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- Graustark - 30/57 -


"But he could never have forced me to marry him, and I should, sooner or later, have exposed him," she whispered, argumentatively. "He could not expect me to be silent and submit to a marriage under such circumstances. He knows that I would denounce him, even at the altar."

"You do not appreciate my estimate of that gentleman."

"What is to become of me!" she almost sobbed, in an anguish of fear. "I see now--I see plainly! It was Gabriel, and he would have done as you say." A shudder ran through her figure and he tenderly whispered in her ear:

"The danger is past. He can do no more, your Highness. Were I positive that he is the man--and I believe he is--I would hunt him down this night."

Her eyes closed happily under his gaze, her hand dropped timidly from his arm and a sweet sense of security filled her soul.

"I am not afraid," she murmured.

"Because I am here?" he asked, bending nearer.

"Because God can bless with the same hand that punishes," she answered, enigmatically, lifting her lashes again and looking into his eyes with a love at last unmasked. "He gives me a man to love and denies me happiness. He makes of me a woman, but He does not unmake me a princess. Through you, He thwarts a villain; through you, He crushes the innocent. More than ever, I thank you for coming into my life. You and you alone, guided by the God who loves and despises me, saved me from Gabriel."

"I only ask--" he began, eagerly, but she interrupted.

"You should not ask anything, for I have said I cannot pay. I owe to you all I have, but cannot pay the debt."

"I shall not again forget," he murmured.

"To-morrow, if you like, I will take you over the castle and let you see the squalor in which I exist,--my throne room, my chapel, my banquet hall, my ball room, my conservatory, my sepulchre. You may say it is wealth, but I shall call it poverty," she said, after they had watched the black monastery cut a square corner from the moon's circle.

"To-morrow, if you will be so kind."

"Perhaps I may be poorer after I have saved Graustark," she said.

"I would to God I could save you from that!" he said.

"I would to God you could," she said. Her manner changed suddenly. She laughed gaily, turning a light face to his. "I hear your friend's laugh out there in the darkness. It is delightfully infectious,"

XIV

THE EPISODE OF THE THRONE ROOM

"This is the throne room. Allode!"

The Princess Yetive paused before two massive doors. It was the next afternoon, and she had already shown him the palace of a queen--the hovel of a pauper!

Through the afternoon not one word other than those which might have passed between good friends escaped the lips of either. He was all interest, she all graciousness. Allode, the sturdy guard, swung open the doors, drew the curtain, and stood aside for them to pass. Into the quiet hall she led him, a princess in a gown of gray, a courtier in tweeds. Inside the doors he paused.

"And I thought you were Miss Guggenslocker," he said. She laughed with the glee of a child who has charmed and delighted through surprise.

"Am I not a feeble mite to sit on that throne and rule all that comes within its reach?" She directed his attention to the throne at the opposite end of the hall. "From its seat I calmly instruct gray-haired statesmen, weigh their wisdom and pass upon it as if I were Demosthenes, challenge the evils that may drive monarchs mad, and wonder if my crown is on straight."

"Let me be ambassador from the United States and kneel at the throne, your Highness."

"I could not engage in a jest with the crown my ancestors wore, Mr. Lorry. It is sacred, thou thoughtless American. Come, we will draw nearer that you may see the beauty of the workmanship in that great old chair."

They stood at the base of the low, velveted stage on which stood the chair, with its high back, its massive arms and legs ashimmer in the light from the lofty windows. It was of gold, inlaid with precious stones--diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires and other wondrous jewels--a relic of ancient Graustark.

"I never sit in the center. Always at one side or the other, usually leaning my elbow on the arm. You see, the discussions are generally so long and dreary that I become fatigued. One time,--I am ashamed to confess it, I went to sleep on the throne. That was long ago. I manage to keep awake very well of late. Do you like my throne room?"

"And to think that it is yours!"

"It is this room that gives me the right to be hailed with 'Long live the Princess!' Not with campaign yells and 'Hurrah for Yetive!' How does that sound? 'Hurrah for Yetive!'" She was laughing merrily.

"Don't say it! It sounds sacrilegious--revolting!"

"For over three years--since I was eighteen--I have been supreme in that chair. During the years of my reign prior to that time I sat there with my Uncle Caspar standing beside me. How often I begged him to sit down with me! There was so much room and he certainly must have grown tired of standing. One time I cried because he frowned at me when I persisted in the presence of a great assemblage of nobles from Dawsbergen. It seems that it was a most important audience that I was granting, but I thought more of my uncle's tired old legs. I remember saying, through my sobs of mortification, that I would have him beheaded. You are to guess whether that startling threat created consternation or mirth."

"What a whimsical little princess you must have been, weeping and pouting and going to sleep," he laughed. "And how sedate and wise you have become."

"Thank you. How very nice you are. I knave felt all along that some one would discern my effort to be dignified and sedate. They say I am wise and good and gracious, but that is to be expected. They said that of sovereigns as far back as the deluge, I've heard. Would you really like to see me in that old chair?" she asked.

"Ah, you are still a woman," he said, smiling at her pretty vanity. "Nothing could impress me more pleasantly."

She stepped carelessly and impulsively upon the royal platform, leaned against the arm of the throne, and with the charming blush of consciousness turned to him with the quickness of a guilty conscience, eager to hear his praise but fearful lest he secretly condemned her conceit. His eyes were burning with the admiration that knows no defining, and his breath came quick and sharp through parted lips. He involuntarily placed a foot upon the bottom step as if to spring to her side,

"You must not come up here!" she cried, shrinking back, her hands extended in fluttering remonstrance. "I cannot permit that, at all!"

"I beg your pardon," he cried, "That is all the humble plebeian can say. That I may be more completely under this fairy spell, pray cast about yourself the robe of rank and take up the sceptre. Perhaps I may fall upon my face."

"And hurt your head all over again," she said, laughing nervously. She hesitated for a moment, a perplexed frown crossing her brow. Then she jerked a rich robe from the back of the throne and placed it about her shoulders as only a woman can. Taking up the scepter she stood before the great chair, and, with a smile on her lips, held it above his head, saying softly:

"Graustark welcomes the American prince."

He sank to his knee before the real princess, kissed the hem of her robe and arose with face pallid. The chasm was now endless in its immensity. The princess gingerly seated herself on the throne, placed her elbow on the broad arm, her white chin in her hand, and tranquilly surveyed the voiceless American prince.

"You have not said, 'Thank you,'" she said, finally, her eyes wavering beneath his steady gaze.

"I am only thinking how easy it would be to cross the gulf that lies between us. With two movements of my body I can place it before you, with a third I can be sitting at your side. It is not so difficult after all," he said, hungrily eyeing the broad chair.

"No man, unless a prince, ever sat upon this throne," she said.

"You have called me a prince."

"Oh, I jested," she cried quickly, comprehending his intention. "I forbid you!"

The command came too late, for he was beside her on the throne of Graustark! She sat perfectly rigid for a moment, intense fear in her eyes.


Graustark - 30/57

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