Here too were wont to foregather a little coterie of another class—a half dozen young sprigs of the ancient nobility of Karlova, lured by the spirit of romance and adventure to this haunt of the lower world, and enticed by the cookery of the inn keeper’s wife and the vintages of the black cellars to numerous repetitions of their original excursion, until now they had become regular patrons of the, establishment.
Tonight three of them sat at a round table in a tiny alcove, sipping their wine and venturing various explanations of the lateness of one whose empty chair broke the circle at the little board.
There was Alexander Palensk, whose father is prime minister of Karlova, and Nicholas Gregovitch, the son of General Demitrius Gregovitch, minister of war. The third, Ivan Kantchi, is the oldest son of the Karlovian ambassador to Margoth, and all three are officers in The Black Guard—the crack regiment of the Karlovian army.
The fourth member of the party—he whose chair still remained vacant—was riding at a rapid trot along the Roman road as Ivan Kantchi asked, for the fortieth time: “What could have delayed him? Why the devil doesn’t he come?”
“Calm thyself, Little One,” admonished Alexander Palensk, with an affectionate smile at the giant Ivan, whose six-foot-six had won him the loving diminutive; “our brother is doubtless afraid to ride after dark. The wood is gloomy, and, as is well known, infested by goblins. Chances are that he turned back before quitting the Roman road and has fled home to his nurse’s arms.”
“Screaming in terror,” added Nicholas Gregovitch, whereupon all three fell to laughing; but beneath his levity, Ivan Kantchi was still worried.
“You know,” he said, after a moment’s silence, “that The Rider is reputed to have been seen in this neighborhood quite recently. There have been no less than three highway robberies on the Roman road within the month, and all perpetrated by a lone horseman who answers the description of the fellow who has worked the southern provinces for the past three or four years. I think I shall ride toward the city and have a look for our friend.”
“Oh, sit down, Little One,” cried Alexander, “and let us finish this bottle in peace—if he has not come by then we will all ride forth and rescue him from the clutches of The Rider or the goblins, whichever has abducted our tender little playmate.”
Ivan dropped back into his chair. “It is unfortunate,” he said, “that Prime Ministers couldn’t bequeath a little more brain power to their offspring.”
“Gesundheit!” cried Alexander, raising his glass and grinning good naturedly at his friend.
Where the dirt road leaves the Roman road just within the foothills a horseman reined his mount to the left and entered the dark and gloomy precincts of the wood. He rode slowly, letting his beast pick its own way, since he could scarce see his own hand before his face. Gradually his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, but yet a walk was the only gait possible along the black and winding road.
He had covered perhaps half the distance between the Roman road and the inn when a figure loomed suddenly ahead of him—a tall man upon a large horse—blocking the way. Even in the dark the rider could see the glint of reflected light upon the barrel of a long revolver which was leveled straight at his breast.
“Hold up your hands!” whispered the stranger.
The rider did as he was bid. The other slid from his saddle and approached him. Deft fingers felt over his person in search of weapons, of which the rider carried none.
“Dismount!” commanded the stranger.
The victim lowered his hands to the pommel of his saddle.
“Who the devil are you?” he asked. “Is it that I have the honor of addressing The Rider?” The tone was mocking.
“Get down, or you’ll get hurt,” replied the highwayman surlily. “I am The Rider, and if you know anything of me you must know that I don’t put up with any trifling.”
Through the darkness the rider grinned down upon the man who held his bridle rein and covered him with a long and villainous looking revolver.
“’The Rider,’” he repeated. “A name to conjure with!”
“Get down, you fool,” growled the highwayman.
“’The Rider,’” continued the horseman, ignoring the other’s command. “How envious my friends will be when I tell them that I have indeed been waylaid by that notorious, nay, let us say, famous gentleman of the road. But will they believe me? They will think me but an idle boaster—unless I take some token of the adventure—”
“Enough, idiot!” cried The Rider, releasing the bridle rein and stepping forward to seize the horse- man and drag him from his saddle. “Do you think that I have all night and the next day to trifle with a second groom or a grocer’s clerk, who doubtless won’t yield the price of a bottle of stale beer?”
He seized his victim’s arm roughly to unhorse him, and at the same instant the latter lunged forward upon the bandit, carrying him heavily to the ground, flat upon his back. Long, powerful fingers closed upon The Rider’s pistol wrist, while, with his right hand, the horseman found the other’s throat.
Futilely the brigand kicked, struggled and struck. His right hand was numbing in the steel grip that held him vise-like—his revolver was useless. The fingers at his throat were shutting off his breath, so that to his first anger and chagrin was now added a real terror for his life.
“No,” said the man upon his chest, “they never will believe me, unless I take with me some token of this delightful meeting—and what evidence more conclusive than the person of The Rider himself! Ah, just the thing, my dear fellow! You shall accompany me! In the flesh and blood, and by the word of your own mouth shall you attest to the truth of the fact that I was waylaid, in the dead of night, upon a lonely road by none other and none less than the redoubtable and uncapturable Rider.”
As he finished speaking he tightened his grip upon The Rider’s wrist until the unhappy man thought that the bones must splinter beneath those steel fingers. At the same time the pressure at his throat was lessened.
“Lay aside your weapon, my friend,” admonished the cheerful voice above him; “Lay it aside lest you harm yourself with so dangerous a plaything.”
The revolver slipped from the relaxing fingers of the bandit.
“Thank you,” said the voice.
The hand left The Rider’s throat, and felt over his person for other weapons. Finding none, it reached out and gathered in the revolver which The Rider had just relinquished, then the, weight was removed from the bandit’s chest as the other rose and stood beside him.
“Come, get up!” cried the victor. “My, but you are a slothful fellow!”
The Rider scrambled to his feet, and faced his conqueror.
“Who the devil are you?” he cried.
“I might be a hostler,” replied the other; “but a grocer’s clerk—never! Now that I have a revolver, I could borrow your mask and set up in business as a brigand, eh? What sort of highwayman do you think I’d make, my friend?”
The Rider mumbled an unintelligible reply. His pride had been sorely lacerated and he was in no very good humor.
“Come on, sunshine,” cried his captor, “let us mount and seek my friends,” and he motioned The Rider toward the latter’s horse which stood where the bandit had left it in the middle of the road.
Here the captor removed a second revolver from a saddle holster, slipped it inside his shirt, and swung into his own saddle as The Rider mounted.
“Where are you going to take me?” asked the crestfallen brigand.
“To the inn of that old rogue, Peter, where my friends are waiting for me this two hours.”
A smile curved the lips of The Rider. Peter’s Inn! More than one of The Rider’s friends would be there, too.
“And there you will vouch for my story, eh, Sunshine? that I was stopped upon the highroad by none other than the great Rider.”
As the two rode on in the direction of the inn The Rider’s captor kept up a good natured raillery at the expense of the bandit, while the latter, still aggrieved, answered only in monosyllables when a question was put to him and bided his time against their arrival at the place where he was sure he would find enough of his followers to insure escape, as well as punishment for this presumptuous hostler who had dared to turn the tables upon the terror of the highways.