"GOOD LORD!" said the young man under his breath. "Oh, good lord!"
Not that he was the least frightened, for he was not that sort of young man at all. He was broad of shoulder and lean of flank, and his clean shaven lips had a flickering suggestion of humor about them. Not that they were smiling now—far from it.
For the young man with the courage of an athlete and the litheness of a tiger was in a tight place. He had come into it partly out of curiosity, partly out of mere love of adventure, and wholly because a certain girl was in the business. The mere fact that he had not the remotest idea who the girl was gave zest to the situation. And now he was getting an idea.
The President had been speaking. Sad to say the President was exceedingly bloodthirsty. He looked small and mean and narrow, a little twisted scrap of humanity; but then he belonged to the half-delirious, half-mad class that provides copy for the daily papers. These men shake the steps of a throne sometimes.
The President was masked, like everybody else. There were a score or two of men in that dingy, ill-lighted cellar in Marenna that night, and two were women. It was when the girl that the young man had followed clapped her hands vigorously that the young man in question said "Good lord!" under his breath.
It may be asked why the young man was so obviously out of place, and how he found himself in the company of those dangerous outcasts at all. In the first place he was a writer of fiction, who was doing pretty well for himself; and in the second place, he had the means of going anywhere so far as Marenna and the Kingdom of Asturia was concerned. How he came by that privilege will be seen in good time.
The President was very angry. He had a grievance against the Grand Duke of Asturia, and was naturally anxious that the potentate in question should be "removed." That was why the Brotherhood of the Ruby Cross had met that night. The President was a chemist with some original views on the question of nitro-glycerine. He produced from his pocket a tiny glass tube no thicker than a lead pencil and no longer than his little finger, and proceeded to explain its potential abilities and scope. The tube, expelled by a peashooter for the distance of a score of yards or so, would destroy anything living within the radius of an average dining-room. The brother (or sister) upon whom the pleasing task of the "removal" fell would be quite safe. The thing might be done from a garret window as the Grand Duke took his daily ride along the Winterstrasse, and not a soul but the operator be any the wiser.
"This is very interesting," the young man muttered behind his mask. "It would be still more interesting if the task fell to me. Really, this is a matter for the police. It wouldn't be safe to let a joke like this go too far."
Generally speaking there was no opposition to the President's scheme. He appeared to be a man gifted with considerable persuasive powers. The simple idea was to draw lots. Once that was done the rest was comparatively easy. A room would be taken and the necessary weapon and charge handed over to the "martyr," who would "pot" the Grand Duke at his leisure. It all sounded very ridiculous, but then these things have been done in circumstances equally commonplace and sordid.
The atmosphere of the cellar was hot and sickly. The feeble rays of the lamp only rendered the shadows more black and sinister. From a box the President produced a number of wooden balls to the exact number of the assembled conspirators. All the balls were white save one. And the person who drew the black ball from the little hole in the box would do the needful. The whole thing was delightfully simple.
The young man took his ball with the rest and laid it on the table. It was a white ball, so that the charge of the martyr's crown was gone so far as he was concerned. He saw many other white balls laid on the table, but not one of them deposited by the girl, whom he was watching so closely. He was conscious of a tightening across the chest. Was it possible . . . . . ?
It was. There could be no doubt of it. For when the girl dipped her hand in the box she was the last to do so, and every other ball on the table was white. She held up the sinister sphere presently so that everybody could see it. The slim, white hand with its twin diamond rings looked dazzlingly fair by contrast.
"I am exceedingly fortunate," the girl said. "What is the next thing to do?"
"Very simple," the President said hoarsely. "Here is a piece of paper. To-morrow at a certain time you will be at the place denoted. At the stroke of noon a woman dressed as a nun will come out of the Church of All Angels. Follow her to her destination, but do not speak. She will enter a certain room in a certain tenement house, and you will enter the next room on the right. No questions will be asked, and everything will be ready for you. The room in question commands a full view of the Winterstrasse. The materials will reach you by post."
"And then I am to kill the Grand Duke?" the girl asked. "Why?"
A murmur of disapproval followed the question. The answer was so utterly obvious. The Grand Duke must be removed simply because he was the Grand Duke.
"He never did me any harm," the girl protested.
"Woman, you are a fool," the President said furiously. "You are one of us, or you would not have passed yonder door to-night. You have taken the oath, and you must abide by the consequence. If you refuse, well, you know what refusal means. If the man is a lover of yours——"
"You are—you are a—a horror!" the girl cried. "The Grand Duke is a good man. He is kind and considerate to his people. I don't like his views—well, really, I won't go into that. The police shall know of this."
The bombshell had fallen. A dozen men rose to their feet, yelling furiously. The other woman advanced on the girl and caught her rudely by the hair. It was obviously up to the young man to take a hand in the game. The spirit of tragedy was in the air. He leant on the table and softly blew out the lamp. He had focussed the whole scene in his mind first. It seemed to him that he knew exactly what to do. And, like the clever and audacious young man he was, he did it. In a vague kind of way the girl could hear the sound of the impact of flesh on flesh, could hear the groans and the curses of those who suffered in the cause as they went down before the furious onslaught of the young man. There was a faint shuddering suggestion of steel shimmering in the opalesque shadows, but the girl did not notice that, for she was too busy struggling with the lean, furious hands tangled in her hair. She was getting all the adventure she needed—and more.
Came then a buzzing sensation in her ears and a curious relaxation of her limbs. The suggestion that she was on the verge of fainting would have filled her with indignation, but there it was. The grip on her hair suddenly relaxed; she was caught up in a pair of strong arms and swept off her feet. And there was something in that grip that filled her with a sense of absolute security.
"Hold tight," a voice whispered in her ears. "Only let me have my right arm free. There's a little devil in the left-hand corner who has more fight in him than all the rest put together. Keep up your courage; we are nearly through."
They were through presently, and staggering up the rickety ladder leading to the street. At the corner of the vile lane the young man paused and panted.
"Well, that was a pretty close call, anyway," he said cheerfully. "Your mask has fallen off. Good thing it's so late and so few people about."
"I've lost one of my rings as well," the girl said.
"Well, that's better than losing your life," the young man responded. "If you will give me your address——"
The girl hesitated just for a moment.
"Why should I not?" she asked defiantly. "I am at 185 Gartenstrasse, Fraulein Anne Ketra. The elderly lady who is looking after me has had to go to Vienna on urgent business. I found myself in that den to-night looking for copy. I write, you know."
"I have seen Anne Ketra's stories," the young man said grimly. "I also am a novelist. Let me see you home and in the morning I will call and inquire after you."
The girl made no reply. She had her own good reasons why the young man should not call; and therefore there was no reason to inform him that she would assuredly leave Marenna to-morrow. She was sorry in a way to part with the young man, but then the reasons were so very urgent.
"I suppose I shall never see him again," she said with a sigh.
All the same, she was not destined to leave Marenna quite so soon as she had anticipated. Half an hour later came a polite inspector of police. He was full of regrets, but he had his orders. There were urgent state reasons why the lady should accompany him to the old Garden Palace, where a suite of rooms were being kept for the Fraulein's reception. A woman was downstairs and would help her to pack. No harm was intended the Fraulein—she would oblige him by replying to a few questions, and perhaps to-morrow——
"This," the girl cried, "is an outrage."
The polite official sighed feelingly. He was desolate. All the same, it was quite clear that he was going to carry out his instructions. The girl bit her lips furiously. The polite official had never seen such beauty and anger in alliance before.
"Send up your woman," the girl said. "Let her help me, and I will come with you."
The polite official was eager to do anything in reason. He was obviously impressed by the beauty and style of his prisoner. Also he had an odd idea that he had seen her before. He knew that lovely, wilful face and those blue eyes—eyes flashing with anger now, and yet with a suggestion of mirth and mischief in them. She was afraid, yet not afraid; just as a swimmer might be when he knows nothing of the temperature of the water. She came back presently to the police official all ready cloaked and hooded as it ready for a journey.
"You do not take ordinary prisoners to the Garden Palace?" she demanded.
The polite official signified that the girl was correct. As a matter of fact, the Garden Palace was not a prison at all. The place had been built by a dead and gone Grand Duke of eccentric habits who was a great lover of solitude. The place was a fortress with a lovely old garden inside the walls—a garden so beautiful that it was renowned through Europe.
"I have no doubt that I shall be comfortable there," the girl said demurely.
She was not mistaken in this sanguine estimate. She woke at daybreak in a rosy mist of old satin; she gasped with delight at the prospect before her windows. To her this was an adventure wild and exciting, and yet daintily delicate. She was a prisoner, perhaps; but then the prison was a palace, and the whole escapade had a legal flavour about it. Here was a story all ready made. There was an element of trouble of course, but this only added savor to the situation. Enquiries would be made and something like a scandal would be inevitable; but even this fact had its charms. The crowning tableau would round off the story beautifully.
Therefore the girl went down to breakfast in a pleased mood. She broke her fast daintily in a charming old room hung with the pictures of the dead and gone Grand Dukes who seemed to smile at her from the walls. She kissed the tips of her pink fingers to them as she passed out into the garden.
And such a garden! It lay there shimmering in the summer sunshine. The air was heavy with the scent of flowers; the bees murmured drowsily. It seemed to the girl that she could be content to remain here always. The mere fact that she was behind grim stone walls only gave her a pleased sense of isolation from the world. She found a little romantic glen presently, and under a tree there she fell asleep. She made a sweet and dainty picture as she lay there with her hands clasped behind her golden hair, the sweetest and daintiest picture in the world.
At any rate, the young man thought so. It was perhaps rude of him to sit down and watch the girl till the white lids lifted off the wonderfully tender blue of her eyes, and she smiled faintly.
"My preserver," she said. "What are you doing here?"
"Don't move," the young man said, eagerly. "You are—well, you really are, you know. Are you not surprised to meet me again?"
"Not a bit," the girl said. "It's an odd feeling, but I quite expected you. But what are you doing here?"
"Well, I suppose I might say that I am here on business. At any rate I am attached to the Court. I am confidential adviser to the Grand Duke."
"Really! At your age? How nice! Do you like him? Is he really awfully decent? I got that phrase from a delightful Eaton boy when I was staying in England. But isn't your man conceited? Does he not think that all the girls want to marry him?"
"No, he doesn't," the young man said emphatically. "He never was what you call a ladies man. He only wants one girl, and she will not come near him."
"I know. You are speaking of Princess Rene, of Barataria."
"The same. The most wilful, lovely, and delightful of them all. But she won't look at him. I mean that literally. That's rather illogical of her—what?"
The girl sat up and regarded her companion with great gravity.
"Have you met the Princess?" she asked. "At any rate, you have seen her photograph?"
The young man made a gesture of contempt.
"Photograph!" he exclaimed. "They really convey nothing. And as to myself, I am not much of a traveller. I dare say I shall meet the Princess some day. She may change her mind as to the Grand Duke. In her position she will have to marry somebody one of these days."
"True," the girl said thoughtfully. "That's one of the drawbacks of being a princess. I've never seen your Grand Duke. Shall I have to do so now?"
"Probably. He knows you're here. In fact he knows all about last night's little adventure. As a matter of fact, you were brought here to keep you out of further mischief."
The girl pressed her lips into a whistle. Her thoughtful mood changed. She turned upon the young man with anger flashing in her eyes.
"I've got to thank you for this," she said.
"I think you have," the young man said quietly. "Since you put it in that way, you've also got to thank me for your life. How did you get into that den last night?"
"Oh, well, perhaps you are right," the girl said contritely. "I have a relative who possesses a certain influence with the police; and I'm rather sorry for those anarchists, you see. I've pretended to be one myself. And I learnt a good deal of their aims and ambitions. They never seem to realise that the police know all about them, poor dears. Really, I had no idea last night's business was so serious. And that is why I spoke so freely to them. I thought that if I scolded them a little they would be ashamed of their silly plans. And then I realised all at once that they were in earnest. It was a terrible shock to me. Do you know that I got my old governess out of the way so that I could attend that meeting. A friend of mine in—at home—obtained all the information about your anarchists for me. You see, I like to use my own eyes. I must have local color."
"So distinguished a novelist as yourself would," the young man said grimly.
"Of course. Then you came along and saved my life. They would have killed me had you not been there. It was brave of you, to take your life in your hands like that. But, tell me, my dear preserver, what were you doing there?"
"Oh, I frequently attend such meetings. You see, I am in a position to get all the information I need. I dress and rehearse for the part, so that I am quite safe. And I know—I mean I could see by a kind of instinct that you were not one of those people."
"What a story it would make!" the girl exclaimed.
"Wouldn't it?" the young man cried, enthusiastically. "I am a bit of a scribbler, and I should like to have the telling of it. Let us make a romance of it. Say you are a Princess—if you like we'll call you the Crown Princess——"
"The Half-Crown Princess," the girl laughed. "My escapades are too cheap for the full title. But go on. See what you can make of the story. And I'll put the finishing touches in."
"If you do that," the young man said meaningly, "I shall be the happiest chap in the world. Well, Half-Crown Princess, suppose you pose as Princess Rene, of——"
"If you say that again," the girl began, "I shall at once——"
"Princess Rene," the young man insisted politely, but firmly. "You came here to see our Prince, whom you have never met, despite the fact that he wishes to marry you. You wanted to have a look at him. And you wanted an adventure. And you got it. You came here in disguise, but you were found out and your movements were watched. And it turns out that you were not watched quite closely enough, and had I not come along you would have got into trouble. At my instigation you were conveyed here, and here you are at this moment. All you have to do now is to fall in love with the Grand Duke and marry him."
"Oh, really! And that is what you call the finishing touches to the story?"
"Indeed I should. You are too fine an artist to deny that. It is the inevitable climax."
"Not quite," the girl said. "For instance, what is to become of you? Now, if you had happened to be the Grand Duke——"
"My dearest Rene, I am," the young man said coolly.
The girl sat up with her hands clasped over her knees. There was a flame of carmine in her cheeks. Her eyes were moist and dewy.
"I ought to be furiously angry with you," she said. "But—but——"
"But you are nothing of the kind. Dear, don't you see for yourself that this romance can only end one way? Don't you see that destiny is shaping the ends for us?"
"How—how did you find out?"
"I knew last night. I knew by those twin diamond rings. Here is the other one that you lost in the scuffle. I should like to keep this one."
"You had better," the girl said. "I am trying to be angry, but still——"
"But still you can't. Rene, you are not going to spoil a story like this?"
A tear stole down the carmine cheek; the blue eyes were softly luminous.
"I don't think so," the girl whispered. "No, not yet dear—wait till I have finished. And, after all, as you said just now—I've got to get married some day, and as you seem to be——"
And it was here, where the hiatus came, that he kissed her.