It has sometimes struck me that some of you, when you have heard me tell thes_ittle adventures of mine, may have gone away with the impression that I wa_onceited. There could not be a greater mistake than this, for I have alway_bserved that really fine soldiers are free from this failing. It is true tha_ have had to depict myself sometimes as brave, sometimes as full of resource, always as interesting; but, then, it really was so, and I had to take th_acts as I found them. It would be an unworthy affectation if I were t_retend that my career has been anything but a fine one. The incident which _ill tell you tonight, however, is one which you will understand that only _odest man would describe. After all, when one has attained such a position a_ine, one can afford to speak of what an ordinary man might be tempted t_onceal.
You must know, then, that after the Russian campaign the remains of our poo_rmy were quartered along the western bank of the Elbe, where they might tha_heir frozen blood and try, with the help of the good German beer, to put _ittle between their skin and their bones. There were some things which w_ould not hope to regain, for I daresay that three large commissariat fourgon_ould not have sufficed to carry the fingers and the toes which the army ha_hed during that retreat. Still, lean and crippled as we were, we had much t_e thankful for when we thought of our poor comrades whom we had left behind, and of the snowfields—the horrible, horrible snowfields. To this day, m_riends, I do not care to see red and white together. Even my red cap throw_own upon my white counterpane has given me dreams in which I have seen thos_onstrous plains, the reeling, tortured army, and the crimson smears whic_lared upon the snow behind them. You will coax no story out of me about tha_usiness, for the thought of it is enough to turn my wine to vinegar and m_obacco to straw.
Of the half-million who crossed the Elbe in the autumn of the year '12 abou_orty thousand infantry were left in the spring of '13. But they were terribl_en, these forty thousand: men of iron, eaters of horses, and sleepers in th_now; filled, too, with rage and bitterness against the Russians. They woul_old the Elbe until the great army of conscripts, which the Emperor wa_aising in France, should be ready to help them to cross it once more.
But the cavalry was in a deplorable condition. My own hussars were at Borna, and when I paraded them first, I burst into tears at the sight of them. M_ine men and my beautiful horses—it broke my heart to see the state to whic_hey were reduced. 'But, courage,' I thought, 'they have lost much, but thei_olonel is still left to them.' I set to work, therefore, to repair thei_isasters, and had already constructed two good squadrons, when an order cam_hat all colonels of cavalry should repair instantly to the depôts of th_egiments in France to organize the recruits and the remounts for the comin_ampaign.
You will think, doubtless, that I was over-joyed at this chance of visitin_ome once more. I will not deny that it was a pleasure to me to know that _hould see my mother again, and there were a few girls who would be very gla_t the news; but there were others in the army who had a stronger claim. _ould have given my place to any who had wives and children whom they migh_ot see again. However, there is no arguing when the blue paper with th_ittle red seal arrives, so within an hour I was off upon my great ride fro_he Elbe to the Vosges. At last I was to have a period of quiet. War la_ehind my mare's tail and peace in front of her nostrils. So I thought, as th_ound of the bugles died in the distance, and the long, white road curled awa_n front of me through plain and forest and mountain, with France somewher_eyond the blue haze which lay upon the horizon.
It is interesting, but it is also fatiguing, to ride in the rear of an army.
In the harvest time our soldiers could do without supplies, for they had bee_rained to pluck the grain in the fields as they passed, and to grind it fo_hemselves in their bivouacs. It was at that time of year, therefore, tha_hose swift marches were performed which were the wonder and the despair o_urope. But now the starving men had to be made robust once more, and I wa_orced to draw into the ditch continually as the Coburg sheep and the Bavaria_ullocks came streaming past with waggon loads of Berlin beer and good Frenc_ognac. Sometimes, too, I would hear the dry rattle of the drums and th_hrill whistle of the fifes, and long columns of our good little infantry me_ould swing past me with the white dust lying thick upon their blue tunics.
These were old soldiers drawn from the garrisons of our German fortresses, fo_t was not until May that the new conscripts began to arrive from France.
Well, I was rather tired of this eternal stopping and dodging, so that I wa_ot sorry when I came to Altenburg to find that the road divided, and that _ould take the southern and quieter branch. There were few wayfarers betwee_here and Greiz, and the road wound through groves of oaks and beeches, whic_hot their branches across the path. You will think it strange that a Colone_f hussars should again and again pull up his horse in order to admire th_eauty of the feathery branches and the little, green, new-budded leaves, bu_f you had spent six months among the fir trees of Russia you would be able t_nderstand me.
There was something, however, which pleased me very much less than the beaut_f the forests, and that was the words and looks of the folk who lived in th_oodland villages. We had always been excellent friends with the Germans, an_uring the last six years they had never seemed to bear us any malice fo_aving made a little free with their country. We had shown kindnesses to th_en and received them from the women, so that good, comfortable Germany was _econd home to all of us. But now there was something which I could no_nderstand in the behaviour of the people. The travellers made no answer to m_alute; the foresters turned their heads away to avoid seeing me; and in th_illages the folk would gather into knots in the roadway and would scowl at m_s I passed. Even women would do this, and it was something new for me i_hose days to see anything but a smile in a woman's eyes when they were turne_pon me.
It was in the hamlet of Schmolin, just ten miles out of Altenburg, that th_hing became most marked. I had stopped at the little inn there just to dam_y moustache and to wash the dust out of poor Violette's throat. It was my wa_o give some little compliment, or possibly a kiss, to the maid who served me; but this one would have neither the one nor the other, but darted a glance a_e like a bayonet-thrust. Then when I raised my glass to the folk who dran_heir beer by the door they turned their backs on me, save only one fellow, who cried, 'Here's a toast for you, boys! Here's to the letter T!' At tha_hey all emptied their beer mugs and laughed; but it was not a laugh that ha_ood-fellowship in it.
I was turning this over in my head and wondering what their boorish conduc_ould mean, when I saw, as I rode from the village, a great T new carved upo_ tree. I had already seen more than one in my morning's ride, but I had give_o thought to them until the words of the beer-drinker gave them a_mportance. It chanced that a respectable-looking person was riding past me a_he moment, so I turned to him for information.
'Can you tell me, sir,' said I, 'what this letter T is?'
He looked at it and then at me in the most singular fashion. 'Young man,' sai_e, 'it is not the letter N.' Then before I could ask further he clapped hi_purs into his horses ribs and rode, stomach to earth, upon his way.
At first his words had no particular significance in my mind, but as I trotte_nwards Violette chanced to half turn her dainty head, and my eyes were caugh_y the gleam of the brazen N's at the end of the bridle-chain. It was th_mperor's mark. And those T's meant something which was opposite to it. Thing_ad been happening in Germany, then, during our absence, and the giant sleepe_ad begun to stir. I thought of the mutinous faces that I had seen, and I fel_hat if I could only have looked into the hearts of these people I might hav_ad some strange news to bring into France with me. It made me the more eage_o get my remounts, and to see ten strong squadrons behind my kettle-drum_nce more.
While these thoughts were passing through my head I had been alternatel_alking and trotting, as a man should who has a long journey before, and _illing horse beneath, him. The woods were very open at this point, and besid_he road there lay a great heap of fagots. As I passed there came a shar_ound from among them, and, glancing round, I saw a face looking out at me—_ot, red face, like that of a man who is beside himself with excitement an_nxiety. A second glance told me that it was the very person with whom I ha_alked an hour before in the village.
'Come nearer!' he hissed. 'Nearer still! Now dismount and pretend to b_ending the stirrup leather. Spies may be watching us, and it means death t_e if I am seen helping you.'
'Death!' I whispered. 'From whom?'
'From the Tugendbund. From Lutzow's night-riders. You Frenchmen are living o_ powder magazine, and the match has been struck that will fire it.'
'But this is all strange to me,' said I, still fumbling at the leathers of m_orse. 'What is this Tugendbund?'
'It is the secret society which has planned the great rising which is to driv_ou out of Germany, just as you have been driven out of Russia.'
'And these T's stand for it?'
'They are the signal. I should have told you all this in the village, but _ared not be seen speaking with you. I galloped through the woods to cut yo_ff, and concealed both my horse and myself.'
'I am very much indebted to you,' said I, 'and the more so as you are the onl_erman that I have met today from whom I have had common civility.'
'All that I possess I have gained through contracting for the French armies,'
said he. 'Your Emperor has been a good friend to me. But I beg that you wil_ide on now, for we have talked long enough. Beware only of Lutzow's night- riders!'
'Banditti?' I asked.
'All that is best in Germany,' said he. 'But for God's sake ride forwards, fo_ have risked my life and exposed my good name in order to carry you thi_arning.'
Well, if I had been heavy with thought before, you can think how I felt afte_y strange talk with the man among the fagots. What came home to me even mor_han his words was his shivering, broken voice, his twitching face, and hi_yes glancing swiftly to right and left, and opening in horror whenever _ranch cracked upon a tree. It was clear that he was in the last extremity o_error, and it is possible that he had cause, for shortly after I had left hi_ heard a distant gunshot and a shouting from somewhere behind me. It may hav_een some sportsman halloaing to his dogs, but I never again heard of or sa_he man who had given me my warning.
I kept a good look-out after this, riding swiftly where the country was open, and slowly where there might be an ambuscade. It was serious for me, since 50_ood miles of German soil lay in front of me; but somehow I did not take i_ery much to heart, for the Germans had always seemed to me to be a kindly, gentle people, whose hands closed more readily round a pipe-stem than a sword- hilt—not out of want of valour, you understand, but because they are genial, open souls, who would rather be on good terms with all men. I did not kno_hen that beneath that homely surface there lurks a devilry as fierce as, an_ar more persistent than, that of the Castilian or the Italian.
And it was not long before I had shown to me that there was something mor_erious abroad than rough words and hard looks. I had come to a spot where th_oad runs upwards through a wild tract of heath-land and vanishes into an oa_ood. I may have been half-way up the hill when, looking forward, I sa_omething gleaming under the shadow of the tree-trunks, and a man came ou_ith a coat which was so slashed and spangled with gold that he blazed like _ire in the sunlight. He appeared to be very drunk, for he reeled an_taggered as he came towards me. One of his hands was held up to his ear an_lutched a great red handkerchief, which was fixed to his neck.
I had reined up the mare and was looking at him with some disgust, for i_eemed strange to me that one who wore so gorgeous a uniform should sho_imself in such a state in broad daylight. For his part, he looked hard in m_irection and came slowly onwards, stopping from time to time and swayin_bout as he gazed at me. Suddenly, as I again advanced, he screamed out hi_hanks to Christ, and, lurching forwards, he fell with a crash upon the dust_oad. His hands flew forward with the fall, and I saw that what I had take_or a red cloth was a monstrous wound, which had left a great gap in his neck, from which a dark blood-clot hung, like an epaulette upon his shoulder.
'My God!' I cried, as I sprang to his aid. 'And I thought that you wer_runk!'
'Not drunk, but dying,' said he. 'But thank Heaven that I have seen a Frenc_fficer while I have still strength to speak.'
I laid him among the heather and poured some brandy down his throat. All roun_s was the vast countryside, green and peaceful, with nothing living in sigh_ave only the mutilated man beside me.
'Who has done this?' I asked, 'and what are you? You are French, and yet th_niform is strange to me.'
'It is that of the Emperor's new guard of honour. I am the Marquis of Châtea_t Arnaud, and I am the ninth of my blood who has died in the service o_rance. I have been pursued and wounded by the night-riders of Lutzow, but _id among the brushwood yonder, and waited in the hope that a Frenchman migh_ass. I could not be sure at first if you were friend or foe, but I felt tha_eath was very near, and that I must take the chance.'
'Keep your heart up, comrade,' said I; 'I have seen a man with a worse woun_ho has lived to boast of it.'
'No, no,' he whispered; 'I am going fast.' He laid his hand upon mine as h_poke, and I saw that his finger-nails were already blue. 'But I have paper_ere in my tunic which you must carry at once to the Prince of Saxe-Felstein, at his Castle of Hof. He is still true to us, but the Princess is our deadl_nemy. She is striving to make him declare against us. If he does so, it wil_etermine all those who are wavering, for the King of Prussia is his uncle an_he King of Bavaria his cousin. These papers will hold him to us if they ca_nly reach him before he takes the last step. Place them in his hands tonight, and, perhaps, you will have saved all Germany for the Emperor. Had my hors_ot been shot, I might, wounded as I am—' He choked, and the cold han_ightened into a grip, which left mine as bloodless as itself. Then, with _roan, his head jerked back, and it was all over with him.
Here was a fine start for my journey home. I was left with a commission o_hich I knew little, which would lead me to delay the pressing needs of m_ussars, and which at the same time was of such importance that it wa_mpossible for me to avoid it. I opened the Marquis's tunic, the brilliance o_hich had been devised by the Emperor in order to attract those youn_ristocrats from whom he hoped to raise these new regiments of his Guard. I_as a small packet of papers which I drew out, tied up with silk, an_ddressed to the Prince of Saxe-Felstein. In the corner, in a sprawling, untidy hand, which I knew to be the Emperor's own, was written: 'Pressing an_ost important.' It was an order to me, those four words—an order as clear a_f it had come straight from the firm lips with the cold grey eyes lookin_nto mine. My troopers might wait for their horses, the dead Marquis might li_here I had laid him amongst the heather, but if the mare and her rider had _reath left in them the papers should reach the Prince that night.
I should not have feared to ride by the road through the wood, for I hav_earned in Spain that the safest time to pass through a guerilla country i_fter an outrage, and that the moment of danger is when all is peaceful. Whe_ came to look upon my map, however, I saw that Hof lay further to the sout_f me, and that I might reach it more directly by keeping to the moors. Off _et, therefore, and had not gone fifty yards before two carbine shots rang ou_f the brushwood and a bullet hummed past me like a bee. It was clear that th_ight-riders were bolder in their ways than the brigands of Spain, and that m_ission would have ended where it had begun if I had kept to the road.
It was a mad ride, that—a ride with a loose rein, girth-deep in heather and i_orse, plunging through bushes, flying down hill-sides, with my neck at th_ercy of my dear little Violette. But she—she never slipped, she neve_altered, as swift and as surefooted as if she knew that her rider carried th_ate of all Germany beneath the buttons of his pelisse. And I—I had long born_he name of being the best horseman in the six brigades of light cavalry, bu_ never rode as I rode then. My friend the Bart had told me of how they hun_he fox in England, but the swiftest fox would have been captured by me tha_ay. The wild pigeons which flew overhead did not take a straighter cours_han Violette and I below. As an officer, I have always been ready t_acrifice myself for my men, though the Emperor would not have thanked me fo_t, for he had many men, but only one—well, cavalry leaders of the first clas_re rare.
But here I had an object which was indeed worth a sacrifice, and I thought n_ore of my life than of the clods of earth that flew from my darling's heels.
We struck the road once more as the light was failing, and galloped into th_ittle village of Lobenstein. But we had hardly got upon the cobblestones whe_ff came one of the mare's shoes, and I had to lead her to the village smithy.
His fire was low, and his day's work done, so that it would be an hour at th_east before I could hope to push on to Hof. Cursing at the delay, I strod_nto the village inn and ordered a cold chicken and some wine to be served fo_y dinner. It was but a few miles to Hof, and I had every hope that I migh_eliver my papers to the Prince on that very night, and be on my way fo_rance next morning with despatches for the Emperor in my bosom. I will tel_ou now what befell me in the inn of Lobenstein.
The chicken had been served and the wine drawn, and I had turned upon both a_ man may who has ridden such a ride, when I was aware of a murmur and _cuffling in the hall outside my door. At first I thought that it was som_rawl between peasants in their cups, and I left them to settle their ow_ffairs. But of a sudden there broke from among the low, sullen growl of th_oices such a sound as would send Etienne Gerard leaping from his death-bed.
It was the whimpering cry of a woman in pain. Down clattered my knife and m_ork, and in an instant I was in the thick of the crowd which had gathere_utside my door.
The heavy-cheeked landlord was there and his flaxen-haired wife, the two me_rom the stables, a chambermaid, and two or three villagers. All of them, women and men, were flushed and angry, while there in the centre of them, wit_ale cheeks and terror in her eyes, stood the loveliest woman that ever _oldier would wish to look upon. With her queenly head thrown back, and _ouch of defiance mingled with her fear, she looked as she gazed round he_ike a creature of a different race from the vile, coarse-featured crew wh_urrounded her. I had not taken two steps from my door before she sprang t_eet me, her hand resting upon my arm and her blue eyes sparkling with joy an_riumph.
'A French soldier and gentleman!' she cried. 'Now at last I am safe.'
'Yes, madam, you are safe,' said I, and I could not resist taking her hand i_ine in order that I might reassure her. 'You have only to command me,' _dded, kissing the hand as a sign that I meant what I was saying.
'I am Polish,' she cried; 'the Countess Palotta is my name. They abuse m_ecause I love the French. I do not know what they might have done to me ha_eaven not sent you to my help.'
I kissed her hand again lest she should doubt my intentions. Then I turne_pon the crew with such an expression as I know how to assume. In an instan_he hall was empty.
'Countess,' said I, 'you are now under my protection. You are faint, and _lass of wine is necessary to restore you.' I offered her my arm and escorte_er into my room, where she sat by my side at the table and took th_efreshment which I offered her.
How she blossomed out in my presence, this woman, like a flower before th_un! She lit up the room with her beauty. She must have read my admiration i_y eyes, and it seemed to me that I also could see something of the sort i_er own. Ah! my friends, I was no ordinary-looking man when I was in m_hirtieth year. In the whole light cavalry it would have been hard to find _iner pair of whiskers. Murat's may have been a shade longer, but the bes_udges are agreed that Murat's were a shade too long. And then I had a manner.
Some women are to be approached in one way and some in another, just as _iege is an affair of fascines and gabions in hard weather and of trenches i_oft. But the man who can mix daring with timidity, who can be outrageous wit_n air of humility, and presumptuous with a tone of deference, that is the ma_hom mothers have to fear. For myself, I felt that I was the guardian of thi_onely lady, and knowing what a dangerous man I had to deal with, I kep_trict watch upon myself. Still, even a guardian has his privileges, and I di_ot neglect them.
But her talk was as charming as her face. In a few words she explained tha_he was travelling to Poland, and that her brother who had been her escort ha_allen ill upon the way. She had more than once met with ill-treatment fro_he country folk because she could not conceal her good-will towards th_rench. Then turning from her own affairs she questioned me about the army, and so came round to myself and my own exploits. They were familiar to her, she said, for she knew several of Poniatowski's officers, and they had spoke_f my doings. Yet she would be glad to hear them from my own lips. Never hav_ had so delightful a conversation. Most women make the mistake of talkin_ather too much about their own affairs, but this one listened to my tale_ust as you are listening now, ever asking for more and more and more. Th_ours slipped rapidly by, and it was with horror that I heard the villag_lock strike eleven, and so learned that for four hours I had forgotten th_mperor's business.
'Pardon me, my dear lady,' I cried, springing to my feet, 'but I must go o_nstantly to Hof.'
She rose also, and looked at me with a pale, reproachful face. 'And me?' sh_aid. 'What is to become of me?'
'It is the Emperor's affair. I have already stayed far too long. My duty call_e, and I must go.'
'You must go? And I must be abandoned alone to these savages? Oh, why did _ver meet you? Why did you ever teach me to rely upon your strength?' Her eye_lazed over, and in an instant she was sobbing upon my bosom.
Here was a trying moment for a guardian! Here was a time when he had to keep _atch upon a forward young officer. But I was equal to it. I smoothed her ric_rown hair and whispered such consolations as I could think of in her ear, with one arm round her, it is true, but that was to hold her lest she shoul_aint. She turned her tear-stained face to mine. 'Water,' she whispered. 'Fo_od's sake, water!'
I saw that in another moment she would be senseless. I laid the drooping hea_pon the sofa, and then rushed furiously from the room, hunting from chambe_o chamber for a carafe. It was some minutes before I could get one and hurr_ack with it. You can imagine my feelings to find the room empty and the lad_one.
Not only was she gone, but her cap and silver-mounted riding switch which ha_ain upon the table were gone also. I rushed out and roared for the landlord.
He knew nothing of the matter, had never seen the woman before, and did no_are if he never saw her again. Had the peasants at the door seen anyone rid_way? No, they had seen nobody. I searched here and searched there, until a_ast I chanced to find myself in front of a mirror, where I stood with my eye_taring and my jaw as far dropped as the chin-strap of my shako would allow.
Four buttons of my pelisse were open, and it did not need me to put my hand u_o know that my precious papers were gone. Oh! the depth of cunning that lurk_n a woman's heart. She had robbed me, this creature, robbed me as she clun_o my breast. Even while I smoothed her hair, and whispered kind words int_er ear, her hands had been at work beneath my dolman. And here I was, at th_ery last step of my journey, without the power of carrying out this missio_hich had already deprived one good man of his life, and was likely to ro_nother one of his credit. What would the Emperor say when he heard that I ha_ost his despatches? Would the army believe it of Etienne Gerard? And whe_hey heard that a woman's hand had coaxed them from me, what laughter ther_ould be at mess-table and at camp-fire! I could have rolled upon the groun_n my despair.
But one thing was certain—all this affair of the fracas in the hall and th_ersecution of the so-called Countess was a piece of acting from th_eginning. This villainous innkeeper must be in the plot. From him I migh_earn who she was and where my papers had gone. I snatched my sabre from th_able and rushed out in search of him. But the scoundrel had guessed what _ould do, and had made his preparations for me. It was in the corner of th_ard that I found him, a blunderbuss in his hands and a mastiff held upon _eash by his son. The two stable-hands, with pitchforks, stood upon eithe_ide, and the wife held a great lantern behind him, so as to guide his aim.
'Ride away, sir, ride away!' he cried, with a crackling voice. 'Your horse i_t the door, and no one will meddle with you if you go your way; but if yo_ome against us, you are alone against three brave men.'
I had only the dog to fear, for the two forks and the blunderbuss were shakin_bout like branches in a wind. Still, I considered that, though I might forc_n answer with my sword-point at the throat of this fat rascal, still I shoul_ave no means of knowing whether that answer was the truth. It would be _truggle, then, with much to lose and nothing certain to gain. I looked the_p and down, therefore, in a way that set their foolish weapons shaking wors_han ever, and then, throwing myself upon my mare, I galloped away with th_hrill laughter of the landlady jarring upon my ears.
I had already formed my resolution. Although I had lost my papers, I coul_ake a very good guess as to what their contents would be, and this I woul_ay from my own lips to the Prince of Saxe-Felstein, as though the Emperor ha_ommissioned me to convey it in that way. It was a bold stroke and a dangerou_ne, but if I went too far I could afterwards be disavowed. It was that o_othing, and when all Germany hung on the balance the game should not be los_f the nerve of one man could save it.
It was midnight when I rode into Hof, but every window was blazing, which wa_nough it itself, in that sleepy country, to tell the ferment of excitement i_hich the people were. There was hooting and jeering as I rode through th_rowded streets, and once a stone sang past my head, but I kept upon my way, neither slowing nor quickening my pace, until I came to the palace. It was li_rom base to battlement, and the dark shadows, coming and going against th_ellow glare, spoke of the turmoil within. For my part, I handed my mare to _room at the gate, and striding in I demanded, in such a voice as a_mbassador should have, to see the Prince instantly, upon business which woul_rook no delay.
The hall was dark, but I was conscious as I entered of a buzz of innumerabl_oices, which hushed into silence as I loudly proclaimed my mission. Som_reat meeting was being held then—a meeting which, as my instincts told me, was to decide this very question of war and peace. It was possible that _ight still be in time to turn the scale for the Emperor and for France. As t_he major-domo, he looked blackly at me, and showing me into a small ante- chamber he left me. A minute later he returned to say that the Prince coul_ot be disturbed at present, but that the Princess would take my message.
The Princess! What use was there in giving it to her? Had I not been warne_hat she was German in heart and soul, and that it was she who was turning he_usband and her State against us?
'It is the Prince that I must see,' said I.
'Nay, it is the Princess,' said a voice at the door, and a woman swept int_he chamber. 'Von Rosen, you had best stay with us. Now, sir, what is it tha_ou have to say to either Prince or Princess of Saxe-Felstein?'
At the first sound of the voice I had sprung to my feet. At the first glance _ad thrilled with anger. Not twice in a lifetime does one meet that nobl_igure, that queenly head, and those eyes as blue as the Garonne, and a_hilling as her winter waters.
'Time presses, sir!' she cried, with an impatient tap of her foot. 'What hav_ou to say to me?'
'What have I to say to you?' I cried. 'What can I say, save that you hav_aught me never to trust a woman more? You have ruined and dishonoured me fo_ver.'
She looked with arched brows at her attendant.
'Is this the raving of fever, or does it come from some less innocent cause?'
said she. 'Perhaps a little blood-letting—'
'Ah, you can act!' I cried. 'You have shown me that already.'
'Do you mean that we have met before?'
'I mean that you have robbed me within the last two hours.'
'This is past all bearing,' she cried, with an admirable affectation of anger.
'You claim, as I understand, to be an ambassador, but there are limits to th_rivileges which such an office brings with it.'
'You brazen it admirably,' said I. 'Your Highness will not make a fool of m_wice in one night.' I sprang forward and, stooping down, caught up the hem o_er dress. 'You would have done well to change it after you had ridden so fa_nd so fast,' said I.
It was like the dawn upon a snow-peak to see her ivory cheeks flush suddenl_o crimson.
'Insolent!' she cried. 'Call the foresters and have him thrust from th_alace'
'I will see the Prince first.'
'You will never see the Prince. Ah! Hold him, Von Rosen, hold him.'
She had forgotten the man with whom she had to deal—was it likely that I woul_ait until they could bring their rascals? She had shown me her cards to_oon. Her game was to stand between me and her husband. Mine was to speak fac_o face with him at any cost. One spring took me out of the chamber. I_nother I had crossed the hall. An instant later I had burst into the grea_oom from which the murmur of the meeting had come. At the far end I saw _igure upon a high chair under a daïs. Beneath him was a line of hig_ignitaries, and then on every side I saw vaguely the heads of a vas_ssembly. Into the centre of the room I strode, my sabre clanking, my shak_nder my arm.
'I am the messenger of the Emperor,' I shouted. 'I bear his message to Hi_ighness the Prince of Saxe-Felstein.'
The man beneath the daïs raised his head, and I saw that his face was thin an_an, and that his back was bowed as though some huge burden was balance_etween his shoulders.
'Your name, sir?' he asked.
'Colonel Etienne Gerard, of the Third Hussars.'
Every face in the gathering was turned upon me, and I heard the rustle of th_nnumerable necks and saw countless eyes without meeting one friendly on_mongst them. The woman had swept past me, and was whispering, with man_hakes of her head and dartings of her hands, into the Prince's ear. For m_wn part I threw out my chest and curled my moustache, glancing round in m_wn debonair fashion at the assembly. They were men, all of them, professor_rom the college, a sprinkling of their students, soldiers, gentlemen, artisans, all very silent and serious. In one corner there sat a group of me_n black, with riding-coats drawn over their shoulders. They leaned thei_eads to each other, whispering under their breath, and with every movement _aught the clank of their sabres or the clink of their spurs.
'The Emperor's private letter to me informs me that it is the Marquis Châtea_t Arnaud who is bearing his despatches,' said the Prince.
'The Marquis has been foully murdered,' I answered, and a buzz rose up fro_he people as I spoke. Many heads were turned, I noticed, towards the dark me_n the cloaks.
'Where are your papers?' asked the Prince.
'I have none.'
A fierce clamour rose instantly around me. 'He is a spy! He plays a part!'
they cried. 'Hang him!' roared a deep voice from the corner, and a doze_thers took up the shout. For my part, I drew out my handkerchief and nicke_he dust from the fur of my pelisse. The Prince held out his thin hands, an_he tumult died away.
'Where, then, are your credentials, and what is your message?'
'My uniform is my credential, and my message is for your private ear.'
He passed his hand over his forehead with the gesture of a weak man who is a_is wits' end what to do. The Princess stood beside him with her hand upon hi_hrone, and again whispered in his ear.
'We are here in council together, some of my trusty subjects and myself,' sai_e. 'I have no secrets from them, and whatever message the Emperor may send t_e at such a time concerns their interests no less than mine.'
There was a hum of applause at this, and every eye was turned once more upo_e. My faith, it was an awkward position in which I found myself, for it i_ne thing to address eight hundred hussars, and another to speak to such a_udience on such a subject. But I fixed my eyes upon the Prince, and tried t_ay just what I should have said if we had been alone, shouting it out, too, as though I had my regiment on parade.
'You have often expressed friendship for the Emperor,' I cried. 'It is now a_ast that this friendship is about to be tried. If you will stand firm, h_ill reward you as only he can reward. It is an easy thing for him to turn _rince into a King and a province into a power. His eyes are fixed upon you, and though you can do little to harm him, you can ruin yourself. At thi_oment he is crossing the Rhine with two hundred thousand men. Every fortres_n the country is in his hands. He will be upon you in a week, and if you hav_layed him false, God help both you and your people. You think that he i_eakened because a few of us got the chilblains last winter. Look there!' _ried, pointing to a great star which blazed through the window above th_rince's head. 'That is the Emperor's star. When it wanes, he will wane—bu_ot before.'
You would have been proud of me, my friends, if you could have seen and hear_e, for I clashed my sabre as I spoke, and swung my dolman as though m_egiment was picketed outside in the courtyard. They listened to me i_ilence, but the back of the Prince bowed more and more as though the burde_hich weighed upon it was greater than his strength. He looked round wit_aggard eyes.
'We have heard a Frenchman speak for France,' said he. 'Let us have a Germa_peak for Germany.'
The folk glanced at each other, and whispered to their neighbours. My speech, as I think, had its effect, and no man wished to be the first to commi_imself in the eyes of the Emperor. The Princess looked round her with blazin_yes, and her clear voice broke the silence.
'Is a woman to give this Frenchman his answer?' she cried. 'Is it possible, then, that among the night-riders of Lutzow there is none who can use hi_ongue as well as his sabre?'
Over went a table with a crash, and a young man had bounded upon one of th_hairs. He had the face of one inspired—pale, eager, with wild hawk eyes, an_angled hair. His sword hung straight from his side, and his riding-boots wer_rown with mire.
'It is Korner!' the people cried. 'It is young Korner, the poet! Ah, he wil_ing, he will sing.'
And he sang! It was soft, at first, and dreamy, telling of old Germany, th_other of nations, of the rich, warm plains, and the grey cities, and the fam_f dead heroes. But then verse after verse rang like a trumpet-call. It was o_he Germany of now, the Germany which had been taken unawares and overthrown, but which was up again, and snapping the bonds upon her giant limbs. What wa_ife that one should covet it? What was glorious death that one should shu_t? The mother, the great mother, was calling. Her sigh was in the night wind.
She was crying to her own children for help. Would they come? Would they come?
Would they come?
Ah, that terrible song, the spirit face and the ringing voice! Where were I, and France, and the Emperor? They did not shout, these people—they howled.
They were up on the chairs and the tables. They were raving, sobbing, th_ears running down their faces. Korner had sprung from the chair, and hi_omrades were round him with their sabres in the air. A flush had come int_he pale face of the Prince, and he rose from his throne.
'Colonel Gerard,' said he, 'you have heard the answer which you are to carr_o your Emperor. The die is cast, my children. Your Prince and you must stan_r fall together.'
He bowed to show that all was over, and the people with a shout made for th_oor to carry the tidings into the town. For my own part, I had done all tha_ brave man might, and so I was not sorry to be carried out amid the stream.
Why should I linger in the palace? I had had my answer and must carry it, suc_s it was. I wished neither to see Hof nor its people again until I entered i_t the head of a vanguard. I turned from the throng, then, and walked silentl_nd sadly in the direction in which they had led the mare.
It was dark down there by the stables, and I was peering round for th_ostler, when suddenly my two arms were seized from behind. There were hand_t my wrists and at my throat, and I felt the cold muzzle of a pistol under m_ar.
'Keep your lips closed, you French dog,' whispered a fierce voice. 'We hav_im, captain.'
'Have you the bridle?'
'Here it is.'
'Sling it over his head.'
I felt the cold coil of leather tighten round my neck. An hostler with _table lantern had come out and was gazing upon the scene. In its dim light _aw stern faces breaking everywhere through the gloom, with the black caps an_ark cloaks of the night-riders.
'What would you do with him, captain?' cried a voice.
'Hang him at the palace gate.'
'An ambassador without papers.'
'But the Prince?'
'Tut, man, do you not see that the Prince will then be committed to our side?
He will be beyond all hope of forgiveness. At present he may swing roun_omorrow as he has done before. He may eat his words, but a dead hussar i_ore than he can explain.'
'No, no, Von Strelitz, we cannot do it,' said another voice.
'Can we not? I shall show you that!' and there came a jerk on the bridle whic_early pulled me to the ground. At the same instant a sword flashed and th_eather was cut through within two inches of my neck.
'By Heaven, Korner, this is rank mutiny,' cried the captain. 'You may han_ourself before you are through with it.'
'I have drawn my sword as a soldier and not as a brigand,' said the youn_oet. 'Blood may dim its blade, but never dishonour. Comrades, will you stan_y and see this gentleman mishandled?'
A dozen sabres flew from their sheaths, and it was evident that my friends an_y foes were about equally balanced. But the angry voices and the gleam o_teel had brought the folk running from all parts.
'The Princess!' they cried. 'The Princess is coming!'
And even as they spoke I saw her in front of us, her sweet face framed in th_arkness. I had cause to hate her, for she had cheated and befooled me, an_et it thrilled me then and thrills me now to think that my arms have embrace_er, and that I have felt the scent of her hair in my nostrils. I know no_hether she lies under her German earth, or whether she still lingers, a grey- haired woman in her Castle of Hof, but she lives ever, young and lovely, i_he heart and memory of Etienne Gerard.
'For shame!' she cried, sweeping up to me, and tearing with her own hands th_oose from my neck. 'You are fighting in God's own quarrel, and yet you woul_egin with such a devil's deed as this. This man is mine, and he who touches _air of his head will answer for it to me.'
They were glad enough to slink off into the darkness before those scornfu_yes. Then she turned once more to me.
'You can follow me, Colonel Gerard,' she said. 'I have a word that I woul_peak to you.'
I walked behind her to the chamber into which I had originally been shown. Sh_losed the door, and then looked at me with the archest twinkle in her eyes.
'Is it not confiding of me to trust myself with you?' said she. 'You wil_emember that it is the Princess of Saxe-Felstein and not the poor Countes_alotta of Poland.'
'Be the name what it might,' I answered, 'I helped a lady whom I believed t_e in distress, and I have been robbed of my papers and almost of my honour a_ reward.'
'Colonel Gerard,' said she, 'we have been playing a game, you and I, and th_take was a heavy one. You have shown by delivering a message which was neve_iven to you that you would stand at nothing in the cause of your country. M_eart is German and yours is French, and I also would go all lengths, even t_eceit and to theft, if at this crisis I could help my suffering fatherland.
You see how frank I am.'
'You tell me nothing that I have not seen.'
'But now that the game is played and won, why should we bear malice? I wil_ay this, that if ever I were in such a plight as that which I pretended i_he inn of Lobenstein, I should never wish to meet a more gallant protector o_ truer-hearted gentleman than Colonel Etienne Gerard. I had never though_hat I could feel for a Frenchman as I felt for you when I slipped the paper_rom your breast.'
'But you took them, none the less.'
'They were necessary to me and to Germany. I knew the arguments which the_ontained and the effect which they would have upon the Prince. If they ha_eached him all would have been lost.'
'Why should your Highness descend to such expedients when a score of thes_rigands, who wished to hang me at your castle gate, would have done the wor_s well?'
'They are not brigands, but the best blood of Germany,' she cried, hotly. 'I_ou have been roughly used, you will remember the indignities to which ever_erman has been subjected, from the Queen of Prussia downwards. As to why _id not have you waylaid upon the road, I may say that I had parties out o_ll sides, and that I was waiting at Lobenstein to hear of their success. Whe_nstead of their news you yourself arrived I was in despair, for there wa_nly the one weak woman betwixt you and my husband. You see the straits t_hich I was driven before I used the weapon of my sex.'
'I confess that you have conquered me, your Highness, and it only remains fo_e to leave you in possession of the field.'
'But you will take your papers with you.' She held them out to me as sh_poke. 'The Prince has crossed the Rubicon now, and nothing can bring hi_ack. You can return these to the Emperor, and tell him that we refused t_eceive them. No one can accuse you then of having lost your despatches. Good- bye, Colonel Gerard, and the best I can wish you is that when you reach Franc_ou may remain there. In a year's time there will be no place for a Frenchma_pon this side of the Rhine.'
And thus it was that I played the Princess of Saxe-Felstein with all German_or a stake, and lost my game to her. I had much to think of as I walked m_oor, tired Violette along the highway which leads westward from Hof. But ami_ll the thoughts there came back to me always the proud, beautiful face of th_erman woman, and the voice of the soldier-poet as he sang from the chair. An_ understood then that there was something terrible in this strong, patien_ermany—this mother root of nations—and I saw that such a land, so old and s_eloved, never could be conquered. And as I rode I saw that the dawn wa_reaking, and that the great star at which I had pointed through the palac_indow was dim and pale in the western sky.