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 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?"