The Fool's Love Story
The Fool's Love Story
Kuoni von Stocken, the Hofknarr of Sachsenberg, heaves a weary sigh and a strange, half-sad, half-scornful expression sits upon his lean sardonic countenance, as, turning his back to the gay crowd of courtiers that fills the Ballroom of the Palace of Schwerlingen, he passes out on to the balcony, and bends his glance upon the sleeping town below.
Resting his elbows upon the cool stone and his chin upon his hands, he may breathe the free, unpolluted air of heaven, out here; he may permit his face to assume what expression it lists; in a word, he may rest--if rest there be for one whose soul is full of bitterness and gall, whose heart is well-nigh bursting with the hopeless passion it conceals.
He is sadly changed of late, this nimble-witted fool! Time was when his jests were bright and merry and wounded none save the arrogant and vain who deserved no better; but now, alas! he has grown morose and moody, and moves, listless and silent, deep in strange musings from which he but awakens at times, to give vent to such bursts of ghastly and even blasphemous mirth, as make men shudder and women cross themselves, deeming him possessed of devils.
His tongue, from which the bright and sparkling bon-mots were once listened to with avidity, is now compared, not inadequately, with the fangs of some poisonous snake. And many who have felt its stinging sarcasms, pray devoutly that his Majesty may soon deem fit to look about him for a new jester.
The young French nobleman, the Marquis de Savignon, in the honour of whose fiançailles with the lady Louisa von Lichtenau, to-night's fête is held, seems to have become in particular the butt for the jester's most biting gibes. This the Court thinks strange, for the young Frenchman has ever treated Kuoni kindly.
What is amiss? Some swear that he is growing old; but that is untrue, for he is scarce thirty years of age and in point of strength and agility--though but a jester--he has no equal in the army of Sachsenberg. Others jestingly whisper that he is in love, and little do they dream how near the truth they are!
Alas! Poor Kuoni! For ten years he has gloried in his suit of motley, but now of a sudden he seems to grow ashamed of his quaint black tunic with its cap and bells and pointed cape, and in his secret shame, at times he hangs his head; at times he curses bitterly to himself the fate which has made him the sport of courtiers, and which seems to forget that he is human, and that he has a heart.
As he stands upon the balcony, gazing aimlessly now up into the starlit summer sky, now down upon the sleeping city of Schwerlingen, his long, lithe figure bathed in a flood of light from the window behind him and his ears assailed by sounds of music and of revelry, the wretched jester feels--as he has never felt until to-night--the bitter ignominy of his position. In an agony rendered all the more terrible by the despair that fills his soul, he flings himself down upon a stone seat in a corner, and covers his face with his hands. Thus he sits for some few moments, his vigorous frame shaken by a fierce sobbing which no tears come to relieve, until a step close at hand bids him make an effort to overcome his emotion.
The tall, slim figure of a girl stands for a moment framed in the open casement, and as, raising his eyes, Kuoni beholds her, he springs suddenly to his feet and turns his pale countenance towards her, so that the light from the room beyond falls full upon it, revealing clearly the signs of the storm of agony that has swept across the jester's soul.
An exclamation of wonder escapes the girl at the sight of that distorted face.
"Kuoni!" she cries, coming forward, "what is amiss? Have you seen a ghost?"
"Aye, Madame," he answers, in accents full of bitter, bitter sadness, "I have indeed seen a ghost--the ghost of happiness."
"And is the sight then so distressing as your face and tone would tell me? Why, I should have deemed it otherwise."
"Yes, were it tangible, attainable happiness that I had beheld; but I said the ghost of happiness--in other words, the reflection of the joys of others--a shadow well calculated to strike despair into the hearts of those wretches who may not grasp the substance."
"And are you one of those wretches, Kuoni?" enquires the girl, her tone full of an interest and sympathy such as a wise man might have misconstrued but which the fool does not. "Why, 'tis said," she continues, "that a jester's is a gay and careless life. I have even heard it said by some of those fine gentlemen yonder that it gives rise to envy in them."
"I doubt it not, I doubt it not," he answers with a laugh of scorn, "and I dare swear there are many of them whom a fool's cap would fit better than it does me!"
Then abruptly changing his tone and becoming earnest--
"Fraulein von Lichtenau," he says, scarce above a whisper, "this fête to-night is given in honour of your betrothal; will you deign to accept a poor jester's deepest, sincerest wishes for your happiness."
There is something so strange and curious in his tone that the girl feels herself unaccountably moved by it.
"I accept them and thank you, friend Kuoni, with all my heart," she answers kindly, giving him her hand.
"You call me friend Kuoni," he cries, drawing a step nearer. "You call the poor fool, friend! May God bless you for that word!"
"Kuoni! Kuoni!" comes a voice from within; but he heeds it not as, stooping, he raises her hand to his lips and kisses the slender fingers, as one might kiss a sacred relic.
"May God bless you, Madame, and if ever it should be your lot to need a friend, I swear it, by the Mass, that he whom you now honour with that proud title will be at hand."
Then, tearing himself away before she has time to answer, he enters the salon.
"Kuoni! Kuoni! Where are you?" cry a dozen voices.
"I am here," he answers sourly; "what is amiss? Are there not fools enough assembled in one room, but that you must clamour for me to swell your number?"
He has worn a mask too long to forget the part he plays in life, and as he stands now before them, all traces of his late emotion have disappeared from his face, albeit the natural expression, half-melancholic, half-scornful, remains.
With his dark eyes he sweeps the glittering throng of Court beauties and gay gallants waiting for some one to take up his challenge.
Where are Felsheim, Altenburg, Briedewald, and the other witty triflers of ready tongue? Silent! All silent--for they know the jester's virulence too well to expose themselves to its venom in open Court.
It is the débonnaire young foreigner, the Marquis de Savignon, who is rash enough to cross weapons with him.
"They tell me, Kuoni," he remarks with a complacent laugh, and in excellent German tainted but slightly by a foreign accent, "that you are thinking of abandoning the motley and turning courtier instead."
"That were easy," answers the jester with a shrug, "for 'twixt fool and courtier there lies but a difference of designation."
"Aye, aye," goes on de Savignon, "but ponder for a moment, my prince of fools, and think of what would become of Sachsenberg in your absence. His Majesty will never find such another fool!"
"Not unless he appoints you my successor," is the cool, sharp answer, whereat a titter arises among those who stand about, which makes the vain Frenchman turn pale with anger.
"You seem to forget, master fool," he says harshly, "that you are addressing the Marquis de Savignon and not bandying words with a fellow-clown!"
He has wounded the jester more deeply than he imagines, and Kuoni's proud spirit writhes and swells within him 'neath the stinging lash of the Marquis' scornful words, which remind him anew of the gulf that lies between their social positions. But naught of this is visible on his face, over which a bland, indulgent smile is softly spreading.
Only those who are well acquainted with him notice the slight compression of his thin lips, which, to them, forebodes a cutting retort.
His head on one side and his hand on his chin, he regards de Savignon for a moment through lids half closed, as it were, in languor. Then, slowly and almost wearily, he makes answer:
"Nay, Monsieur de Savignon, forgetfulness, methinks, lies more with your family than mine. Was it not you yourself, my lord, who, whilst at the siege of La Rochelle--so the story goes--one day when the Rochellais made a fierce sortie, forgot where the battle was being fought? So that in your absent-mindedness you galloped madly south, and by nightfall you were found at Royan, a good ten leagues from the scene of action."
It is de Savignon's turn to tremble now, and as a great burst of laughter greets the jester's sally, his complexion is of a greyish tint and his teeth are clenched in anger, noting which, Kuoni continues pitilessly:
"Do you not see the humour of it, my lord? Why look so glum? Bah! You weary me; there is no more wit in your soul than milk in an oyster!"
And with an easy laugh which contains almost a ring of contempt, the jester moves away to let others feel the sting of his tongue, from which none, save the King, are sacred.
For a moment, the Frenchman follows the tall symmetrical figure with his eyes, then, deeming it best to affect unconcern, he shrugs his shoulders and, giving vent to a mirthless laugh, passes out on to the balcony to seek balm for his wounded spirit at the hands of his betrothed.
During the weeks that follow upon the night of the fête whereat Kuoni von Stocken so signally insulted the Marquis de Savignon, these two men are careful to shun each other's presence.
The proud and vain French cavalier is not likely to forget the humiliation to which he has been subjected, and the memory of it is wont to make his fingers close over the jewelled hilt of his toy dagger and black vows of vengeance arise in his heart, fostering the hatred in which he holds the jester.
But it is not his dagger alone that is ready to do murder. Ugly thoughts are running in Kuoni's mind, and one night when de Savignon sits, easy in spirit for the while, telling the lady Louisa something that he has already recited to her upon several former occasions, he little dreams that from the curtains at his back two great lustrous eyes are watching them, and that a nervous hand is gripping a keen Italian blade. Did he but know how near at hand is death, his laugh would be less gay, his manner less unconcerned, his mind less easy. But he knows naught of this, and some angel must be watching over him, for the armed hand, uplifted in menace, does not descend, the jester sheathes his poniard and departs noiselessly the way he came.
But as the weeks go swiftly by and the nuptials of the marquis are fast approaching, the strange and unaccountable moodiness of the whilom lighthearted jester grows more and more accentuated. Each day he seems to grow visibly thinner, as if some fell disease were gnawing at his vitals and slowly sapping his life and strength. Each day his pale cheeks appear paler and under his eyes there are deep black circles, suggestive of pain and suffering and sleepless nights.
A more wretched, woe-begone picture than the poor fool presents, when none are by to spy upon his feelings, it were difficult to conceive.
Meanwhile, however, there are other and graver matters to be considered in the kingdom of Sachsenberg than the secret agony of a lovesick jester. Rumours are abroad of a conspiracy to overthrow the Sonsbeck dynasty, organised, it is said, by many great lords, tired of their young King, Ludwig IV., who seems overmuch engrossed in imitating the vices of the Court of his French cousin to pay great heed to matters of state and the welfare of his people.
'Tis a weakness not uncommon to kings, especially young ones, for monarchs are but ordinary folk when stripped of their purple. Ludwig, however, is blessed with a character which, in some matters, is as firm and earnest as it is weak and frivolous in others; moreover, he is doubly blessed in the possession of an astute and far-seeing servant in the person of the Ritter Heinrich von Grunhain, the Captain of his Guards.
He has been forced to listen to the grave things which this gentleman has to relate, concerning the dissatisfaction of some of the nobles who are zealously inciting the people to open rebellion, and a drastic line of action has been drawn up.
The King is seated in his cabinet one night, about a month after the fête dealt with in the preceding chapter, and a week before the day appointed for the wedding of the lady Louisa von Lichtenau.
Around the table five men are grouped; two are old and faithful servants of the late king, his father--the Duke of Ottrau and the Count von Horst; two are men still in the prime of life, Ritter von Grunhain, the Captain of his Guards, and Herr von Retzbach, his Minister; whilst the fifth is none other than the gay young Lord von Ronshausen, his favourite.
There is a solemn and anxious look upon the faces of these six men, for it is being decided that upon that very night Sachsenberg shall tear a gruesome page from the history of France--there is to be a parody of the St. Bartholomée in Schwerlingen before sunrise.
"It is better thus, my lords," says the King, and although his face is pale and haggard, his voice is calm; "for were we to publish the matter, and give the traitors open trial, who knows what might ensue? Men are ever ready to revolt against those who rule them, and who can say but that the trial of these rebels would swell the ranks of the disloyal--for treason is an infectious malady--and prove the signal for open revolt? As it is, when the news goes round, to-morrow, that ten noble lords have been found murdered in their beds, there will be much marvelling and much surmising--also, maybe, some grief--but those who have listened to the doctrines of these ten, and sharpened their weapons in anticipation of a fray, will understand, and will be stricken with terror at the awful fate which has overtaken their leaders. Believe me, gentlemen, they will be silent and they will disperse."
"Will not your Majesty consider--" began the grey-haired Duke of Ottrau; but the King cut him short.
"I have considered, my lords, and I have decided. What matters the manner of these men's death? They have richly earned their fate, and if they were openly tried they could not escape the scaffold--so what difference does it make whether it be the dagger or the axe? None to them, but much to me."
The tone is too determined to permit of further argument. It but remains for Grunhain to receive his Majesty's instructions.
"Here is the list, Captain," the King continues, taking a paper from the table. "I will read out the names of those whom we have sentenced: Kervenheim von Huld, Nienberge, Blankenburg, Eberholz, Retzwald, Leubnitz, Hartenstein, Reussbach, and the French Marquis de Savignon."
"Concerning that last one, Sire," ventures Ronshausen, the favourite, "has your Majesty remembered that he is a subject of the King of France?"
"I have," answers Ludwig, "and I have also remembered that he--a foreigner to whom I have ever shown great favour and consideration, and who, were he to live, would wed one of the noblest ladies of my Court--couples ingratitude with his treason. No doubt he whom they intend to set up in my stead has bribed him richly; but he shall pay for his folly, as others are paying for theirs, with his life: and I fail to see how I am to be made accountable to the King of France for the chance assassination of a subject of his, in my capital. The matter is settled, gentlemen; Ritter von Grunhain knows how to see to its execution. There is no more to be said," he goes on, rising, "but when you hear midnight striking in the belfry of St. Oswald, say a prayer, gentlemen, for the repose of the souls of ten traitors whose knell it will be sounding. And now, let us join the Court."
One by one, they pass out after the King, and then, when the door has closed upon the last of them, a head peeps forth from the rich damask drapery that curtains one of the windows, and a pair of dark eyes hastily survey the room: the next instant the curtains are parted and Kuoni von Stocken steps forth.
There is a look of fierce, almost fiendish exultation on his swart face, and the low mocking laugh that bursts from his thin lips can be likened to nothing save the chuckle of the Tempter in his hour of victory.
"So, my lord of Savignon, you have been meddling in politics, eh?" he murmurs, rubbing his lean, nervous hands together; "and to-night you die. Fool! Arch-fool! That you should be well-born, rich, high in favour at the Courts of France and Sachsenberg alike, did not suffice your greed, but you must wish to become a moulder of history besides, and like many another such before you, you have destroyed yourself! Oh, what a thing is man! Faugh!"
And with a sneer of contempt for the whole human race in general and the Marquis de Savignon in particular, Kuoni flings himself into the chair lately occupied by the King.
"To think," he goes on, "that a man about to become the husband of such a woman as the lady Louisa von Lichtenau should trifle and fence with death! By the Mass, Sire," he cries, raising his long arm and speaking as if the King were there to hear him, "slay him not! Spare him and clothe him in my suit of motley; he is too marvellous a fool to die!"
Then, of a sudden, the mocking smile fades from his face, to be replaced by a grave, sad look, as the thought occurs to him: "What will the lady Louisa think to-morrow, when the news is carried to her? How will she bear it?"
That she loves de Savignon with all her heart and soul the jester knows full well, and as he thinks of it he grinds his teeth and drives his nails into the palms of his clenched hands.
His imagination pictures her as she will be to-morrow, and into his soul there comes a great overwhelming wave of sorrow and of pity for her, which cleanses and purifies it of the sinful joy which it harboured but a moment back. "She will pine away and die of it," he tells himself, "even as I am pining and dying for love of her! Alas! poor Louisa!" And he sighs heavily and sorrowfully. Then resting his chin upon his hands and his elbows on his knees, he sits there deep in thought, his eyes bent upon the floor.
And thus he sits on for nigh upon an hour, thinking strange thoughts in a strange manner, and revolving in his mind a strange resolve. At last, chancing to raise his eyes, his glance alights upon the gold and ivory time-piece. The sight rouses him, for springing suddenly to his feet--
"Himmel!" he cries. "It wants but half-an-hour to midnight--to the sounding of his knell."
He pauses for a moment, undecided, then walks swiftly towards the door and disappears.
Now it chanced that, owing to a fire which had, a few days before, destroyed the Palais Savignon, in the Klosterstrasse, the marquis found himself the guest of his future father-in-law, the Graf von Lichtenau.
Upon the night in question--which a scarlet page of the Chronicles of Sachsenberg tells us was that of the 12th of August of 1635--de Savignon had retired to the room set apart in his suite as his bedchamber, just as eleven was striking.
Feeling himself as yet wakeful, the Frenchman, whose mood is naturally a poetic one, takes down a French translation of the Odyssey, and, flinging himself into a luxurious chair, is soon lost in the adventures of Ulysses on the Island of Calypso. His heart is full of sympathy for the demi-goddess and of contempt for the King of Ithaca, when a rustling of the window-curtains brings him back to Sachsenberg and his surroundings, with a start. Glancing up, he beholds a dark shadow in the casement, and before he can so much as move a finger a man has sprung into the room, and Kuoni von Stocken stands before him with a strange look upon his face.
Imagining that the visit has no friendly purport, the Marquis draws a dagger from his belt, whereat the shadow of a smile flits across the jester's solemn countenance.
"Put up your weapon, Monsieur de Savignon," he says calmly, "I am no assassin, but there are others coming after me who deserve the title."
"What do you mean?" enquires the Marquis haughtily.
"I bring you news, Monsieur," replies Kuoni, sinking his voice to a whisper, "that the plot to overthrow the Sonsbeck dynasty is discovered."
The Frenchman bounds from his chair as if someone had prodded him with a dagger.
"You lie!" he shrieks.
"Do I?" answers the other indifferently, "then if it is not yet discovered, how comes it that I am acquainted with it?"
Then, as if blind to Savignon's agitation, he goes on in the same deliberate accents.
"I also bring you news that his Majesty is possessed of a list of the names of the principal leaders; that your name figures upon that list, and that it is the King's good pleasure that when midnight strikes from St. Oswald it will announce to ten gentleman that their last hour on earth is spent; for into the room of each there will penetrate three executioners to carry out the death-sentence which was passed upon them without trial, two hours ago, by the King."
The Frenchman is too dazed to reply for a moment; he drops back into his chair, his cheeks blanched with terror and his eyes staring wildly at the jester. The matter is too grave, Kuoni's manner too impressive, to leave any doubts as to the accuracy of his statement.
"And are you one of the three assassins to whom my end has been entrusted?" says de Savignon at length, a gleam of hatred in his eye and the memory of his feud with the jester in his mind.
"No," replies Kuoni simply.
"Then why are you here?" the other cries vehemently. "Why? Answer me! Have you come to gloat over my end?"
"I have come to make an attempt to save you," is the cold, proud answer.
"To save me? Did I hear you aright?"
"Aye, to save you. But come, my lord, there is not a moment to lose if I am to be successful. Off with your doublet. Quick!"
And as the Marquis mechanically proceeds to obey him, the jester goes on:
"In front of the Rathhaus, at the corner of the Klosterstrasse, you will find a carriage in waiting. Enter it without speaking; the driver has received his instructions and will convey you to the village of Lossnitz, three leagues from here. There is a suit of clothes in the coach, which you will do well to don. When you stop at the hostelry of the Schwarzen Hirsch, you will find a horse ready for you; turn its head towards the frontier; by sunrise you will be a good fifteen leagues from Schwerlingen, and beyond King Ludwig's reach when he discovers that you have not died; whilst to-morrow night, if you ride well, you should sleep in France. Come, take my coat." And, advancing, Kuoni holds out his long black tunic, which he has removed whilst speaking.
The livery of motley makes the Frenchman pause, and a suspicion flashes across his mind.
"This is not one of your jests, sir fool?"
"If you doubt me," cries Kuoni, with an impatient gesture, "wait and see."
"No, no, Kuoni, I believe you," he exclaims, "but why is this necessary?"
"Why?" echoes the other. "Oh thou far-seeing sage! What would the coachman who is to drive you think, did he behold a cavalier return in my stead? Besides, what if you chanced upon your assassins between this and the Rathhaus? Do you not see how my cap and bells would serve you?"
"True, true," murmurs the other.
"Then waste no more time; it wants but a few minutes to midnight now. Come, on with it!"
Savignon wriggles into the black velvet tunic and Kuoni draws the hood, surmounted by the cock's comb, well over his head, so that it conceals his features, then, standing back to judge the effect:
"By the Mass!" he ejaculates with a grim laugh, "how well it becomes you! Did I not always say it would! Here, take my bauble as well, and there you stand as thorough a fool as ever strutted in a Royal anteroom. Who would have thought it? de Savignon turned fool and Kuoni turned courtier! Ha! ha! 'tis a merry jest, a jest of that prince of jesters--Death!"
"Your merriment is out of season," grumbles the Marquis.
"And so is your chocolate hose with that tunic; but it matters not, 'tis all a part of this colossal jest."
Then growing serious of a sudden:
"Are you ready? Then follow me; I will set you on your way."
Opening the door, the jester leads the nobleman, silently and with stealthy tread, out of his chamber and down the broad oak staircase.
He pauses by the wainscot, in the spacious hall below, and after searching for a few seconds, he alights upon a spring--which, fortunately, he knows of old. A panel slides back and reveals an opening through which he conducts the Frenchman.
They emerge presently into a courtyard at the back of the mansion, and through a small postern they pass out into the street.
Here they pause for a moment; it is commencing to rain; the sky is overcast and the night is inky black.
"Yonder lies your road," says Kuoni; "at the corner you will find the coach. Do as I told you, and may God speed you. Farewell!"
"But you?" exclaims de Savignon, a thought for the jester's safety arising at last in his mind; "are you not coming?"
"I cannot. I must return to impersonate you and receive your visitors, for, did they find you gone, the pursuit would commence before you were clear of the city, and you would, of a certainty, be taken."
"But you will be in danger!"
"Have no concern on that score," is the reply, delivered in grim accents.
"Enough of buts; begone before midnight strikes, or, by the Mass, your stay in Schwerlingen will be unpleasantly prolonged. Farewell!"
And, stepping back, the jester slams the door and de Savignon is left alone, shivering with cold. For a moment the idea again occurs to him that he is being victimised by Kuoni. But he remembers that were the plot undiscovered the jester would scarcely be in possession of the secret.
Next he begins to marvel why Kuoni should evince such solicitude for his escape and for his life, after having always shown himself so bitter an enemy in the past. However, fear overcomes his doubts; so, swearing that if the fool has duped him he will return, if it be only to wring his neck, he sets off briskly in the direction indicated.
Meanwhile, Kuoni has retraced his steps to the Frenchman's bedchamber: tricked out in de Savignon's clothes and with de Savignon's hat drawn well over his brows, so as to shade his face, he flings himself into the chair lately occupied by the Marquis--and waits.
Presently the deep-toned bell of St. Oswald's chimes out the hour of midnight; scarce has the vibration of the last stroke died away on the silent night air, when his ear detects another and nearer sound.
He springs up, and turning finds himself confronted by three masked men, standing, sword in hand, by the open window through which they have entered. In an instant he has drawn de Savignon's rapier from its scabbard.
"How now, my masters," he exclaims, mimicking the Frenchman's foreign accent, "what do you seek?"
"The Marquis Henri de Savignon" says one, in a voice which the jester does not recognise.
"I am he," he replies haughtily; "what is your business? Are you robbers or assassins, that you come in this guise and penetrate at such an hour into my bedchamber?"
"We bear you news," says the former speaker, delivering the words after the fashion of a man who is reciting a lesson that he has learnt by heart, "we bear you news that your treason is discovered, and in the King's name we bid you prepare to die."
"A merry jest, gentlemen! An artful story! You are certainly no common footpads, but I fear me there is some slight mistake."
"I give you five minutes, by yonder time-piece, wherein to prepare your soul for the next world."
"It is considerate of you, my masters," retorts Kuoni, the mocking spirit of the jester asserting itself, "but the boon is unrequested, and, by your leave, I trust to have many years yet wherein to carry out your amiable suggestion."
"The man is laughing at us," cries one of the hitherto silent assassins. "Let us end the business!"
His companions seek to detain him, but, going forward in spite of them, he crosses swords with Kuoni.
Seeing him engaged, the other two come forward also, and in a few minutes a terrible fight is raging. There is not, perhaps, in the whole of Sachsenberg a finer swordsman than this lithe and agile jester, but the odds are such as no man may hope to strive against victoriously. Before many minutes have elapsed, one of the assassin's swords has passed through his right breast.
With a groan he sinks forward in a heap, and the sword he lately held bounds with a noisy ring upon the parquet floor.
Hurrying steps are heard outside the room, and presently voices are discernible, as the household, disturbed by the clash of steel and the din of struggle, is hurrying towards De Savignon's room.
One of the assassins is on the point of going forward to make sure of their work, by driving his dagger into the heart of the prostrate man, when, alarmed by the approaching sounds and mindful of their orders not to allow themselves on any account to be taken, the other two drag him off through the window before he can accomplish his design.
"Come," says he who delivered the fatal blow, "he will be dead in a few minutes. That stroke never yet left a man alive."
An instant later the door of the room is burst violently open, and just as the murderers disappear into the night a curious group of half-clad men and women with frightened faces stand awe-stricken on the threshold, gazing at the spectacle before them.
"The Marquis has been slain," cries a voice, which is followed by a woman's shriek, and as the crowd divides, the old, white-haired Count of Lichtenau enters the room followed by his half-fainting daughter.
Together they stand gazing at the body on the floor, and at the dark crimson stain which is slowly spreading about it.
"Henri!" shrieks the girl, and rushing forwards, she falls on her knees beside the unconscious Kuoni. Then, as her father gently turns the body over to ascertain the nature of his hurt, another and different cry escapes her. But the jester reviving, and opening his eyes at the sound, meets her gaze and whispers faintly--
"Hush, my lady! do not say that I am not the Marquis. As you value his life, keep silent and let all believe and spread the report that the Marquis is dying."
"What does it mean? what does it mean?" she wails, wringing her hands, yet, with quick instinct, understanding that serious motives have dictated Kuoni's words.
"Send them away--your father also--I will explain," gasps the jester, and at each word he utters the blood wells forth from his wound.
When all have withdrawn, and when she has raised his head and pillowed it in her lap, he tells her all, bidding her not to allow the real truth of the matter to transpire until morning.
"And you, YOU, Kuoni, of all men, who have ever seemed to hate him, you have so nobly given your life to buy his safety!" she exclaims.
"No, my lady, I have not," he answers; "I have given my life not for him but for you. I wished to save him because you loved him. And because I wished to spare you the anguish of beholding his dead body, I have changed places with him. His life is valuable to some one--mine is worthless."
The girl can find no words wherein to answer fittingly, but her tears are falling fast and they are eloquent to him. She understands at last!
"I am so happy," he murmurs presently, "oh, so happy! Had I lived my head would never have been pillowed on your knee. Had I lived, I should never have dared to tell you--as I do now, when in the presence of death all differences of birth and station fade away--that I love you."
The girl trembles violently; then for a second their eyes meet. She were not a woman did her heart not swell with fondness and pity for the poor despised fool, who to ensure her happiness has sacrificed his life.
Growing bold in the dread presence of the Reaper--
"Louisa," he gasps, his voice still fainter than before, "I am dying; there are none to witness, and none will ever know--kiss me!"
Weeping softly, the girl stoops until her loose flowing hair falls about his head and neck, and her lips, so rich with the blood of life and youth, touch his, upon which the chill of death is settling.
A quiver runs through his frame, his chest heaves with a long last sigh--then all is still, but for the gentle sobbing of the girl whose tears are falling fast upon the upturned face, which smiles upon her in death.