Chapter XXI. As a Man May Love a Woman
 

Hedwig came to tea that afternoon. She came in softly, and defiantly, for she was doing a forbidden thing, but Prince Ferdinand William Otto had put away the frame against such a contingency. He had, as a matter of fact, been putting cold cloths on Miss Braithwaite's forehead.

"I always do it," he informed Hedwig. "I like doing it. It gives me something to do. She likes them rather dry, so the water doesn't run down her neck."

Hedwig made a short call on the governess, prostrate on the couch in her sitting-room. The informality of the family relationship had, during her long service, been extended to include the Englishwoman, who in her turn found nothing incongruous in the small and kindly services of the little Prince. So Hedwig sat beside her for a moment, and turned the cold bandage over to freshen it.

Had Miss Braithwaite not been ill, Hedwig would have talked things over with her then. There was no one else to whom she could go. Hilda refused to consider the prospect of marriage as anything but pleasurable, and between her mother and Hedwig there had never been any close relationship.

But Miss Braithwaite lay motionless, her face set in lines of suffering, and after a time Hedwig rose and tiptoed out of the room.

Prince Ferdinand William Otto was excited. Tea had already come, and on the rare occasions when the governess was ill, it was his privilege to pour the tea.

"Nikky is coming," he said rapidly, "and the three of us will have a party. Please don't tell me how you like your tea, and see if I can remember."

"Very well, dear," Hedwig said gently, and went to the window.

Behind her Prince Ferdinand William Otto was in a bustle of preparation. Tea in the study was an informal function, served in the English manner, without servants to bother. The Crown Prince drew up a chair before the tea service, and put a cushion on it. He made a final excursion to Miss Braithwaite and, returning, climbed on to his chair.

"Now, when Nikky comes, we are all ready," he observed.

Nikky entered almost immediately.

As a matter of fact, although he showed no trace of it, Nikky had been having an extremely bad time since his return; the Chancellor, who may or may not have known that his heart was breaking, had given him a very severe scolding on the way back from Wedeling. It did Nikky good, too, for it roused him to his own defense, and made him forget, for a few minutes. anyhow, that life was over for him, and that the Chancellor carried his death sentence in his old leather dispatch case.

After that, arriving in the capital, they had driven to the little office in a back street, and there Nikky had roused himself again enough to give a description of Peter Niburg, and to give the location of the house where he lived. But he slumped again after that, ate no dinner, and spent a longish time in the Place, staring up at Annunciata's windows, where he had once seen Hedwig on the balcony.

But of course Hedwig had not learned of his return, and was sitting inside, exactly as despairing as he was, but obliged to converse with her mother in the absence of the Countess. The Archduchess insisted on talking French, for practice, and they got into quite a wrangle over a verb. And as if to add to the general depression, Hilda had been reminded of what anniversary it was, and was told to play hymns only. True, now and then, hearing her mother occupied, she played them in dotted time, which was a bit more cheerful.

Then, late in the evening, Nikky was summoned to the King's bedroom, and came out pale, with his shoulders very square. He had received a real wigging this time, and even contemplated throwing himself in the river. Only he could swim so damnably well!

But he had the natural elasticity of youth, and a sort of persistent belief in his own luck, rather like the Chancellor's confidence in seven as a number - a confidence, by the way, which the Countess could easily have shaken. So he had wakened the next morning rather cheerful than otherwise, and over a breakfast of broiled ham had refused to look ahead farther than the day.

That afternoon, in the study, Nikky hesitated when he saw Hedwig. Then he came and bent low over her hand. And Hedwig, because every instinct yearned to touch his shining, bent head, spoke to him very calmly, was rather distant, a little cold.

"You have been away, I think?" she said.

"For a day or two, Highness."

The Crown Prince put a small napkin around the handle of the silver teapot. He knew from experience that it was very hot. His face was quite screwed up with exertion.

"And to-day," said Nikky reproachfully, "to-day you did not ride."

"I did not feel like riding," Hedwig responded listlessly. "I am tired. I think I am always tired."

"Lemon and two lumps," muttered the Crown Prince. "That's Nikky's, Hedwig. Give it to him, please."

Nikky went a trifle pale as their fingers touched. But he tasted his tea, and pronounced it excellent.

Prince Ferdinand William Otto chattered excitedly. He told of the dog, dilating on its cleverness, but passing politely over the manner of its return. Now and then Hedwig glanced at Nikky, when he was not looking, and always, when they dared, the young soldier's eyes were on her.

"She will take some tea without sugar," announced the Crown Prince.

While he poured it, Hedwig was thinking. Was it possible that Nikky, of every one, should have been chosen to carry to Karl the marriage arrangements? What an irony! What a jest! It was true there was a change in him. He looked subdued, almost sad.

"To Karnia?" she asked, when Prince Ferdinand William Otto had again left the room. "Officially?"

"Not - exactly."

"Where, in Karnia?"

"I ended," Nikky confessed, "at Wedeling."

Hedwig gazed at him, her elbows propped on the tea-table. "Then," she said, "I think you know."

"I know, Highness."

"And you have nothing to say?"

Nikky looked at her with desperate eyes. "What can I say, Highness? Only that - it is very terrible to me - that I - " He rose abruptly and stood looking down at her.

"That you -"said Hedwig softly.

"Highness," Nikky began huskily, "you know what I would say. And that I cannot. To take advantage of Otto's fancy for me, a child's liking, to violate the confidence of those who placed me here - I am doing that, every moment."

"What about me?" Hedwig asked. "Do I count for nothing? Does it not matter at all how I feel, whether I am happy or wretched? Isn't that as important as honor?"

Nikky flung out his hands. "You know," he said rapidly. "What can I tell you that you do not know a thousand times? I love you. Not as a subject may adore his princess, but as a man loves a woman."

"I too!" said Hedwig. And held out her hands.

But he did not take them. Almost it was as though he would protect her from herself. But he closed his eyes for a moment, that he might not see that appealing gesture. "I, who love you more than life, who would, God help me, forfeit eternity for you - I dare not take you in my arms."

Hedwig's arms fell. She drew herself up. "Love!" she said. "I do not call that love."

"It is greater love than you know," said poor Nikky. But all his courage died a moment later, and his resolution with it, for without warning Hedwig dropped her head on her hands and, crouching forlornly, fell to sobbing.

"I counted on you," she said wildly. "And you are like the others. No one cares how wretched I am. I wish I might die."

Then indeed Nikky was lost. In an instant he was on his knees beside her, his arms close about her, his head bowed against her breast. And Hedwig relaxed to his embrace. When at last he turned and looked up at her, it was Hedwig who bent and kissed him.

"At least," she whispered, "we have had this, We can always remember, whatever comes, that we have had this."

But Nikky was of very human stuff, and not the sort that may live by memories. He was very haggard when he rose to his feet - haggard, and his mouth was doggedly set. "I will never give you up, now," he said.

Brave words, of course. But as he said them he realized their futility. The eyes he turned on her were, as he claimed her, without hope. For there was no escape. He had given his word to stay near the Crown Prince, always to watch him, to guard him with his life, if necessary. And he had promised, at least, not to block the plans for the new alliance.

Hedwig, with shining eyes, was already planning.

"We will go away, Nikky," she said. "And it, must be soon, because otherwise - "

Nikky dared not touch her again, knowing what he had to say. "Dearest," he said, bending toward her, "that is what we cannot do."

"No?" She looked up, puzzled, but still confident dent. "And why, cowardly one?"

"Because I have given my word to remain with the Crown Prince." Then, seeing that she still did not comprehend, he explained, swiftly. After all, she had a right to know, and he was desperately anxious that she should understand. He stood, as many a man has stood before, between love and loyalty to his king, and he was a soldier. He had no choice.

It was terrible to him to see the light die out of her eyes. But even as he told her of the dangers that compassed the child and possibly others of the family, he saw that they touched her remotely, if at all. What she saw, and what he saw, through her eyes, was not riot and anarchy, a threatened throne, death itself. She saw only a vista of dreadful years, herself their victim. She saw her mother's bitter past. She saw the austere face of her grandmother, hiding behind that mask her disappointments.

But all she said, when Nikky finished, was: "I might have known it. Of course they would get me, as they did the others." But a moment later she rose and threw out her arms. "How skillful they are! They knew about it. It is all a part of the plot. I do not believe there is danger. All my life I have heard them talk. That is all they do - talk and plan and plot, and do things in secret. They made you promise never to desert Otto, so that their arrangements need not be interfered with. Oh, I know them, better than you do. They are all cruel. It is the blood."

What Nikky would have said to this was lost by the return of Prince Ferdinand William Otto. He came in, carrying the empty cup carefully. "She took it all," he said, "and she feels much better. I hope you didn't eat all the bread and butter."

Reassured as to this by a glance, he climbed to his chair. "We're all very happy, aren't we?" he observed. "It's quite a party. When I grow up I shall ask you both to tea every day."

That evening the Princess Hedwig went unannounced to her grandfather's apartment, and demanded to be allowed to enter.

A gentleman-in-waiting bowed deeply, but stood before the door. "Your Highness must pardon my reminding Your Highness," he said firmly, "that no one may enter His Majesty's presence without permission."

"Then go in," said Hedwig, in a white rage, "and get the permission."

The gentleman-in-waiting went in, very deliberately, because his dignity was outraged. The moment he had gone, however, Hedwig flung the door open, and followed, standing, a figure of tragic defiance, inside the heavy curtains of the King's bedroom.

"There is no use saying you won't see me, grandfather. For here I am."

They eyed each other, the one, it must be told, a trifle uneasily, the other desperately. Then into the King's eyes came a flash of admiration, and just a gleam of amusement.

"So I perceive," he said. "Come here, Hedwig."

The gentleman-in-waiting bowed himself out. His hands, in their tidy white gloves, would have liked to box Hedwig's ears. He was very upset. If this sort of thing went on, why not a republic at once and be done with it?

A Sister of Charity was standing by the King's bed. She had cared for him through many illnesses. In the intervals she retired to her cloister and read holy books and sewed for the poor. Even now, in her little chamber off the bedroom, where bottles sat in neat rows, covered with fresh towels, there lay a small gray flannel petticoat to warm the legs of one of the poor.

The sister went out, her black habit dragging, but she did not sew. She was reading a book on the miracles accomplished by pilgrimages to the shrine of Our Lady of the Angels, in the mountains. Could the old King but go there, she felt, he would be cured. Or failing that, if there should go for him some emissary, pure in heart and of high purpose, it might avail. Over this little book she prayed for courage to make the suggestion. Had she thought of it sooner, she would have spoken to Father Gregory. But the old priest had gone back to his people, to his boys' school, to his thousand duties in the hills.

Sometime later she heard bitter crying in the royal bedchamber, and the King's tones, soothing now and very sad.

"There is a higher duty than happiness," he said. "There are greater things than love. And one day you will know this."

When she went in Hedwig had gone, and the old King, lying in his bed, was looking at the portrait a his dead son.