I was passing along the highway, a pipe between my teeth. It was the beginnin_f twilight, that trysting hour of all our reveries, when the old days com_ack with a perfume as sweet and vague as that which hovers over a jar o_piced rose leaves. I was thinking of the year which was gone; how I firs_ame to the inn; of the hour when I first held her in my arms and kissed her, and vowed my love to her; of the parting, when she of her own will had throw_er arms about my neck and confessed. The shadows were thickening on th_round, and the voices of the forests were hushed. I glanced at the wester_ky. It was like a frame of tarnished gold, waiting for night with her diade_f stars to step within. The purple hills were wrapping themselves in robes o_early mists; the flowing river was tinted with dun and vermilion; and one b_ne the brilliant planets burst through the darkening blues of the heavens.
The inn loomed up against the sky, gray and lonely. Behind me, far away dow_he river, I could catch occasional glimpses of the lamps of the village.
Presently there came a faint yellow glow in the east, and I knew that Dian_as approaching.
> She tosses loose her locks upon the night, > And, through the dim wood Dian threads her way.
A wild sweetness filled the air. I was quite half a mile from the inn, yet _ould smell the odor of her roses, Gretchen's roses. It was a long and wear_ear which had intervened. And now she was there, only a short way from m_rms. But she did not know that I was coming. A million diamonds sprang int_he air whenever I struck the lush grasses with my cane. Everywhere I breathe_he perfume of her roses. They seemed to hide along the hedges, to lurk amon_he bushes, red roses and white. On the hill, across the valley, I saw th_ittle cemetery with its white stones. I arrested my steps and took off m_at. The dust of Hillars lay there. I stood motionless for some time. I ha_oved the man as it is possible for one man to love another. I had not though_f him much of late; but in this life we cannot always stand by the grave o_hose who have gone before. He had loved Gretchen with a love perhaps les_elfish than mine, for he had sacrificed his life uselessly for her that sh_ight—be mine! Mine! I thought. And who was I that she should love me instea_f him? All the years I had known him I had known but little of him. God onl_nows the hearts of these men who rove or drift, who, anchorless an_udderless, beat upon the ragged reels of life till the breath leaves them an_hey pass through the mystic channel into the serene harbor of eternity. _udden wave of dissatisfaction swept over me. What had I done in the world t_erit attention? What had I done that I, and not he, should know the love o_oman? Why should I live to-day and not he? From out the silence there came n_nswer; and I continued on. It was life. It was immutable, and there was n_ey.
The lights of the inn cheered me and lifted the gloom. Should I enter b_tealth or boldly? I chose the second method. Gretchen and the innkeeper wer_n the old hall. I entered and threw my traps into a corner. As they turne_nd saw me consternation was written on their faces.
"I have found you at last," I said, holding out a hand to each of them. Th_nnkeeper thrust his hands behind his back and sauntered leisurely toward th_indow. Gretchen showed signs of embarrassment, and her eyes were studiousl_ixed on the cracks which yawned here and there in the floor. My hands fel_nnoticed.
"You have been looking for us?" she asked in even tones. "Why have you?"
Vaguely I gazed at her, at the innkeeper, then at my traps in the corner. I_as apparent that I was an intruder. I struck my forehead in anger an_espair. Triple fool that I was! I was nothing to her. She had told me so, an_ had not believed.
"Yes; why?" asked the innkeeper, turning around.
"I believe," said I, my voice trembling, "that I am an unwelcome guest. Is i_ot so?"
"Oh, as for that," said the innkeeper, observing Gretchen, "this is a publi_nn, on the highway. All wayfarers are of necessity welcome."
"Go, then, and prepare me a supper," said I. "I am indeed hungry, havin_ourneyed far." I wanted him out of the room.
The innkeeper appeared not to have the slightest intention of leaving the roo_o do my bidding.
"Yes, Hermann," said Gretchen, coloring, "go and prepare Herr Winthrop'_upper."
"Thank you," said I, with a dismal effort to be ironical.
The innkeeper, a puzzling smile on his lips, passed out.
"Gretchen," I burst forth, "in heaven's name what does this mean? I hav_unted for you day after day, week after week, month after month. I hav_raveled the four ends of the continent. I have lived—Oh, I do not know how _ave lived! And when I do find you, it is for this!" My voice broke, and I wa_ositively on the verge of tears.
"And was all this fair to her?" asked Gretchen, coldly.
"To her? I do not understand."
"I mean, was all this fair to my sister?"
"Gretchen," a light piercing the darkness, "has she not written to you?"
"A long time ago. She wanted to see me on an important matter, but I could no_hange my plans at the time. I shall see her at the palace next week. Ough_ou not to be with her instead of here?"
"Why should I be with her?"
Gretchen laughed, but the key was false.
"Are you not going to marry her? Surely, it is easy after the King has give_is permission. Have you already fallen out of love with her, after all you_fforts to make her a Princess? Truly, man is as unstable as sand and water!
Ah, but you fooled us all to the top of our bent. You knew from the first tha_he was a Princess; but you could not find the proofs. Hermann and I were th_eans to the end. But who shall blame you? Not I! I am very grateful to yo_or having given to me a sister. And if you fooled me, I returned measure fo_easure. It is game and quit. Time hung heavy on my hands, and the victory, however short, was amusing."
"I never loved her!" I cried. Where were the words I needed?
"So much the worse for you," disdainfully. "But here comes Hermann to announc_our supper."
"I shall not break the bread of inhospitality," said I, in the bitterness o_y despair. I gathered up my traps—and then I let them tumble back. The neede_ords came with a rush to my lips. I went close to her. "Why did you humiliat_ourself in begging my life of the Prince? Why, if my life was nothing to you?
Answer. Why did you stoop to your knees to that man if I was worthless to you?
Her cheeks grew red, then white; her lips formed words which she could no_peak.
"Herr Winthrop's supper is ready," announced the innkeeper.
"Go and eat it!" I said childishly.
"Your appetite is gone then?" imperturbably.
"Yes, and get you gone with it!"
The innkeeper surveyed me for a space. "Will you kindly tell me from whom yo_eceived the information that Her Highness was at the inn?"
I produced the unsigned letter. He read it carefully, while Gretchen looked o_ervously.
"Ach!" said the innkeeper, "that Stahlberg! He shall be dismissed."
Unhappily for him, that individual was just passing along the corridor. Th_nnkeeper signaled him to approach.
"How dared you?" began the innkeeper, thrusting the letter under Stahlberg'_ose.
"Dare?—I?—Herr," said the big fellow, "I do not understand. What is it yo_ccuse me of?"
"This," cried the innkeeper: "You have written to Herr Winthrop and told hi_hat Her Highness was at the inn. And you were expressly forbidden to do so."
Stahlberg looked around blankly. "I swear to heaven, Herr—"
"Do not prevaricate!" the innkeeper interrupted. "You know that you wrot_his."
"Stahlberg," I cried excitedly; "tell me why you wrote this note to me an_'ll see that you are taken care of the rest of your days."
"I forbid him!" commanded Gretchen in alarm.
"As God hears me, Herr," said Stahlberg stoutly. "I wrote not a line to you o_o any one."
"Oh!" cried the innkeeper, stamping. "And you deny that you have written her_hat you saw Her Highness in the garden three nights ago?"
Gretchen was beginning to grow terrified for some reason. I myself was fille_ith wonder, knowing well enough that nothing about a garden had been writte_n the note I had received.
"Do you dare deny," went on the implacable old man, "that you have writte_ere that you saw Her Highness in the garden, and that she was weeping an_urmuring this man's name?"
"Oh!" cried Gretchen, gazing wildly at the door.
The innkeeper suddenly took the bewildered giant by the shoulders and pushe_im from the room, following him swiftly; and the door closed noisily behin_hem.
My heart was in flames. I understood all now, though I dare say Gretche_idn't. All at once, her head fell on the back of the chair from which she ha_ut lately risen. She was weeping silently and deeply. I did not move, bu_tood watching her, drinking in with exultation the loveliness of a woman i_ears. She was mine, mine, mine! The innkeeper had not really known her hear_ill the night in the garden to which he so adroitly referred; then he ha_ade up his mind that things were not as they should be, and had sent me tha_nonymous note. Mine at last, I thought. Somehow, for the first time in m_ife I felt what is called masterful; that is to say, not all heaven and eart_hould take her away from me now. Softly I passed over to her side and knel_t her feet. I lifted the hem of her gown and pressed it to my lips.
"My Princess!" I murmured, "all mine." I kissed her unresisting hand. Then _ose and put my arms around her. She trembled but made no effort to withdraw.
"I swear to you, Gretchen, that I will never leave you again, not if the Kin_hould send an army against me, which he will never do, since he has commande_hat I marry you. Beware! It is a dangerous thing to trifle with a King'_ill. And then, even if the King should change his mind, I should not. You ar_ine. I should like to know if I haven't won you! Oh, they do well to call yo_rincess Caprice. Oh, Gretchen," falling back to humble tones, "what a wear_ear has been wasted. You know that I love you; you have never really doubte_t; you know that you have not. Had you gone to your sister when she wrote t_ou, she would have told you that it was for you alone that I made her _rincess; that all my efforts were to make you free to wed. Gretchen, you wil_ot send me away this time, will you? You will be kind and bid me to stay?"
"She loves you," whispered Gretchen.
This admitted no reply. I simply pressed my lips to her hair. The sobs wer_rowing audibly less.
"I read it in her eyes," persisted Gretchen.
"Gretchen, answer me: do you love me?"
I placed my hands against her temples, and turned her head around so tha_hose blue-green eyes, humid and tearful, looked into mine.
"Oh, I cannot deny it. If I wrong her in accepting your love, it is because _annot help it. I love you better than all the world; so well do I love yo_hat—" Her head sank on my heart, and her sobs began afresh.
"That what, Gretchen?" I asked.
"Nothing." By and by she said; "Keep faith with me, and I promise to love a_ew women can."
Then I kissed her lips. "Gretchen?"
"What is it?"
"I have an idea that we shall be very happy. Now let us go and make terms o_eace with the innkeeper."
We found him alone in the barroom.
"Gretchen," said I, "read this note."
As her eyes ran over those six words, she blushed.
"Hermann," she said, "you have betrayed me."
"And when will Your Highness order me out to be shot?" asked he, smiling.
"At sunrise; but I shall blindfold the soldiers and take the charges fro_heir guns. I forgive you."
"Now, Hermann," said I, "fill me up a stein." I held it high above my head. "_ealth! Long live the King! Long live Her Serene Highness the Princess—"
"Elizabeth," said Gretchen, gently. "I fear she has lost something which i_ever to be found again."
I drained the stein, and as I set it down I thought: Phyllis is so far awa_nd Gretchen is so near!
"Let us go into the garden," said I.
For a long time we wandered here and there, saying nothing. I was thinkin_hat I had found a castle at last which neither tides nor winds nor sudde_wakenings could tumble down.
"Gretchen, you must never take up the sword again."
"Only in my lord's defence." From the movement of her arm, which clung t_ine, I knew that she was laughing.
The moon had risen, the round and mellow moon of summer. The silver mists o_ight wavered and sailed through the aisles of the forests, and from the rive_ame the cool fresh perfume of the river rush.