Her act was so childlike and her face so childishly beautiful that we all smiled with amusement and pleasure. Yolanda saw the smiles and turned on us, pouting though almost ready to laugh. She rose from her chair, stamped her foot, stood irresolutely for a moment, and then breaking into a laugh, drew her chair to our little circle—next to Max—and sat down.
"Tante, is supper never to be served?" she asked. "I am impatient to see the live wren pie."
"Live wren pie?" asked Max, incredulously.
"Yes. Have you never seen one?" asked Yolanda.
"Surely not," he replied.
"Ah, you have a treat in store," she exclaimed, clapping her hands enthusiastically. "Uncle carves the pie, the wrens fly out, you open your mouth, and the birds, being very small, fly down your throat and save you the trouble eating them. They are trained to do it, you know."
A chorus of laughter followed this remarkable statement. Max leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, looked at the ground for the space of half a minute, and said:—
"I was mistaken in saying that I had never partaken of the dish. While at Basel I foolishly opened my mouth, and a beautiful little bird flew down my throat to my heart."
Frau Castleman coughed, and the burgher moved in his chair and swallowed half a goblet of wine. Twonette laughed outright at the pretty turn Max had made upon Yolanda, and I ridiculously tried to keep my face expressionless. Yolanda laughed flutteringly, and the long lashes fell.
"That was prettily spoken, Sir Max," she said, smiling. "No Frenchman could improve upon it. You are constantly surprising me."
"Are Frenchmen apt at such matters, Fraeulein?" I asked.
"I have known but few Frenchmen," she responded. "You know Burgundy and France are natural enemies, like the cat and the dog. I have little love for the French. I speak only from hearsay."
"You will do well to learn to like them," I suggested. "Burgundy itself will soon be French, if the Princess Mary weds the Dauphin."
By speaking freely of the princess, I hoped Yolanda might believe that, whatever my surmises were concerning her identity, I did not suspect that she was Mademoiselle de Burgundy.
Yolanda sighed, but did not answer. Silence fell upon our little party, and after a long pause I turned to Twonette:—
"I remember that Franz told me at Basel, Fraeulein Twonette, that you and this famous Princess Mary of Burgundy were friends."
"Yes," answered Twonette, with an effort not to smile, "she has, at times, honored me with her notice."
"Out of that fact grows Twonette's serene dignity," laughed Yolanda. "On the strength of this acquaintance she quite lords it over us at times, and is always reminding me of the many haughty virtues of her friend as a pattern that I should follow. You see, I am incessantly confronted with this princess."
I thought it was a pretty piece of acting, though the emphasis of her dislike for the princess was unmistakably genuine.
"The duke has graciously invited us to the castle," I said, "and I hope to have the honor of seeing the princess."
When I spoke of the duke's invitation, I at once caught Yolanda's attention.
"You will not meet the princess if you go to the castle," said Yolanda. "She is an ill-natured person, I am told, and is far from gracious to strangers."
"I do not hope for such an honor," I replied. "I should like merely to see her before I leave Burgundy. That is all the favor I ask at her hands. She is a lady famed throughout all Europe for her beauty and her gentleness."
"She doesn't merit her fame," responded Yolanda, carefully examining her hands folded in her lap, and glancing nervously toward Max.
"Do you know Her Highness?" I asked.
"I—I have heard enough of her and have often seen her," she replied. "She usually rides out with her ladies at this hour. From the upper end of the garden you may soon see her come through the Postern gate, if you care to watch."
"I certainly should like to see her," I answered, rapidly losing faith in my conclusion that Yolanda was the princess.
The Castlemans did not offer to move, but Yolanda, springing to her feet, said, "Come," and led the way.
The upper end of the garden, as I have told you, was on the banks of the Cologne at a point where it flowed into the castle moat. The castle wall, sixty feet high at that point, bordered the west side of the garden. The moat curved along the right side, and the river flowed past the upper end. Castleman's house faced south, and stood on the lower end of the strip of ground that lay between the castle wall and the moat. The Postern was perhaps three hundred yards north from the upper end of Castleman's garden. Since it was on the opposite side of the river, one could reach the Postern, from Castleman's house, only by going up to the town bridge and back to the castle by the street that followed the north side of the Cologne.
We all walked to the upper end of the garden, and stood leaning against the low stone wall at the river's edge. We had waited perhaps ten minutes when we heard a blare of trumpets and saw a small cavalcade of ladies and gentlemen ride from the castle and pass over the drawbridge.
"The lady in scarlet is the duchess," said Castleman.
"She is English," remarked Yolanda, "and loves bright colors."
"Which is the princess?" I asked of Yolanda, feeling that I also was acting my part admirably. To my surprise she answered promptly:—
"She in blue with a falcon on her shoulder. Am I not right, uncle?"
"Yes," responded Castleman. Twonette confirmed the statement.
My air-castles fell noiselessly about my head. My dreams vanished like breath from a cold mirror, and the sphinx-like face of my great riddle rose before me in defiance.
After the cavalcade had passed I found myself with Yolanda a dozen paces from the others.
"Fraeulein," I said, "I want to confess I thought you were the Princess Mary of Burgundy."
Yolanda laughed softly.
"I was sure you had some such absurd notion. I supposed you had seen her, and had believed she was Yolanda, the burgher girl; that mistake has often been made. You may see this princess at the castle, and I warn you not to be deceived. I have the great honor, it is said, to resemble Her Highness as one pea resembles another. I have been told that she has heard of the low-born maiden that dares to have a face like hers, and she doubtless hates me for it, just as I bear her no good-will for the same reason. When two women greatly resemble each other, there is seldom good feeling between them. Each believes the other is stealing something of her personality, and a woman's vanity prompts her to resent it. If you make the mistake with the princess that you made with me, I warn you it will not be so easily corrected."
My poor riddle! My stony sphinx! My clinging hallucination! Again I should have it with me, stalking at my side by day, lying by me at night, whirling through my brain at all times, and driving me mad with its eternal question, "Who is Yolanda?" The solution of my riddle may be clear to you as I am telling you the story. At least, you may think it is, since I am trying to conceal nothing from you. I relate this history in the order of its happening, and wish, if possible, to place before you the manner in which this question of Yolanda's identity puzzled me. If you will put yourself in my place, you will at once realize how deeply I was affected by this momentous, unanswered, unanswerable question, "Who is Yolanda?" and you will understand why I could not see the solution, however clear you may believe it to be to yourself.
We soon went in to supper and, after the peacock, the pheasants, and the pastries were removed, we were served with a most delicious after-dish in sparkling glass cups. It was frozen orange-water mixed with wine of Burgundy. I had never tasted a dish so palatable. I had dined at the emperor's table in Vienna; I had lived in Italy; I had sojourned in the East, where luxuries are most valued and used, but I had never partaken of a more delicious supper than that which I ate at the house of my rich burgher friend, George Castleman. There might have been a greater showing of plate, though that was not lacking, but there could have been no whiter linen nor more appetizing dishes than those which good Frau Kate gave us that evening.
After the frozen wine had disappeared, a serving-maid brought in a stoneware pan covered with a snowy pastry, made from the whites of eggs and clear sugar. At its entry Yolanda clapped her hands and cried out with childish delight. When the pan was placed before Castleman, she exclaimed:—
"Be careful, uncle! Don't thrust the knife too deep, or you will kill the birds."
Uncle Castleman ran the point of the knife around the outer edge of the crust, and, with a twist of the blade, quickly lifted it from the pan, when out flew a dozen or more wrens. Yolanda's delight knew no bounds. She sprang from her chair, exclaiming:—
"Catch them! Catch them!" and led the way.
She climbed on chairs, tables, and window shelves, and soon had her hands full of the demure little songsters. Max, too, was pursuing the wrens, and Twonette, losing part of her serenity, actually caught a bird. The sport was infectious, and soon fat old Castleman was puffing like a tired porpoise, and sedate old Karl de Pitti was in the chase. Frau Katherine grabbed desperately at a bird now and then, but she was too stout to catch one and soon took her chair, laughing and out of breath. Yolanda screamed with laughter, and after she had caught six or seven birds and put them in the cage provided for them, she asked Max to lift her in his arms that she might reach one resting on a beam near the ceiling. Max gladly complied, and Yolanda, having caught the bird, said:—
"Now, Sir Max, open your mouth."
"I have already swallowed one," said Max, laughing, "and I will swallow none other so long as I live."
As Max lowered her to the floor her arm fell about his neck for an instant, and the great strong boy trembled at the touch of this weak girl.
Out to the garden we went again after supper, and when dusk began to fall, Yolanda led Max to a rustic seat in the deep shadow of the vines. I could not hear their words, but I learned afterward of the conversation.
When I thought Yolanda was the princess, I was joyful because of the marked favor that she showed Max. When I thought she was a burgher girl, I felt like a fussy old hen with a flock of ducks if he were alone with her. She seemed then a bewitching little ogress slowly devouring my handsome Prince Max. That she was fair, entrancing, and lovable beyond any woman I had ever known, only added to my anxiety. Would Max be strong enough to hold out against her wooing? I don't like to apply the word "wooing" to a young girl's conduct, but we all know that woman does her part in the great system of human mating when the persons most interested do the choosing; and it is right that she should. The modesty that prevents a woman from showing her preference is the result of a false philosophy, and flies in the face of nature. Her right to choose is as good as man's.
If Yolanda's wooing was more pronounced than is usual with a modest young girl, it must be remembered that her situation was different. She knew that Max had been restrained from wooing her only because of the impassable gulf that lay between them. Ardor in Max when marriage was impossible would have been an insult to Yolanda. His reticence for conscience' sake and for her sake was the most chivalric flattery he could have paid her. She saw the situation clearly, and, trusting Max implicitly, felt safe in giving rein to her heart. She did not care to hide from him its true condition. On the contrary she wished him to be as sure of her as she was of him, for after all that would be the only satisfaction they would ever know.
I argued: If Yolanda were the princess, betrothed to the Dauphin, the gulf between her and Max was as impassable as if she were a burgher girl. In neither case could she hope to marry him. Therefore, her girlish wooing was but the outcry of nature and was without boldness.
The paramount instinct of all nature is to flower. Even the frozen Alpine rock sends forth its edelweiss, and the heart of a princess is first the heart of a woman, and must blossom when its spring comes. All the conventions that man can invent will not keep back the flower. All created things, animate and inanimate, have in them an uncontrollable impulse which, in their spring, reverts with a holy retrospect to the great first principle of existence, the love of reproduction.
Yolanda's spring had come, and her heart was a flower with the sacred bloom. Being a woman, she loved it and cuddled it for the sake of the pain it brought, as a mother fondles a wayward child. Max, being a man, struggled against the joy that hurt him and, with a sympathy broad enough for two, feared the pain he might bring to Yolanda. So this unresponsiveness in Max made him doubly attractive to the girl, who was of the sort, whether royal or bourgeois, before whom men usually fall.
"I thought you had left me, Sir Max," she said, drawing him to a seat beside her in the shade.
"I promised you I would not go," he responded, "and I would not willingly break my word to any one, certainly not to you, Fraeulein."
"I was angry when I heard you had left the inn," she said, "and I spoke unkindly of you. There has been an ache in my heart ever since that nothing but confession and remission will cure."
"I grant the remission gladly," answered Max. "There was flattery in your anger."
The girl laughed softly and, clasping her hands over her knee, spoke with a sigh.
"I think women have the harder part of life in everything. I again ask you to promise me that you will not leave Peronne within a month."
"I cannot promise you that, Fraeulein," answered Max.
"You will some day—soon, perhaps—know my reasons," said Yolanda, "and if they do not prove good I am willing to forfeit your esteem. That is the greatest hostage I can give."
"I cannot promise," answered Max, stubbornly.
"I offer you another inducement, one that will overmatch the small weight of my poor wishes. I promise to bring you to meet this Mary of Burgundy whom you came to woo. I cannot present you, but I will see that Twonette brings about the meeting. I tell you, as I have already told Sir Karl, that it is said I resemble this princess, so you must not mistake her for me."
When Max told me of this offer I wondered if the girl had been testing him, and a light dawned on me concerning her motives.
"I did not come to woo her," answered Max, "though she may have been a part of my reason for coming. I knew that she was affianced to the Dauphin of France. Her beauty and goodness were known to me through letters of my Lord d'Hymbercourt, written to my dear old friend Karl. Because of certain transactions, of which you do not know and of which I may not speak, I esteemed her for a time above all women, though I had never seen her. I still esteem her, but—but the other is all past now, Fraeulein, and I do not wish to meet the princess, though the honor would be far beyond my deserts."
"Why do you not wish to meet her?" asked Yolanda, with an air of pleasure. Max hesitated, then answered bluntly:—
"Because I have met you, Fraeulein. You should not lead me to speak such words."
Yolanda touched Max's arm and said frankly:—
"There can be no harm, Max. If you knew all,—if I could tell you all,—you would understand. The words can harm neither of us." She hesitated and, with drooping head, continued: "And they are to me as the sun and the south wind to the flowers and the corn. You already know all that is in my heart, or I would not speak so plainly. In all my life I have known little of the sweet touch of human sympathy and love, and, Max, my poor heart yearns for them until at times I feel like the flowers without the sun and the corn without the rain,—as if I will die for lack of them. I am almost tempted to tell you all."
"Tell me all, Yolanda," entreated Max, "for I, too, have suffered from the same want, though my misfortune comes from being born to a high estate. If you but knew the lonely, corroding misery of those born to a station above the reach of real human sympathy, you would not envy, you would pity them. You would be charitable to their sins, and would thank God for your lowly lot in life. I will tell you my secret. I am Maximilian of Hapsburg."
"I have known it since the first day I saw you at Basel," answered Yolanda.
"I have felt sure at times that you did," responded Max, "though I cannot think how you learned it. Will you tell me of yourself?"
The girl hung her head and hesitated. Once she lifted her face to speak, but changed her mind.
"Please don't ask me now. I will tell you soon, but not now, not now. Be patient with me. I do pity you. I do, I do. If we could help each other—but we cannot, and there is no use longing for it. I sometimes fear that your attitude is the right one, and that it is best that we should part and meet no more."
The proposition to part and meet no more was good in theory, but Max found that the suggestion to make a fact of it frightened him.
"Let us not speak of that now," he said. "The parting will come soon enough. You will surely deem me cold and unworthy, Fraeulein, but you cannot understand. One may not call a man hard and selfish who plucks out his eye for the sake of a God-imposed duty, or who deliberately thrusts away happiness and accepts a life of misery and heartache because of the chains with which God bound him at his birth."
"Ah, I do understand, Max; I understand only too well," answered the girl.
I have often wondered why Max did not suspect that Yolanda was the Princess Mary; but when I considered that he had not my reasons to lead him to that conclusion, I easily understood his blindness, for even I was unconvinced. Had I not overheard Castleman's conversation with Yolanda on the road to Strasburg, after meeting De Rose, the supposition that the burgher girl travelling unattended with a merchant and his daughter could possibly be the Princess Mary would have been beyond the credence of a sane man. The thought never would have occurred to me. Even with Castleman's words always ringing in my ears, I was constantly in doubt.
"There is no reason why one should deliberately hasten the day of one's thralldom," said Yolanda, softly. "If one may be free and happy for an hour without breaking those terrible chains of God's welding, is he not foolish to refuse the small benediction? The memory of it may sweeten the years to come."
"To woman, such a memory is sweet," answered Max, striving to steel his heart against the girl. "To men, it is a bitter regret."
To me he had spoken differently of his pain.
"Then be generous, Little Max, and give me the sweet memory," said the girl, carried away by the swirling impulse of her heart.
"You will not need it," answered Max. "Your lot will be different from mine."
"Yes, it will be different, Max—it will be worse," she cried passionately, almost in tears. "I think I shall kill myself when you leave Burgundy." She paused and turned fiercely upon him, "Give me the promise I ask. I demand at least that consolation as my right—as a poor return for what you take from me."
Max gently took her hand, which was at once lost in his great clasp.
"Fraeulein, I will not leave Burgundy within a month, whatever the consequences may be," he said tenderly.
"Upon your honor?" she asked, joyously clapping her hands.
"Every promise I make, Fraeulein, is on my honor," said Max, seriously.
"So it is, Little Max, so it is," she answered gently. Then they rose and came to the table where Castleman and I were sitting.
Yolanda had gained her point and was joyful over her victory.
Frau Katherine was asleep in a high-backed chair. Twonette slept in a corner of the arbor, her flaxen head embowered in a cluster of leaves and illumined by a stray beam of moonlight that stole between the vines.
"I am going in now. Come, Twonette," said Yolanda, shaking that plump young lady to arouse her. "Come, Twonette."
Twonette slowly opened her big blue eyes, but she was slower in awakening.
"Twonette! Twonette!" cried Yolanda, pulling at the girl's hand. "I declare, if you don't resist this growing drowsiness you will go down in history as the 'Eighth Sleeper,' and will be left snoring on resurrection morn."
When Twonette had awakened sufficiently to walk, we started from the arbor to the house. As we passed from beneath the vines, the frowning wall of the castle and the dark forms of its huge towers, silhouetted in black against the moon-lit sky, formed a picture of fierce and sombre gloom not soon to be forgotten.
"The dark, frowning castle reminds one of its terrible lord," said Max, looking up at the battlements.
"It does, indeed," answered Yolanda, hardly above a whisper. Then we went into the house.
"We hope to see you again for supper to-morrow evening, don't we, uncle?" said Yolanda, addressing Max and me, and turning to Castleman.
"Yes—yes, to-morrow evening," said the burgher, hesitatingly.
Max accepted the invitation and we made our adieux.
At the bridge over the Cologne we met Hymbercourt returning to his house from the castle. While we talked, the cavalcade of ladies and gentlemen that we had watched from Castleman's garden cantered up the street.
"You will now see the princess," said Hymbercourt. "She comes with the duke and the duchess. They left the castle at five, and have been riding in the moonlight."
We stepped to one side of the street as the cavalcade passed, and I asked Hymbercourt to point out the princess.
"She rides between the duke—the tall figure that you may recognize by his long beard—and the page carrying a hooded falcon," he answered.
Surely this evidence should have put my mind at rest concerning my hallucination that Yolanda was Mary of Burgundy; but when we reached the inn and Max told me of his conversation with Yolanda the riddle again sprang up like a jack-in-the-box. I felt that I was growing weak in mind. Yolanda's desire to tell Max her secret, and her refusal; her longing for human sympathy, and the lack of it; her wish that he should remain in Peronne for a month—all these made me feel that she was the princess.
I could not help hoping that Hymbercourt was mistaken in pointing out Her Highness. She rode in the shadow of the buildings and the moon was less than half full. Yolanda might have wished to deceive us by pointing out the princess while we watched the cavalcade from Castleman's garden. The burgher and Twonette might have been drawn into the plot against us by the impetuous will of this saucy little witch. Many things, I imagined, had happened which would have appeared absurd to a sane man—but I was not sane. I wished to believe that Yolanda was the princess, and I could not get the notion out of my head.
Yolanda's forwardness with Max, if she were Mary of Burgundy, could easily be explained on the ground that she was a princess, and was entitled to speak her mind. I was sure she was a modest girl, therefore, if she were of lowly birth, she would have hesitated to speak so plainly to Max. So, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I refused to be convinced that Yolanda was not Mademoiselle de Burgundy. I loved the thought so dearly that I could not and would not part with it. That night, while I lay pondering over the riddle, I determined to do no more guessing, and let the Fates solve it for me. They might give me the answer soon if I would "give it up."
The next evening we went to Castleman's house, but we did not see Yolanda. Frau Kate said she was indisposed, and we ate supper without her. It was a dull meal,—so much does a good appetite wait upon good company,—and for the first time I realized fully the marvellous quality of this girl's magic spell. Max, of course, was disappointed, and we walked back to The Mitre in silence.
A BATTLE IN MID AIR
A day or two after the supper of the wren pie, Max bought from a pedler a gray falcon most beautifully marked, with a scarlet head and neck, and we sent our squires to Hymbercourt, asking him to solicit from the duke's seneschal, my Lord de Vergy, permission to strike a heron on the marshes. The favor was easily obtained, and we went forth that afternoon to try the new hawk.
The hours passed quickly. The hawk was perfectly trained, and as fierce as a mountain wildcat. Its combats in mid air were most exciting. It would attack its prey and drive it back to a point nearly over our heads. There it waged the battle of death. It had killed three herons, all of which had fallen at our feet, and we were returning home when a fourth rose from the marsh. We were on a side road or path, perhaps five hundred yards from the main highway.
At the moment Max gave wing to his bird, two ladies and three gentlemen came up the road, returning to Peronne, and halted to witness the aerial combat. That they were of the court, I could easily see by their habits, though the distance was so great that I could not distinguish their faces.
Never did hawk acquit itself more nobly. It seemed to realize that it had a distinguished audience. The heron opened the battle desperately, and persisted in keeping its course to the south. The hawk, not ready for battle till the prey should be over our heads, circled round and round the heron, constantly striking, but carefully avoiding the coup de grace. After the birds had flown several hundred yards away from us, and were growing small in the distance, the heron, less hardy than its knightly foe, showed signs of weariness and confusion. It changed its course, still flying away from us. This did not suit the hawk, and it continued circling about its faltering prey with a vicious swiftness well calculated to inspire terror. Its movements became so rapid that it appeared to describe a gray circle about the heron. These circles, with the heron as the centre, constantly grew smaller, and after a time we could see that the birds were slowly but surely approaching us.
When they were almost over our heads, the hawk rose with incredible swiftness above its prey, and dropped like a bolt of gray lightning upon the heron. Then followed a struggle that lasted while the birds fell three hundred feet. When within fifty feet of the ground the hawk suddenly spread its wings and stood motionless in mid air, watching its vanquished foe as it fell to a spot within ten yards of where we stood. The movement of the falcon in descending to us can only be described as a settling or gradual sinking, with outstretched, motionless wings. When Max piped, the bird flew to its master's wrist and held down its beak for the hood.
At the close of the battle, the gentlemen of our little audience clapped their hands, and the ladies waved their kerchiefs. Max and I raised our caps and reined our horses toward the main road. As we approached, the ladies and one of the gentlemen resumed their journey toward Cambrai Gate, but the others awaited us. When we reached them we found, to our surprise, Duke Charles and my Lord d'Hymbercourt.
"Ah, it is our unknown knight who was so eager to fight Count Calli," exclaimed the duke.
"And still eager, Your Grace," answered Max. He uncovered upon approaching the duke, but after a moment said, "By Your Grace's leave," and resumed his cap. I, of course, remained uncovered. The duke showed surprise and irritation as he answered:—
"Since you do not see fit to tell us who you are, you should have the grace to remain uncovered."
Max glanced quickly at the duke's face, and removed his cap, as he answered, smiling:—
"If it pleases Your Grace, I will remain uncovered even though I be the Pope himself."
The duke saw the humor of the situation and replied:—
"One who owns so noble a hawk may remain covered in any man's presence. Never have I seen so rare a battle in mid air. The soul of Roland himself must inhabit the bird."
"Will Your Grace accept the hawk?" Max asked.
"Gladly," answered the duke, "though I hesitate to deprive you of a bird to which you must be attached."
"Do not hesitate to give me that pleasure, my lord," answered Max. "The bird is yours. His name is Caesar. I will send him to the castle this evening."
"Do not send him," suggested the duke. "Double your kindness by bringing him to-morrow at the noon hour, after the morning audience. We must now follow the princess. Adieu, messieurs."
The duke touched his cap, and we bent almost to our horses' manes.
Charles and Hymbercourt rode forward at a brisk canter, and Max and I followed slowly. We entered Cambrai Gate three or four minutes after the duke and the princess.
Max, eager to exhibit his hawk to Yolanda, proposed that we ride directly to Castleman's house.
While we were crossing the Cologne bridge we saw the duke's party enter the castle by the Postern, and as we turned a corner toward Castleman's the ladies looked in our direction and the gentlemen lifted their caps.
"Yolanda will be delighted when she sees my hawk," said Max.
I did not answer, but I thought that Yolanda would not see the bird that evening, since she had just entered the castle with her father. I was in great glee of spirits; I had at last trapped the young lady. If she were not at Castleman's house there could be but one answer to my riddle. I did not merely believe that I should not find her there; I knew I should not.
Max and I hitched our horses, and when Castleman's front door opened, lo! there stood Yolanda. Never in all my life have I taken such a fall.
Somewhat out of breath, Yolanda exclaimed:—
"Ah, Sir Max and Sir Karl, I saw you coming and ran to give you welcome."
She was in an ecstasy of glee, strangely out of proportion to the event, and there was a look of triumph in her eyes.
After we entered the house Yolanda's laughter continued, and if it ceased for a moment it broke out again without a pretext. She was always pleased to see Max, and never failed to show her pleasure in laughter more or less; but Max's presence could hardly account for her high merriment and the satisfaction she seemed to feel, as if a great victory had been gained. My sense of utter defeat had nothing but Yolanda's peculiar conduct to comfort it.
To the arbor we went, Yolanda carrying the hawk on her shoulder and caressing it with her cheek. In the garden, when our adventures were related, Yolanda, all excitement, could not keep her chair, but danced delightedly like a child and killed a score of imaginary herons.
She stroked the falcon's wings, and when I said, "My lord the duke has graciously consented to accept the bird," she turned upon Max, exclaiming in mock anger:—
"The duke has graciously consented to accept the bird! I should think it required little grace to accept such a gift, though much to give it. Why don't you give the bird to me, Sir Max, if you are eager to part with it?"
"I would gladly have given it to you, Fraeulein," answered Max, "had I supposed you could use it on the duke's marshes. Only nobles practise the royal sport of falconry."
Yolanda glanced quickly from Max to Castleman, turned her face to the bird upon her shoulder, and said, with a touch of dignity:—
"We receive small favors from court once in a while, don't we, uncle? We are not dirt under the nobles' feet, if we are plain burgher folk, are we, uncle?"
"Don't you know, Fraeulein, what great pleasure I should have taken in giving you the bird?" asked Max.
Yolanda bent her head to one side, placed her cheek against the falcon's wing and pouted. Her pout was prettier even than her smile, and that is saying a great deal.
After a few minutes Yolanda started to walk up the garden path and Max followed her, leaving the Castlemans and me under the arbor. Yolanda, still pouting, carried Caesar on her shoulder, lavishing caresses on the bird that excited Max's bitterest envy. Max spoke at intervals, but she answered only to the bird. After many futile efforts to make her speak, he said:—
"If you won't talk to me, I'll go back to the arbor."
She turned to the bird: "We are willing, Caesar, aren't we—if he can go."
Max laughed and started toward the arbor.
"Tell him to come back, Caesar. Tell him to come back," exclaimed Yolanda.
"I take no orders from a bird," declared Max, with pretended seriousness. Then she turned toward him and her face softened. She smiled and the dimples came, though there was a nervous tremor in the upturned corners of her mouth that belied her bantering air and brought Max quickly to her side. I saw the pantomime, though I did not hear the words; and I knew that neither Max nor any other man could withstand the quivering smile that played upon Yolanda's lips and the yearning invitation that was in her eyes. If Max did not soon take himself away from Burgundy and lead himself out of this temptation, I feared that in the end he would cast aside his ancient heritage, rend his sacred family ties, and forego everything he possessed in response to this mighty cry of nature, offering the one chance in life for happiness.
"Now you will give me the bird—I know you will," exclaimed Yolanda.
A remnant of the pout still hovered about her lips, doing battle with the dimples of a smile.
"I have already given him to the duke," answered Max.
"Tell the duke the bird escaped, or died suddenly of an apoplexy. Tell him anything you like, but give me the hawk," said Yolanda.
"Would you have me lie, Fraeulein?" asked Max, amused at her persistency. "I cannot do that, even for you. If you insist upon having the bird, I may go to the duke and withdraw my gift."
"Would you do that for me, Sir Max?" she asked, eagerly.
"Ay, and a great deal more, Fraeulein. I tremble at the thought of what you could make me do," he answered.
"In the fiend's name, let the duke have the bird," cried Yolanda. "He will pout more than I if you don't. He is of a sullen nature."
"Do you know the duke?" asked Max, suspecting for the first time that Yolanda might be more intimate about the court than he had supposed.
"I have heard much of him from those who know him," answered Yolanda.
So the duke got Caesar.
The next morning Hymbercourt came to the inn to accompany us to the castle. While we were sipping a mug of wine at a garden table, he said:—
"I do not want to be officious in your affairs, but I am convinced that it will be well for you to tell the duke who you are. If you do not see fit to do so, it were wise in you to leave Burgundy at your earliest convenience."
"I cannot leave within a month," said Max. I knew the cause of his detention, and, ignoring his remark, turned to Hymbercourt:—
"Do you want to give the reasons for your advice?"
"Yes, I am quite willing," he answered, "but I would not have my words repeated."
"Of that you may rest assured," I answered.
"If you do not tell the duke who you are," said Hymbercourt, "he will soon learn it from our Italian friends, who have the fiend's own energy in the pursuit of vengeance. They will discover who you are, and you will lose the advantage of a frank avowal. Duke Charles admires Sir Max, but our liege lord is capricious and can easily fancy that others are plotting to injure him. I am sure that he will now receive the Count of Hapsburg graciously if you tell him that Sir Max is that person. What he would do were he to learn the fact highly colored by his Italians, I cannot say. These mercenaries have a strange influence over His Grace, and there is not a nobleman in Burgundy who does not fear them."
"How will the duke feel concerning the old proposition of marriage?" I asked.
"That, I hope, will be of no moment now, since the duke is arranging for the immediate celebration of this marriage with the Dauphin. I am given to understand that His Grace, the Bishop of Cambrai, secretary to the duke, has received orders to draught a letter to King Louis expressing our lord's pleasure. King Louis is so eager for the marriage, which will once more bring Burgundy to the French kingship, that Duke Charles deems it sufficiently courteous to express his intentions to Louis, rather than to request the king's compliance. The duke's contempt for the king of France is so great that he causes the letter to be written in English, a language which Charles loves because of the English blood in his veins, and which Louis, with good reason, hates."
"Has this letter been despatched?" I asked, concealing as well as I could my deep concern.
Max heard Hymbercourt's statement without even a show of interest. Had he suspected that Hymbercourt was speaking of Yolanda's marriage, there surely would have been a demonstration.
"No," answered Hymbercourt, "the letter has not been sent, but the duke will despatch it at once. It will probably be the chief business of this morning's audience. The duke wants the marriage celebrated before he leaves for Switzerland. That will be within three or four weeks. I am not informed as to the details of the ceremony, but I suppose the princess will be taken to St. Denis, and will there be married. The unfortunate princess, doubtless, has not yet been told of her impending fate, though she may have heard of it by rumor. There will be tears and trouble when she learns of it, for she has a strong dash of her father's temper. But—" He shrugged his shoulders as if to say that her tears would count for nothing.
Hymbercourt's words took the heart out of me; and when he left us for a moment, I urged Max to leave Burgundy at once.
"I must see Yolanda and ask her to release me from my promise before I go," he said.
"You are surely not so weak as to allow a burgher girl to hold you?" I asked.
"The girl does not hold me," he answered. "I was so weak as to give my promise, and that holds me."
"She will give you your release if you demand it," I suggested.
"If she does, I will go with you to-morrow. It is time that we were out of Burgundy. I will forego even my combat with Calli to get away. I should not have given Yolanda my promise; but she is so persuasive, and I pity her, and—and, oh! Karl, I—the trouble is, I love her, and it is like death to part from her forever. That is my weakness."
The poor, suffering boy leaned forward on the table and buried his face in his arms.
"That isn't your weakness, Max, it's your strength," I responded. "Few men are so unfortunate as to escape it. God must pity those who do. It may be well to tell the duke who you are. If he is displeased, we may leave Burgundy at once. If he receives you graciously, we may remain and you may fight this Calli. That is the one duty that holds you in Peronne."
My heart was hardened with years, and its love of just vengeance was stronger than young Max could feel. Besides, he was possessed by a softer passion; and though he felt it his pleasant duty to fight Calli, vengeance held second place in his breast.
Hymbercourt returned, and we started for the castle accompanied by our squires; all riding in fine state.
We arrived at the great hall before the duke had arisen from the morning audience, and waited unobserved in the back part of the chamber. Our Irish squire, Michael, carried Caesar, hooded and belled. He was held by a golden chain that we had bought from a goldsmith, notwithstanding our purse was growing dangerously light.
There was a great stir in the hall as we entered. The courtiers were buzzing like a swarm of bees discussing a new queen. Evidently matters of importance had been under consideration. Campo-Basso, my Lord de Vergy, seneschal of Burgundy, and the Bishop of Cambrai, clerk to the duke, were standing on the second step of the dais, each with hand resting on knee, and leaning eagerly toward the duke. Charles and these councillors were speaking in low tones, and the courtiers of less degree were taking advantage of the intermission in public business to settle the great question among themselves. Each petty courtier felt that he could offer a suggestion that would be of great value, could he but gain the duke's ear.
After a little time, Charles saw Hymbercourt with us, and sent a page to fetch him. Hymbercourt left us, and soon we saw him in whispered conversation with the duke. Soon after Hymbercourt had gone to the ducal throne, Calli, with two Italians, stopped four paces from where we were standing. He gazed insolently at Max, and said in Italian to his companions:—
"There is the loutish outlander, who boasted before the duke that he would fight me. He is a big callow fellow, and it would be a shame to stick the swine."
Max, who understood the Italian language sufficiently to grasp Calli's meaning, flushed angrily, but I touched his arm and he turned his back upon the fellow. Then I spoke in tones that Calli could not fail to hear:—
"Never turn your face from a cowardly foe, Max. He will, if he can, stab you in the back. Your revenge will come when you send his soul to hell."
Calli grasped his dagger hilt and muttered something about the duke's presence. The incident determined us in the course Max should take. He should tell the duke who he was, remain in Burgundy to kill this fellow Calli, and to meet such other fortune as the Fates might have in store for him.
Hymbercourt and the duke spoke together for the space of five minutes, evidently discussing a parchment that Charles held in his hand. Then the duke resumed his seat, and handed the parchment to the Bishop of Cambrai, when all save His Reverence stepped from the dais to the floor. A herald commanded silence, and the bishop spoke:—
"It is the will of our most gracious lord that I announce to the court the impending marriage of Her Grace, the Princess, Mademoiselle de Burgundy, to the princely Dauphin of France, son to our lord's royal ally, King Louis. His Grace of Burgundy hopes within three weeks to open his campaign against the Swiss, and it is his intention to cause the marriage ceremony to take place before his departure. When the details have been arranged, they will be announced to the court."
The bishop had barely stopped speaking when the shutter in the chancel of the ladies' gallery above the throne opened, and a voice rang through the vast audience hall, like the tones of an alarm bell:—
"Make one more announcement, please, my Lord Bishop. Say that if this wondrous ceremony is to come off within three weeks, the Dauphin of France must be content with a dead bride."
No one saw the face of the speaker. The shutter closed, and a deep silence fell upon the room. The duke sprang angrily to his feet; his face was like a thunder-cloud. He looked toward the ladies' gallery, and stood for a moment like the incarnation of wrath. A puzzled expression followed the glare of anger; and within a moment he laughed, and waved his hands to the heralds, directing them to cry the rising. The audience was dismissed, and the courtiers left the hall, laughing in imitation of their lord and master.
Nothing could be more indicative of cruelty than the laughter that followed the passionate protest of the unhappy princess. To the duke, and of course to his courtiers, the girl's suffering and the fate that was in store for her were mere matters of mirth. They laughed at her pain as savages laugh at the agonies of a tortured victim.
I was so startled by the cry of the princess that for a time I could not think coherently. My first clear thought was of Yolanda. If she were the princess, this sacrifice that is practised without a protest throughout the world had come home to me, for Yolanda had nestled in my heart. That she, the gentle, the tender, the passionate, the sensitive, should be the victim of this legalized crime; that she, innocent of all fault, save that she had been born a girl, should be condemned to misery because the laws of chivalry and the laws of God, distorted by men to suit their purposes, declared her to be the chattel of her father, moved me as I was never moved before. My sympathy for this rare, sweet girl, so capable of joy, so susceptible to pain, almost brought tears to my eyes; for I could not help thinking that she was the suffering princess.
When the courtiers had left the great hall Hymbercourt, Max, and I approached the duke. Hymbercourt and I made obeisance on bended knee, but Max saluted the duke with a low bow. After the duke had spoken, Max said:—
"I hope Your Grace has not forgotten your promise to honor me by accepting the falcon you admired yesterday."
"I have not, my unknown friend," answered the duke.
Max took the bird from Michael and offered it to Charles, who accepted the gift graciously. I looked toward Hymbercourt and he, understanding my unspoken word, again bent his knee before the duke:—
"My gracious lord, it is the desire of this young knight that he be presented to you in due form under his own name and title, though he would humbly ask that he be permitted to retain the name by which he is known in Burgundy. His reasons for so doing are good, though they would not interest Your Grace. Have I my lord's permission to present him?"
"In God's name, yes!" exclaimed the duke, stirred by some irritation, but spurred by curiosity.
"My lord," said Hymbercourt, speaking to the duke and extending his hand toward Max, "it is my great honor to present to Your Grace his highness, Maximilian, Count of Hapsburg."
"By the just God, my lord, you certainly have given us a surprise," said the duke, stepping back and making no offer of his hand to Max. He passed the falcon to a page, and continued, "What business have these men at my court?"
"None, Your Grace, absolutely none," answered Max, standing proudly before the duke and steadfastly meeting his gaze. "It was my desire to see the world and to learn something of its people before I undertook to govern my own. My country is not rich and fat like this great land of Burgundy. I have neither the means nor the inclination to travel in state; so my dear friend and instructor, Sir Karl de Pitti, undertook to guide me and teach me in this journey to the outer world. I would rather have missed seeing all other countries than Burgundy, and of all the princes of the world Your Grace was and is to me the most interesting. Your hand is the strongest, your courage the bravest, and your land the richest in Europe. We heard at Metz that you were here in Peronne; and now, my lord, you understand what business I have in Burgundy."
I had never given the boy credit for so much adroitness. What the duke's intentions were, immediately after Hymbercourt presented Max, I could not have told, but his words sounded ominous, and the expression of his face was anything but pleasant. Max, though not quarrelsome, was not given to the soft answer that turneth away wrath; but on this occasion discretion came to his rescue, and he made the soft answer with a dignity and boldness that won Charles's respect. The duke's face softened into a half-smile,—if anything so hard as his face can be said to soften,—and he offered his hand to Max. He withdrew it almost instantly from Max's grasp, and said:—
"Are you sure my armament against Switzerland is no part of the reason for your presence in Burgundy?" Like all highly pugnacious men, he was suspicious. "I have been told your father is a friend to the Swiss."
"Does Your Grace mean to ask if I am here in the capacity of a spy, as Calli has charged?" asked Max, lifting his head and looking boldly into the duke's face.
"I do not know," said the duke, hesitatingly. "I do not say you are. I do not think you are, but—"
"I am glad Your Grace does not think we are spies, and am pleased to believe that you would not put so great an insult upon us," answered Max, "else we should ask permission to leave Burgundy at once. I am sure my lord knows we are not spies. If Your Lordship had a son, would you send him forth as a spy for the sake of Burgundy? Much less would you do it for another land. Your Grace is misinformed. My father is not a friend to the Swiss; neither does he hate them, though perhaps he has better cause to do so than has Your Grace. Your quarrel with the Swiss is over a few cart-loads of sheepskins. These same Swiss took from my father our ancient homestead, the old Castle of Hapsburg, and the surrounding territory of Aargau."
"I have heard of the spoliation, and have often wondered at your father's meek submission," said the duke, with an almost imperceptible sneer. Like Richard the Lion-hearted, of England, butchery was this duke's trade, and he despised a man who did not practise it on all possible occasions. A pretext for a quarrel is balm to the soul of a hero.
"The mountains of Switzerland, my lord, are the graveyard of foreign soldiers," Max replied. "Old Hapsburg Castle is a mere hawks' crag, as its name implies, and the half-score of mountain peaks my father lost with it are not worth the life of his humblest subject. He loves his people, and would not shed their blood to soothe his wounded pride. The man who makes war should fight in the front rank."
"There is where I fight, young sir," returned Charles.
"The world knows that fact, my lord," responded Max. "My father cannot fight at the head of his army, therefore, he makes war only in defence of his people's hearths. It is possible that after consulting with my friend, Sir Karl, I may ask the honor of serving with Your Grace against these Swiss who despoiled my house. Is Your Grace now satisfied that we are not Swiss spies? And are we welcome to sojourn for a time in Peronne? Or shall we leave Burgundy and return to my father in Styria, to tell him that you turned a guest and a friend from your door?"
"You are very welcome, Sir Count, and you, Sir Karl," answered the duke, giving his right hand to Max and familiarly offering me his left. This hard duke had been beaten into a gracious mood by Max's adroit mixture of flattery and boldness.
A soft answer may turn away wrath, but it may also involve the disagreeable necessity of turning the other cheek. If it be not tempered by spirit, it is apt to arouse contempt. The duke remained silent for the space of a minute or two. He was evidently struggling to suppress a good impulse. Then he turned to me and said, laughingly:—
"By my soul, Sir Karl, you have brought us a Roland and a Demosthenes in one. Where learned you your oratory, Sir Count?"
"From a just cause, my lord," quickly retorted Max.
"I fear I have had the worst of this encounter, Hymbercourt," said the duke, smiling, "and I see nothing left for me but apology."
"I sincerely hope Your Grace will not embarrass us by apologizing," said Max.
Charles hesitated, gave a short laugh, and apologized by placing his hand on Max's shoulder.
"Let us go into the little parley room," he said. "Hymbercourt, lead the way with Sir Max; Sir Karl and I will follow presently."
Max and Hymbercourt passed out at a small door near the throne, and the duke turned to me:—
"I like the boy's modest boldness, and I hope that I may induce him and you to accompany me against the Swiss. I would not accept his offer made on the spur of the moment, but if, on talking it over with him, you make up your minds to come with me, I will make it well worth your while. This war will be but a May-day outing. We'll speak on the subject again. Meantime, I understand that you and Sir Max wish to remain incognito at Peronne?"
"We do, Your Grace," I responded. "I fear it will be impossible to accept the honor you have offered, but, as you have graciously said, we will, if you wish, speak of it again."
"I am content," said the duke. "Let us follow Hymbercourt."
SIR KARL MEETS THE PRINCESS
The duke and I passed through the door by which Max and Hymbercourt had left the hall, and entered a narrow passageway eight or ten yards long, having two doors at the farther end. The door to the right, I soon learned, led to the little parley room where Max and Hymbercourt had gone. The door to the left opened into a staircase that led to the apartments of the duchess. A narrow flight of stone steps that led from the ladies' gallery opened into the passage, and, just as the duke entered in advance of me, two ladies emerged from the stairs. They did not see me in the shadow, and supposed that the duke was alone. The taller, who I soon learned was the duchess, hastened down the passage and through the door leading to her apartments. The smaller I at once recognized. She was Yolanda.
"Father, you cannot mean to send me into France," she cried, trying to detain the duke. "Kill me, father, if you will, but do not send me to that hated land. I shall not survive this marriage a fortnight, and if I die, Burgundy will go to our cousin of Bourbon."
"Don't hinder me, daughter," returned the duke, impatiently. "Don't you see we are not alone?"
Yolanda turned in surprise toward me, and the duke said:—
"Go by the right door, Sir Karl. I will be with you at once. I wish to speak with the duchess."
He hurriedly followed his wife and left me alone with Yolanda.
"Fraeulein, my intrusion was unintentional," I stammered. "I followed the duke at his request."
"Fraeulein!" exclaimed the girl, lifting her head and looking a very queen in miniature. "Fraeulein! Do you know, sir, to whom you speak?"
"I beg your pardon, most gracious princess," I replied. "Did you not command me to address you as Fraeulein or Yolanda?"
"My name, sir, is not Yolanda. You have made a sad mistake," said the princess, drawing herself up to her full height. Then I thought of Yolanda's words when she told me that she resembled the princess as one pea resembles another.
The girl trembled, and even in the dim light I could see the gleam of anger in her eyes. I was endeavoring to frame a suitable apology when she spoke again:—
"Fraeulein! Yolanda! Sir, your courtesy is scant to give me these names. I do not know you, and—did I not tell you that if you made this mistake with the princess you would not so easily correct it? That I—you—Blessed Virgin! I have betrayed myself. I knew I should. I knew I could not carry it out."
She covered her face with her hands and began to weep, speaking while she sobbed:—
"My troubles are more than I can bear."
I wished to reassure her at once:—
"Most Gracious Princess—Yolanda—your secret is safe with me. You are as dear to me as if you were my child. You have nestled in my heart and filled it as completely as one human being can fill the heart of another. I would gladly give my poor old life to make you happy. Now if you can make use of me, I am at your service."
"You will not tell Sir Max?" she sobbed.
She was no longer a princess. She was the child Yolanda.
"As I hope for salvation, no, I will not tell Sir Max," I responded.
"Sometime I will give you my reasons," she said.
"I wish none," I replied.
After a short pause, she went on, still weeping gently:—
"If I must go to France, Sir Karl, you may come there to be my Lord Chamberlain. Perhaps Max should not come, since I shall be the wife of another, and—and there would surely be trouble. Max should not come."
She stepped quickly to my side. Her hand fell, and she grasped mine for an instant under the folds of her cloak; then she ran from the passage, and I went to the room where Max and Hymbercourt were waiting.
After a few moments the duke joined us. Wine was served, but Charles did not drink. On account of the excessive natural heat of his blood he drank nothing but water. His Grace was restless; and, although there was no lack of courtesy, I fancied he did not wish us to remain. So after our cups were emptied I asked permission to depart. The duke acquiesced by rising, and said, turning to Max:—
"May we not try our new hawk together this afternoon?"
"With pleasure, Your Grace," responded Max.
"Then we'll meet at Cambrai Gate near the hour of two," said the duke.
"I thank Your Grace," said Max, bowing.
On our way back to the inn, I told Max of my meeting with the princess, and remarked upon her resemblance to Yolanda.
"You imagined the resemblance, Karl. There can be but one Yolanda in the world," said Max. "Her Highness, perhaps, is of Yolanda's complexion and stature,—so Yolanda has told me,—and your imagination has furnished the rest."
"Perhaps that is true," said I, fearing that I had already spoken too freely.
So my great riddle was at last solved! The Fates had answered when I "gave it up." I was so athrill with the sweet assurance that Yolanda was the princess that I feared my secret would leap from my eyes or spring unbidden from my lips.
I cast about in my mind for Yolanda's reasons in wishing to remain Yolanda to Max, and I could find none save the desire to win his heart as a burgher girl. That, indeed, would be a triumph. She knew that every marriageable prince in Europe coveted her wealth and her estates. The most natural desire that she or any girl could have would be to find a worthy man who would seek her for her own sake. As Yolanda, she offered no inducement save herself. The girl was playing a daring game, and a wise one.
True, there appeared to be no possibility that she could ever have Max for her husband, even should she win his heart as Yolanda. In view of the impending and apparently unavoidable French marriage, the future held no hope. But when her day of wretchedness should come, she would, through all her life, take comfort from the sweetest joy a woman can know—that the man she loved loved her because she was her own fair self, and for no other reason. There would, of course, be the sorrow of regret, but that is passive, while the joy of memory is ever active.
When Max and I had departed, the duke turned to Hymbercourt and said:—
"The bishop's letter is not sufficiently direct. It is my desire to inform King Louis that this marriage shall take place at once—now! Now! It will effectually keep Louis from allying with Bourbon and Lorraine, or some other prince, while I am away from home. They all hate me, but not one of the cowards would say 'Booh!' unless the others were back of him. A word from Louis would kindle rebellion in Liege and Ghent. This war with Switzerland is what Louis has waited for; and when I march to the south, he will march into Burgundy from the west unless he has a counter motive."
"That is but too true, my lord," said Hymbercourt.
"But if my daughter marries the Dauphin, Louis will look upon Burgundy as the property of the French kingship in the end, and the marriage will frighten Bourbon and Lorraine to our feet once more. This hypocrite, Louis, has concocted a fine scheme to absorb Burgundy into his realm by this marriage with my daughter. But I'll disappoint his greed. I'll whisper a secret in your ear, Hymbercourt,—a secret to be told to no one else. I'll execute this treaty of marriage now, and will use my crafty foe for my own purposes so long as I need him; but when I return from Switzerland, I will divorce my present duchess and take a fruitful wife who will bear me a son to inherit Burgundy; then King Louis may keep the girl for his pains."
The duke laughed, and seemed to feel that he was perpetrating a great joke on his rival.
"But your brother-in-law, Edward of England, may object to having his sister divorced," suggested Hymbercourt.
"In that case we'll take a page from King Louis' book," answered Charles. "We'll use gold, Hymbercourt, gold! I shall not, however, like Louis, buy Edward's ministers! They are too expensive. I'll put none of my gold in Hastings's sleeve. I'll pension Shore's wife, and Edward will not trouble himself about his sister. He prefers other men's sisters. Do not fear, Hymbercourt; the time has come to meet Louis' craft with craft."
"And Your Grace's unhappy daughter is to be the shuttlecock, my lord?" suggested Hymbercourt.
"She will serve her purpose in the weal of Burgundy, as I do. I give my life to Burgundy. Why should not this daughter of mine give a few tears? But her tears are unreasonable. Why should she object to this marriage? Even though God should hereafter give me a son, who should cut the princess out of Burgundy, will she not be queen of France? What more would the perverse girl have? By God, Hymbercourt, it makes my blood boil to hear you, a man of sound reason, talk like a fool. I hear the same maudlin protest from the duchess. She, too, is under the spell of this girl, and mourns over her trumped-up grief like a parish priest at a bishop's funeral."
"But, my lord, consider the creature your daughter is to marry," said Hymbercourt. "He is but a child, less than fourteen years of age, and is weak in mind and body. Surely, it is a wretched fate for your daughter."
"I tell you the girl is perverse," interrupted the duke. "She would raise a storm were the Dauphin a paragon of manliness. He is a poor, mean wretch, whom she may easily rule. His weakness will be her advantage. She is strong enough, God knows, and wilful enough to face down the devil himself. If there is a perverse wench on all the earth, who will always have her own way by hook or by crook, it is this troublesome daughter of mine. She has the duchess wound around her finger. I could not live with them at Ghent, and sent them here for the sake of peace. When she is queen of France she will also be king of that realm—and in God's name what more could the girl ask?"
"But, my lord, let me beg you to consider well this step before you take it. I am sure evil will come of it," pleaded Hymbercourt.
"I have considered," answered the duke. "Let me hear no more of this rubbish. Two women dinning it into my ears morning, noon, and night are quite enough for my peace of mind. I hear constantly, 'Dear father, don't kill me. Spare your daughter,' and 'Dear my lord, I beg you not to sacrifice the princess, whom I so love.' God's mercy! I say I am tired of it! This marriage shall take place at once! Now, now, now, do you hear, Hymbercourt? Tell the bishop to write this letter in English. We will make the draught as bitter as possible for Louis. He hates the sight of an English word, and small wonder. Direct the bishop to make the letter short and to the point. Tell him to say the marriage shall take place now. Have him use the word now. Do you understand?"
"Yes, my lord," answered Hymbercourt.
"Order him to fetch the missive immediately to the apartments of the duchess. It shall be read, signed, and despatched in the presence of my daughter and my wife, so that they may know what they have to expect. I'll see that I'm bothered no more with their tears and their senseless importunities."
"I'll carry out your instructions," said Hymbercourt, bowing and taking his leave.
The duke went to his wife's parlor and fell moodily into a chair. The duchess was sitting on a divan, and the princess was weeping in her arms. After a long silence, broken only by Mary's half-smothered sobs, the duke turned sharply upon the women:—
"For the love of God, cease your miserable whimpering," growled his lordship. "Is not my life full of vexations without this deluge of tears at home? A whimpering woman will do more to wear out the life of a man than a score of battling enemies. Silence, I say; silence, you fools!"
Mary and the duchess were now unable to control themselves. Charles rose angrily and, with his clenched hand raised for a blow, strode across the room to the unhappy women. Clinging to each other, the princess and Duchess Margaret crouched low on the divan. Then this great hero, whom the world worships and calls "The Bold," bent over the trembling women and upbraided them in language that I will not write.
"God curse me if I will have my life made miserable by a pair of fools," cried the duke. "I am wretched enough without this useless annoyance. Enemies abroad and disobedience in my own family will drive me mad!"
The women slipped from the divan to the floor at the duke's feet, and clung to each other. The duchess covered the princess to protect her from the duke's blow, and, alas! took it herself. Charles stepped back, intending to kick his daughter, but the duchess again threw herself on Yolanda and again received the blow. By that time the duke's fury was beyond all measure, and he stooped to drag his wife from Yolanda that he might vent his wrath upon the sobbing girl. The duchess, who was a young, strong woman, sprang to her feet and placed herself between Yolanda, lying on the floor, and the infuriated duke.
"You shall not touch the child, my lord!" cried the duchess. "Though she is your child, you shall not touch her if I can help it. Twice, my lord, you have almost killed your daughter in your anger, and I have sworn to prevent a recurrence of your brutality or to die in my attempt to save her."
She snatched a dagger from her bosom, and spoke calmly: "Now come, my lord; but when you do so, draw your dagger, for, by the Virgin, I will kill you if you do not kill me, before you shall touch that girl. Before you kill me, my lord, remember that my brother of England will tear you limb from limb for the crime, and that King Louis will gladly help him in the task. Come, my husband! Come, my brave lord! I am but a weak woman. You may easily kill me, and I will welcome death rather than life with you. When I am out of the way, you may work your will on your daughter. Because I am your wife, my brother has twice saved you from King Louis. You owe your domain and your life to me. I should sell my life at a glorious price if my death purchased your ruin. Come, my lord!"
The duke paused with his hand on his dagger; but he knew that his wife's words were true, and he realized that his ruin would follow quickly on the heels of her death.
"You complain that the world and your own family are against you, my lord," said the duchess. "It is because you are a cruel tyrant abroad and at home. It is because you are against the world and against those whom you should protect and keep safe from evil. The fault is with you, Charles of Burgundy. You have spoken the truth. The world hates you, and this girl—the tenderest, most loving heart on earth—dreads you as her most relentless enemy. If I were in your place, my lord, I would fall upon my sword."
Beaten by his wife's just fury, this great war hero walked back to his chair, and the duchess tenderly lifted Mary to the divan.
"He will not strike you, child," said Margaret. Then she fell to kissing Yolanda passionately, and tears came to her relief.
Poor Yolanda buried her face in her mother's breast and tried to smother her sobs. Charles sat mumbling blasphemous oaths. At the expiration of half an hour, a page announced the Bishop of Cambrai and other gentlemen. The duke signified that they were to be admitted; and when the bishop entered the room, Charles, who was smarting from his late defeat, spoke angrily:—
"By the good God, my Lord Bishop, you are slow! Does it require an hour to write a missive of ten lines? If you are as slow in saving souls as in writing letters, the world will go to hell before you can say a mass."
"The wording was difficult, Your Grace," replied the bishop obsequiously. "The Lord d'Hymbercourt said Your Grace wished the missive to be written in English, which language my scrivener knows but imperfectly. After it was written I received Your Lordship's instructions to use the word 'now,' so I caused the letter to be rewritten that I might comply with your wishes."
"Now" is a small word, but in this instance it was a great one for Yolanda, as you shall soon learn.
"Cease explaining, my Lord Bishop, and read me the missive," said the duke, sullenly.
The bishop unfolded the missive, which was in a pouch ready for sealing. Yolanda stopped sobbing that she might hear the document that touched so closely on her fate. Her tear-stained face, with its childlike pathos, but served to increase her father's anger.
"Read, my Lord Bishop! Body of me, why stand you there like a wooden quintain?" exclaimed the duke. "By all the gods, you are slow! Read, I say!"
"With pleasure, my lord," answered the bishop.
"To His Majesty, King Louis of France, Charles, Duke of Burgundy and Count of Charolois, sends this Greeting:—
"His Grace of Burgundy would recommend himself to His Majesty of France, and would beg to inform the most puissant King Louis that the said Charles, Duke of Burgundy, will march at the head of a Burgundian army within three weeks from the date of these presents, against the Swiss cantons, with intent to punish the said Swiss for certain depredations. Therefore, the said Charles, Duke of Burgundy and Count of Charolois, begs that His Majesty of France will now move toward the immediate consummation of the treaty existing between Burgundy and France, looking to the marriage of the Princess Mary, Mademoiselle de Burgundy, with the princely Dauphin, son to King Louis; and to these presents said Charles, Duke of Burgundy, requests the honor of an early reply.
"We recommend Your Majesty to the protection of God, the Blessed Virgin, and the Saints."
"Words, words, my Lord Bishop," said Charles. "Why waste them on a graceless hypocrite?"
"I thought only to be courteous," returned the bishop.
"Why should we show King Louis courtesy?" asked the duke. "Is it because we give him our daughter to be the wife of his bandy-shanked, half-witted son? There is small need for courtesy, my Lord Bishop. We could not insult this King Louis, should we try, while he sees an advantage to be gained. Give me the letter, and I will sign it, though I despise your whimpering courtesy, as you call it."
Charles took the letter, and, going to a table near a window, drew up a chair.
"Give me a quill," he said, addressing the bishop. "Did you not bring one, my lord?"
"Your Grace—Your Grace," began the bishop, apologetically.
"Do you think I am a snivelling scrivener, carrying quill and ink-well in my gown?" asked the duke. "Go to your parlor and fetch ink and quill," said Charles, pointing with the folded missive toward Yolanda.
"A page will fetch the quill and ink, my lord," suggested the duchess.
"Go!" cried the duke, turning angrily on the princess. Yolanda left the room, weeping, and hastened up the long flight of steps to her parlor. It was the refinement of cruelty in Charles to send Yolanda for the quill with which he was to sign the instrument of her doom.
Still weeping, Yolanda hurried back with the writing materials, but before entering the room she stopped at the door to dry her tears and stay her sobs. When she entered, she said:—
"There is the quill, father, and there is the ink."
She placed them before the duke and stood trembling with one hand on the table. After a moment she spoke in a voice little above a whisper:—"You will accomplish nothing, my lord, my father, by sending the letter. I shall die before this marriage can take place. I am willing to obey you, but, father, I shall die. Ah, father, pity me."
She fell upon her knees before the duke and tried to put her hands about his shoulders. He repulsed her, and, taking up the quill, signed the letter. After he had affixed his signature and had sealed the missive with his private seal, he folded the parchment and handed it to the bishop, saying:—
"Seal the pouch, my lord, and send Byron, the herald, here to receive our personal instructions."
"The herald has not yet returned from Cambrai, my lord," said De Vergy, who stood near by. "He is expected between the hours of five and six this evening."
"Leave the letter, my lord," said Charles, "and send Byron to me when he arrives. I shall be here at six o'clock to give him full instructions."
The letter was deposited in a small iron box on the table, and the duke left the room, followed closely by the lords and pages.
THE CROSSING OF A "T"
Yolanda and her stepmother remained on the divan in silence for fully an hour after the duke had left. The duchess was first to speak.
"Be resigned, sweet one, to your fate. It is one common to women. It was my hard fate to be compelled to marry your father. It was your mother's, poor woman, and it killed her. God wills our slavery, and we must submit. We but make our fate harder by fighting against it."
Yolanda answered with convulsive sobs, but after a while she grew more calm.
"Is there nothing I can do to save myself?" she asked.
"No, sweet one," answered the duchess.
"Has God put a curse upon women, mother?" asked Yolanda.
"Alas! I fear He has," answered Margaret. "The Holy Church teaches us that He punishes us for the sin of our mother Eve, but though He punishes us, He loves us, and we are His children. He knows what is best for us here and hereafter."
"He certainly is looking to my future good, if at all," sighed Yolanda. "But I do believe in God's goodness, mother, and I am sure He will save me. Holy Virgin! how helpless a woman is." She began to weep afresh, and the duchess tried to soothe her.
"I believe I will pray to the Virgin. She may help us," said the girl, in a voice that was plaintively childlike.
"It is a pious thought, Mary," answered the duchess.
Yolanda slipped from the divan to the floor, and, kneeling, buried her face in her mother's lap. She prayed aloud:—
"Blessed Virgin, Thou seest my dire need. Help me. My prayer is short, but Thou, Blessed Lady, knowest how fervent it is." The duchess crossed herself, bowed her head, and murmured a fervent "Amen."
Yolanda rose from her prayer with a brighter face, and exclaimed almost joyfully:—
"It was impious in me to doubt God's love, mother. I do believe I heard the Blessed Virgin say, 'Help is at hand.' At least, I felt her words, mother."
Yolanda moved about the room aimlessly for several minutes and by chance stopped at the table. She started to take up the quill and ink-well to carry them back to her parlor, which was in Darius (Darius was the name of the tower that rose from the castle battlements immediately above Castleman's House under the Wall), and her eyes rested on the small iron box in which the letter to King Louis had been deposited. An unconscious motive, perhaps it was childish curiosity, prompted her to examine the missive. She took the pouch from the box and found it unsealed. She listlessly drew out the missive and began to read, when suddenly her face grew radiant with joy. She ran excitedly to her mother, who was sitting on the divan, and exclaimed:—
"Oh! mother, the sweet Blessed Virgin has sent help!"
"In what manner, child?" asked the duchess, fondling Yolanda's hair while the girl knelt beside her.
"Here, mother, here! Here is help; here in this very letter that was intended to be my undoing. I cannot wait to thank the Holy Mother." She crossed herself and buried her face in her mother's lap while she thanked the Virgin.
"What is it, Mary, and where is the help?" asked Margaret, fearing the girl's mind had been touched by her troubles.
"Listen!" cried Yolanda.
Her excitement was so great that she could hardly see the words the bishop's scrivener had written.
"Listen, listen! Father in this letter first tells the king that he—that is, father, you understand—is going to war with Lorraine—no, with Bourbon. I am wrong again. Father is so constantly warring with some one that I cannot keep track of his enemies—against the Swiss. See, mother, it is the Swiss. He says he will go—will start—will begin the war—no, I am wrong again. I can hardly see the words. He says he will march at the head of a Burgundian army—poor soldiers, I pity them—within three weeks. Ah, how short that time seemed when I heard the letter read an hour ago. How long it is now! I wish he would march to-morrow. Three long weeks!"
"But, my dear, how will that help you?" asked the duchess. "In what manner will—"
"Do not interrupt me, mother, but hear what follows. Father says he will march in three weeks and 'begs that His Majesty of France will now move toward the immediate consummation of the treaty existing between Burgundy and France looking to the marriage of the Princess, Mademoiselle de Burgundy, with the princely Dauphin, son to King Louis.' In that word 'now,' mother, lies my help."
"In what manner does help lie in the word 'now,' child?" asked the duchess.
"In this, mother. 'Now' is a little word of three letters, n-o-v. See, mother, the letter 'v' is not perfectly made. We will extend the first prong upward, cross it and make 't' of it, using the second prong as a flourish. Then the letter will read, 'begs that His Majesty of France will not move toward the immediate consummation of the treaty.' What could be more natural than that my father should wish nothing of importance to occur until after this war with Switzerland is over? The French king, of course, will answer that he will not move in the matter, and his letter will throw father into a delightful frenzy of rage. It may even induce him to declare war against France, and to break off the treaty of marriage when he returns from Switzerland. He has often done battle for a lesser cause. It will at least prevent the marriage for the present. It may prevent it forever."
"Surely that cannot be; King Louis will immediately explain the mistake to your father," suggested Margaret.
"But father, you know, will not listen to an explanation if he fears it may avert blows," returned Yolanda; "and he will be sure not to believe King Louis whose every word he doubts. I shall enjoy King Louis' efforts to explain. 'Hypocrite,' 'liar,' 'coward,' 'villain,' will be among father's most endearing terms when speaking of His Majesty. If by chance the error of 'not' for 'now' be discovered, the Bishop of Cambrai and father will swear it is King Louis who has committed the forgery. But should the worst come, our 't' will have answered its purpose, at least for the present. The bishop may suffer, but I care not. He did his part in bringing about this marriage treaty, bribed, doubtless, by King Louis' gold. In any case, we have no reason to constitute ourselves the bishop's guardians. We have all we can do to care for ourselves—and more."
She sprang to her feet and danced about the room, ardently kissing the letter she had so recently dreaded.
"Mary, you frighten me," said the duchess. "If we should be discovered in changing this letter, I do believe your father would kill us. I do not know that it would be right to make the alteration. It would be forgery, and that, you know, is a crime punishable by death."
"We shall not be discovered," said Mary. "You must have no part in this transaction, mother. Father would not kill me; I am too valuable as a chattel of trade. With my poor little self he can buy the good-will of kings and princes. I am more potent than all his gold. This alteration can be no sin; it is self-defence. Think how small it is, mother. It is only a matter of the crossing of a 't.' But I care not how great the crime may be; I believe, mother, I would commit murder to save myself from the fate father wishes to put upon me."
"You frighten me, child," said Margaret. "I tremble in terror at what you propose to do."
"I, too, am trembling, mother," sighed Yolanda, "but you must now leave the room. You must know nothing of this great crime."
The girl laughed nervously and tried to push her mother from the room.
"No, I will remain," said the duchess. "I almost believe that you are right, and that the Virgin has prompted you to do this to save yourself."
"I know she has," answered Yolanda, crossing herself. "Now leave me. I must waste no more time."
"I will remain with you, Mary," said Margaret, "and I will myself make the alteration. Then I'll take all the blame in case we are discovered."
Margaret rose, walked over to the table, and took up the quill. She trembled so violently that she could not control her hand.
"No, mother, you shall not touch it," cried Yolanda, snatching the parchment from the countess and holding it behind her. "If I would let you, you could not make the alteration; see, your hand trembles! You would blot the parchment and spoil all this fine plan of mine. Give me the quill, mother! Give me the quill!"
She took the quill from Margaret's passive hand and sat down at the table. Spreading the missive before her, she dipped the quill in the ink-well, and when she lifted it, a drop of ink fell upon the table within a hair's breadth of the parchment.
"Ah, Blessed Virgin!" cried Yolanda, snatching the missive away from the ink blot. "If the ink had fallen on the parchment, we surely had been lost. I, too, am trembling, and I dare not try to make the alteration now. What a poor, helpless creature I am, when I cannot even cross a 't' to save myself. Blessed Virgin, help me once more!"
But help did not come. Yolanda's excitement grew instead of subsiding, and she was so wrought upon by a nameless fear that she began to weep. Margaret seated herself on the divan and covered her face with her hands. Yolanda walked the floor like a caged wild thing, uttering ejaculatory prayers to the Virgin. Again she took up the quill, but again put it down, exclaiming:—
"I have it, mother! There is a friend of whom I have often told you—Sir Karl. He will help us if I can bring him here in time. If father has left the castle, I'll take the letter to my parlor and fetch Sir Karl. He is a brave, strong old man and his hand will not tremble."
Yolanda left the room and soon returned.
"Father has gone to the marshes," she whispered excitedly. "We have ample time if I can find Sir Karl."
She took the missive, the ink, and the quill to her parlor in Darius Tower, and hurried to Castleman's house. How she got there I will soon tell you.
She found Twonette sewing, and hastily explained her wishes.
"Run, Twonette, to The Mitre, and fetch me Sir Karl. I don't want Sir Max to know that I am sending. I think Sir Max has gone falconing with father; I pray God he has gone, and I pray that Sir Karl has not. Tell Sir Karl to come to me at once. If he is not at the inn send for him. If you love me, Twonette, make all haste. Run! Run!"
Twonette's haste was really wonderful. When she found me her cheeks were like red roses, and she could hardly speak for lack of breath. For the first and last time I saw Twonette shorn of her serenity.
The duke had not invited me to go hawking, and fortunately I had stayed at home cuddling the thought that Yolanda was the Princess Mary, and that my fair Prince Max had found rare favor in her eyes.
"Yolanda wants you at my father's house immediately," said Twonette, when I stepped outside the inn door. "The need is urgent beyond measure." Whereupon she courtesied and turned away. Twonette held that words were not made to be wasted, so I asked no questions. I almost ran to Castleman's house, and was taken at once to a large room in the second story. It was on the west side of the house immediately against the castle wall. The walls of the room were sealed with broad oak panels, beautifully carved, and the west end of the apartment—that next the castle wall—was hung with silk tapestries. When I entered the room I found Yolanda alone. She hurriedly closed the door after me and spoke excitedly:—
"I am so glad Twonette found you, Sir Karl. I am in dire need. Will you help me?"
"I will help you if it is in my power, Yolanda," I answered. "You can ask nothing which I will not at least try to do."
"Even at the risk of your life?" she asked, placing her hand upon my arm.
"Even to the loss of my life, Yolanda," I replied.
"Would you commit an act which the law calls a crime?" she asked, trembling in voice and limb.
"I would do that which is really a crime, if I might thereby serve you to great purpose," I answered. "God often does apparent evil that good may come of it. An act must be judged as a whole, by its conception, its execution, and its result. Tell me what you wish me to do, and I will do it without an 'if'—God giving me the power."
"Then come with me."
She took my hand and led me to the end of the room next the castle wall. There she held the draperies to one side while she pushed back one of the oak panels. Through this opening we passed, and the draperies fell together behind us. After Yolanda had opened the panel a moment of light revealed to me a flight of stone steps built in the heart of the castle wall, which at that point was sixteen feet thick. When Yolanda closed the panel, we were in total darkness. She took my left hand in her left and with her right arm at my back guided me up the long, dark stairway. While mounting the steps, she said:—"Now, Sir Karl, you have all my great secrets—at least, they are very great to me. You know who I am, and you know of this stairway. No one knows of it but my mother, uncle, aunt, Twonette, and my faithful tire-woman, Anne. Even my father does not know of its existence. If he knew, he would soon close it. My grandfather, Duke Philip the Good, built it in the wall to connect his bedroom with the house of his true friend, burgher Castleman. Some day I'll tell you the story of the stairway, and how I discovered it. My bedroom is the one my grandfather occupied."
The stairway explained to me all the strange occurrences relating to Yolanda's appearances and disappearances at Castleman's house, and it will do the same for you.
After we had climbed until I felt that surely we must be among the clouds, I said:—
"Yolanda, you must be leading me to heaven."
"I should like to do that, Sir Karl," she responded, laughing softly.
"I would gladly give my life to lead you and Max to heaven," said I.
"Ah, Sir Karl," she answered gently, pressing my hand and caressingly placing her cheek against my arm. "I dare not even think on that. If he could and would take me, believing me to be a burgher girl, he would truly lead me to heaven."
After a pause, while we rested to take a breath, I said: "What is it you want me to do, Yolanda? I am unarmed."
"I shall not ask you to do murder, Sir Karl," she said, laughing nervously. I fancied I could see a sparkle of mirth in her eyes as she continued: "It is not so bad as that. Neither is there a dragon for you to overthrow. But I shall soon enlighten you—here we are at the top of the steps."
At the moment she spoke I collided with a heavy oak partition, in which Yolanda quickly found a moving panel, and we entered a dimly lighted room. I noticed among the furniture a gorgeously tapestried bed. A rich rug, the like of which I had seen in Damascus, covered the floor. The stone walls were draped with silk tapestry, and a jewelled lamp was pendant from the vaulted ceiling. This was Yolanda's bedroom, and truly it was a resting-place worthy of the richest princess in Christendom. I felt that I was in the holy of holies. I found difficulty in believing that the childlike Yolanda could be so important a personage in the politics of Europe. She seemed almost to belong to me, so much at that time did she lean on my strength.
Out of her sleeping apartment she led me to another and a larger room, lighted by broad windows cut through the inner wall of the castle, which at that point was not more than three or four feet thick. This was Yolanda's parlor. The floor, like that of the bedroom, was covered with a Damascus rug. The windows were closed by glass of crystal purity, and the furniture was richer than any I had seen in the emperor's palace.
Yolanda led me to a table, pointed to a chair for me, and drew up one for herself. At that moment a lady entered, whom Yolanda ran to meet. The princess took the lady's hand and led her to me:—
"Sir Karl, this is my mother. As you already know, she is my stepmother, but I forget that in the love I bear her, and in the sweet love she gives to me."
I bent my knee before the duchess, who gave me her hand to kiss, saying:—
"The princess has often spoken to me of you, Sir Karl. I see she has crept into your heart. She wins all who know her."
"My devotion to Her Highness is self-evident and needs no avowal," I answered, "but I take pleasure in declaring it. I am ready to aid her at whatever cost."
"Has the princess told you what she wants you to do?" asked the duchess.
I answered that she had not, but that I was glad to pledge myself unenlightened. I then placed a chair for the duchess, but, of course, remained standing. Yolanda resumed her chair, and said:—
"Fetch a chair, Sir Karl. We are glad to have you sit, are we not, mother?"
"Indeed we are," said Margaret. "Please sit by the table, and the princess will explain why she brought you here."
"I believe I can now do it myself, mother," said Yolanda, taking a folded parchment from its pouch.
"See, my hand is perfectly steady. Sir Karl has given me strength."
She spread the parchment before her, and, taking a quill from the table, dipped it in the ink-well.
"I'll not need you after all, Sir Karl. I find I can commit my own crime," she said, much to my disappointment. I was, you see, eager to sin for her. I longed to kill some one or to do some other deed of valiant and perilous villany.
Yolanda bent over the missive, quill in hand, but hesitated. She changed her position on the chair, squaring herself before the parchment, and tried again, but she seemed unable to use the quill. She placed it on the table and laughed nervously.
"I surely am a great fool," she said. "When I take the quill in my hand, I tremble like a squire on his quintain trial. I'll wait a moment, and grow calm again," she added, with a fluttering little laugh peculiar to her when she was excited. But she did not grow calm, and after she had vainly taken up the quill again and again, her mother said:—
"Poor child! Tell Sir Karl what you wish him to do."
Yolanda did so, and then read the missive. I did not know the English language perfectly, but Yolanda, who spoke it as if it were her mother tongue, translated as she read. I had always considered the island language harsh till I heard Yolanda speak it. Even the hissing "th" was music on her lips. Had I been a young man I would doubtless have made a fool of myself for the sake of this beautiful child-woman. When she had finished reading the missive, she left her chair and came to my side. She bent over my shoulder, holding the parchment before me.
"What I want to do, but can't—what I want you to do is so small and simple a matter that it is almost amusing. I grow angry when I think that I cannot do so little a thing to help myself; but you see, Sir Karl, I tremble and my hand shakes to that extent I fear to mar the page. I simply want to make the letter 't' on this parchment and I can't. Will you do it for me?"
"Ay, gladly," I responded, "but where and why?" Then she pointed out to me the word "nov" in the manuscript and said:—
"A letter 't,' if deftly done, will make 'not' instead of 'nov.' Do you understand, Sir Karl?"
I sprang to my feet as if I had been touched by a sword-point. The thought was so ingenious, the thing itself was so small and the result was so tremendous that I stood in wonder before the daring girl who had conceived it. I made no answer. I placed the parchment on the table, unceremoniously reached in front of the duchess for the quill, and in less time than one can count three I made a tiny ink mark not the sixteenth part of an inch long that changed the destinies of nations for all time to come.
I placed the quill on the table and turned to Yolanda, just in time to catch her as she was about to fall. I was frightened at the sight of her pale face and cried out:—
Margaret quickly brought a small goblet of wine, and I held the princess while I opened her lips and poured a portion of the drink into her mouth. I had in my life seen, without a tremor, hundreds of men killed, but I had never seen a woman faint, and the sight almost unmanned me.
Stimulated by the wine Yolanda soon revived; and when she opened her eyes and smiled up into my face, I was so joyful that I fell to kissing her hands and could utter no word save "Yolanda, Yolanda." She did not at once rise from my arms, but lay there smiling into my face as if she were a child. When she did rise she laughed softly and said, turning to the duchess:—
"'Yolanda' is the name by which Sir Karl knows me. You see, mother, I was not mistaken in deeming him my friend."
Then she turned suddenly to me, and taking my rough old hand in hers, lifted it to her lips. That simple act of childish gratitude threw me into a fever of ecstasy so great that death itself could have had no terrors for me. He might have come when he chose. I had lived through that one moment, and even God could not rob me of it.
Yolanda moved away from me and took up the parchment.
"Don't touch it till the ink dries," I cried sharply.
She dropped it as if it were hot, and the duchess came to me, and graciously offered her hand:—
"I thank you with my whole heart, not only for what you have done, but for the love you bear the princess. She is the one I love above all others, and I know she loves me. I love those who love her. As the French say, 'Les amies de mes amies sont mes amies.' I am a poor helpless woman, more to be pitied than the world can believe. I have only my gratitude to offer you, Sir Karl, but that shall be yours so long as I live."
"Your Grace's reward is far too great for the small service I have rendered," I replied, dropping to my knee. I was really beginning to live in my sixtieth year. I was late in starting, but my zest for life was none the less, now that I had at last learned its sweetness through these two gracious women.
When we had grown more composed, Yolanda explained to me her hopes regarding the French king's answer to the altered missive, and the whole marvellous possibilities of the letter "t" dawned upon my mind. The princess bent over the parchment, watching our mighty "t" while the ink was drying, but the process was too slow for her, so she filled her cheeks and breathed upon the writing. The color returned to her face while I watched her, and I felt that committing a forgery was a small price to pay for witnessing so beautiful a sight. Yolanda's breath soon dried the ink, and then we examined my work. I had performed wonders. The keenest eye could not detect the alteration. Yolanda, as usual, sprang from the deepest purgatory of trouble to the seventh heaven of joy. She ran about the room, singing, dancing, and laughing, until the duchess warned her to be quiet. Then she placed her hand over her mouth, shrugged her shoulders, walked on tiptoe, and spoke only in whispers. Margaret smiled affectionately at Yolanda's childish antics and said:—