his hand trembled, too. Innkeeper, you're a good fellow."
"Herr is a man of heart," said the grizzled veteran, sadly.
"Tell Jack how it happened," said Dan; "it hurts me."
On leaving me, Hillars and the innkeeper, after having taken a pair o_istols, had mounted the cavalry horses despite the protests of the owners, and had galloped away in pursuit of the Prince and Count von Walden. The_aught sight of them a mile or so ahead. They were loping along at a fai_peed. It took half an hour to bring the two parties within speaking distance.
Although the Prince and von Walden heard them, they never turned around, bu_ept on straight ahead. This made Hillars' choler rise, and he spurre_orward.
"One moment, gentlemen," he cried. "I have a word with you."
They galloped on unheeding. When Hillars got in front of them they merel_eered to either side.
"Ah!" said Hillars, choking with rage. With a quick movement he bent an_aught the bridle of the Prince's horse. The Count, seeing that the Prince wa_ompelled to rein in, did likewise. The Prince looked disdainful.
"Well, what is it?" asked Von Walden. "Speak quickly. Has your scribblin_riend run away with Her Highness?"
"My remarks, most noble and puissant Count," said Hillars, bowing, satirically, to the neck of his horse, "I shall confine to the still mor_oble and puissant Prince of Wortumborg."
"This is an unappreciated honor," sneered the Prince.
"So it is," replied Hillars, lightly. "When an honest man speaks to you he i_onferring an honor upon you which you, as you say, cannot appreciate. I_ppears to me that Your Highness has what we in America call malaria. _ropose to put a hole through you and let out this bad substance. Lead, properly used, is a great curative. Sir, your presence on this beautiful worl_s an eyesore to me."
"One excuse is as good as another," said the Prince. "Did Her Highnes_elegate you to put me out of the way?"
"Oh, no; but since you have brought her name into it, I confess that it is o_er account. Well, sir, no man has ever insulted a woman in my presence an_one unscathed. In English speaking lands we knock him down. This being Rome _hall do as the Romans do. I believe I called you a liar; I will do so again.
Is the object of my errand plain?"
"As I said to your friend," smiled the Prince, "I will send a lackey down her_o take care of you. Count, we shall hardly get to the station in time t_atch the train. Young man, stand aside; you annoy me, I have no time t_iscuss the Princess or her lovers. Release my horse!"
"What a damned cur you are!" cried Hillars, losing his airy tone. "By God, yo_ill fight me, if I have to knock you down and spit upon you!" Then with ful_orce he flung his hat into the face of the Prince.
"You have written finis to your tale," said the Prince, dismounting.
"Your Highness!" exclaimed the Count, springing to the ground, "this must no_e. You shall not risk your life at the hands of this damned adventurer."
"Patience, Count," said the Prince, shaking off the hand which the Count ha_laced upon his shoulder. "Decidedly, this fellow is worth consideration.
Since we have no swords, sir, and they seem to be woman's weapons these days, we will use pistols. Of course, you have come prepared. It is a fine time fo_hooting. This first light of twilight gives us equal advantage. Will it be a_en or twenty paces? I dare say, if we stand at twenty, in the centre of th_oad, we shall have a good look at each other before we separat_ndefinitely."
"Your Highness insists?" murmured the Count.
"I not only insist, I command." The Prince took off his coat and waistcoat an_eposited them on the grass at the side of the road. Hillars did likewise.
There was a pleased expression on his face. "I do believe, Count," laughed th_rince, "this fellow expects to kill me. Now, the pistols."
"If you will permit me," said the innkeeper, taking an oblong box from unde_is coat. "These are excellent weapons."
The Prince laughed. "I suppose, innkeeper, if the result is disastrous to me, it will please you?"
The innkeeper was not lacking in courtesy. "It would be a pleasure, I assur_ou. There are certain reasons why I cannot fight you myself."
"To be sure."
"It would be too much like murder," continued the innkeeper. "Your hand woul_remble so that you would miss me at point-blank. There goes the last of th_un. We must hurry."
With a grimace the Count accepted the box and took out the pistols.
"They are old-fashioned," he said.
"A deal like the innkeeper's morals," supplemented the Prince.
"But effective," said the innkeeper.
The Count scowled at the old fellow, who met the look with phlegm. As a_nnkeeper he might be an inferior, but as a second at a duel he was an equal.
It was altogether a different matter.
The Count carefully loaded the weapons, the innkeeper watching hi_ttentively. In his turn he examined them.
"Very good," he said.
The paces were then measured out. During this labor the Prince gaze_ndifferently toward the west. The aftermath of the sun glowed on the horizon.
The Prince shaded his eyes for a spell.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I believe the Princess is approaching. At any rate her_omes the coach. Let us suspend hostilities till she has passed."
A few minutes later the coach came rumbling along in a whirlwind of dust. Th_toical cavalrymen kept on without so much as a glance at the quartet standin_t the side of the road. Hillars looked after the vehicle till it was obscure_rom view. Then he shook himself out of the dream into which he had fallen. H_as pale now, and his eyebrows were drawn together as the Count held out th_istol.
"Ah, yes!" he said, as though he had forgotten. "There goes the woman who wil_ever become your wife."
"That shall be decided at once," was the retort of the Prince.
"She will marry the gentleman back at the inn."
"A fine husband he will make, truly!" replied the Prince. "He not only desert_er but forsakes her champion. But, that is neither here nor there. We shal_ot go through any polite formalities," his eyes snapping viciously.
The two combatants took their places in the centre of the road. The pistol ar_f each hung at the side of the body.
"Are you ready, gentlemen?" asked the Count, the barest tremor in his voice.
"Yes," said the Prince.
Hillars simply nodded.
"When I have counted three you will be at liberty to fire. One!"
The arms raised slowly till the pistols were on the level of the eyes.
The innkeeper saw Hillars move his lips. That was the only sign.
The pistols exploded simultaneously. The right arm of the Prince swung bac_iolently, the smoking pistol flying from his hand. Suddenly one of the horse_ave a snort of pain and terror, and bolted down the road. No attention wa_iven to the horse. The others were watching Hillars. He stood perfectl_otionless. All at once the pistol fell from his hand; then both hands fle_nstinctively to his breast. There was an expression of surprise on his face.
His eyes closed, his knees bent forward, and he sank into the road a huddle_eap. The Prince shrugged, a sigh of relief fell from the Count's half-parte_ips, while the innkeeper ran toward the fallen man.
"Are you hurt, Prince?" asked the Count.
"The damned fool has blown off my elbow!" was the answer. "Bind it up wit_our handkerchief, and help me on with my coat. There is nothing more to do; if he is not dead he soon will be, so it's all the same."
When the Prince's arm was sufficiently bandaged so as to stop the flow o_lood, the Count assisted him to mount, jumped on his own horse, and the tw_antered off, leaving the innkeeper, Hillars' head propped up on his knee, staring after them with a dull rage in his faded blue eyes. The remainin_orse was grazing a short distance away. Now and then he lifted his head an_azed inquiringly at the two figures in the road.
"Is it bad, Herr?" the innkeeper asked.
"Very. Get back to the inn. I don't want to peter out here." Then he fainted.
It required some time and all the innkeeper's strength to put Hillars on th_orse. When this was accomplished he turned the horse's head toward the inn.
And that was all.
"Dan?" said I.
The lids of his eyes rolled wearily back.
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
It was very sad. "Where?" I asked.
"Did you see the little cemetery on the hill, across the valley? Put me there.
It is a wild, forgotten place. 'Tis only my body. Who cares what becomes o_hat? As for the other, the soul, who can say? I have never been a good man; still, I believe in God. I am tired, tired and cold. What fancies a man has i_eath! A moment back I saw my father. There was a wan, sweet-faced woma_tanding close beside him; perhaps my mother. I never saw her before. Ah, me!
these chimeras we set our hearts upon, these worldly hopes! Well, Jack, it'_urtain and no encore. But I am not afraid to die. I have wronged no man o_oman; I have been my own enemy. What shall I say, Jack? Ah, yes! God hav_ercy on my soul. And this sudden coldness, this sudden ease from pain—i_eath!"
There was a flutter of the eyelids, a sigh, and this poor flotsam, this drift- wood which had never known a harbor in all its years, this friend of mine, this inseparable comrade—passed out. He knew all about it now.
There were hot tears in my eyes as I stood up and gazed down at this myster_alled death. And while I did so, a hand, horny and hard, closed over mine.
The innkeeper, with blinking eyes, stood at my side.
"Ah, Herr," he said, "who would not die like that?"
And we buried him on the hillside, just as the sun swept aside the ros_urtain of dawn. The wind, laden with fresh morning perfumes, blew up joyousl_rom the river. From where I stood I could see the drab walls of the barracks.
The windows sparkled and flashed as the gray mists sailed heavenward an_anished. The hill with its long grasses resembled a green sea. The thic_orests across the river, almost black at the water's edge, turned a fainte_nd more delicate hue as they receded, till, far away, they looked lik_ottled glass. Only yesterday he had laughed with me, talked and smoked wit_e, and now he was dead. A rage pervaded me. We are puny things, we, who stru_he highways of the world, parading a so-called wisdom. There is only on_hilosophy; it is to learn to die.
"Come," said I to the innkeeper; and we went down the hill.
"When does the Herr leave?"
"At once. There will be no questions?" I asked, pointing to the village.
"None. Who knows?"
"Then, remember that Herr Hillars was taken suddenly ill and died, and that h_esired to be buried here. I dare say the Prince will find some excuse for hi_rm, knowing the King's will in regard to dueling. Do you understand me?"
I did not speak to him again, and he strode along at my heels with an air o_reoccupation. We reached the inn in silence.
"What do you know about her Serene Highness the Princess Hildegarde?" I aske_bruptly.
"What does Herr wish to know?" shifting his eyes from my gaze.
"All you can tell me."
"I was formerly in her father's service. My wife——" He hesitated, and th_xpression on his face was a sour one.
"Ah, but it is unpleasant, Herr. You see, my wife and I were not on the bes_f terms. She was handsome … a cousin of the late Prince… . She left me mor_han twenty years ago. I have never seen her since, and I trust that she i_ead. She was her late Highness's hair-dresser."
"And the Princess Hildegarde?"
"She is a woman for whom I would gladly lay down my life."
"Yes, yes!" I said impatiently. "Who made her the woman she is? Who taught he_o shoot and fence?"
"It was I."
"Yes. From childhood she has been under my care. Her mother did so desire. Sh_s all I have in the world to love. And she loves me, Herr; for in all he_rials I have been her only friend. But why do you ask these questions?" _udden suspicion lighting his eyes.
"I love her."
He took me by the shoulders and squared me in front of him.
"How do you love her?" a glint of anger mingling with the suspicion.
"I love her as a man who wishes to make her his wife."
His hands trailed down my sleeves till they met and joined mine.
"I will tell you all there is to be told. Herr, there was once a happy famil_n the palace of the Hohenphalians. The Prince was rather wild, but he love_is wife. One day his cousin came to visit him. He was a fascinating man i_hose days, and few women were there who would not give an ear to hi_latteries. He was often with the Princess, but she hated him. One day a_bominable thing happened. This cousin loved the Princess. She scorned him. A_he Prince was entering the boudoir this cousin, making out that he wa_nconscious of the husband's approach, took the Princess in his arms an_issed her. The Prince was too far away to see the horror in his wife's face.
He believed her to be acquiescent. That night he accused her. Her denials wer_n vain. He confronted her with his cousin, who swore before the immortal Go_imself that the Princess had lain willing in his arms. From that time on th_rince changed. He became reckless; he fell in with evil company; he grew t_e a shameless ruffian, a man who brought his women into his wife's presence, and struck her while they were there. And in his passions he called he_errible names. He made a vow that when children came he would make the_hings of scorn. In her great trouble, the Princess came to my inn, where th_rincess Hildegarde was born. The Prince refused to believe that the child wa_is. My mistress finally sickened and died—broken-hearted. The Prince died i_ gambling den. The King became the guardian of the lonely child. He knows bu_ittle, or he would not ask Her Highness—" He stopped.
"He would not ask her what?"
"To wed the man who caused all this trouble."
"What! Prince Ernst?"
"Yes. I prayed to God, Herr, that your friend's bullet would carry death. Bu_t was not to be."
"I am going back to London," said I. "When I have settled up my affairs ther_ shall return."
"Perhaps I shall complete what my friend began."
I climbed into the ramshackle conveyance and was driven away. Once I looke_ack. The innkeeper could be seen on the porch, then he became lost to vie_ehind the trees. Far away to my left the stones in the little cemetery on th_illside shone with brilliant whiteness.