Chapter XIII. The Prince--Principally
 

It was all well enough for me to say--as I had to to Tillie many a time--that it was ridiculous to make a fuss over a person for what, after all, was an accident of birth. It was well enough for me to say that it was only by chance that I wasn't strutting about with a crown on my head and a man blowing a trumpet to let folks know I was coming, and by the same token and the same chance Prince Oskar might have been a red-haired spring-house girl, breaking the steels in her figure stooping over to ladle mineral water out of a hole in the earth.

Nevertheless, at five o'clock, after every one had gone, when I saw Miss Patty, muffled in furs, tripping out through the snow, with a tall thin man beside her, walking very straight and taking one step to her four, I felt as though somebody had hit me at the end of my breast-bone.

They stopped a minute outside before they came in, and I had to take myself in hand.

"Now look here, Minnie, you idiot," I said to myself, "this is America; you're as good as he is; not a bend of the knee or a stoop of the neck. And if he calls you `my good girl' hit him."

They came in together, laughing and talking, and, to be honest, if I hadn't caught the back of a chair, I'd have had one foot back of the other and been making a courtesy in spite of myself.

"We're late, Minnie!" Miss Patty said. "Oskar, this is one of my best friends, and you are to be very nice to her."

He had one of those single glass things in his eye and he gave me a good stare through it. Seen close he was handsomer than Mr. Pierce, but he looked older than his picture.

"Ask her if she won't be nice to me," he said in as good English as mine, and held out his hand.

"Any of Miss Patty's friends--" I began, with a lump in my throat, and gave his hand a good squeeze. I thought he looked startled, and suddenly I had a sort of chill.

"Good gracious!" I exclaimed, "should I have kissed it?"

They roared at that, and Miss Patty had to sit down in a chair.

"You see, she knows, Oskar," she said. "The rest are thinking and perhaps guessing, but Minnie is the only one that knows, and she never talks. Everybody who comes here tells Minnie his troubles."

"But--am I a trouble?" he asked in a low tone. I was down in the spring, but I heard it.

"So far you have hardly been an unalloyed joy," she replied, and from the spring I echoed "Amen."

"Yes--I'm so hung with family skeletons that I clatter when I walk," I explained, pretending I hadn't heard, and brought them both glasses of water. "It's got to be a habit with some people to save their sciatica and their husband's dispositions and their torpid livers and their unpaid bills and bring 'em here to me."

He sniffed at the glass and put it down.

"Herr Gott!" he said, "what a water! It is--the whole thing is extraordinary! I can understand the reason for Carlsbad or Wiesbaden--it is gay. One sees one's friends; it is--social. But here--!"

He got up and, lifting a window curtain, peered out into the snow.

"Here," he repeated, "shut in by forests and hills, a thousand miles from life--" He shrugged his shoulders and came back to the table. "It is well enough for the father," he went on to Miss Patty, "but for you! Why--it is depressing, gray. The only bit of color in it all is--here, in what you call the spring- house." I thought he meant Miss Patty's cheeks or her lovely violet eyes, but he was looking at my hair. I had caught his eye on it before, but this time he made no secret about it, and he sighed, for all the world as if it reminded him of something. He went over to the slot-machine and stood in front of it, humming and trying the different combinations. I must say he had a nice back.

Miss Patty came over and slipped her hand in mine.

"Well?" she whispered, looking at me with her pretty eyebrows raised.

"He looks all right," I had to confess. "Perhaps you can coax him to shave."

She laughed.

"Oskar!" she called, "you have passed, but you are conditioned. Minnie objects to the mustache."

He turned and looked at me gravely.

"It is my--greatest attraction," he declared, "but it is also a great care. If Miss Minnie demands it, I shall give it to her in a--in a little box." He sauntered over and looked at me in his audacious way. "But you must promise to care for it. Many women have loved it."

"I believe that!" I answered, and stared back at him without blinking. "I guess I wouldn't want the responsibility."

But I had an idea that he meant what he said about the many women, and that Miss Patty knew it as well as I did. She flushed a little, and they went very soon after that. I stood and watched them until they disappeared in the snow, and I felt lonelier than ever, and sad, although certainly he was better than I had expected to find him. He was a man, and not a little cub with a body hardly big enough to carry his forefathers' weaknesses. But he had a cold eye and a warm mouth, and that sort of man is generally a social success and a matrimonial failure.

It wasn't until toward night that I remembered I'd been talking to a real prince and I hadn't once said "your Highness" or "your Excellency" or whatever I should have said. I had said "You!"

I had hardly closed the door after them when it opened again and Mr. Pierce came in. He shut the door and, going over to one of the tables, put a package down on it.

"Here's the stuff you wanted for the spring, Minnie," he announced. "I suppose I can't do anything more than register a protest against it?"

"You needn't bother doing that," I answered, "unless it makes you feel better. Your authority ends at that door. Inside the spring-house I'm in control."

(It's hard to believe, with things as they are, that I once really believed that. But I did. It was three full days later that I learned that I'd been mistaken!)

Well, he sat there and looked at nothing while I heated water in my brass kettle over the fire and dissolved the things against Thoburn's quick eye the next day, and he didn't say anything. He had a gift for keeping quiet, Mr. Pierce had. It got on my nerves after a while.

"Things are doing better," I remarked, stirring up my mixture.

"Yes," he said, without moving.

"I suppose they're happier now they have a doctor?"

"Yes--no--I don't know. He's not much of a doctor, you know--and there don't seem to be any medical books around."

"There's one on the care and feeding of infants in the circulating library," I said, "and he can have my Anatomy."

"You're generous!" he remarked, with one of his quick smiles.

"It's a book," I snapped, and fell to stirring again. But he was moping once more, with his feet out and his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling.

"I say, Minnie--"

"Yes?"

"Miss--Miss Jennings and the von Inwald were here just now, weren't they? I passed them on the bridge."

"Yes."

"What--how do you like him?"

"Better than I expected and not so well as I might," I said. "If you are going to the house soon you might take Miss Patty her handkerchief. It's there under that table."

I took my mixture into the pantry and left it to cool. But as I started back I stopped. He had got the handkerchief and was standing in front of the fire, holding it in the palm of his hand and looking at it. And all in a minute he crushed it to his face with both hands and against the firelight I could see him quivering.

I stepped back into the pantry and came out again noisily. He was standing very calm and quiet where he had been before, and no handkerchief in sight.

"Well," I said, "did you get it?"

"Get what?"

"Miss Patty's handkerchief?"

"Oh--that! Yes. Here it is." He pulled it out of his pocket and held it up by the corner.

"Ridiculous size, isn't it, and--" he held it up to his nose--"I dare say one could almost tell it was hers by the scent. It's-- it's like her."

"Humph!" I said, suddenly suspicious, and looked at it. "Well," I said, "it may remind you of Miss Patty, and the scent may be like Miss Patty, but she doesn't use perfume on her handkerchief.

This has an E. C. on it, which means Eliza Cobb."

He left soon after, rather crestfallen, but to save my life I couldn't forget what I'd seen--him with that scrap of linen that he thought was hers crushed to his face, and his shoulders heaving. I had an idea that he hadn't cared much for women before, and that, this being a first attack, he hadn't established what the old doctor used to call an immunity.