The Puppet Crown by Harold MacGrath
Chapter VI. Mademoiselle of the Veil
The public park at night was a revelation to Maurice, who, lonely and restless, strolled over from the hotel in quest of innocent amusement. He was none the worse for his unintended bath; indeed, if anything, he was much the better for it. His imagination was excited. It was not every day that a man could, at one and the same time, fall out of a boat and into the presence of a princess of royal blood.
He tried to remember all he had said to her, but only two utterances recurred to him; yet these caused him an exhilaration like the bouquet of old wine. He had told her that she was beautiful, indirectly, it was true; she had accepted his friendship, also indirectly, it was true. Now the logical sequence of all this was--but he broke into a light laugh. What little vanity he possessed was without conceit. Princesses of royal blood were beyond the reach of logical sequence; and besides, she was to be married on the twentieth of the month.
He followed one of the paths which led to the pavilion. It was a charming scene, radiant with gas lamps, the vivid kaleidoscope of gowns and uniforms. Beautiful faces flashed past him. There were in the air the vague essences of violet, rose and heliotrope. Sometimes he caught the echo of low laughter or the snatch of a gay song. The light of the lamps shot out on the crinkled surface of the lake in tongues of quivering flame, which danced a brave gavot with the phantom stars; and afar twinkled the dipping oars. The brilliant pavilion, which rested partly over land and partly over water, was thronged.
The band was playing airs from the operas of the day, and Maurice yielded to the spell of the romantic music. He leaned over the pavilion rail, and out of the blackness below he endeavored to conjure up the face of Nell (or was it Kate?) who had danced with him at the embassies in Vienna, fenced and ridden with him, till--till-- with a gesture of impatience he flung away the end of his cigar.
Memory was altogether too elusive. It was neither Nell nor Kate he saw smiling up at him, nor anybody else in the world but the Princess Alexia, whose eyes were like wine in a sunset, whose lips were as red as the rose of Tours in France, and whose voice was sweeter than that throbbing up from the 'cello. If he thought much more of her, there would be a logical sequence on his side. He laughed again--with an effort--and settled back in his chair to renew his interest in the panorama revolving around him.
"They certainly know how to live in these countries," he thought, "for all their comic operas. All I need, to have this fairy scene made complete, is a woman to talk to. By George, what's to hinder me from finding one?" he added, seized by the spirit of mischief. He turned his head this way and that. "Ah! doubtless there is the one I'm looking for."
Seated alone at a table behind him was a woman dressed in gray. Her back was toward him, but he lost none of the beautiful contours of her figure. She wore a gray alpine hat, below the rim of which rebellious little curls escaped, curls of a fine red-brown, which, as they trailed to the nape of the firm white neck, lightened into a ruddy gold. Her delicate head was turned aside, and to all appearances her gaze was directed to the entrance to the pavilion. A heavy blue veil completely obscured her features; though Maurice could see a rose-tinted ear and the shadow of a curving chin and throat, which promised much. To a man there is always a mystery lurking behind a veil. So he rose, walked past her, returned and deliberately sat down in the chair opposite to hers. The fact that gendarmes moved among the crowd did not disturb him.
"Good evening, Mademoiselle," he said, politely lifting his hat.
She straightened haughtily. "Monsieur," she said, resentment, consternation and indignation struggling to predominate in her tones, "I did not give you permission to sit down. You are impertinent!"
"O, no," Maurice declared. "I am not impertinent. I am lonesome. In all Bleiberg I haven't a soul to talk to, excepting the hotel waiters, and they are uninteresting. Grant me the privilege of conversing with you for a moment. We shall never meet again; and I should not know you if we did. Whether you are old or young, plain or beautiful, it matters not. My only wish is to talk to a woman, to hear a woman's voice"
"Shall I call a gendarme, Monsieur, and have him search for your nurse?" The attitude which accompanied these words was anything but assuring.
He, however, evinced no alarm. He even laughed. "That was good! We shall get along finely, I am sure."
"Monsieur," she said, rising, "I repeat that I do not desire your company, nor to remain in the presence of your unspeakable effrontery."
"I beseech you!" implored Maurice, also rising. "I am a foreigner, lonesome, unhappy, thousands of miles from home--"
"You are English?" suddenly. She stood with the knuckle of her forefinger on her lips as if meditating. She sat down.
Maurice, greatly surprised, also sat down.
"English?" he repeated. His thought was: "What the deuce! This is the third time I have been asked that. Who is this gay Lothario the women seem to be expecting?" To her he continued: "And why do you ask me that?"
"Perhaps it is your accent. And what do you wish to say to me, Monsieur?" It was a voice of quality; all the anger had gone from it. She leaned on her elbows, her chin in her palms, and through the veil he caught the sparkle of a pair of wonderful eyes. "Let us converse in English," she added. "It is so long since I have had occasion to speak in that tongue." She repeated her question.
"O, I had no definite plan outlined," he answered; "just generalities, with the salt of repartee to season." He pondered over this sudden transition from wrath to mildness. An Englishman? Very well; it might grow interesting.
"Is it customary among the English to request to speak to strangers without the usual formalities of an introduction?"
"I can not say that it is," he answered truthfully enough; "but the procedure is never without a certain charm and excitement."
"Ah; then you were led to address me merely by the love of adventure?"
"That is it; the love of adventure. I should not have spoken to you had you not worn the veil." He remarked that her English was excellent.
"You differ from the average Englishman, who is usually wrapt up in himself and has no desire to talk to strangers. You have been a soldier."
The evolutions of his cane ceased. "How in the world did you guess that?" surprised beyond measure.
"Perhaps there is something suggestive in your shoulders."
He tried to peer behind the veil, but in vain. "Am I speaking to one I have met before?"
"I believe not; indeed, sir, I am positive."
"I have been a soldier, but my shoulders did not tell you that."
"Perhaps I have the gift of clairvoyance," gazing again toward the entrance.
"Or perhaps you have been to Vienna."
"Who knows? Most Englishmen are, or have been, soldiers."
"That is true." Inwardly, "There's my friend the Englishman again. She's guessing closer than she knows. Curious; she has mistaken me for some one she does not know, if that is possible." He was somewhat in a haze. "Well, you have remarkable eyes. However, let us talk of a more interesting subject; for instance, yourself. You, too, love adventure, that is, if I interpret the veil rightly."
"Yes; I like to see without being seen. But, of course, behind this love of adventure which you possess, there is an important mission."
"Ah!" he thought; "you are not quite sure of me." Aloud, "Yes, I came here to witness the comic opera."
"The comic opera? I do not understand?"
"I believed there was going to be trouble between the duchy and the kingdom, but unfortunately the prima donna has refused the part."
"The prima donna!" in a muffled voice. "Whom do you mean?"
"Son Altesse la Grande Duchesse! 'Voici le sabre de mon pere!'" And he whistled a bar from Offenbach, his eyes dancing.
"Sir!--I!--you do wrong to laugh at us!" a flash from the half- hidden eyes.
"Forgive me if I have offended you, but I--"
"Ah, sir, but you who live in a powerful country think we little folk have no hearts, that we have no wrongs to redress, no dreams of conquest and of power. You are wrong."
"And whose side do you defend?"
"I am a woman," was the equivocal answer.
"Which means that you are uncertain."
"I have long ago made up my mind."
"Wonderful! I always thought a woman's mind was like a time- table, subject to change without notice. So you have made up your mind?"
"I was born with its purpose defined," coldly.
"Ah, now I begin to doubt."
"What?" with a still lower degree of warmth.
"That you are a woman. Only goddesses do not change their minds-- sometimes. Well, then you are on the weaker side."
"Or the stronger, since there are two sides."
"And the stronger?" persistently.
"The side which is not the weaker. But the subject is what you English call 'taboo.' It is treading on delicate ground to talk politics in the open--especially in Bleiberg."
"What a diplomat you would make!" he cried with enthusiasm. Certainly this was a red-letter day in his calendar. This adventure almost equalled the other, and, besides, in this instance, his skin was dry; he could enjoy it more thoroughly. Who could this unknown be? "If only you understood the mystery with which you have enshrouded yourself!"
"I do." She drew the veil more firmly about her chin.
"Grant me a favor."
"I am talking to you, sir."
This candor did not disturb him. "The favor I ask is that you will lift the corner of your veil; otherwise you will haunt me."
"I am doomed to haunt you, then. If I should lift the corner of my veil something terrible would happen."
"What! Are you as beautiful as that?"
There was a flash of teeth behind the veil, followed by the ripple of soft laughter. "It is difficult to believe you to be English. You are more like one of those absurd Americans."
Maurice did not like the adjective. "I am one of them," wondering what the effect of this admission would be. "I am not English, but of the brother race. Forgive me if I have imposed on you, but it was your fault. You said that I was English, and I was too lonesome to enlighten you."
"You are an American?" She began to tap her gloved fingers against the table.
Then, to his astonishment, she gave way to laughter, honest and hearty. "How dense of me not to have known the moment you addressed me! Who but the American holds in scorn custom's formalities and usages? Your grammar is good, so good that my mistake is pardonable. The American is always like the terrible infant; and you are a choice example."
Maurice was not so pleased as he might have been. His ears burned. Still, he went forward bravely. "A man never pretends to be an Englishman without getting into trouble."
"I did not ask to speak to you. No one ever pretends to be an American. Why is it you are always ashamed of your country?" with malice aforethought.
Maurice experienced the sting of many bees. "I see that your experience is limited to impostors. I, Mademoiselle, am proud of my country, the great, free land which stands aside from the turmoil and laughs at your petty squabbles, your kings, your princes. Laugh at me; I deserve it for not minding my own business, but do not laugh at my country." His face was flushed; he was almost angry. It was not her words; it was the contempt with which she had invested them. But immediately he was ashamed of his outburst. "Ah, Mademoiselle, you have tricked me; you have found the vulnerable part in my armor. I have spoken like a child. Permit me to apologize for my apparent lack of breeding." He rose, bowed, and made as though to depart.
"Sit down, Monsieur," she said, picking up her French again. "I forgive you. I do more; I admire. I see that your freak had nothing behind it but mischief. No woman need fear a man who colors when his country is made the subject of a jest."
All his anger evaporated. This was an invitation, and he accepted it. He resumed his seat.
"The truth is, as I remarked, I was lonesome. I know that I have committed a transgression, but the veil tempted me."
"It is of no matter. A few moments, and you will be gone. I am waiting for some one. You may talk till that person comes." Her voice was now in its natural tone; and he was convinced that if her face were half as sweet, she must possess rare beauty. "Hush!" as the band began to breathe forth Chopin's polonaise. They listened until the music ceased.
"Ah !" said he rapturously, "the polonaise! When you hear it, does there not recur to you some dream of bygone happy hours, the sibilant murmur of fragrant night winds through the crisp foliage, the faint call of Diana's horn from the woodlands, moon- fairies dancing on the spider-webs, the glint of the dew on the roses, the far-off music of the surges tossing impotently on the sands, the forgetfulness of time and place and care, and not a cloud 'twixt you and the heavens? Ah, the polonaise!"
"Surely you must be a poet!" declared the Veil, when this panegyric was done.
"No," said he modestly, "I never was quite poor enough for that exalted position." He had recovered his good humor.
"Indeed, you begin to interest me. What is your occupation when not in search of--comic operas?"
"I serve Ananias."
"Ananias?" A pause. "Ah, you are a diplomat?"
"How clever of you to guess."
"Yours is a careless country," observed the Veil.
"Yes, to send forth her green and salad youth. Eh, bien! There are hopes for you. If you live you will grow old; you will become bald and reserved; you will not speak to strangers, to while away an idle hour; for permit me, Monsieur, who am wise, to tell you that it is a dangerous practice."
"And do I look so very young?"
"Your beard is that of a boy."
"David slew Goliath."
"At least you have a ready tongue," laughing.
"And you told me that I had been a soldier."
But to this she had nothing to say.
"I am older than you think, Mademoiselle of the Veil. I have been a soldier; I have seen hard service, too. Mine is no cushion sword. Youth? 'Tis a virtue, not a crime; and, besides, it is an excellent disguise."
For some time she remained pensive.
"You are thinking of something, Mademoiselle."
"Do you like adventure?"
"I subsist on it."
"You have been a soldier; you are, then, familiar with the use of arms?"
"They tell me so," modestly. What was coming?
"I have some influence. May I trust you?"
"On my honor," puzzled, yet eager.
"There may be a comic opera, as you call it. War is not so impossible as to be laughed at. The dove may fly away and the ravens come."
"Who in thunder might this woman be?" he thought.
"And," went on the Veil, "an extra saber might be used. Give me your address, in case I should find it necessary to send for you."
Now Maurice was a wary youth. Under ordinary circumstances he would have given a fictitious address to this strange sybil with the prophecy of war; for he had accosted her only in the spirit of fun. But here was the key which he had been seeking, the key to all that had brought him to Bleiberg. Intrigue, adventure, or whatever it was, and to whatever end, he plunged into it. He drew out a card case, selected a card on which he wrote "Room 12, Continental," and passed it over the table. She read it, and slipped it into her purse.
Maurice thought: "Who wouldn't join the army with such recruiting officers?"
While the pantomime took place, a man pushed by Maurice's chair and crossed over to the table recently occupied by him. He sat down, lit a short pipe, rested his feet on the lowest rung of the ladder-like railing, and contemplated the western hills, which by now were enveloped in moon mists. Neither Maurice nor his mysterious vis-a-vis remarked him. Indeed, his broad back afforded but small attraction. And if he puffed his pipe fiercely, nobody cared, since the breeze carried the smoke waterward.
After putting the card into her purse, Mademoiselle of the Veil's gaze once more wandered toward the entrance, and this time it grew fixed. Maurice naturally followed it, and he saw a tall soldier in fatigue dress elbowing his way through the crush. Many moved aside for him; those in uniform saluted.
"Monsieur," came from behind the veil, "you may go now. I dismiss you. If I have need of you I promise to send for you."
He stood up. "I thank you for the entertainment and the promise you extend. I shall be easily found," committing himself to nothing. "I suppose you are a person of importance in affairs."
"It is not unlikely. I see that you love adventure for its own sake, for you have not asked me if it be the duchy or the kingdom. Adieu, Monsieur," with a careless wave of the gray- gloved hand. "Adieu!"
He took his dismissal heroically and shot a final glance at the approaching soldier. His brows came together.
"Where," he murmured, "have I seen that picturesque countenance before? Not in Europe; but where?" He caught the arm of a passing gendarme. "Who is that gentleman in fatigue uniform, coming this way?"
"That, Monsieur," answered the gendarme in tones not unmixed with awe, "is Colonel Beauvais of the royal cuirassiers."
"Thanks. . . . Beauvais; I do not remember the name. Truly I have had experiences to-day. And for what house is Mademoiselle of the Veil? Ravens? War? `Voici le sabre de mon pyre!'" and with a gay laugh he went his way.
Meanwhile Colonel Beauvais arrived at the table, tipped his hat to the Veil, who rose and laid a hand on his arm. He guided her through the pressing crowds.
"Ah, Madame," he said, "you are very brave to choose such a rendezvous."
"Danger is a tonic to the ill-spirited," was the reply.
"If aught should happen to you--"
"It was in accord with her wishes that I am here. She suffers from impatience; and I would risk much to satisfy her whims."
"So would I, Madame; even life." There was a tremor of passion in his voice, but she appeared not to notice it. "Here is a nook out of the lights; we may talk here with safety."
"And what is the news?" she asked.
"This: The man remains still in obscurity. But he shall be found. Listen," and his voice fell into a whisper.
"Austria?" Mademoiselle of the Veil pressed her hands together in excitement. "Is it true?"
"Did I not promise you? It is so true that the end is in sight. Conspiracy is talked openly in the streets, in the cafes, everywhere. The Osians will be sand in the face of a tidal wave. A word from me, and Kronau follows it. It all would be so easy were it not for the archbishop."
"The archbishop?" contemptuously.
"Ay, Madame; he is a man so deep, with a mind so abyssmal, that I would give ten years of my life for a flash of his thoughts. He has some project; apparently he gives his whole time to the king. He loves this weak man Leopold; he has sacrificed the red hat for him, for the hat would have taken him to Italy, as we who procured it intended it should."
"The archbishop? Trust me; one month from now he will be recalled. That is the news I have for you."
"You have taken a weight from my mind. What do you think in regard to the rumor of the prince and the peasant girl?"
"It afforded me much amusement. You are a man of fine inventions."
"Gaze toward the upper end of the pavilion, the end which we have just left. Yes--there. I am having the owner of those broad shoulders watched. That gendarme leaning against the pillar follows him wherever he goes."
"Who is he?"
"That I am trying to ascertain. This much-- he is an Englishman."
Mademoiselle of the Veil laughed. "Pardon my irrelevancy, but the remembrance of a recent adventure of mine was too strong."
Maurice could not regain his interest in the scene. He strolled in and out of the moving groups, but no bright eyes or winning smiles allured him. Impelled by curiosity, he began to draw near the shadowed nook. Curiosity in a journalist is innate, and time nor change can efface it. Curiosity in those things which do not concern us is wrong. Ethics disavows the practice, though philosophy sustains it. Perhaps in this instance Maurice was philosophical, not ethical. Perhaps he wanted to hear the woman's voice again, which was excusable. Perhaps it was neither the one nor the other, but fate, which directed his footsteps. Certain it is that the subsequent adventures would never have happened had he gone about his business, as he should have done.
"Who is this who stares at us?" asked Beauvais, with a piercing glance and a startled movement of his shoulders.
"A disciple of Pallas and a pupil of Mars," was the answer. "I have been recruiting, Colonel. There is sharpness sometimes in new blades. Do not draw him with your eyes."
The Colonel continued his scrutiny, however, and there was an ugly droop at the corners of his mouth, though it was partly hidden under his mustache.
Maurice, aware that he was not wanted, passed along, having in mind to regain his former seat by the railing.
"Colonel," he mused, "your face grows more familiar every moment. It was not associated with agreeable things. But, what were they? Hang it! you shall have a place in my thoughts till I have successfully labeled you. Humph! Some one seems to have appropriated my seat."
He viewed with indecision the broad back of the interloper, who at that moment turned his head. At the sight of that bronzed profile Maurice gave an exclamation of surprise and delight. He stepped forward and dropped his hand on the stranger's shoulder.
"John Fitzgerald, or henceforth garlic shall be my salad!" he cried in loud, exultant tones.