The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter XXIX. Into Still Waters and Silence
Into the princess's own chamber they carried Maurice, and laid him on the white bed. Thus would she have it. No young man had ever before entered that sacred chapel of her maiden dreams. Beside the bed was a small prie-dieu; and she knelt upon the cushion and rested her brow against the crucifix. The archbishop covered his eyes, and the state physician bent his head. Chastity and innocence at the feet of God; yet, not even these can hold back the fleeting breath of life. She asked God to forgive her the bitterness in her heart; she prayed for strength to repel the weakness in her limbs. Presently she rose, an angelic sweetness on her face. She looked down at Maurice; there was no sign of life, save in the fitful drawing in of the nether lip. She dampened a cloth and wiped the sweat of agony from the marble brow.
"O, if only he might live!" she cried. "And he will not?"
"No, your Highness," said the physician. "He has perhaps an hour. Extraordinary vitality alone is the cause of his living so long. He has lost nearly all the blood in his body. It was a frightful wound. He is dying, but he may return to consciousness before the end.
The archbishop, with somber eyes, contemplated the pale, handsome face, which lay motionless against the pillow. His thoughts flew back to his own youth, to the long years which had filled the gap between. Friends had come and gone, loved ones vanished; and still he stood, like an oak in the heart of a devastated forest, alone. Why had he been spared, and to what end? Ah, how old he was, how very old! To live beyond the allotted time, was not that a punishment for some transgression? His eyes shone through a mist of tears.
The princess, too, contemplated the face of the dying man. How many times had that face accompanied her in her dreams! How familiar she was with every line of it, the lips, that turned inward when they smiled; the certain lock of hair that fell upon the forehead! And yet, she had seen the face in reality less than half a dozen times. Why had it entered so persistently into her dreams? Why had the flush risen to her cheeks at the thought? At another time she would have refused to listen to the voice which answered; but now, as the object of her thoughts lay dying on her pillow, her mind would not play truant to her heart. Sometimes the approach of love is so imperceptible that it does not provoke analysis. We wake suddenly to find it in our hearts, so strong and splendid that we submit without question. . . . All, all her dreams had vanished, the latest and the fairest. Across the azure of her youth had come and gone a vague, beautiful flash of love. The door of earthly paradise had opened and closed. That delicate string which vibrates with the joy of living seemed parted; her heart was broken, and her young breast a tomb. With straining eyes she continued to gaze. The invisible arms of her love clasped Maurice to her heart and held him there. Only that day he had stood before her, a delight to the eye; and she had given him her hand to kiss. How bravely he had gone forth from the city! She had followed him with her ardent gaze until he was no longer to be seen. And now he lay dying. . . . for her.
"Monsieur," she said, turning to the physician, "I have something to say to Monseigneur."
The physician bowed and passed into the boudoir, the door of which he closed.
"Father," she said to the prelate, "I have no secrets from you." She pointed to Maurice. "I love him. I know not why. He comes from a foreign land; his language nor his people are mine, and yet the thought of him has filled my soul. I have talked to him but four different times; and yet I love him. Why? I can not tell. The mind has no power to rule the impulse of love. Were he to live, perhaps my love would be a sin. Is it not strange, father, that I love him? I have lost parental love; I am losing a love a woman holds priceless above all others. He is dying because of me. He loves me. I read it in his eyes just before he fell. Perhaps it is better for him and for me that he should die, for if he lived I could not live without him. Father, do I sin?"
"No, my child," and the prelate closed his eyes.
"I have been so lonely," she said, "so alone. I craved the love of the young. He was so different from any man I had met before. His bright, handsome face seemed constantly with me."
At this moment Maurice's breast rose and fell in a long sigh. Presently the lids of his eyes rolled upward. Consciousness had returned. His wandering gaze first encountered the sad, austere visage of the prelate.
"Monseigneur?" he said, faintly.
"Do you wish absolution, my son?"
"I am dying. . . . ?"
"I am dying. . . . God has my account and he will judge it. I am not a Catholic, Monseigneur." He turned his head. "Your Highness?" He roved about the room with his eyes and discerned the feminine touch in all the appointments.
"Where am I?"
"You are in my room, Monsieur," she said. Her voice broke, but she met his eyes with a brave smile. "Is there anything we can do for you?"
"Nothing. I am alone. To die. . . . Well, one time or another. And yet, it is a beautiful world, when we but learn it, full of color and life and love. I am young; I do not wish to die. And now . . . even in the midst . . . to go . . . where? Monseigneur, I am dying; to me princes and kings signify nothing. That is not to say that they ever did. In the presence of death we are all equal. Living, I might not speak; dying . . . since I have but a little while to stay . . . I may speak?"
"Yes, my son, speak. Her Highness will listen."
"It is to her Highness that I wish to speak."
Her lips quivered and she made no secret of her tears. "What is it you wish to say to me, Monsieur Carewe?" She smoothed his forehead, and the touch of her hand made him forget his pain.
"Ah, I know not how to begin," he said. "Forgive me if I offend your ears. . . . I have been foolish even to dream of it, but I could not help it. . . . When first I saw you in the garden . . the old dog was beside you. . . . Even then it came to me that my future was linked to the thought of you. I did not know you were so far beyond. . . . I was very cold, but I dared not let you know it, for fear you would lead me at once to the gate. That night wherever I looked I saw you. I strove to think of some way to serve you, but I could not. I was so obscure. I never thought that you would remember me again; but you did. . . That afternoon in the carriage . . . I wanted to tell you then. That rose you dropped . . . it is still on my heart. I loved you, and to this end. And I am glad to die, for in this short fortnight I have lived. . . . My mother used to call me Maurice . . . to hear a woman repeat it again before I go."
"Maurice." She took his hand timidly in hers, and looked at the archbishop.
"Speak to him from your heart, my child," said the prelate. "It will comfort you both."
Suddenly she drooped and the tears fell upon the hand in hers. "Maurice," she whispered, "you have not loved in vain." She could utter no more; but she raised her head and looked into his eyes, and he saw the glory of the world in hers.
"Into still waters and silence," he said softly. "No more pain, nor joy, nor love; silence. . . . You love me! . . . Alexia; how often have I repeated that name to myself. . . . I have not strength to lift your hand to my lips."
She kissed him on the lips. She felt as if she, too, were dying.
"God guard your Highness," he said. "It is dark. . . . I do not see you. . . . "
He tried to raise himself, but he could not. He sank back, settled deeply into the pillow, and smiled. After that he lay very still.