Dinner was over in the dull old dining-room. The Archduchess Annunciat_ighted a cigarette, and glanced across the table at Hedwig.
Hedwig had been very silent during the meal. She had replied civilly whe_poken to, but that was all. Her mother, who had caught the Countess's tric_f narrowing her eyes, inspected her from under lowered lids.
"Well?" she said. "Are you still sulky?"
"I? Not at all, mother." Her head went up, and she confronted her mothe_quarely.
"I should like to inquire, if I may," observed the Archduchess, "just how yo_ave spent the day until the little divertissement on which I stumbled. Thi_orning, for instance?"
Hedwig shrugged her shoulders, but her color rose. It came in a soft wave ove_er neck and mounted higher and higher. "Very quietly, mother," she said.
"Naturally. It is always quiet here. But how?"
"At the riding-school, with Otto."
"Only with Otto?"
"Captain Larisch was there."
"Of course! Then you have practically spent the day with him!"
"I have spent most of the day with Otto."
"This devotion to Otto—it is new, I think. You were eager to get out of th_ursery. Now, it appears, you must fly back to schoolroom teas and othe_bsurdities. I should like to know why."
"I think Otto is lonely, mother."
Hilda took advantage of her mother's preoccupation to select another peach.
She was permitted only one, being of the age when fruit caused her, colloquially speaking, to "break out." She was only faintly interested in th_onversation. She dreaded these family meals, with her mother's sharp voic_nd the Countess Loschek's almost too soft one. But now a restraine_rritability in the tones of the Archduchess made her glance up. Th_rchduchess was in one of her sudden moods of irritation. Hedwig's remar_bout Otto's loneliness, the second that day, struck home. In her anger sh_orgot her refusal to the Chancellor.
"I have something to say that will put an end to this sentimental nonsense o_ours, Hedwig. I should forbid your seeing this boy, this young Larisch, if _elt it necessary. I do not. You would probably see him anyhow, for tha_atter. Which, as I observed this afternoon, also reminds me unpleasantly o_our father." She rose, and threw her bolt out of a clear sky. She had had, a_ matter of fact, no previous intention of launching any bolt. It was wholly _esult of irritation. "It is unnecessary to remind you not to make a fool o_ourself. But it may not be out of place to say that your grandfather ha_ertain plans for you that will take your mind away from this—this silly boy, soon enough."
Hedwig had risen, and was standing, very white, with her hands on the table.
"What plans, mother?"
"He will tell you."
"Not—I am not to be married?"
The Archduchess Annunciata was not all hard. She could never forgive he_hildren their father. They reminded her daily of a part of her life that sh_ould have put behind her. But they were her children, and Hedwig was all tha_he was not, gentle and round and young. Suddenly something almost like regre_tirred in her.
"Don't look like that, child," she said. "It is not settled. And, after all, one marriage or another what difference does it make! Men are men. If one doe_ot care, it makes the things they do unimportant."
"But surely," Hedwig gasped, "surely I shall be consulted?"
Annunciata shook her head. They had all risen and Hilda was standing, th_each forgotten, her mouth a little open. As for Olga Loschek, she was ver_till, but her eyes burned. The Archduchess remembered her presence no mor_han that of the flowers on the table.
"Mother, you cannot look back, and—and remember your own life, and allow me t_e wretched. You cannot!"
Hilda picked up her peach. It was all very exciting, but Hedwig was bein_ather silly. Besides, why was she so distracted when she did not know who th_an was? It might be some quite handsome person. For Hilda was also at the ag_hen men were handsome or not handsome, and nothing else.
Unexpectedly Hedwig began to cry. This Hilda considered going much too far, and bad taste into the bargain. She slipped the peach into the waist of he_rock.
The Archduchess hated tears, and her softer moments were only moments. "Dr_our eyes, and don't be silly," she said coldly. "You have always known tha_omething of the sort was inevitable."
She moved toward the door. The two princesses and her lady in waiting remaine_till until she had left the table. Then they fell in behind her, and th_ittle procession moved to the stuffy, boudoir, for coffee. But Hilda slippe_er arm around her sister's waist, and the touch comforted Hedwig.
"He may be very nice," Hilda volunteered cautiously. "Perhaps it is Karl. I a_uite mad about Karl, myself."
Hedwig, however, was beyond listening. She went slowly to a window, and stoo_azing out. Looming against the sky-line, in the very center of the Place, wa_he heroic figure of her dead grandmother. She fell to wondering about thes_oyal women who had preceded her. Her mother, frankly unhappy in her marriage, permanently embittered; her grandmother. Hedwig had never seen the King young.
She could not picture him as a lover. To her he was a fine and lonely figure.
But romantic? Had he ever been romantic?
He had made her mother's marriage, and had lived to regret it. He would mak_ers. But what about the time when he himself had taken a wife? Hedwig gaze_t the statue. Had she too come with unwilling arms? And if she had, was i_rue that after all, in a year or a lifetime, it made no difference.
She slipped out on to the balcony and closed the curtains behind her. As he_yes grew accustomed to the darkness she saw that there was some one below, under the trees. Her heart beat rapidly. In a moment she was certain. It wa_ikky down there, Nikky, gazing up at her as a child may look at a star. Wit_ quick gesture Hedwig drew the curtain back. A thin ray of light fell on her, on her slim bare arms, on her light draperies, on her young face. He ha_anted to see her, and he should see her. Then she dropped the curtain, an_wisted her hands together lest, in spite of her, they reach out toward him.
Did she fancy it, or did the figure salute her? Then came the quick ring o_eels on the old stone pavement. She knew his footsteps, even as she kne_very vibrant, eager inflection of his voice. He went away, across the Square, like one who, having bent his knee to a saint, turns back to the business o_he world.
In the boudoir the Archduchess had picked up some knitting to soothe he_angled nerves. "You may play now, Hilda," she said.
Into Hilda's care-free young life came two bad hours each day. One was th_inner hour, when she ate under her mother's pitiless eyes. The other was th_our after dinner, when, alone in the white drawing-room beyond the boudoir, with the sliding doors open, she sat at the grand piano, which was white an_old, like the room, and as cold, and played to her mother's pitiless ears.
She went slowly into the drawing-room. Empty, it was a dreary place. The heav_handeliers of gold and cut glass were unlighted. The crimson and gilt chair_ere covered with white linen. Only the piano, a gleaming oasis in a desert o_olished floor, was lighted, and that by two tall candles in gilt candlestick_hat reached from the floor. Hilda, going reluctantly to her post, was th_nly bit of life and color in the room.
At last Annunciata dozed, and Hilda played softly. Played now, not for he_other, but for herself. And as she played she dreamed: of Hedwig's wedding, of her own debut, of Karl, who had fed her romantic heart by treating her lik_ woman grown.
The Countess's opportunity had come. She put down the dreary embroidery wit_hich she filled the drearier evenings, and moved to the window. She walke_uietly, like a cat.
Her first words to Hedwig were those of Peter Niburg as he linked arms wit_is enemy and started down the street. "A fine night, Highness," she said.
Hedwig raised her eyes to the stars. "It is very lovely."
"A night to spend out-of-doors, instead of being shut up—" She finished her, sentence with a shrug of the shoulders.
Hedwig was not fond of the Countess. She did not know why. The truth being, o_ourse, that between them lay the barrier of her own innocence. Hedwig coul_ot have put this into words, would not, indeed, if she could. But when th_ountess's arm touched hers, she drew aside.
"To-night," said the lady in waiting dreamily, "I should like to be in _otor, speeding over mountain roads. I come from the mountains, you know. An_ miss them."
Hedwig said nothing; she wished to be alone with her trouble.
"In my home, at this time of the year," the Countess went on, still softly,
"they are driving the cattle up into the mountains for the summer. At nigh_ne hears them going—a bell far off, up the mountainside, and sometimes on_ees the light of a lantern."
Hedwig moved, a little impatiently, but as the Countess went on, she listened.
After all, Nikky, too, came from the mountains. She saw it all—the great herd_oving with deliberate eagerness already sniffing the green slopes above, an_he star of the distant lantern. She could even hear the thin note of th_ell. And because she was sorry for the Countess, who was homesick, an_erhaps because just then she had to speak to some one, she turned to her a_ast with the thing that filled her mind.
"This marriage," she said bitterly. "Is it talked about? Am I the only one i_he palace who has not known about it?"
"No, Highness, I had heard nothing."
"But you knew about it?"
"Only what I heard to-night. Of course, there are always rumors."
"As to the other, the matter my mother referred to," Hedwig held her head ver_igh, "I—she was unjust. Am I never to have any friends?"
The Countess turned and, separating the curtains, surveyed the room within.
Annunciata was asleep, and beyond, Hilda was playing dreamily, and ver_oftly, as behooves one whose bedtime is long past. When the Countess droppe_he curtain, she turned abruptly to Hedwig.
"Friends, Highness? One may have friends, of course. It is not friendship the_ear."
"A lover," said the Countess softly. "It is impossible to see Captain Larisc_n your presence, and not realize—"
"And not realize, Highness, that he is in love with you."
"How silly!" said the Princess Hedwig, with glowing eyes.
"But Highness!" implored the Countess. "If only you would use a littl_aution. Open defiance is its own defeat."
"I am not ashamed of what I do," said Hedwig hotly.
"Ashamed! Of course not. But things that are harmless in others, in you_osition—you are young. You should have friends, gayety. I am," she smile_rimly in the darkness, "not so old myself but that I can understand."
"Who told my mother that I was having tea with—with Prince Otto?"
"These things get about. Where there is no gossip, there are plenty to inven_t. And—pardon, Highness—frankness, openness, are not always understood."
Hedwig stood still. The old city was preparing for sleep. In the Place a fe_overs loitered, standing close, and the faint tinkling of a bell told of th_lessed Sacrament being carried through the streets to some bedside of th_ying. Soon the priest came into view, walking rapidly, with his skirt_lapping around his legs. Before him marched a boy, ringing a bell an_arrying a lighted lamp. The priest bent his steps through the Place, and th_overs kneeled as he passed by. The Princess Hedwig bowed her head.
It seemed to her, all at once, that the world was full of wretchedness an_eath, and of separation, which might be worse than death. The lamp, passin_ehind trees, shone out fitfully. The bell tinkled—a thin, silvery sound tha_ade her heart ache.
"I wish I could help you, Highness," said the Countess. "I should like to se_ou happy. But happiness does not come of itself. We must fight for it."
"Fight? What chance have I to fight?" Hedwig asked scornfully.
"One thing, of course, I could do," pursued the Countess. "On those days whe_ou wish to have tea with—His Royal Highness, I could arrange, perhaps, to le_ou know if any member of the family intended going to his apartments."
It was a moment before Hedwig comprehended. Then she turned to her haughtily.
"When I wish to have tea with my cousin," she said coldly, "I shall do i_penly, Countess."
She left the balcony abruptly, abandoning the Countess to solitary fury, th_reater because triumph had seemed so near. Alone, she went red and white, bi_er lips, behaved according to all the time-honored traditions. And eve_wore—in a polite, lady-in-waiting fashion, to be sure—to get even.
Royalties, as she knew well, were difficult to manage. They would go alon_erfectly well, and act like human beings, and rage and fuss and grieve, an_ven weep. And then, quite unexpectedly, the royal streak would show. Bu_oyalties in love were rather rare in her experience. Love was, generall_peaking, not a royal attribute. Apparently it required a new set of rules.
Altogether, the Countess Loschek worked herself to quite as great a fury as i_er motives had been purely altruistic, and not both selfish and wicked.
That night, while the Prince Ferdinand William Otto hugged the woolen dog i_is sleep; while the Duchess Hilda, in front of her dressing-table, was havin_er hair brushed; while Nikky roamed the streets and saw nothing but th_ision of a girl on a balcony, a girl who was lost to him, although she ha_ever been anything else, Hedwig on her knees at the prie-dieu in he_ressing-room followed the example of the Chancellor, who, too, had fel_imself in a tight corner, as one may say, and was growing tired of puttin_is trust in princes. So Hedwig prayed for many things: for the softening o_ard hearts; for Nikky's love; and, perhaps a trifle tardily, for the welfar_nd recovery of her grandfather, the King. But mostly she prayed fo_appiness, for a bit of light and warmth in her gray days—to be allowed t_ive and love.