How many years, thought Herbeck, had he been preparing for this moment? How long had he been steeling his heart against this very scene? Futile dream! He drew himself together with a supreme effort. He would face this hour as he had always planned to face it. Found out! He looked at his finger, touched it with an impersonal curiosity. He had forgotten all about such a possibility. Where had he read that there is no crime but leaves some evidence, infinitesimally small though it be, which shall lead to the truth? After all, he was glad. The strain, borne so long, was gradually killing him. A little finger, to have stopped the wheel of so great a scheme! Irony!
“Your Highness,” he said, his voice soft and strangely clear, “I have been waiting for this hour. So I am found out! How little we know what God intends!”
“You speak of God? You blaspheme!”
“Bear with me for a space. I shall not hold you long.”
“But why? What have I done to you that you should wreck all I hold dear?”
“For you I have always had a strong affection, strange as it may sound.” Herbeck fumbled with his collar, which was tightening round his throat like a band of hot iron. “I have practically governed this country for sixteen years. In that time I have made it prosperous and happy; I have given you a substantial treasury; I have made you an army; I have brought peace where you would have brought war. To my people God will witness that I have done my duty as I saw it. One day I fell the victim of a mad dream. And to think that I almost won!”
“And I?” said Hildegarde, her hands clenched and pressed against her bosom. “What have you done to me, who am innocent of any wrong? What have you done to me?”
“You, my child? I have wronged you greatest of all. The wrong I have done to you is irreparable. Ah, have not my arms hungered for the touch of you, my heart ached for the longing of you? To see you day after day, always humble before you, always glad to kiss the back of your hand! Have I not lived in hell, your Highness?” turning to the duke.
“What am I, and who am I?” whispered Hildegarde, her heart almost ceasing to beat.
“I am your father!” simply.
The grand duke of Ehrenstein beheld the chancellor with that phase of astonishment which leaves the mind unclouded. The violent storm in his heart gave way to a calm, not at all menacing, but tinctured with a profound pity. What a project! What a mind to conceive it, to perfect it down to so small a detail as a jeweler’s mark in the gold of the locket! And a little finger to betray it! In a flash he saw vividly all this man had undergone, day by day, unfaltering, unhesitant, forgetting nothing, remembering everything but the one insignificant item which was to overthrow him. He felt that he was confronted with a great problem; what to do with the man?