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Chapter 4

  • I shall tell Hillars's story as he told it. He said:
  • Last August I went to B——. My mission was important and took me to the Britis_egation, where I am well known. I was most cordially invited to attend a bal_o be given the next evening. The notables of the court were there. For a fe_oments the King let his sun shine on the assemblage. It was a brillian_pectacle. At midnight I saw for the first time a remarkably beautiful woman.
  • I was looking well myself that night. All women like to see broad shoulders i_ man. It suggests strength—something they have not. Several times this youn_oman's eyes met mine. Somehow, mine were always first to fall. There was _agnetism in hers mine could not withstand. Later, an attaché came to me an_aid that he wished to present me to her Serene Highness the Princes_ildegarde of—let us call it Hohenphalia. He whispered that she had commande_he introduction. I expected to see some red-faced dowager who wanted to as_e about my country and bore me with her guttural accents. To my intens_leasure, I found myself at the side of the beauty whom I had been admiring.
  • There was a humorous light in her eyes as she put some questions to me.
  • "Do you speak German?" she asked in that language.
  • "Poorly, your Highness," I answered.
  • "Perhaps, then, you speak French?"
  • "As I do my mother tongue," said I.
  • "I am interested in Americans," she said.
  • "Collectively or individually?" I tried to say this with perfect innocence, but the smile on her lips told me that I had failed.
  • "Yes, I was sure that you would interest me."
  • She tapped the palm of her hand with the fan she held. "Shall I tell you why _esired to meet you?"
  • I nodded.
  • "I have heard it said that the American bows down before a title; and I am _oman, and curious."
  • Said I, laughing: "Your Highness has been misinformed. We never bow down to _itle; it is to the wearers that we bow."
  • This time her eyes fell.
  • "This sort of conversation is altogether new to me," she said, opening th_an.
  • "I hope that I have not offended your Highness," I said.
  • "Indeed, no. But it seems so strange to have any one talk to me with suc_rankness and deliberation. Have you no fear?"
  • "There is seldom fear where there is admiration. If you had used the word awe, now——"
  • Soft laughter rippled over the fan. She had the most wonderful eyes.
  • "Are all Americans brave like yourself?" she next asked.
  • "Brave? What do you call brave?"
  • "Your utter lack of fear in my presence, in the first place: I am calle_angerous. And then, your exploits in the Balkistan, in the second place. Ar_ou not the M. Hillars whose bravery not so long ago was an interesting topi_n the newspapers? I know you."
  • "This is truly remarkable," said I. "The only thing I did was to lead _egiment out of danger."
  • "The danger was annihilation. If a Captain or a Colonel had done it, we shoul_ave thought nothing of it; but an utter stranger, who had nothing in commo_ith either cause—ah, believe me, it was a very gallant thing to do."
  • "This is positively the first time I was ever glad that I did the thing." _laced my hand over my heart. "But, after all, that is not half so brave a_hat I am doing now."
  • "I do not understand," said she puzzled.
  • "Why, it is simple. Here I am talking to you, occupying your time and keepin_hose fierce Generals at bay. See how they are gnawing their mustaches an_iting their lips and asking one another who I am. There are as many as fiv_hallenges waiting for me the moment I depart from your side."
  • There was mischief in her eye.
  • "Then you shall stay with me, find me an ice and waltz once with me, for i_nything happened to you I should always have myself to blame."
  • I waltzed with her, and the perfume of her hair got into my head, and I gre_izzy. When the dance came to an end, I went into the smoking room. Suddenl_t went through my brain that the world had changed in an incredibly shor_ime. I tried to smoke, and for the first time in my life, tobacco wa_asteless, I was falling in love with a Princess. I confess that it did no_orrify me; on the contrary, I grew thrilled and excited. There was a spic_ere which hitherto had been denied me. The cost was unspelled. I fell as fa_s I could fall. The uncertainty of the affair was in itself an enchantment.
  • Well, the next day I strolled up the Avenue of Legations and saw her o_orseback. She was accompanied by an elderly man with a face like an eagle's.
  • There were various decorations on his breast. As the Princess saw me, she ben_er head. She remembered me. That was all that was necessary for m_ransportation. Later, I was informed that her escort was Prince Ernst o_ortumborg, who was destined to become her lord and master. I did not care wh_e was; I knew that I hated him.
  • For a week I lingered on. I met her time and again; alone on horseback, at th_arious embassies and at the opera. At these meetings I learned a great dea_bout her. She was known to be the most capricious woman at court, and tha_he was as courageous as she was daring; and that the Prince might conside_imself lucky if he got her, King's will or no King's will. She had littl_iking for her intended. She treated him contemptuously and held his desire_n utter disregard. One fine morning I was told that the Prince was beginnin_o notice my attentions, that he was one of the most noted pistol shots an_wordsmen on the Continent, and that if I had any particular regard for m_pidermis I would cease my attendance on the Princess at once. This, o_ourse, made me more attentive than ever; for I can hold my own with any ma_hen it comes to pistols, and I can handle the rapier with some success.
  • It was one night at the opera that the climax was brought about. I sat in on_f the stalls diagonally across from the royal box, where she sat. She saw m_nd gave me the barest nod of recognition. Perhaps she did not wish to attrac_he attention of the royal personages who sat with her; for the nod struck m_s clandestine. Between the first and second acts a note was handed to me. I_as not addressed, neither was it signed. But it was for me; the bearer spok_y name. As near as I can remember, the note contained these words:
  • "A carriage will await you two blocks south; it will be without lights. Yo_ill enter it exactly ten minutes after the opera is ended."
  • That was all, but it was enough. When I returned to my seat I found th_rincess gazing intently at me. I made an affirmative gesture and was rewarde_ith a smile which set my blood to rushing. I made little out of the last act.
  • I could not dream what the anonymous note had behind it. I suspicioned a_ntrigue, but what use had she for me, an American, a very nobody? Somethin_nusual was about to take place and I was to be a witness or a participant o_t. That was as far as my talent for logical deduction went. Promptly at th_tated time I stood at the side of the carriage. It was the plainest sort o_n affair. Evidently it had been hired for the occasion. The door opened.
  • "Step in, monsieur," said a low voice in French. I obeyed. The horse started.
  • As we spun along the pavement a light flashed into the window. The Princes_at before me. There was a ringing in my ears, and I breathed quickly. But _aid no word; it was for her to speak first.
  • "Monsieur is an American," she began. "The American is of a chivalric race."
  • "That should be the aim of all men," I replied.
  • "But it is not so. Monsieur, I have been studying you for the past week. To- night I place my honor and my fame in your hands; it is for you to prove tha_ou are a knight. I trust you. When I have said what I shall say to you, yo_ay withdraw or give me your aid, as you please."
  • "I am grateful for your confidence, your Highness," said I. "What is it tha_ou wish me to do?"
  • "Have patience, monsieur, till the ride is done," she said. "Do not spea_gain till I permit you. I must think."
  • The journey was accomplished in half an hour.
  • "It is here, monsieur, that we alight," she said as the carriage stopped.
  • I was glad that her opera cloak was of dark material and that she wore a veil.
  • The building before which we stood was on the outskirts of the city. Far awa_o my left I could see the flickering lights of the palaces; a yellowish haz_ung over all. Once within the building I noted with surprise the luxuriou_ppointments. Plainly it was no common inn, a resort for the middle an_raveling classes; whether it was patronized by the nobility I could onl_urmise.
  • "We shall continue to speak in French," she said, as she threw back her cloa_nd lifted her veil. "Monsieur has probably heard that the Princess Hildegard_s a creature of extravagant caprices; and he expects an escapade."
  • "Your Highness wrongs me," I protested. "I am an obscure American; you_ighness does not share your—that is——"
  • I stopped, not wishing to give the term escapade to anything she might do. A_ matter of fact she has caused her royal guardian, the King, no end o_rouble. She went to Paris once unattended; at another time she roamed aroun_eidelberg and slashed a fencing master; she had donned a student's garb. Sh_s said to be the finest swordswoman on the Continent. Yet, notwithstandin_er caprices, she is a noble-minded woman. She does all these things calle_ocial vagaries because she has a fine scorn for the innate hypocrisy of th_ocial organization of this country. She loves freedom not wisely but to_ell. To go on:
  • "Monsieur wrongs me also," she said. "In what are termed my escapades I a_lone. You appealed to me," with a directness which amazed me, "because o_our handsome face, your elegant form, your bright eyes. You are a man wh_oves adventure which has the spice of danger in it. My countrymen——." Sh_rooked one of her bare shoulders, which shone like yellow ivory in th_ubdued light. This rank flattery cooled me. A woman who has any regard for _an is not likely to flatter him in respect to his looks on so short an_light an acquaintance. "Monsieur," she proceeded, "this is to be no escapade, no caprice. I ask your aid as a desperate woman. At court I can find no one t_uccor me, save at the peril of that which is dearer to me than my life. Amon_he commoners, who would dare? An Englishman? It is too much trouble. _renchman? I would trust him not quite so far as the door. You are the firs_merican, not connected with the legation, I have ever met. Will you help me?"
  • "If what you ask me to do is within my capabilities, I am yours to command."
  • "The reward will be small," as if to try me. I laughed. I was so insanel_appy, I suppose. "There will be danger," she persisted; "secret danger: ther_ill be scandal."
  • "The more danger, the merrier," I cried.
  • "Ah, yes," smiling; "it is the man of Balkistan."
  • I leaned over the table and inhaled the ineffable perfumes which emanated fro_er person. "Tell me, from what must I succor the Princess? Is she a prisone_n a castle over which some ogre rules? Well, then, I'll be Sir Galahad."
  • My jesting tone jarred on her nerves. She straightened in her chair.
  • "Monsieur is amused," she said coldly.
  • "And he asks a thousand pardons!" I cried contritely. "Command me," and I gre_hilled and serious.
  • "You have heard that I am to wed Prince Ernst of Wortumborg?"
  • "Yes." I gnawed the ends of my mustache.
  • "Monsieur, it is against my will, my whole being. I have no desire t_ontribute a principality and a wife to a man who is not worthy of one or th_ther. I refuse to become the King's puppet, notwithstanding his power to tak_way my principality and leave me comparatively without resources. I detes_his man so thoroughly that I cannot hate him. I abhor him. It is you who mus_ave me from him; it is you who must also save me my principality. Oh, the_nvy me, these poor people, because I am a Princess, because I dwell in th_insel glitter of the court. Could they but know how I envy their lives, thei_omes, their humble ambitions! Believe me, monsieur, as yet I love no man; bu_hat is no reason why I should link my life to that of a man to whom virtue i_ woman means nothing. He caused my mother great sorrow. He came between he_nd my father. He spoiled her life, now he wishes to spoil mine. But I wil_ot have it so. I will give up my principality rather. But first let me try t_ee if I cannot retain the one and rid myself of the other. Listen. To-morro_ight there will be a dinner here. The King and the inner court will hol_orth. But they will cast aside their pomp and become, for the time being, ordinary people. The Prince will be in Brussels, and therefore unable t_ttend. You are to come in his stead."
  • "I?" in astonishment.
  • "Even so," she smiled. "While the festivities are at their height you and _ill secretly leave and return to the city. We shall go immediately to th_tation, thence to France."
  • I looked at her as one in a dream. "I!—You!—thence to France?"