“They’re leaving this evening,” he cried. “They only stopped here because one of the maids is sick. Mrs. Bass wants to get on to Sovgrad as soon as possible. I got it all from their chauffeur. She’s heard rumors of trouble between Margoth and Karlova, and she’s afraid they may be detained here if they delay. They’re leaving both maids—the well one to look after the sick one—who are to follow on by rail later. You can’t miss’em—touring car with a chauffeur and two women. One of the women is middle age with greyish hair, the other is young and—beautiful.”
“Good, I’ll get them,” replied Kargovitch. “Now you take the next train for Sovgrad—it leaves in about twenty minutes. As soon as you get there get a couple of horses and a priest, and ride to Peter’s Inn, anyone can direct you. Give this note to Peter, and he will send a guide with you who will conduct you to where I’ll wait for you with the future Mrs. Main—and ma-ma’s full and unqualified consent.”
“Gad!” exclaimed Main, “she’ll never forgive me.”
“Probably not; but now go, there’s no time to waste if you want to catch that train.”
When his friend had departed M. Kargovitch strolled down to the hotel office, paid his bill, and walked out into the streets of Demia. There he bought a late afternoon paper in which appeared a carefully censored account of the visit of Crown Prince Boris of Karlova to the court of Alexis III. The article closed with the statement that “it is understood that Prince Boris will return to Sovgrad tonight following the banquet which the king is giving in his honor at the summer palace at Klovia.”
There was no reference to the Princess Mary, or to the alliance between the two royal houses. In another column a few lines were devoted to the arrival of the wife and daughter of the famous American multi-millionaire, Abner J. Bass. M. Kargovitch was not the only person to read this latter item with interest. Princess Mary of Margoth saw it, and gave a little exclamation of surprise and delight, for she had known Gwendolyn Bass well at the select American boarding school to which the little princess had been sent at the instigation of Stroebel. The royal guest of Alexis III saw it, and licked his lips sorrowfully at the thought that he was a prince and not a bandit—what a rich haul would be the wife and daughter of an American millionaire!
“Stefan,” called Princess Mary as the machine rolled from the palace grounds, “the Hotel Royal first.”
Carlotta asked questions and interposed objections, saying that they surely would be recognized; but Mary, accustomed to having her own way, over-ruled them all.
“I want to see Gwendolyn Bass,” she announced. “She knows me only as Mary Banatoff, so she couldn’t expose me even if she would. When I enter the hotel I’ll draw my veil. It’ll be safe enough.”
When the car drew up before the hotel the two alighted and entered. At the office they obtained the number of the Bass suite, and saying that they were old friends, took the elevator and ascended without being announced.
A maid admitted them, and as Princess Mary stepped into the room and threw back her veil Gwendolyn Bass gave a little cry of astonished pleasure as she ran forward to greet her friend.
For half an hour the two girls chattered on as fast as their tongues would go. Mary Banatoff was “so sorry that you are not going to be in Demia longer, and next time be sure to let me know; and Mrs. Bass you must be very brave to travel the Roman road into Sovgrad at night, with The Rider abroad. He is a frightful wretch. Have your chauffeur drive at top speed after you pass the border.”
While they talked Stefan sat rigidly in the driver’s seat of the waiting car. A horseman rode up from behind and at sight of the car drew rein. Then he approached close to Stefan’s side.
“Whose car is this?” he asked.
Stefan looked up to see a tall military figure bending toward. him. The man was not in uniform and Stefan did not recognize him; but Stefan had a guilty conscience because he knew that the excursion of his young mistress was entirely irregular. He hesitated.
“I asked,” said the stranger, “whose car this is. Does it belong to the Americans by the name of Bass who are travelling to Sovgrad tonight?”
Stefan grasped at the suggested straw.
“Yes, monsieur,” he replied, “it is the Bass car.”
“And are you leaving at once?”
“Yes, monsieur.” Stefan could have strangled the man for his impudence. The very idea of questioning him, Stefan, the royal chauffeur, in this familiar manner!
“Good,” said the stranger, and rode on leaving Stefan sputtering ragefully.
Slowly he turned the next corner, and when out of sight of Stefan spurred his horse into a trot. At the end of the city street, where it broke into the open country and the Roman road, the trot was quickened to a gallop.
“I’ll never make it,” muttered the rider. “What the devil are they leaving so early for? Well, I suppose one place is as good as another; but I should have preferred Karlovian territory—it might raise the devil should I happen to be caught in Margoth.”
At about the same time Mary Banatoff bade farewell to her American friend and descended with the faithful Carlotta to the waiting car.
“Drive slowly, Stefan,” she said, “for the night is beautiful. I am going to Vitza.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” replied Stefan.
“S-s-sh!” cautioned the princess, “someone might hear you.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” said Stefan.
Princess Mary sank back into the cushions of the tonneau with a smile and a sigh of resignation.
“The safest thing, Carlotta,” she said, “is not to speak to Stefan at all.”
The road to Vitza leaves the Roman road about ten miles west of Demia, and runs north through the mountains for another ten miles to the favorite palace of the king of Margoth. Stefan drove slowly as he had been instructed. The moon shown brilliantly down from a cloudless sky, and Princess Mary was enjoying to the full every moment of her adventure. She would remain in Vitza for a few days until the king’s anger had blown over, as it always did blow over when the Princess Mary transgressed. Then she would come back and forgive her father, and everything would be as it had been before. Da-da would never force her to marry that frightful, hideous Prince Boris!
As the car turned north into the hills, and wound slowly back and forth up the steep grade just before leaving the Roman road to enter the road to Vitza a horseman drew rein at the summit of a particularly steep and tortuous stretch, and turning looked back into the valley beneath and behind him.
The lights of a car shown for a moment far in his rear, and then were lost in a sudden turning of the road. The man drew a black mask from his pocket and adjusted it over the lower part of his face. Then he reined his mount close behind a shoulder of rock at a sharp turning of the road, whore the shadows veiled him from the sight of the approaching wayfarers. The fingers of his right hand gripped the butt of a long and formidable looking revolver, while those of his left curbed the nervous sidesteppings of his restive mount.
Slowly the big car wound its way up the steep grade, the gears, meshed in second speed, protested loudly while the exhaust barked in sympathy through an open muffler. Stefan, outwardly calm, was inwardly boiling, as was the water in the radiator before him threatening to do. Silent, but none the less sincere, were the curses where with he cursed the fate which had compelled him to drive “the old car” up Vitza grade which the new car took in high with only a gentle purring.
Almost at the summit there is a curve about a projecting shoulder of rock, and at this point the grade is steepest. More and more slowly the old car moved when it reached this point—there came from the steel and aluminum lungs a few consumptive coughs which racked the car from bumper to tail light, and as Stefan shifted quickly from second to low the wheels almost stopped, and at the same instant a horseman reined quickly into the center of the road before them, a leveled revolver pointing straight through the frail windshield at the unprotected breast of the astonished Stefan.
“Stand and deliver!” cried a menacing voice that sent a delightful little shiver through the frame of Her Royal Highness, the Princess Mary.
The horseman was directly in front of the car. Stefan was both quick witted and courageous. One single burst of speed and both horse and man would be ridden down. The gears were in low, the car was just at a standstill. Stefan pressed his foot upon the accelerator and let in the clutch. The car should have jumped forward and crushed the life from the presumptuous bandit; but it did nothing of the sort. Instead, it gave voice to a pitiful choking sound, and died.
“Get out!” commanded the brigand.
Stefan set the emergency brake and climbed down into the road. He had played his last trick—there was nothing left to do but obey. Princess Mary was beside him almost as soon as he touched the ground.
“Don’t let him know who we are,” she warned in a low whisper.
Carlotta followed her mistress, and as she took her place beside her she clasped the latter’s hand in hers. The robber dismounted and approached them, and for a moment examined his captives intently.
“One is young and beautiful,” was his mental comment; “the other of middle age, with greyish hair,” and then, aloud: “Mrs. Bass, you and your daughter will kindly re-enter the machine.”
Princess Mary gasped, and squeezed Carlotta’s hand. He took them for the Americans! Princess Mary could have danced, so elated was she. So long as the bandit was ignorant of her true identity the chances of trapping him were greatly enhanced; and, too, while the ransom for a rich American’s daughter might be large, that which he would demand for a princess of the royal blood would be infinitely greater.
She wondered if this could really be the notorious Rider, this quiet-voiced man, who held open the car door for her and assisted Carlotta and herself back into the tonneau. She had always pictured The Rider as a low and brutal type of man, ignorant, unlettered, boorish; but this bandit had spoken to them in the purest of English. Could it be that The Rider was an American or an Englishman. If so he would speak the common language of Karlova and Margoth in the low vernacular of the underworld, if he spoke it all. She would try him.
“To whom,” she asked in her own tongue, “are we indebted for this little surprise? Can it be that we have been honored by the famous Rider?”
The man laughed.
“You have been honored more than you can know mademoiselle,” he replied. “Yes I am The Rider; but you need have no fear if you do as I ask—I only kill those who disobey me,”—the last in a very fierce and terrible voice.
Princess Mary felt a tremor of nervous excitement—a delicious little thrill—run up and down her royal spine. Ah, here was Romance! Here was Adventure! She wished that he would remove his mask—she would like to see the features of this redoubtable brigand who was the terror of two kingdoms—the scourge of the border. Doubtless, she thought, the revealment would prove most unpoetic—a pock marked face, brutal features, the lines which Crime and Vice stamp indelibly upon the countenances of their votaries. On second thought, she preferred that he remain masked, for even though he had answered her in as good Margothian as her own she could not believe that so low a fellow could fail to reflect in his personal appearance his degraded associations and environment.
And now The Rider turned to Stefan. “My man,” he said, “we are about to effect an exchange. For the honor of driving your mistress and her daughter I shall relinquish to you my faithful steed. Be careful of him—he possesses a pedigree which fills four large volumes and runs back to the royal stud which The Great King presented to the emperor Diocletian after the victories of Galerius in Persia. When you are through with him return him to the royal stables of the King of Karlova, from which he was stolen. Mount, Stefan, and ride back to Demia.”
The royal chauffeur hesitated. The Rider raised his revolver until the dark hole of the muzzle was on a line with Stefan’s diaphragm.
“Hasten, Stefan,” he admonished, and Stefan hastened.
The Rider watched the chauffeur until the latter had covered several hundred yards of the road toward Demia; then he climbed into the driver’s seat and started the car once more upon its interrupted journey.
As they passed the road leading to Vitza, and the princess realized that their captor was keeping to the Roman road in the direction of the border the gravity of her predicament was borne in upon her. At first she had viewed the affair as one might view a pleasurable adventure which broke the dull monotony of existence; but as the minutes passed and gave her opportunity for reflection she saw all too plainly the grave dangers of her position. Her one thought, now was of escape; and the wild nature of the country through which the road passed, together with the many steep ascents which often brought the car almost to a dead stop, offered her every hope of success.
And so it was that near the summit of a particularly bad grade, while the chugging of the exhaust and the grinding of the gears obliterated all lesser sounds, the two doors of the tonneau opened simultaneously. The Princess Mary leaped lightly out upon the right and Carlotta essayed the same feat upon the left. All would have gone well and their escape, doubtless, been assured had Carlotta been favored by the advantages of an American education, which teaches one many things that may be found in no text book or in the curriculum of any college.
But Carlotta’s education had been sadly neglected, in some respects at least, which may account for the fact that she stepped from the slowly moving car with her face to the rear. The result was only what might have been expected; and Carlotta, to avoid the wheels, rolled quickly to one side and just far enough to come within the range of the tail of the bandit’s left eye. It was just a glimpse he got of something moving in the road behind him; but it was enough to bring his head around and reveal to his view the scrambling figure of Carlotta as she staggered to her feet and bolted down the hill in the direction from which they had just come.
Another glance’ showed the brigand that the tonneau was empty. The car stopped with a jerk, and almost in the same instant The Rider was in the road, his revolver in his hand, and his quick eyes piercing the night for a sign of his escaped prisoners.
The Princess Mary, crouching close to the rocky side of the cut through which the road passed at this point, saw the car stop, and guessing that their escape had been discovered, turned and ran after the fleeing Carlotta.
She had covered but a few yards when there came from behind her a sharp, peremptory command to halt. The Princess Mary, unaccustomed to obeying commands of any nature, ignored this one. It was repeated once, immediately followed by the report of a shot. The Princess Mary came to a dead stop, and turned upon her pursuer. Her little chin was high in the air, her eyes flashed; but her lower lip trembled just a trifle as she faced the man who now came running up.
“How dare you!” she cried. “How dare you fire upon—” and then she hesitated. For the moment she had forgotten that she was only Miss Bass of America.
Carlotta, turning at the sound of the shot, came quickly back to the side of her mistress. The bandit looked at the two, and even in the darkness Princess Mary thought that she detected the shadow of a smile beneath his black mask.
“I am very sorry, Miss Bass,” he said; “but really you mustn’t try that again—it’s awfully dangerous, leaping from a moving car. Permit me,” and he offered his arm to escort her back to the machine.
The girl ignored the little gallantry, and very stiffly and haughtily walked back up the hill, while the bandit followed at her elbow. He made her take the seat beside him this time, while Carlotta resumed her place in the tonneau.
“It will be safer thus,” he explained. “I should hate to have you risk your life again in an attempt to escape, and I can watch you better here. You’ll have to act as hostage, you know. I’m sure your mother won’t try to get away again as long as I have you safely beside me. Hadn’t you better put this robe around your shoulders? the night air is a trifle chill,” and he turned and attempted to place the robe for her.
“I do not wish a robe,” snapped the Princess Mary.
“You will kindly confine yourself to your proper role—that of brigand and captor. You will get your ransom money, and in the mean time you will oblige me by not speaking to me—I have no desire to converse with a thief and a murderer.”
“You mustn’t be too hard on me, Miss Bass,” expostulated The Rider; “I haven’t killed anyone for a week, really. You can’t imagine how hard times have been, and the last one not only bled all over me but when I came to empty his pockets I found that he didn’t possess the price of a bottle of good wine. You have no idea, Miss Bass, how discouraging this business is at times.”
Princess Mary shuddered. The fellow was a hopeless brute. Carlotta, in the tonneau, trembled. What, O what would the man not do to them when he discovered that they were not the wife and daughter of the rich American? He would never get a royal princess off his hands without jeopardizing his head, and Carlotta was convinced that he would murder them both and bury their bodies in some mountain ravine to hide the evidences of his guilt when he should discover the terrible mistake he had made.
The Rider, after several ineffectual attempts to draw Miss Bass into conversation, desisted; and in silence the little party sped onward toward the mountains which form the natural boundary between Margoth and Karlova.
At a point just beyond the frontier, the bandit turned the car into a narrow wagon road, where it was hidden from the main highway by a screen of trees and undergrowth. The road upon which it stood was little more than an opening among the trees. Once it had been used as a wood road, but since the king of Karlova had forbidden the further cutting of timber in this district it had been unused by others than The Rider and his disreputable following.
A few yards from the Roman road the car was brought to a stop. The bandit extinguished the lights and turning to the captive at his side announced that they would be compelled to complete their journey on foot, as no machine could travel the rough and precipitous trail ahead of them.
“You expect me to walk?” she asked, icily.
“Unless you prefer to be carried,” he replied.
“I shall neither walk nor be carried,” she announced.
“Yonder,” said The Rider, pointing through the darkness amidst the surrounding trees, “is a little mound of earth. Beneath it lies a misguided lady who refused to walk. Unfortunately she was too heavy to carry. I can carry you; but in the mean time your mother might escape and lead the gendarmes to my hiding place; so, if you refuse to come with me, I shall be compelled to kill your mother and carry you.
Carlotta felt the cold shivers run up and down her spine. Princess Mary turned upon The Rider.
“You beast!” she exclaimed.
“You will walk then?” he asked, suavely.
Upward through the impenetrable blackness the three stumbled. Even The Rider seemed to know the path none too well, and the Princess could not but wonder at his obvious ignorance of the way. Often he stopped and examined the ground beneath the rays of a small pocket flash-lamp, and twice they were compelled to retrace their steps when it became evident that they had lost the trail.
Romance and Adventure were commencing to pall upon the Princess Mary. Her back ached and her legs were like two heavy logs of wood.