In the smoke begrimed kitchen adjoining the bar Peter’s frowzy frau broiled with her steaks before a glowing grill. From the pipe between her toothless gums to the dirt upon her bare feet she was all athrob with the ecstasy of a true artist, for tonight she was preparing a dinner for the fine young gentlemen from the capitol, who could appreciate such culinary achievements as her’s. The swine she ordinarily cooked for knew nothing of the divine exquisiteness of the food she served them, yet, being a true artist who labors first for the love of art. Peter’s frau cooked as well for them as for the more appreciative, though with scarce the same enthusiasm.
Upon her artistic reveries now broke Bakla, with a rude interruption. The gentlemen were leaving. They had sent word that they would return when they had located their missing friend. Tillie threw up her hands in horror. The dinner would be spoiled! In fifteen minutes it would be ready to serve. She rushed toward the doorway leading into the barroom. She would explain. She would entreat the fine, young gentlemen to eat first and seek their friend later. Bakla trotted in the wake of her mistress. She, too, was perturbed; but not on account of the spoiled dinner. Bakla shared the uneasiness of the departing guests over the unaccountable tardiness of the missing friend—the tall, black haired, grey-eyed young man who smiled much and spoke always in a soft and kindly voice. He had been coming here to Peter’s Inn for many months, and though she did not know who he might be she was convinced that he was a very fine gentleman with a great deal of money and a large and generous heart. Many were the sighs that Bakla had heaved to the heroic figure of this guest of guests.
As Tillie and Bakla rushed into the bar-room the three young gentlemen were just slipping on their military capes as they crossed the sanded floor toward the doorway at the opposite side of the room.
At the same moment the door swung open and a tall figure, booted and spurred, filled the doorway.
The upper half of his face was hidden beneath a black mask. The three departing guests halted in the middle of the floor, and three hands flew to the hilts of three swords. The man at the doorway stepped within, disclosing another, equally as tall, directly behind him. At the sight of the face of the latter, Ivan gave voice to an exclamation of relief.
“Dimmie!” he cried. “It’s Dimmie! Where have you been? We were just setting out to look for you, and who the devil have you with you?”
Dimmie stepped into the room and bowed low to his friends and the assembled guests, servants, and hosts of Peter’s Inn.
“Permit me,” he said, “to present my very good friend The Rider!”
A chorus of exclamations greeted the introduction. The roughs rose from their tables and pressed forward, as did the three guardsmen, Peter, Tillie, and Bakla.
“The Rider!” exclaimed Bakla, clasping her little hands together in an ecstasy of thrills.
“He held me up upon the road, Alexander,” cried Dimmie. “I knew you would never believe me unless I brought proof, and so I persuaded my good friend to come along with me and assure you that it is indeed true that I have been waylaid by no less a person than the much talked of Rider. Eh, Sunshine, is it not true?” and the speaker turned toward his captive.
A surly looking fellow who had been sitting alone at a far table now shouldered his way through the crowd about the two new comers. His evil, little eyes scanned the faces of them both; and it is a matter open to dispute as to which of the figures caused him the greater astonishment.
The Rider saw him and hung his head. Then he looked up, caught the other’s eye, and surreptitiously touched the empty holster at his hip. The other raised his eyebrows in mingled surprise and understanding.
Ivan was also examining the two men. He noted that he of the mask was unarmed, while Dimmie carried a long, evil looking revolver half hidden behind him. Suddenly he burst into a loud laugh.
Alexander and Nicholas looked at him in surprise. The Rider glanced quickly over the faces of the assembled guests. Fully half were men of his own stamp with whom he was familiar in the vice haunts of the city; but only one, he of the small and evil eyes, knew that their city crony and The Rider were one and the same.
Suddenly the bandit snatched the mask from his face, revealing a countenance wherein intelligence and bestiality were oddly combined. The forehead was high and broad, the ears well set, but a trifle too small, the chin and mouth sensitive without weakness. The man’s nose and eyes were the least prepossessing of his features. The former was slightly bulbous, while the latter were small and close-set.
At sight of The Rider’s face a number of the rougher guests gave vent to expressions of astonished recognition, and exclamations of, “The Wolf,” fell from the lips of several.
“Yes,” said The Rider, “I am The Wolf, your old friend and comrade. Will you see me dragged off to prison by a handful of dandies—me, who could send the half of you to the halter if I chose?”
“That we’ll not,” growled one of the drinkers.
“Come, comrades, pluck these fine chickens and throw them out to the dogs. We do not want them here. Peter’s place belongs to us. What business have they here? Come!” and he stepped truculently forward toward him whom Ivan had addressed as Dimmie.
Tillie, a large grilling fork in one huge, red hand, ran screaming toward the speaker.
“Pig!” she cried, “what would you do? Chase away the only guests who have brains enough to know what they are putting into their stomachs and purses long enough to pay for what they eat and drink and I’ll have the rotten heart out of you!”
But the man was already beside Dimmie. One pawlike hand was clutching for the young man’s shoulder. Alexander, Nicholas, and Ivan sprang forward with cries of mingled rage and horrified warning. The Rider, seeing his opportunity, also turned upon his captor; but Dimmie, still smiling good naturedly, let drive a smashing right that caught the would be deliverer of The Rider full in the mouth and sent him sprawling backward upon the floor. Then he wheeled upon The Rider just as the latter seized him about the body, reached quickly over his shoulders, caught him around the waist, and, lifting him bodily from the floor, hurled him completely over his head.
In the mean time the three guardsmen were engaged with others of the roughs who had entered the fracas in the defense of their friends. No weapons had been drawn upon either side—as yet it was but a rough and tumble fist fight. The revolver which Dimmie had held when he entered the room he had slipped inside his shirt with its fellow, and now that he had disposed temporarily of the two who had attacked him he ran to the assistance of his friends.
Ivan and Nicholas were holding their own with ease; but three men had engaged Alexander at once, and he was in a fair way to being beaten into insensibility when Dimmie leaped upon the back of one of his adversaries, hurled him aside, and struck another a blow upon the chin that might have dropped a horse. As the third attempted to scramble from his path, the young man swung his foot in a kick that sent the fellow sprawling beneath a table.
Tillie, appalled by the dimensions and ferocity of the fracas, had retreated to the side of the room, where she stood with Bakla and the trembling Peter, wringing her hands and screaming out a torrent of invective. Beside her and next to Bakla stood the surly rough who had been the first to recognize The Rider. He had taken no part in the fight, and now one of his friends discovered him, and taunted him with his seeming cowardice.
The man muttered an oath, and turning to Bakla, said: “If the fools knew who they were fighting with they’d break all your windows trying to see which could get out of here first and lose himself in the woods.”
“What do you mean?” asked Bakla. “Can they not see that they are attacking officers of The Black Guard?”
“I don’t mean them fellows,” growled the man. “It’s the other—do you mean to say you don’t none of you know who he is?”
“Why of course I know who he is,” cried the girl. “He has been coming here for months—he is M. Dimmie.”
“M. Dimmie, hell,” cried the man. “That’s—,” and he leaned close to Bakla’s ear and whispered a name that brought her eyes and mouth open in incredulous astonishment.
The fight seemed to be going all the guardsmen’s way, when The Rider bolted suddenly for the door. Dimmie sprang across a table in a mad effort to head off the escaping bandit, and the two met before the exit. Once again The Rider went down before the superior skill of his antagonist; and Dimmie turned with his back to the doorway as Alexander, Ivan, and Nicholas ran to his side.
A laugh was on the lips of the conqueror of the redoubtable highwayman as the latter crawled to his feet, nursing a bloody nose with one hand, and, turning to his friends, who were now grouped in sullen defiance before the bar, called to them to rush the four at the doorway and make good their escape.
“I was afraid the fun was over, Ivan,” said Dimmie; “but evidently it has only begun.”
“Come!” whispered Alexander, in his ear. “The door is behind us—let’s get out of here before any blood is spilled. The thing has gone far enough. These fellows are getting nasty, and there is no telling what may happen—there are more than a few knives and revolvers in that crowd.”
“Never!” cried Dimmie. “I am having the time of my life, old killjoy; and I’m going to stick for the finish. Run, if you want to—the door is there, and we will cover your retreat.”
Alexander flushed. “You know that I would not desert you,” he cried. “I only thought of the danger to your—”
“Sh-sh-sh!” admonished Dimmie with a gesture of arrogance. “Forget it!”
The roughs were advancing slowly across the bar-room, when one of them passing a table which had not been overturned in the previous scrimmage, seized an empty bottle and hurled it viciously at the four guardsmen. It grazed Dimmie’s head and splintered on the oak panel behind him. Instantly Alexander leaped in front of his friend, and drew his sword.
“Stop!” he cried. “This has gone far enough. In the king’s name, I command you to halt where you are!”
The answer to his order was a volley of glasses and bottles. Ivan seized a small table and raised it as a shield before them. Nicholas drew his sword and took his place on one side of the improvised barrier, while Alexander held the other.
At sight of the drawn weapons the crowd of cut-throats and thieves cast discretion to the winds. Knives flashed, and revolvers flourished. A sullen roar rose from the pack.
Dimmie, the inextinguishable smile still upon his lips, thrust aside his protectors, and stepped out before the menacing foe, one hand upraised for silence and attention.
“Hold, my friends,” he said “We have enjoyed a Pleasant evening. None more so than I. Let us not spoil it now by the spilling of blood.”
As he spoke a man stepped forward from the crowd advancing from the bar. A revolver glistened in his hand. Blood streamed down his brutal face from a wound above one eye. Behind him, unnoticed came Bakla.
“You have come here once too often, you dandies,” cried the fellow. “You have come looking for trouble; and now you’ve got it, and damn you you’re goin’ to get it good and plenty,” and with that he raised his weapon and leveled it at Dimmie.
Ivan cast the table aside, and he and Alexander and Nicholas sprang forward to throw themselves in front of their friend, to shield his body with their own from the bullet of the assassin; but trig little Bakla was quicker than any of them. Without a cry she leaped at the man as his finger closed downward upon the trigger. Her lithe figure dodged beneath his upraised arm, which she clutched with both her little hands. There was the sharp report of a shot; but the bullet buried itself in the ceiling instead of finding lodgment in the body of Dimmie for whom it had been intended.
Bakla, still clinging to the man’s arm, threw herself in front of him and facing the menacing roughs, raised her voice in protest and in censure.
“Are you crazy,” she cried,”that you would fit halters to your necks by threatening the life of the king’s son?”
“The what?” exclaimed the man whose arm she still held raised aloft.
“The Crown Prince, you fool,” snapped Bakla.
The man gazed stupidly at the three guardsmen and their friend, only the last of which was not in uniform.
“Which is the Crown Prince?” he asked.
“He,” and she pointed at Dimmie. “He is Prince Boris.”
The roughs looked uneasily around at one another. One of them laughed scornfully. “That the crown prince?” he asked with a sneer.
“Yes,” spoke up he of the low brow and surly expression who had kept carefully out of the fracas from the moment that he had recognized Dimmie; “he’s Prince Boris. I ought to know him—I worked in the palace for five years.”
An uneasy silence fell upon the company. Those who had menaced the prince shuffled their feet about on the sanded floor and cast furtive glances in the direction of their future king, who stood, unsmiling now and rather ill at case since his identity had been revealed.
“I think we’d better go now,” suggested Alexander. “The thing has gone too far already; and the longer we stay the worse it may become—you’ll have a bad enough time explaining it to his majesty as it is, Dimmie.”
“Without our dinner?” asked Boris, ruefully. “No, I came for one of Tillie’s good dinners; and I’ll never leave until I’ve had it. Here, Peter, you old rogue, see what the gentlemen will drink,” and he waved his hand to include the whole company, “and Bakla, lay another plate at our table for my guest, if The Rider will honor us with his company?” and he turned with a bow toward the bandit.
“And then go back to Sovgrad and the halter?” demanded The Rider.
Boris drew the man’s two revolvers from his shirt and extended them toward him, butts first.
“Here are your weapons,” he said, pleasantly. “Take them as proof of my good faith. After we have dined each of us shall go his way unmolested, carrying only memories of a pleasant evening among friends. What do you say?”
“Done!” said The Rider.
The king’s son linked arms with the bandit and crossed the room past the bar where Peter was already busy serving drinks to the relieved brawlers, toward the little alcove in which Bakla was laying the fifth plate at the round table.
“You must have had many thrilling adventures,” said Boris to his guest, after the dinner and the wine had warmed the latter’s heart and loosed his naturally taciturn tongue. “Tell us of them.”
For an hour The Rider told them tales of the road—of narrow escapes, of running fights with gendarmes, of rich hauls, and of lean days. When he paused to light another of Ivan’s gold tipped and monogrammed cigarets, Boris leaned back in his chair with a deep sigh.
“Ah,” he murmured, “such freedom! You have lived. For such as you romance still exists; but for us life is a tame and prosaic thing. I wish that I were a bandit.”
“And I,” said The Rider, “wish that I were a prince.”
Boris sat suddenly erect with a half smothered exclamation.
“Why not!” he cried. “It would be great sport.”
“Why not what?” asked Nicholas.
“Be a bandit for a week,” replied Boris.
The others leaned back in their chairs, shouting in laughter. Ivan, tying a napkin about the lower half of his face, rose and pointed a salt shaker at Alexander menacingly.
“Stand and deliver!” he cried. “I am Dimmie, the terror of the highways.”
Boris joined in the good natured raillery; but when the laughter had subsided he turned toward The Rider.
“You have said that you would like being a prince,” he said. “Well, you shall be, for a week, and I shall borrow your horse and your mask and uphold the honor of your calling upon the roads.”
“Dimmie, you’re crazy,” cried Alexander, realizing at last that Boris was in earnest.
The crown prince paid no attention to his friend’s interruption.
“And you,” he continued, still addressing the bandit, “shall live like a prince while I am gone.”
“It can’t be done, Dimmie,” broke in Alexander. “How could this man pass as Prince Boris? Except in size you are as unlike as two men can be. Where could he go to play prince where the imposture would not be immediately discovered and exposed?”
“My hunting lodge,” cried Boris. “It’s just the place.”
“But, Dimmie,” expostulated Ivan, “within the week you will receive his majesty’s commands to proceed to Demia, for the purpose of paying court to the future crown princess of Karlova—I have had the information in a letter from my father.”
“Good!” exclaimed Boris. “Now I am unalterably decided, and a setting is provided where our friend here may play prince to his heart’s content and do me a good turn into the bargain.”
“What do you mean?” asked Nicholas.
“I mean,” replied Boris, “that I shall send The Rider to Demia to pay court to the Princess Mary of Margoth.
The three guardsmen gasped.
“You are my best friends,” continued Boris. “A thousand times have you sworn that you would willingly lay down your lives for me. Now I shall discover how sincere were your protestations of fidelity. I do not wish to marry, yet; and most certainly I do not wish to marry a scrawny-necked, watery-eyed Margoth princess. If she refuses me, I shall be saved; and our friend here can see to it that she refuses. Should she accept him,” and Boris could not restrain a grin of amusement, “I shall still be saved, since she will be married to another.”
“But Dimmie,” cried Alexander, seriously, “you cannot mean to carry your hoax as far as that! It would mean war, Dimmie.”
“And which of you would not prefer war with Margoth?” asked Boris.
The others were silent. Prince Boris had spoken the truth, for the military party of Karlova had for long sought to foment trouble between the two countries. The crown prince, to whom they looked for guidance, had counseled temperance, and though the acknowledged head of the war party he had been the strongest advocate of peace with Margoth. Now, however, that a distasteful marriage was to be thrust upon him he was quite willing to go to any lengths, though the principal appeal of the adventure lay in its levity.