Chapter X. The Right to Live and Love
 

Dinner was over in the dull old dining-room. The Archduchess Annunciata lighted a cigarette, and glanced across the table at Hedwig.

Hedwig had been very silent during the meal. She had replied civilly when spoken to, but that was all. Her mother, who had caught the Countess's trick of 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 mother squarely.

"I should like to inquire, if I may," observed the Archduchess, "just how you have spent the day until the little divertissement on which I stumbled. This morning, for instance?"

Hedwig shrugged her shoulders, but her color rose. It came in a soft wave over her neck and mounted higher and higher. "Very quietly, mother," she said.

"Naturally. It is always quiet here. But how?"

"I rode."

"Where?"

"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 the nursery. Now, it appears, you must fly back to schoolroom teas and other absurdities. 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 the conversation. She dreaded these family meals, with her mother's sharp voice and the Countess Loschek's almost too soft one. But now a restrained irritability in the tones of the Archduchess made her glance up. The Archduchess was in one of her sudden moods of irritation. Hedwig's remark about Otto's loneliness, the second that day, struck home. In her anger she forgot her refusal to the Chancellor.

"I have something to say that will put an end to this sentimental nonsense of yours, Hedwig. I should forbid your seeing this boy, this young Larisch, if I felt it necessary. I do not. You would probably see him anyhow, for that matter. Which, as I observed this afternoon, also reminds me unpleasantly of your father." She rose, and threw her bolt out of a clear sky. She had had, as a matter of fact, no previous intention of launching any bolt. It was wholly a result of irritation. "It is unnecessary to remind you not to make a fool of yourself. But it may not be out of place to say that your grandfather has certain 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 her children their father. They reminded her daily of a part of her life that she would have put behind her. But they were her children, and Hedwig was all that she was not, gentle and round and young. Suddenly something almost like regret stirred 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 does not 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, the peach forgotten, her mouth a little open. As for Olga Loschek, she was very still, but her eyes burned. The Archduchess remembered her presence no more than that of the flowers on the table.

"Mother, you cannot look back, and - and remember your own life, and allow me to be wretched. You cannot!"

Hilda picked up her peach. It was all very exciting, but Hedwig was being rather silly. Besides, why was she so distracted when she did not know who the man was? It might be some quite handsome person. For Hilda was also at the age when 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 her frock.

The Archduchess hated tears, and her softer moments were only moments. "Dry your eyes, and don't be silly," she said coldly. "You have always known that something of the sort was inevitable."

She moved toward the door. The two princesses and her lady in waiting remained still until she had left the table. Then they fell in behind her, and the little procession moved to the stuffy, boudoir, for coffee. But Hilda slipped her arm around her sister's waist, and the touch comforted Hedwig.

"He may be very nice," Hilda volunteered cautiously. "Perhaps it is Karl. I am quite mad about Karl, myself."

Hedwig, however, was beyond listening. She went slowly to a window, and stood gazing out. Looming against the sky-line, in the very center of the Place, was the heroic figure of her dead grandmother. She fell to wondering about these royal 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 make hers. But what about the time when he himself had taken a wife? Hedwig gazed at the statue. Had she too come with unwilling arms? And if she had, was it true 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 her eyes 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 was Nikky down there, Nikky, gazing up at her as a child may look at a star. With a 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 had wanted to see her, and he should see her. Then she dropped the curtain, and twisted 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 of heels on the old stone pavement. She knew his footsteps, even as she knew every 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 of the world.

In the boudoir the Archduchess had picked up some knitting to soothe her jangled nerves. "You may play now, Hilda," she said.

Into Hilda's care-free young life came two bad hours each day. One was the dinner hour, when she ate under her mother's pitiless eyes. The other was the hour 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 and gold, 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 heavy chandeliers of gold and cut glass were unlighted. The crimson and gilt chairs were covered with white linen. Only the piano, a gleaming oasis in a desert of polished floor, was lighted, and that by two tall candles in gilt candlesticks that reached from the floor. Hilda, going reluctantly to her post, was the only bit of life and color in the room.

At last Annunciata dozed, and Hilda played softly. Played now, not for her mother, 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 like a woman grown.

The Countess's opportunity had come. She put down the dreary embroidery with which she filled the drearier evenings, and moved to the window. She walked quietly, like a cat.

Her first words to Hedwig were those of Peter Niburg as he linked arms with his 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, of course, that between them lay the barrier of her own innocence. Hedwig could not have put this into words, would not, indeed, if she could. But when the Countess's arm touched hers, she drew aside.

"To-night," said the lady in waiting dreamily, "I should like to be in a motor, speeding over mountain roads. I come from the mountains, you know. And I 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 night one hears them going - a bell far off, up the mountainside, and sometimes one sees 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 herds moving with deliberate eagerness already sniffing the green slopes above, and the star of the distant lantern. She could even hear the thin note of the bell. And because she was sorry for the Countess, who was homesick, and perhaps because just then she had to speak to some one, she turned to her at last with the thing that filled her mind.

"This marriage," she said bitterly. "Is it talked about? Am I the only one in the 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 very high, "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 very softly, as behooves one whose bedtime is long past. When the Countess dropped the curtain, she turned abruptly to Hedwig.

"Friends, Highness? One may have friends, of course. It is not friendship they fear."

"What then?"

"A lover," said the Countess softly. "It is impossible to see Captain Larisch in your presence, and not realize - "

"Go on."

"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 little caution. 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 your position - you are young. You should have friends, gayety. I am," she smiled grimly 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 invent it. And - pardon, Highness - frankness, openness, are not always understood."

Hedwig stood still. The old city was preparing for sleep. In the Place a few lovers loitered, standing close, and the faint tinkling of a bell told of the Blessed Sacrament being carried through the streets to some bedside of the dying. Soon the priest came into view, walking rapidly, with his skirts flapping around his legs. Before him marched a boy, ringing a bell and carrying a lighted lamp. The priest bent his steps through the Place, and the lovers 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 and death, and of separation, which might be worse than death. The lamp, passing behind trees, shone out fitfully. The bell tinkled - a thin, silvery sound that made her heart ache.

"I wish I could help you, Highness," said the Countess. "I should like to see you 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 when you wish to have tea with - His Royal Highness, I could arrange, perhaps, to let you 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 it openly, Countess."

She left the balcony abruptly, abandoning the Countess to solitary fury, the greater because triumph had seemed so near. Alone, she went red and white, bit her lips, behaved according to all the time-honored traditions. And even swore - 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 along perfectly well, and act like human beings, and rage and fuss and grieve, and even weep. And then, quite unexpectedly, the royal streak would show. But royalties in love were rather rare in her experience. Love was, generally speaking, 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 if her motives had been purely altruistic, and not both selfish and wicked.

That night, while the Prince Ferdinand William Otto hugged the woolen dog in his sleep; while the Duchess Hilda, in front of her dressing-table, was having her hair brushed; while Nikky roamed the streets and saw nothing but the vision of a girl on a balcony, a girl who was lost to him, although she had never been anything else, Hedwig on her knees at the prie-dieu in her dressing-room followed the example of the Chancellor, who, too, had felt himself in a tight corner, as one may say, and was growing tired of putting his trust in princes. So Hedwig prayed for many things: for the softening of hard hearts; for Nikky's love; and, perhaps a trifle tardily, for the welfare and recovery of her grandfather, the King. But mostly she prayed for happiness, for a bit of light and warmth in her gray days - to be allowed to live and love.