“You are tired, Miss Bass?” asked her captor.
“I cannot take another step,” replied the princess. “Kill me if you will; but I cannot go on.”
“And you, Mrs. Bass?” turning to Carlotta.
“I am tired,” replied the frightened woman; “but I think I can keep up—maybe I can assist her—er— my daughter.”
“No, I’ll see to that,” said the bandit, and without even a by-your-leave he lifted the princess into his strong arms and resumed the upward scramble.
The girl struggled for a moment to free herself.
“Put me down, please,” she commanded in icy tones, “I prefer to walk.”
“But you just said that you couldn’t take another step,” he reminded her, without the slightest indication of any intention to obey her wish. “We can’t remain out here all night, you know; and anyway we’ll soon be at my camp.” He very near added that he wished it was many miles farther, since he had gathered the lithe little form into his arms.
Strands of wavy, soft hair blew now and again against his cheek, and to his nostrils came the delicate aroma of a subtle perfume, such as marks the woman of refinement. The girl’s beauty together with the close contact of her warm body aroused in her captor a yearning for that which had always seemed to elude him—one within his own, limited class who might command from him such a love as this girl must command from the young American for whom he had stolen her; one, too, who would give back in equal measure a like love.
The Princess Mary felt the broad bosom against which she was held rise in a deep sigh. She thought the man a most remarkable brigand. She had always heard such frightful tales of the atrocities of The Rider that she had rather expected some show of brutality upon his part, though her judgement had satisfied her that he would offer them no real harm or indignities so long as there remained the hope of obtaining a fat ransom for them. Now she found herself wondering why he sighed—could it be that the fellow had a heart, after all.
“Why,” asked the Princess Mary, being as she was rather a creature of impulse—“Why do you sigh?”
The brigand laughed. “I fear,” he answered, “that I am after all, a rather sentimental cutthroat—and you really would like to know why I sighed? Well,” and he did not wait for her reply, “I will tell you, though I promise you that you will laugh at me. I was sighing because in all the world from which such as I may choose a love there is no girl like you.”
The Princess Mary stiffened and turned her face away. “Put me down at once!” she commanded, and the bandit could not but note the regal haughtiness of her tones. “Put me down, fellow, I shall not be insulted—I can die; but I cannot brook your familiarity.”
“You asked me,” he reminded her patiently, “why I sighed. I told you merely the truth.” There was just a faint trace of levity in his voice, as though he endeavored to suppress a laugh, which aroused still further the ire of the spoiled little princess. She struggled to free herself from his arms; but he only held her the more tightly.
“You can’t walk you know,” he said; “and we can’t sit by the side of the trail forever; so you must let me carry you, and you must not make it difficult. As a matter of fact,” he added, as though on second thought, “I can’t say that I mind if you do struggle just a little—it makes it necessary for me to hold you just so much tighter.”
“You beast!” Her exclamation was a veritable explosion.
“What do you expect of a highwayman?” he asked. “If you were a native, now, of either Margoth or Karlova you would be familiar with the reputation of The Rider and know that you were mighty lucky not to have your ears cut off by this time.”
The Princess Mary almost shuddered; but being a brave little princess she didn’t, quite. She knew only too well the sinister reputation of The Rider—for the time she had forgotten it in a strange sensation of security which had dominated her almost from the moment that she had fallen into the hands of the bandit—somehow it didn’t seem possible that this man could have it in him to harm a defenseless woman. He inspired, in her at least, most inexplicably, a feeling the precise opposite of that which he should have inspired. She could not feel the terror he should have inspired.
Occasionally the man halted to turn back with a courteous word to Carlotta, regretting the fact that he could be of no assistance to her, and inquiring most solicitously how she fared. Poor Carlotta was so terror stricken that she could only mumble incoherent replies, for which the Princess Mary was thankful—the good woman had very nearly divulged their identities already. The princess could not fail to note, though, the courteous deference in the voice of the bandit when he spoke to ‘Mrs. Bass,’ and her interest in her captor grew accordingly. Could this really be the rough, brutal cutthroat who had terrorized two frontiers for years, who had successfully defied both the gendarmerie and soldiery of two nations, and robbed and murdered at his own sweet will? It was incredible. Why he had the well modulated voice of a cultured gentleman, and he spoke English with that refined precision which marks the use of that language by the educated European a fact which her American education revealed to her.
It was well after midnight when they reached their destination—a little high walled ravine, deep in the mountain fastness of the frontier, and the girl saw before her in the moonlight a rough log shack surrounded by a number of soiled and tattered tents.
A sentry challenged their approach, covering them with his rifle; and at the sound of his voice two score burly ruffians came running from their blankets as though experience had taught them to sleep with their ears wide open and their hands upon their weapons.
“It is I, The Rider,” called the man in reply to the challenge.
The sentry lowered his rifle and stepped forward. The others pressed around.
“Get some food for the ladies,” commanded the new comer, and then, turning to one of the brigands. “Did a young man come with a priest?”
The fellow addressed shook his head negatively.
“When he does, bring them to me,” said The Rider, “and now some of you prepare beds in the shack for the ladies, they are tired after their long climb.”
Within the shack a grimy lantern was lighted which scarce relieved the gloom sufficiently to display the filthy squalor of the interior. As he ushered his guests within, The Rider stood in the doorway behind them.
“I am sorry,” he said, “that I have no better accommodations to offer you; but by tomorrow I am sure that the very reasonable terms I shall ask for your release will be gladly accepted, and that you will then be able to continue upon your journey to Sovgrad. Food will be brought you, after which you may retire with every confidence that you will not be molested and sleep in as perfect security as though you occupied your own beds at home.”
The Rider remained until one of his men had brought some cold meat and a kettle of soup, and lighted a fire in the dilapidated stove which stood precariously upon three legs at one side of the single room of the old building. The light from the lantern gave the Princess Mary her first opportunity to note the features of her captor, and if she had before been struck by the suavity of his speech and the courtesy of his manners she was now doubly impressed by the nobility of his countenance and bearing.
To her surprise she saw before her a young and handsome man upon whose fine features lay no trace of brutality or degeneracy. The mask which had hidden half his face at the moment he had confronted them upon the Roman road he had long since discarded as an uncomfortable nuisance, and he now stood before her with bared head waiting silently for the man to be done with the building of the fire and the heating of the soup, as though loath to leave his prisoners alone with his fellow brigand.
A troubled expression clouded his eyes as another bandit entered with an armful of filthy blankets, which he threw down upon the dirty floor in a corner of the room. He took a step toward the two women.
“I am sorry, Miss Bass,” he said, “that you and your mother should be compelled to spend the night in so uncouth and repulsive a place; but I assure you that it cannot now be helped. One whom I expected, and whose presence would have made it possible for you to immediately continue your journey to Sovgrad is not here, and we must await him. Upon his coming and the amiable concurrence of your mother in my plans depends your prompt release—the terms will not be difficult.”
“And what, may I ask,” demanded the princess, “is the amount of our ransom?”
The light of the lantern played upon the girl’s hair and upon her comely features. It revealed the lines of her trim little figure, and the haughty tilt of her royal head which needed no diadem to distinguish it from the heads of ordinary, mortal maids. The Rider had half glimpsed, half guessed the beauty of his younger captive—or at least he had thought that he had; but the revealment of her features in the flickering light of the sordid lantern had left him almost dizzy with the intoxication of the actuality. It was not the beauty of perfection which enthralled him, as it enthralled all who looked upon the Princess Mary of Margoth, for perfection, as measured by the standards of art, was not there. The little nose was a trifle too short, the upper lip a bit too long, the cheek bones just a hair higher than perfection demands, perhaps; but the whole was so moulded, and so animated by that indefinable something which is the essence of beauty that The Rider would have sworn that in all the world there existed no more beautiful woman than this daughter of a plebeian American millionaire, and he sighed because she was promised to another, forgetting for the moment that a still more formidable barrier separated them.
So long he stood in silence looking at the girl that she finally repeated her question, quite peremptorily, and with a little stamp of her foot,
“I asked you, fellow,” she said, “the amount of the ransom you demand.”
The man who had been working over the stove had cocked an ear when he had heard the girl addressed as Miss Bass, and now he puttered about in an effort to prolong his work in the room that he might learn more of the prisoners and the amount of the ransom. The name was familiar, for the passage of the wife and daughter of Abner J. Bass through almost any civilized country on the globe was heralded broadcast upon the front pages of the news papers, together with various estimates of the many millions which they represented. The fellow, a stupid lout, could not recall where he had heard the name, yet there was something about it which aroused his attention and held his interest.
The Rider could not repress a smile at the manner in which the girl addressed him, and he hastened to reply, as though always he had been accustomed to obey the haughty commands of an impervious master.
“The ransom,” he said “will not be in money. I know that the wife and daughter of Abner J. Bass could command a fabulous sum should I demand it; but I shall not demand a cent of money.”
“What shall you demand, then?” asked the princess.
“Something rather more valuable than a the riches of Abner J. Bass,” replied the man, and, after a pause, “the hand of his daughter in marriage.”
Both Carlotta and the Princess Mary went white as the full significance of this statement sank into their understandings. The former gave a little scream and moved closer to the princess as though to protect her royal charge from the contaminating touch of the bandit. The princess realized that her plight was a sore one, and that it might be better to conciliate rather than offend her captor.
“You do not understand what you require,” she said. “It is absolutely impossible that you and I should wed. Name a ransom that may be paid in money, and it will be paid gladly; but do not lose all by attempting to force such preposterous terms upon us.”
“Wait!” said The Rider. “You do not understand. I am not asking your hand for myself; but for another whom I understand you would gladly wed would your mother permit. Your freedom, therefore, depends upon my ability to obtain from her the necessary consent to your immediate marriage to Mr. Hemmington Main, who is on his way here now with a priest who will perform the ceremony.”
Then The Rider looked eagerly from one to the other for evidence of the expected effect of his announcement. The girl should have been quite overcome by joy; but she was not. She appeared, on the contrary, far from relieved and even a little piqued. Could it be that the Princess Mary of Margoth was, after all, angered to discover that the bandit had not wanted her for himself at all, but for another? Impossible, and yet a princess is, whether she will or no, a woman; and Prince Boris of Karlova, even in the guise of a notorious cutthroat, was a most prepossessing figure.
The bandit at the stove gasped as he heard the terms of the ransom and learned the identity of the captives. A cunning expression crossed his stupid face, as, satisfied with what he had heard, he slunk from the building and hastened to the tents of his fellows to communicate his store of intelligence.
“You have made a mistake,” said the princess. “I do not wish to marry Mr. Main, and as you say that you have no wish for a money ransom may I ask you to return us to our car and let us go our way?”
The Rider showed his astonishment in the expression of his face.
“But,” he insisted, “I have Mr. Main’s word for it that you and your father are in favor of the match—that only your mother’s wish that you marry a titled European stands in the way.” He turned questioningly toward Carlotta.
“Her hi——er-my daughter,” stammered the frightened nurse, “can marry only a titled European—it is her wish as well as my own. She does not wish to marry Mr. Main—you have heard her say so yourself. Please, oh, please, Mr. Rider, let us go.”
The Rider rubbed his chin in puzzled bewilderment. Whatever his reply to Carlotta’s appeal might have been it was interrupted by the sound of the approach of several men the foremost of whom burst into the shack with scant formality. The leader was a burly brute whose gaudy rags were rendered sinister by a bandoleer of cartridges across his breast and a formidable looking rifle which he carried in his right hand. He halted just within the doorway and eyed The Rider with a ferocious scowl. The latter’s head went up, and a scowl of disapproval darkened his brow.
“What is the meaning of this?” he asked. “I did not send for you.”
“No,” growled the brigand, “you didn’t send for me; but I came—I came to tell you that you don’t let these fine birds get away so easy as you think. Why, we could get a million for ’em; an’ here you are tellin’ ’em they can go if the young one will marry the man you want her to. What do you think we are, to stand around an’ let you lose the richest pickin’s we’ve had in years?”
“Get out of here,” snapped The Rider.
“Hold on now, my fine bird,” cried the brigand. “We’ve promised not to do you no harm, an’ we won’t unless you make us; but we’re goin’ to have these two women, an’ we’re goin’ to take ’em with us right now; so stand aside and you won’t get hurt,” and the fellow took a step as though to pass Prince Boris.
Carlotta shrank close to Princess Mary, who put her arms about her faithful servant and stood waiting the outcome of the altercation with calm and unruffled demeanor. The girl had heard the words of the brigand with surprise, and though she still had no reason to doubt the identity of him whom she took for The Rider she wondered not a little at the temerity and the mutinous spirit of his subordinates.
As the ruffian attempted to pass him Prince Boris took a single step forward, and at the same instant swung his fist to the fellow’s jaw, delivering a blow that stretched the man upon his back. Those in the doorway behind now attempted to surge into the room; but Boris drew his revolver and menaced them as they advanced. The man upon the floor, cursing and sputtering in pain and rage, staggered to his feet. In an instant his rifle was leveled.
“I don’t care who you are,” he shrieked, with a horrid oath, “you can’t come that on me and live,” but before he could press the trigger there was a spurt of flame from the revolver in the hand of Prince Boris and the man, dropping his rifle, staggered forward, reeled and fell at the feet of the prince he would have slain.
Some one of the men in the doorway fired a shot into the room, and instantly Boris’ revolver spurted a streak of fire and death into the group huddled there. One of the bandits screamed and fell backwards into the arms of those behind him. Boris fired again, and the pack fled, carrying their wounded with them.
Leaping to the door the crown prince of Karlova closed and barred it, then he turned back to the two women.
“Lie down close behind the chimney,” he commanded. “Their bullets are less apt to find you there. Quick, now! They will be back in a minute—you are too rich spoil for them to relinquish without a battle.”
He stepped to the smoky lantern and raising it extinguished the flame, leaving the room in utter darkness. Then he went to the side of the dead brigand, removed his bandoleer of cartridges, which he buckled about his own shoulders, and appropriated the fellow’s revolver and rifle.
“We can give them a fight for a while,” he said, with a laugh.
“Why don’t you let them take us for ransom?” asked Princess Mary. “They may kill us all.”
“They are beasts,’ replied Boris. “I would rather see you dead than alone in their power. If the ransom were all, I might make terms with them; though if it were not for you I’d rather take a chance with their bullets than give in to them.”
He had crossed to one of the two windows as he spoke; and an instant later a shot from his rifle crashed through the glass, announcing that he had discovered the enemy sneaking upon their little fortress.
“I think I got another of them that time,” he remarked, and then crossed the room to the window upon the opposite side. Again the report of his rifle crashed through the small room.
“They’re coming from both directions,” he announced. “I wish. Main had come—two of us might stand them off for a while.”
As he recrossed the room to the opposite window he felt the touch of a light hand upon his arm.
“Give me a revolver,” said a brave little voice at his side. “I can guard upon one side, while you guard upon the other.”
A sudden volley of shots from without shattered the glass in one of the windows and thudded against the logs of the walls. A bullet pinged close to the man’s head. Involuntarily he threw his arm about the girl beside him and forced her to the floor.
“You mustn’t take such chances,” he exclaimed. “My God, they might have hit you.” His fingers closed tightly upon her arm, and the contact sent a thrill through the man’s frame. “Go back to the chimney,” he said, hoarsely. “May God forgive me for exposing you to this danger, for I can never forgive myself.”
“You are a most remarkable brigand,” said the girl; “your actions belie your reputation. Are you always as solicitous of the welfare of your victims?”
Prince Boris laughed. “I am rather beginning to believe,” he said, “that I am a remarkable brigand,” and then, seriously, “I never before captured a goddess.”
The Princess Mary rose and shook his hand from her arm.
“I will guard this window,” she said; “you take the other. There is no use objecting, we shall all be killed if we do otherwise,” and she crossed the room to one of the windows, where she fired out upon the figures creeping through the brush toward the shack.
“Be careful!” he called back to her over his shoulder, and then, quite irreverently, “Why couldn’t you have been a European princess instead of an American queen!”