The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter XII. Whom the Gods Destroy and a Few Others
Some time passed before Fitzgerald became aware of Maurice's departure. When he saw that he and Madame were alone, he said nothing, but pulled all the quicker at his clay. He wondered at the desire which suddenly manifested itself. Fly? Why should he fly? The beat of his pulse answered him. . . . What a fine thing it was to feel the presence of a woman--a woman like this! What a fine thing always to experience the content derived from her nearness!
He looked into his heart; there was no animosity; there was nothing at all but a sense of gratefulness. In the dreary picture of his life there was now an illumined corner. He had ceased to blame her; she was doing for her country what he, did necessity so will, would do for his. And after all, he could not war against a woman--a woman like this. His innate chivalry was too deep-rooted.
How soft her voice was! The color of her hair and eyes followed him night and day. Once he had been on the verge of sounding Maurice in regard to Madame, Maurice was so learned in femininities; but this would have been an acknowledgment of his ignorance, and pride closed his mouth. It was all impossible, but then, why should he return to his loneliness without attempting to find some one to share it with him? The king was safe; his duty was as good as done; his conscience was at ease in that direction. He needed not love, he thought, so much as sympathy. . . . Sympathy. He turned over the word in his mind as a gem merchant turns over in his hand a precious jewel. Sympathy; it was the key to all he desired --woman's sympathy. There was nothing but ash in the bowl of his pipe, but he continued to puff.
Madame was seated at the piano again, idly thrumming soft minor chords. She was waiting for him to speak; she wanted to test his voice, to know and measure its emotion. At times she turned her head and shot a sly glance at him as he sat there musing. There was a wrinkle of contempt and amusement lurking at the corners of her eyes. Had Maurice been there he would have seen it. Fitzgerald might have gazed into those eyes until doomsday, and never have seen else than their gray fathoms. Minute after minute passed, still he did not speak; and Madame was forced to break the monotony. She was not sure that the countess could hold Maurice very long.
"Of what are you thinking, Monsieur?" she asked, in a soft key.
He started, looked up and laid the pipe on the sill. "Frankly, I was thinking that nothing can be gained by keeping us prisoners here." He told the lie rather diffidently.
"Not even forgiveness?" The lids of the gray eyes drooped and the music ceased.
"Forgiveness? O, there is nothing to forgive you; it is only your mistress I can not forgive. On the contrary, there is much to thank you for."
"Still, whatever I do or have done is merely in accordance with her Highness's wishes."
He moved uneasily. "It is her will, not yours."
"Yes; the heart of Madame Amerbach is supine to the brain of Madame the duchess." She rose and moved silently to the window and peered out. He thought her to be star-gazing; but she was not. She was endeavoring to see where Maurice and the countess were.
"Madame, shall I tell you a secret?"
"A secret? Tell me," sitting in the chair next to his.
"This has been the pleasantest week I have known in thirteen years."
"Then you forgive me!" Madame was not only mistress of music but of tones.
And then, out of the fullness of his lonely heart, he told her all about his life, its emptiness, its deserts, its longings. Each sentence was a knife placed in her hands; and as she contemplated his honest face which could conceal nothing, his earnest eyes which could hide nothing, Madame was conscious of a vague distrust of herself. If only he had offered to fight, she thought. But he had not; instead, he was giving to her all his weapons of defense.
"Ah, Monsieur, you do wrong to forgive me!" impulsively.
"Why should you be friendly to me when I represent all that is antagonistic to you?"
"To me you represent only a beautiful woman."
"Ah; you have been taking lessons of your friend."
"He is a good teacher. He is one of those men whom I admire. Women have never mastered him. He knows so much about them."
"Yes?" a flicker in her eyes.
"Beneath all his banter there is a brave heart. He is a rare man who, having brain and heart to guide, follows the heart." He picked up the pipe and began to play a tattoo on the sill. "As for me, I know nothing of women, save what I have read in books, and save that I have been too long without them."
"And you have gone all these years without knowing what it is to love?" To a man less guileless, this question would not have been in good taste.
Fitzgerald was silent; he dared not venture another lie.
"What! you are silent? Is there, after all, a woman somewhere in your life?"
"Yes." He continued to tap the pipe. His gaze wandered to the candles, strayed back to the window, then met hers steadfastly, so steadfastly, that she could not resist. She was annoyed.
"Tell me about her."
"My vocabulary is too limited. You would laugh at me."
"I? No; love is sacred." She had boasted to Maurice that she was without conscience; she had only smothered it. "Come; is she beautiful?"
"Yes." These questions disturbed him.
"Certainly she must be worthy or you would not love her. She is rich?"
"That does not matter; I am." He was wishing that Maurice would hurry back; the desire to fly was returning.
"And she rejected you and sent you to the army?"
"She has not rejected me, though I dare say she would, had I the presumption to ask her."
"A faint heart, they say--"
"My heart is not faint; it is my tongue." He rose and wandered about the room. Her breath was like orris, and went to his head like wine.
"Monsieur," she said, "is it possible that you have succumbed to the charms of Madame the countess?"
He laughed. "One may admire exquisite bric-a-brac without loving it."
"Bric-a-brac! Poor Elsa!" and Madame laughed. "If it were the countess I could aid you."
"Love is not merchandise, to traffic with."
Madame's cheeks grew warm. Sometimes the trick of fence is beaten down by a tyro's stroke.
"Eh, bien, since it is not the countess--"
He came toward her so swiftly that instinctively she rose and moved to the opposite side of her chair. Something in his face caused her to shiver. She had no time to analyze its meaning, but she knew that the shiver was not unmixed with fear.
"Madame, in God's name, do not play with me!" he cried.
"Monsieur, you forget yourself," for the moment forgetting her part.
"Yes, there is no self in my thoughts since they are all of you! You know that I love you. Who could resist you? Thirteen years? They are well wasted, in the end to love a woman like you."
Before she could withdraw her hands from the top of the chair he had seized them.
"Monsieur, release me." She struggled futilely.
"I love you." He began to draw her from behind the chair.
"Monsieur, Monsieur!" she, cried, genuinely alarmed; "do not forget that you are a gentleman."
"I am not a gentleman now; I am a man who loves."
Madame was now aware that what she had aroused could not be subdued by angry words.
"Monsieur, you say that you love me; do not degrade me by forcing me into your arms. I am a woman, and weak, and you are hurting me."
He let go her hands, and they stood there, breathing deeply and quickly. But for her it was a respite. She had been too precipitate. She brought together the subtle forces of her mind. She could gain nothing by force; she must use cunning. To hold him at arm's length, and yet to hold him, was her desire. She had reckoned on wax; a man stood before her. All at once the flutter of admiration stirred in her heart. She was a soldier's daughter, the daughter of a man who loved strong men. And this man was doubly strong because he was fearless and honest. She read in his eyes that a moment more and he had kissed her, a thing no man save her father had ever done.
"O, Monsieur," she said lightly, "you soldiers are such forward lovers! You have not even asked me if I love you." He made a move to regain her hands. "No, no!" darting behind the chair. "You must not take my hands; you do not realize how strong you are. I am not sure that my heart responds to yours."
"Tell me, what must I do?" leaning across the chair.
"You must have patience. A woman must be wooed her own way, or not at all. What a whirlwind you are!"
"I would to heaven," with a gesture indicative of despair, "that you had kept me behind bars and closed doors." He dropped his hands from the chair and sought the window, leaning his arms against the central frame.
Madame had fully recovered her composure. She saw her way to the end.
"It is true," she said, "that I do not love you, but it is also true that I am not indifferent to you. What proof have I that you really love me? None, save your declaration; and that is not sufficient for a woman such as I am. Shall I place my life in your hands for better or for worse, simply because you say you love me?"
"My love does not reason, Madame."
She passed over this stroke. "I do not know you; it is not less than natural for me to doubt you. What proof have I that your declaration of love is not a scheme to while away your captivity at my expense? My heart is not one to be taken by storm. There is only one road to my affections; it is narrow. Other men have made love to me, but they have hesitated to enter upon this self- same road."
"Love that demands conditions? I have asked none."
Madame blushed. "A man offers love; a woman confers it."
"And what is this narrow road called which leads to your affections? Is your heart a citadel?"
"It is called sacrifice. Those who dwell in my heart, which you call a citadel, enter by that road."
"Sacrifice?" Fervor lighted his face again. "Do you wish my fortune? It is yours. My life? It is yours. Do you wish me to lead the army of the duchess into Bleiberg? It shall be done. Sacrifice? I have sacrificed the best years of youth for nothing; my life has been made up of sacrifices."
"Monsieur, if I promised to listen to you here-after, if I promised a heart that has never known the love of man, if I promised lips that have never known the lips of any man save my father--" She moved away from the chair, within an arm's length of him. "If I promised all these without reservation, would you aid me to give back to the duchess her own?"
Instantly her arms were pinioned to her sides, and he had drawn her so close that she could feel his heart beat against her own.
"Have no fear," he said. The voice was unfamiliar to her ears. "I shall not kiss you. Let me look into your eyes, Madame, your eyes, and read the lie which is written there. My fortune and my life are not enough. Keep your love, Madame; I have no wish to purchase it. What! if I surrender my honor it is agreed that you surrender yours? A love such as mine requires a wife. You would have me break my word to the dead and to the living, and you expect me to believe in your promises! Faugh!" He pushed her from him, and resumed his stand by the window.
The hate of a thousand ancestors surged into her heart, and she would have liked to kill him. Mistress! He had dared. He had dared to speak to her as no other man living or dead had dared. And he lived. All that was tigerish in her soul rose to the surface; only the thought of the glittering goal stayed the outburst. She had yet one weapon. A minute went by, still another; silence. A hand was laid tremblingly on his arm.
"Forgive me! I was wrong. Love me, love me, if you must. Keep your honor; love me without conditions. I--" She stumbled into the chair, covered her eyes and fell to weeping.
Fitzgerald, dumfounded and dismayed, looked. down at the beautiful head. He could fight angry words, tempests of wrath-- but tears, a woman's tears, the tears of the woman he loved!
"Madame," he said gently, "do you love me?"
"Madame, for God's sake, do not weep! Do you love me? If you love me--if you love me--"
She sprang to her feet. Once again she experienced that shiver; again her conscience stirred.
"I do not know," she said. "But this I may say: your honor, which you hold above the price of a woman's love, will be the cause of bloodshed. Mothers and wives and sisters will execrate your name, brave men will be sacrificed needlessly. What are the Osians to you? They are strangers. You will do for them, and uselessly, what you refuse to do for the woman you profess to love. I abhor bloodshed. Your honor is the offspring of pride and egotism. Can you not see the inevitable? War will be declared. You can not help Leopold; but you can save him the degradation of being expelled from his throne by force of arms. The army of the duchess is true to its humblest sword. Can you say that for the army of the king? Would you witness the devastation of a beautiful city, by flame and sword?
"Monsieur, Austria is with us, and she will abide with us whichever way we move. Austria, Monsieur, which is Leopold's sponsor. And this Leopold, is he a man to sit upon a throne? Is he a king in any sense of the word? Would a king submit to such ignominy as he submits to without striking a blow? Would he permit his ministers to override him? Would he permit his army to murmur, his agents to plunder, his people to laugh at him, if he possessed one kingly attribute? No, no! If you were king, would you allow these things? No! You would silence all murmurs, you would disgorge your agents, you would throttle those who dared to laugh.
"Put yourself in the duchess's place. All these beautiful lands are hers by right of succession; is she wrong to desire them? What does she wish to accomplish? She wishes to join the kingdom and the duchy, and to make a great kingdom, as it formerly was. Do you know why Leopold was seated upon the throne?
"Some day the confederation will decide to divide all these lands into tidbits, and there will be no one to oppose them. Madame the duchess wishes to be strong enough to prevent it. And you, Monsieur, are the grain of sand which stops all this, you and your pride. Not even a woman's love-- There, I have said it!- -not even a woman's love-- will move your sense of justice. Go! leave me. Since my love is nothing, since the sacrifice I make is useless, go; you are free!" The tears which came into her eyes this time were genuine; tears of chagrin, vexation, and of a third sensation which still remained a mystery to her.
To him, as she spoke, with her wonderful eyes flashing, a rich color suffusing her cheeks and throat and temples, the dim candle light breaking against the ruddy hair; honor or pride, whichever it was, was well worth the losing. He was a man; it is only the pope who is said to be infallible. His honor could not save the king. All she had said was true. If he held to his word there would be war and bloodshed.
On the other hand, if he surrendered, less harm would befall the king, and the loss of his honor --was it honor?--would be well recompensed for the remainder of his days by the love of this woman. His long years of loneliness came back; he wavered. He glanced first at her, then at the door; one represented all that was desirable in the world, the other more loneliness, coupled with unutterable regret. Still he wavered, and finally he fell.
"Madame, will you be my wife?"
"Yes." And it seemed to her that the word, came to her lips by no volition of hers. As she had grown red but a moment gone, she now grew correspondingly pale, and her limbs shook. She had irrevocably committed herself. "No, no!" as she saw him start forward with outstretched arms,. "not my lips till I am your wife! Not my lips; only my hands!"
He covered them with kisses.
"Hush!" as she stepped back.
It was time. Maurice and the countess entered the room. Maurice glanced from Madame to Fitzgerald and back to Madame; he frowned. The Englishman, who had never before had cause to dissemble, caught up his pipe and fumbled it. This act merely discovered his embarrassment to the keen eyes of his friend. He had forgotten all about Maurice. What would he say? Maurice was something like a conscience to him, and his heart grew troubled.
"Madame," Maurice whispered to the countess, "I have lost all faith in you; you have kept me too long under the stars."
"Confidences?" said Madame, with a swift inquiring glance at the countess.
"O, no," said Maurice. "I simply complained that Madame the countess had kept me too long under the stars. But here is Colonel Mollendorf, freshly returned from Brunnstadt to inform you that the army is fully prepared for any emergency. Is not that true, Colonel?" as he beheld that individual standing in the doorway.
"Yes; but how the deuce--your pardon, ladies! --did you find that out?" demanded the Colonel.
"I guessed it," was the answer. "But there will be no need of an army now. Come, John, the Colonel, who is no relative of the king's minister of police, has not the trick of concealing his impatience. He has something important to say to Madame, and we are in the way. Come along, Aeneas, follow your faithful Achates; Thalia has a rehearsal."
Fitzgerald thrust his pipe into a pocket. "Good night, Madame," he said diffidently; "and you, countess."
"Good night, Colonel," sang out Maurice over his shoulder, and together the pair climbed the stairs.
Fitzgerald was at a loss how to begin, for something told him that Maurice would demand an explanation, though the affair was none of his concern. He filled his pipe, fired it and tramped about the room. Sometimes he picked up the end of a window curtain and felt of it; sometimes he posed before one of the landscape oils.
"You have something on your mind," said Maurice, pulling off his hussar jacket and kicking it across the room.
"Madame has promised to be my wife."
"And the conditions?" curtly.
Fitzgerald pondered over the other's lack of surprise. "What would you do if you loved a woman and she promised to be your wife?"
"I'd marry her," sitting down at the table.
"What would you do in my place, and Madame had promised to marry you?" puffing quickly.
"I'd marry her," answered Maurice, banging his fist on the table, "even if all the kings and queens of Europe rose up against me. I would marry her, if I had to bind her hands and feet and carry her to the altar and force the priest at the point of a pistol, which, in all probability, is what you will have to do."
"I love her," sullenly.
"Do you know who she is?"
"Would it make any difference?"
"No. Who is she?"
"She is a woman without conscience; she is a woman who, to gain her miserable ends, will stop neither at falsehood, deceit nor bloodshed. Do you want me to tell you more? She is--"
"Maurice, tell me nothing which will cause me to regret your friendship. I love her; she has promised to be my wife."
"She will ruin you."
"She has already done that," laconically.
"Do you mean to tell me--"
"Yes! For the promise of her love I am dishonored. For the privilege of kissing her lips I have sold my honor. To call her mine, I would go through hell. God! do you know what it is to be lonely, to starve in God-forsaken lands, to dream of women, to long for them?"
"And the poor paralytic king?"
"What is he to me?"
"And your father?"
"What are my dead father's wishes? Maurice, I am mad!"
"You are a very sick man," Maurice replied crossly. "What's to become of all these vows--"
"You are wasting your breath! Do you remember what Rochefoucauld said of Madame de Longueville?--`To win her heart, to delight her beautiful eyes, I have taken up arms against the king; I would have done the same against the gods!' Is she not worth it all?" with a gesture of his arms which sent the live coals of his pipe comet-like across the intervening space. "Is she not worth it all?"
"Who?--Madame de Longueville? I thought she was dead these two hundred years!"
"Damn it, Maurice!"
"I will, if you say so. The situation is equal to a good deal of plain, honest damning." Maurice banged his fist again. "John, sit down and listen to me. I'll not sit still and see you made a fool. Promises? This woman will keep none. When she has wrung you dry she will fling you aside. At this moment she is probably laughing behind your back. You were brought here for this purpose. Threats and bribes were without effect. Love might accomplish what the other two had failed to do. You know little of the ways of the world. Do you know that this house party is scandalous, for all its innocence? Do you know that Madame's name would be a byword were it known that we have been here more than two weeks, alone with two women? Who but a woman that feels herself above convention would dare offer this affront to society? Do you know why Madame the countess came? Company for Madame? No; she was to play make love to me to keep me out of the way. Ass that I was, I never suspected till too late! Madame's name is not Sylvia Amerbach; it is--"
The door opened unceremoniously and in walked the Colonel.
"Your voices are rather high, gentlemen," he said calmly, and sat down in an easy chair.