The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter X. Being of Long Rides, Maids, Kisses and Messages
Fitzgerald was first into bed that night.
"I want to finish this cigar, Jack," said Maurice, who wished to be alone with his thoughts. He sat in the chair by the window and lifted his feet to the sill. The night wind was warm and odorous. He had found a clue, but through what labyrinth would it lead him? A strange adventure, indeed; so strange that he was of half a mind that he dreamed. Prisoners. . . . Why? And these two women alone in this old chateau, a house party. There lay below all this some deep design.
Should he warn his friend? Indeed, as yet, of what had he to warn him? To discover Madame to Fitzgerald would be to close the entrance to this labyrinth which he desired to explore. How would Madame act, now that she knew he possessed her secret? Into many channels he passed, but all these were blind, and led him to no end. Madame had a purpose; to discover what this purpose was Fitzgerald must remain in ignorance. What a woman! She resembled one of those fabulous creatures of medieval days. And why was the countess on the scene, and what was her part in this invisible game?
He finished his cigar and lit another; but the second cigar solved no more than the first. Mademoiselle of the Veil! He knew now what she meant; having asked her to lift her veil, she had said, "Something terrible would happen." At last he, too, sought bed, but he did not sleep so soundly as did Fitzgerald.
Ten days of this charming captivity passed; there was a thicker carpet of leaves on the ground, and new distances began to show mistily through the dismantling forest. But there were no changes at the Red Chateau--no outward changes. It might, in truth, have been a house party but for the prowling troopers and the continual grumbling of the Englishman when alone with Maurice.
During the day they hunted or took long rides into the interior of the duchy. Both women possessed a fine skill in the saddle. In the evenings there were tourneys at chess, games and music.
Each night Fitzgerald learned a little more about chess and a little less about woman. The countess, airy and delicate as a verse of Voiture's, bent all her powers (and these were not inconsiderable) toward the subjugation of Maurice. She laughed, she sang, she fascinated. She had the ability to amuse hour after hour. She offered vague promises with her eyes, and refused them with her lips. Maurice, who was never impregnable under the fire of feminine artillery, was at times half in love with her; but his suspicions, always near the surface, saved him.
Sometimes he caught her hand and retained it over long; and once, when he kissed it, there was no rebuke. Again, when she sang, he would lean so close that she could feel his breath on her cheek, and her fingers would stumble into discords. Often she would suddenly rise from the piano and walk swiftly from the room, through the halls, into the park, where, though he followed, he never could find her. One day she and Madame returned from a walk in the forest, the one with high color and brilliant eyes, the other impassive as ice. Now, all these things did not escape Maurice, but he could not piece them together with any result.
On the morning of the tenth day the two prisoners came down to breakfast, wondering how much longer this house party was going to last.
"George! I wish I had a pipe," said Maurice.
"So do I," Fitzgerald echoed glumly. "I am tired of cigars and weary of those eternal cigarettes. How the deuce are we going to get out of this?"
"What's your hurry? We're having a good time."
"That's the trouble. Hang the duchess!"
"Hang her and welcome. But why do you complain to me and not to Madame? Are you afraid of her? Does she possess, then, what is called tamer's magnetism? O, my lion, if only you would roar a bit more at her and less at me!"
"I don't know what she possesses; but I do know that I'd give a deal to be out of this."
"Is the chambermaid idea bothering you?"
"No, Maurice, it is not the chambermaid. I feel oppressed by something which I can not define."
"Maybe you are not used to tokay forty years old?"
"Wine has nothing to do with it."
He was so serious that Maurice dropped his jesting tone. "By the way," he said, "do you sleep soundly?"
"No. Every night I am awakened by the noise of a horse entering the court-yard."
"So am I. Moreover, Madame seems to be troubled with the same sleeplessness.
"Yes. She is so troubled with sleeplessness that nothing will quiet her but the sight of the man who rides the horse: all of which is to say that a courier arrives each night with dispatches from Bleiberg. Now, to tell the truth, the courier does not keep me awake half so much as the thought of who is eating three meals a day at the end of the east corridor on the third floor. But there are Madame and the countess; we have kept them waiting,"
"Good morning," said Madame, smiling as they came up. "And how have you slept?"
"Nothing wakes me but the roll of the drum or thunder," answered Fitzgerald diffidently.
"I dream of horses," said Maurice carelessly.
"Bon jour, M. le Capitaine!" cried the countess. Then she added with a light laugh: "Come, let me try you. Portons armes! Presentons armes! --How beautifully you do it!--Par le flanc gauche! En avant--marche!"
Maurice swung, clicked his heels and, with a covert glance at Madame, led the way into the dining hall, whistling, "Behold the saber of my father!"
"Ah, I do not see the Colonel," said Maurice; for night and day the old soldier had been with them.
"He has gone to Brunnstadt," said Madame, "but will return this evening."
The breakfast was short and merry. Words passed across the table that were as crisp as the toast. Maurice remarked the advent of two liveried servants, stolid Germans by the way, who, as he afterward found, did not understand French.
"So the Colonel has gone to Brunnstadt?" said Maurice; which was a long way of asking why the Colonel had gone to Brunnstadt.
"Yes," said Madame; "he has gone to consult Madame the duchess to see what shall be done to you, Monsieur."
"To be done to me?" ignoring the challenge in her eyes.
"Yes. You must not forget that you promised me your sword, and I have taken the liberty of presenting it to her Highness."
"I remember nothing about promising my sword," said Maurice, gazing ceiling-ward.
"What! There was a mental reservation?"
"No, Madame. I remember my words only too well. I said that I loved adventure, thoughtless youth that I was, and that I was easy to be found. Which is all true, and part proved, since I am here."
"Still, the uniform fits you exceedingly well. The hussars hold a high place at court."
"Madame," replied he pleasantly, "I appreciate the honor, but at present my sword and fealty are sworn to my own country. And besides, I have no desire to take part in the petty squabble between this country and the kingdom."
The forecast of a storm lay in Madame's gray eyes.
"Eh? You wish to placate me, Madame?" thought Maurice.
"He is right, Madame," interposed the countess. "But away with politics! It spoils all it touches."
"And away with the duchess, too," put in Fitzgerald, reaching for a bunch of yellow grapes. "With all due respect to your cause and beliefs, Madame the duchess, your mistress, is a bugbear to me. The very sound of the title arouses in my heart all that is antagonistic."
"You have not seen her Highness, Monsieur," said Madame, quietly. "Perhaps she is all that is desirable. She is known to be rich, her will is paramount to all others. When she sets her heart on a thing she leaves no stone unturned until she procures it. And, countess, do they not say of her that she possesses something-- an attribute--more dangerous than beauty--fascination?"
"Madame the duchess," said Maurice dryly, "has a stanch advocate in you, Madame."
"It is not unnatural."
"Be that as it may," said Fitzgerald, "she is mine enemy."
"Love your enemies, says the Book," was the interposition of the countess, who stole a sly glance at Maurice which he did not see.
"That would not be difficult--in some cases," replied the Englishman.
"Ah, come," thought Maurice, "my friend is beginning to pick up his lines." Aloud he said: "Madame, will you confer a favor on me by permitting me to inform my superior in Vienna of my whereabouts?"
"No, Monsieur; prisoners are not allowed to communicate with the outside world. Are you not enjoying yourself? Is not everything being done for your material comfort? What complaint have you to offer?"
"A gilded cage is no less a cage."
"It is but temporary. The duchess has commanded that you be held until it is her pleasure to come to the chateau. O, Monsieur, where is your gallantry? Here the countess and I have done so much to amuse you, and you speak of a gilded cage!"
"Pretty bird! pretty bird!" said Maurice, in a piping voice, "will it have some caraway?"
Madame laughed. "Well, I hear the grooms leading the horses under the porte coch,re. Go, then, for the morning ride. I am sorry that I can not accompany you. I have some letters to write."
Fitzgerald curled his mustache. "I'll forswear the ride myself. I was reading a good book last night; I'll finish it, and keep Madame company."
Madame trifled with the toast crumbs. Fitzgerald's profound dissimulation caused a smile to cross Maurice's lips.
"Come, countess," said Maurice, gaily; "we'll take the ride together, since Madame has to write and my lord to read."
"Five minutes until I dress," replied the countess, and she sped away.
"What a beautiful girl!" said Madame, fondly. "Poor dear! Her life has not been a bed of roses."
"No?" said Maurice, while Fitzgerald raised his eyebrows inquiringly.
"No. She was formerly a maid of honor to her Highness. She made an unhappy marriage."
"And where is the count?" asked Fitzgerald in surprise. He shot a glance of dismay at Maurice, who, translating it, smiled.
"He is dead."
Fitzgerald looked relieved.
"What a fine thing it is," said Maurice, rising, "to be a man and wed where and how you will!" He withdrew to the main hall to don his cap and spurs. As he stooped to strap the latter, he saw a sheet of paper, crinkled by recent dampness, lying on the floor. He picked it up--and read it.
"Why--not--the--pantry maid?" Maurice drawled. "That is flippant." He read the message again. "What plan?" Suddenly he struck his thigh. "By George, so that is it, eh, Madame? So that is why we are so comfortably lodged here? I am in the way, and you bait the hook with a countess! Since the purse will not lead the way, the heart, eh? Certainly I shall tell my lord the Englishman all about his hostess when I return from the ride. Decidedly you are clever. O, how careless! Not even in cipher, so that he who reads may run. And who is B.?--Beauvais! Something told me that this man had a hand in the affair. I remember the look he gave me. A traitor, too.
"Hang my memory, which seems always to forget what I wish to remember and remember what I wish to forget! Where have I met this man Beauvais before? Ah, the countess!" He thrust the message into his breast. "Evidently Madame thinks I am worth consideration; uncommonly pretty bait. Shall I let the play run on, or shall I tell her? Ah! you have two minutes to spare," he said, as she approached. "But you do not need them," throwing a deal of admiration into his glance.
"It does not take me long to dress--on occasions."
"A compliment to me?" he said.
"If you will accept it."
It was an exhilarating morning, full of forest perfumes. Through the haze the mountains glittered like huge emeralds and amethysts.
"What a day!" said the countess, as they galloped away.
"Aye, for plots and war and love!"
"For plots and war?" demurely. Her cheeks were rosy and her hair as yellow as the silk of corn.
"Well, then, for love." He shortened his rein. "A propos, have you ever been in love, countess?"
"I? What a question!"
"N--no! Let us talk of plots and war," gazing across the valley.
"No; let us talk of love. I am in love, and one afflicted that way wishes a confidant. I appoint you mine."
"Some rosy-cheeked peasant girl?" laughing.
"Perhaps. Perhaps it's only a--a pantry maid," with a sly look from the corner of his eyes. Evidently she had not heard. She was still laughing. "I have heard of hermits falling in love with stars, and have laughed. Now I am in the same predicament. I love a star--"
"Operatic? To be sure! Mademoiselle Lenormand of the Royal Vienna is in Bleiberg. How she keeps her age!"
It was Maurice's turn to laugh.
"And that is why you came to Bleiberg! Ah, these opera singers, had I my way, they should all be aged and homely."
"Countess, you are pulling the bit too hard," said he. "I noticed yesterday that your horse has a very tender mouth."
"Thank you." She slacked the rein. "He was going too close to the ditch. You were saying--"
"No, it was you who were saying that all actresses should be aged and homely. But it is not Mademoiselle Lenormand, it is not the peasant, nor the pantry maid."
This time she looked up quickly.
"The woman I love is too far away, so I am going to give up thinking of her. Countess, I made a peculiar discovery this morning."
"A discovery, Monsieur? What is it?"
"Do you see that fork in the road, a mile away? When we reach it and turn I'll tell you what it is. If I told you now it might spoil the ride. What a day, truly! How clear everything is! And the air is like wine." He drew in deep breaths.
"Let us hurry and reach the fork in the road; my curiosity is stifling me."
Maurice did not laugh as she expected he would. As she observed the thoughtful frown between his brows, a shiver of dread ran through her. It did not take long to cover the intervening mile. They turned, and the horses fell into a quick step.
"Now, Monsieur; please!"
After all . . . But he quelled the gentle tremor in his heart. A month ago, had he known her, he might now have told her altogether a different story. He could see that she had not an inkling of what was to come (for he had determined to tell her); and he vaguely wondered if he should bring humiliation to the dainty creature. It would be like nicking a porcelain cup. Her brows were arched inquisitively and her lips puckered. . . .He had had a narrow escape.
He drew the message from his breast, leaned across and handed it to her.
"Why, what is this, Monsieur?"
"Read it and see" And he busied himself with the tangled mane of his horse. When they had ridden several yards, he heard her voice.
"Here, Monsieur" The hand was extended, but the face was averted.
"Countess, you are too charming a woman to lend yourself to such schemes."
There was no reply.
"Did you not volunteer to make me fall in love with you to keep me from interfering with Madame's plans?" It was brutal, but he was compelled to say it.
"Did you not?" he persisted. "When one writes such messages as these, one should use an intricate cipher. Had I been other than a prisoner, what I have done would not be the act of a gentleman. But I am a prisoner; I must defend myself. To rob a man through his love! And such a man! He is a very infant in the hands of a woman. He has been a soldier all his life. All women to him are little less than angels; he knows nothing of their treachery, their deceit, their false smiles. It will be an easy victory, or rather it would have been, for I shall do my best to prevent it. Madame is not unknown to me; I have been waiting to see what meant this peculiar house party.
"Perhaps I am now too late. Madame distrusts me. I dare say she has her reasons. She went to you. You were to occupy me. I was young, I liked the society of women, I was gay and careless. She has decked me out as one would deck a monkey (and doubtless she calls me one behind my back), and has offered me a sword to play with.
"In America, when a man puts a sword in his hand, it is to kill somebody. Here--aye, all over the continent, for that matter-- swords are baubles for young nobles, used to slash each other in love affairs. I respect and admire you; had I not done so, I should not have spoken. Countess, be frank with me, as frank as I have been with you; have I not guessed rightly?"
"Yes, Monsieur," her head bowed and her cheeks white. "Yes, yes! it was a miserable game. But I love Madame; I would sacrifice my pride and my heart for her, if need be."
"I can believe that."
"And believe me when I say that the moment I saw you, I knew that my conduct was going to be detestable. But I had given my promise. A woman has but little to offer to her country; I have offered my pride, and I am a proud woman, Monsieur. I am ashamed. I am glad that you spoke, for it was becoming unbearable to throw myself at a man whose heart I knew intuitively to be elsewhere." She raised her eyes, which were filled with a strange luster. "Will you forgive me, Monsieur?"
"With all my heart. For now I know that we shall be friends. You will be relieved of an odious part; for you are too handsome not to have in keeping some other heart besides your own."
He then began gaily to describe some of his humorous adventures, and continued in this vein till they arrived once more at the chateau. Sometimes the countess laughed, but he could see that her sprightliness was gone. When they came under the porte cochere he sprang from his horse and assisted her to dismount; and he did not relinquish her hand till he had given it a friendly pressure. She stood motionless on the steps, centered a look on him which he failed to interpret, then ran swiftly into the hall, thence to her room, the door of which she bolted.
"It would not be difficult," he mused, communing with the thought which had come to him. "It would be something real, and not a chimera."
He turned over the horses to the grooms, and went in search of Fitzgerald to inform him of his discovery; but the Englishman was nowhere to be found. Neither was Madame. Being thirsty, he proceeded to the dining hall. Fadette, the maid, was laying the silver.
"Ah, the `pantry maid,'" he thought. "Good day, Fadette."
"Does Monsieur wish for something?"
"A glass of water. Thanks!"
She retreated and kept her eyes lowered.
"Fadette, you are charming. Has any one ever told you that?"
"O, Monsieur!" blushing.
"Have they?" lessening the distance between them.
"Sometimes," faintly. She could not withstand his glance, so she retired a few more steps, only to find herself up with the wall.
With a laugh he sprang forward and caught her face between his hands and imprinted a kiss on her left cheek. Suddenly she wrenched herself loose, uttered a frightened cry and fled down the pantryway.
"What's the matter with the girl?" he muttered aloud. "I wanted to ask her some questions."
"Ask them of me, Monsieur," said a voice from the doorway.
Maurice wheeled. It was Madame, but her face expressed nothing. He saw that he had been caught. The humor of the situation got the better of him, and he laughed. Madame ignored this unseemly hilarity.
"Monsieur, is this the way you return my kindness?"
"Permit me to apologize. As to your kindness, I have just discovered that it is of a most dangerous quality."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that I could not kiss Madame the countess with the same sense of security as I could the-- pantry maid," bowing.
Just now Madame's face expressed a good deal. "Of what are you talking?" advancing a step.
"I had in mind what our friend, Colonel Beauvais, remarked in his recent dispatch: I know no discrimination. The fact is, I do. I found the dispatch on the floor this morning. Allow me to return it to you. I have kept silent, Madame, because I did not know how to act."
"You have dared--?" her lips pressed and her eyes thunderous.
"To read it? Aye. I am a prisoner; it was in self-defense. Madame, you do me great honor. A countess! What consideration to the indiscriminate! Au revoir, then, till luncheon;" and he left the room, whistling--
Voici le sabre de mon pere!