When I whispered these words I expected a gentle pressure from Gretchen'_ingers, which rested lightly on my arm. But there was no sign, and I gre_roubled. The blue-green eyes sparkled, and the white teeth shone between th_ed lips. Yet something was lacking.
"Let us go into the conservatory," she said. "It was merely a ruse of mine. _ant no supper. I have much to say to you."
Altogether, I had dreamed of a different reception. When I entered th_oorway, and she first saw me, it was Gretchen; but now it was distinctly _rincess, a woman of the world, full of those devices which humble and confus_s men.
Somehow we selected, by mutual accord, a seat among the roses. There was _mall fountain, and the waters sang in a murmurous music. It seemed too earl_or words, so we drew our thoughts from the marble and the water. As for me, _ooked at, but did not see, the fountain. It was another scene. There was _arden, in which the roses grew in beautiful disorder. The sunbeams straggle_hrough the chestnuts. Near by a wide river moved slowly, and with a certai_ajesty. There was a man and a woman in the garden. She was culling roses, while the man looked on with admiring eyes.
"Yes," said the Princess, "all that was a pretty dream. Gretchen was a fairy; and now she has gone from your life and mine—forever. My dear friend, it is _rosaic age we live in. Sometimes we forget and dream; but dreams are unreal.
Perhaps a flash of it comes back in after days, that is all; and we remembe_hat it was a dream, and nothing more. It is true that God designs us, but th_orld molds us and fate puts on the finishing touches." She was smiling int_y wonder-struck face. "We all have duties to perform while passing. Some o_s are born with destinies mapped out by human hands; some of us are free t_ake life what we will. I am of the first order, and you are of the second. I_s as impossible to join the one with the other as it is to make diamonds ou_f charcoal and water. Between Gretchen and the Princess Hildegarde o_ohenphalia there is as much difference as there is between—what simile shal_ use?—the possible and the impossible?"
"Gretchen—" I began.
"Gretchen?" The Princess laughed amusedly. "She is flown. I beg you not t_aste a thought on her memory."
Things were going badly for me. I did not understand the mood. It brought t_ind the woman poor Hillars had described to me in his rooms that night i_ondon. I saw that I was losing something, so I made what I thought a bol_troke. I took from my pocket a withered rose. I turned it from one hand t_he other.
"It appears that when Gretchen gave me this it was as an emblem of her love.
Still, I gave her all my heart."
"If that be the emblem of her love, Herr, throw it away; it is not worth th_eeping."
"And Gretchen sent me a letter once," I went on.
"Ah, what indiscretion!"
"It began with 'I love you,' and ended with that sentence. I have worn th_riting away with my kisses."
"How some men waste their energies!"
"Your Highness," said I, putting the rose back into my pocket, "did Gretche_ver tell you how she fought a duel for me because her life was less to he_han mine?"
The Princess Hildegarde's smile stiffened and her eyes closed for the briefes_nstant.
"Ah, shall I ever forget that night!" said I. "I held her to my heart an_issed her on the lips. I was supremely happy. Your Highness has never know_hat a thing of joy it is to kiss the one you love. It is one of those thing_hich are denied to people who have their destinies mapped out by huma_ands."
The Princess opened her fan and hid her lips.
"And do you know," I continued, "when Gretchen went away I had a wonderfu_ream?"
"A dream? What was it?" The fan was waving to and fro.
"I dreamed that a Princess came in Gretchen's place, and she threw her arm_round my neck and kissed me of her own free will."
"And what did she say, Herr?" Certainly the voice was growing more lik_retchen's.
I hesitated. To tell her what the dream Princess had said would undo all I ha_hus far accomplished, which was too little.
"It will not interest Your Highness," said I.
"Tell me what she said; I command it!" And now I was sure that there was _alter in her voice.
"She said—she said that she loved me."
"And that, as she was a Princess and—and honor bound, it could never be." _ad to say it.
"That is it; that is it. It could never be. Gretchen is no more. The Princes_ho, you say, came to you in a dream was then but a woman—"
"Aye, and such a woman!" I interrupted. "As God hears me, I would give te_ears of my life to hold her again in my arms, to kiss her lips, to hear he_ay that she loved me. But, pardon me, what were you going to say?"
"Your dream Princess was but a woman—ah, well; this is Tuesday; Thursday a_oon she will wed the Prince. It is written."
"The devil!" I let slip. I was at the start again.
"Sir, you do him injustice."
"Who?—the Prince?" savagely.
"No; the—the devil!" She had fully recovered, and I had no weapon left.
"Gretchen, did you really ever love me?"
There was no answer.
"No; I do not believe you did. If you had loved me, what to you would hav_een a King, a Prince, a principality? If you broke that promise who would b_ronged? Not the King, not the Prince."
"No, I should not have wronged them, but," said the Princess rising, "I shoul_ave wronged my people whom I have sworn to protect; I should have wronged m_wn sense of honor; I should have broken those ties which I have sworn to hol_ear and precious as my life; I should have forsaken a sacred duty fo_omething I was not sure of—a man's love!"
"Am I cruel? Look!" Phyllis stood at the other end of the conservatory. "Doe_ot there recur to you some other woman you have loved? You start. Come; wa_ot your love for Gretchen pique? Who is she who thus mirrors my own likeness?
Whoever she is, she loves you! Let us return; I shall be missed." It was no_he woman but the Princess who spoke.
"You are breaking two hearts!" I cried, my voice full of disappointment, passion and anger.
"Two? Perhaps; but yours will not be counted."
"Pray, do not lose your temper," icily; and she swept toward the entrance.
I had lost.
As the Princess drew near to Phyllis the brown eyes of the one met the blue- green eyes of the other. There was almost an exclamation on Phyllis's lips; there was almost a question on Gretchen's; both paled. Phyllis understood, bu_retchen did not, why the impulse to speak came. Then the brown eyes o_hyllis turned their penetrating gaze to my own eyes, which I was compelled t_hift. I bowed, and the Princess and I passed on.
By the grand staircase we ran into the Prince. His face wore a dissatisfie_ir.
"I was looking for Your Highness," he said to Gretchen. "Your carriage is a_he curb. Permit me to assist you. Ah, yes," in English, "it is Herr Winthrop.
I regret that the interview of to-morrow will have to be postponed til_onday."
"Any time," said I, watching Gretchen whose eyes widened, "will be agreeabl_o me."
Gretchen made as though to speak, but the Prince anticipated her.
"It is merely a little discussion, Your Highness," he said, "which Her_inthrop and I left unfinished earlier in the evening. Good night."
On the way to the cloak room it kept running through my mind that I had lost.
Thursday?—she said Thursday was the day of her wedding? It would be an evi_ay for me.
Pembroke was in the cloak room.
"Going?" he asked.
"Well, let us go together. Where shall it be—Egypt or the steppes of Siberia?"
"Home first," said I; "then we shall decide."
When we got into the carriage we lit cigars. For some reason Pembroke was les_alkative than usual. Suddenly he pulled down the window, and a gust of sno_lew in. Then up went the window again, but the cigar was gone.
"Has anything gone wrong?" I asked.
"'One more unfortunate… . Make no deep scrutiny!'" he quoted. "Jack, sh_ouldn't think of it, not for a moment. Perhaps I was a trifle too soon. Yes, she is a Princess, indeed. As for me, I shall go back to elephants and tigers; it's safer."
"'The Bridge of Sighs,'" said I. "Let us cross it for good and all."
"And let it now read 'Sighs Abridged.'"
He asked me no questions, and I silently thanked him. Once in our rooms, h_rank a little more brandy than I thought good for one "who may or may no_ive the year out." I told him so. He laughed. And then I laughed. Both of u_id it theatrically; it was laughter, but it was not mirth.
"Cousin," said I, "that's the idea; let us laugh. Love may sit on th_indowsill and shiver to death."
"That fellow Anacreon was a fool," said Pembroke. "If the child of Venus ha_een left then and there, what a lot of trouble might have been averted! Wha_o you say to this proposition; the north, the bears and the wolves? I've _riend who owns a shooting box a few miles across the border. There's bear_nd gray wolves galore. Eh?"
"I must get back to work," said I, but half-heartedly.
"To the devil with your work! Throw it over. You've got money; your book i_aining you fame. What's a hundred dollars a week to you, and jumping from on_nd of the continent to the other with only an hour's notice?"
"I'll sleep on it."
"Good. I'll go to bed now, and you can have the hearth and the tobacco t_ourself."
"Good night," said I.
Yes, I wanted to be alone. But I did not smoke. I sat and stared into th_lickering flames in the grate. I had lost Gretchen… . To hold a woman in you_rms, the woman you love, to kiss her lips, and then to lose her! Oh, I kne_hat she loved me, but she was a Princess, and her word was given, and i_ould not be. The wind sang mournfully over the sills of the window; thic_now whitened the panes; there was a humming in the chimneys… . She wa_ealous of Phyllis; that was why I knew that she loved me… . And the subtl_hange in Phyllis's demeanor towards me; what did it signify? … Gretchen wa_o be married Thursday because there were no proofs that Phyllis was he_ister… . What if Gretchen had been Phyllis, and Phyllis had been Gretchen… .
Heigho! I threw some more coals on the fire. The candle sank in the socket.
There are some things we men cannot understand; the sea, the heavens an_oman… . Suddenly I brought both hands down on my knees. The innkeeper! Th_nnkeeper! He knew! In a moment I was rummaging through the stack of tim_ables. The next south-bound train left at 3:20. I looked at the clock; 2:20.
My dress suit began to fly around on various chairs. Yes; how simple it was!
The innkeeper knew; he had known it all these years. I threw my white crava_nto the table and picked up the most convenient tie. In ten minutes from th_ime the idea came to me I was completely dressed in traveling garments. I ha_ day and a half. It would take twenty hours to fetch the innkeeper. I refuse_o entertain the possibility of not finding him at the inn. I swore to heave_hat the nuptials of the Princess Hildegarde of Hohenphalia and the Princ_rnst of Wortumborg should not be celebrated at noon, Thursday. I went int_he bedroom.
"What is it?" came drowsily.
"I am going on a journey."
"One of those cursed orders you get every other day?" he asked.
"No. It's one on my own account this time. I shall be back in twenty-fou_ours. Goodby!" And I left him there, blinking in the dim light of the candle.
I rushed into the street and looked up and down it. Not a vehicle in sight. _ust run for it. The railway station was a long way off. A fine snow pelted m_ace. I stopped at the first lamp and pulled out my watch. It was twent_inutes to three. What if the time-tables had been changed? A prayer rose t_y lips; there was so much in the balance. Down this street I ran, roundin_his corner and that. I knocked down a drunken student, who cursed me as h_olled into the gutter. I never turned, but kept on. One of the mounted polic_aw me rushing along. He shaded his eyes for a moment, then called to me t_top. I swore under my breath.
"Where are you going at such a pace and at this time of morning?" he demanded.
"To the station. I beg of you not to delay me. I am in a great hurry to catc_he 3:20 south-bound train. If you doubt me, come to the station with me." A_nspiration came to me. "Please see," I added impressively, "that no on_inders me. I am on the King's business."
"His Majesty's business? Ach! since when has His Majesty chosen an Englishma_o dispatch his affairs? I will proceed with you to the station."
And he kept his word. When he saw the gateman examine my ticket and passport_nd smile pleasantly, he turned on his heel, convinced that there was nothin_angerous about me. He climbed on his horse and galloped away. He might hav_aused me no end of delay, and time meant everything in a case like mine.
Scarcely had I secured a compartment in a first-class carriage than the wheel_roaned and the train rolled out of the station. My brow was damp; my hand_rembled like an excited woman's. Should I win? I had a broken cigar in m_ocket. I lit the preserved end at the top of the feeble carriage lamp. I ha_he compartment alone. Sleep! Not I. Who could sleep when the car wheels an_he rattling windows kept saying, "The innkeeper knows! The innkeeper knows!"
Every stop was a heartache. Ah, those eight hours were eight separat_enturies to me. I looked careworn and haggard enough the next morning when _tepped on the station platform. I wanted nothing to eat; not even a cup o_offee to drink.
To find conveyance to the inn was not an easy task. No one wanted to take th_rive. Finally I secured a horse. There was no haggling over the price. An_oon I was loping through the snowdrifts in the direction of the old inn. Th_now whirled and eddied over the stubble fields; the winds sang past my ears; the trees creaked and the river flowed on, black and sluggish. It was a drear_cene. It was bitter cold, but I had no mind for that. On, on I went. Tw_iles were left in the rear. The horse was beginning to breathe hard.
Sometimes the snow was up to his knees. What if the old man was not there? Th_lood sank upon my heart. Once the horse struck a slippery place and nearl_ell, but I caught him in time. I could now see the inn, perhaps a mile away, through the leafless trees. It looked dismal enough. The vines hung dead abou_t, the hedges were wild and scrawny, the roses I knew to be no more, and th_quirrel had left his summer home for a warmer nest in the forest. A wave o_oy swept over me as I saw a thin stream of smoke winding above the chimney.
Some one was there. On, on; presently I flew up the roadway. A man stood o_he porch. It was Stahlberg. When I pushed down my collar his jaw dropped. _lung the reins to him.
"Where is the innkeeper?" I cried with my first breath.
"In the hall, Herr. But—"
I was past him and going through the rooms. Yes, thank God, there he was, sitting before the huge fireplace, where the logs crackled and seethed, hi_rizzled head sunk between his shoulders, lost in some dream. I tramped i_oisily. He started out of his dream and looked around.
"Gott!" he cried. He wiped his eyes and looked again. "Is it a dream or is i_ou?"
"Flesh and blood!" I cried. "Flesh and blood!"
I closed the door and bolted it. He followed my movements with a mixture o_stonishment and curiosity in his eyes.
"Now," I began, "what have you done with the proofs which you took from you_ife—the proofs of the existence of a twin sister of the Princess Hildegard_f Hohenphalia?"