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Title: The Black Ghost of the Highway
Author: Linnell, Gertrude
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                            THE BLACK GHOST
                             OF THE HIGHWAY


                                   BY
                            GERTRUDE LINNELL


                        LONGMANS, GREEN AND CO.
                           NEW YORK · TORONTO
                                  1931

                                LINNELL
                     THE BLACK GHOST OF THE HIGHWAY

                            COPYRIGHT · 1931
                       BY LONGMANS, GREEN AND CO.

                             FIRST EDITION
                PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA


                              FOR E. B. S.



                            THE BLACK GHOST
                             OF THE HIGHWAY



                              _CHAPTER I_


The roads at the crossing were wide and smooth, with cool woods on
either side, but beyond them to the left rose the high, jagged,
yellow-and-black mass of the mountains, bare on their upper reaches, and
wooded in the shelter of the valleys, a splintered peak or two farthest
inland showing snowcapped even in August. They dominated the narrow
strip of fertile, hilly land between them and the sea, abrupt, savage,
Central European. One of the roads led up through a cloven valley and
was engulfed in it, the other ran more levelly along the sea coast. John
stopped while we stared. It was not the first time that we had stopped
in the last few days just to look at a landscape. The whole journey
through these lands of astounding languages and suddenly varying
costumes had been painted in opalescent sunlight and vivid shadows, but
since morning we had been nearing the mountains. Now we found ourselves
under them, but not yet in them, and two roads, equally wide and
enticing, led forward to unmarked destinations.

“It’s the road to the left,” I said, looking at the map. “It seems to
branch off about here, but it might be a little farther on. It’s hard to
tell with no markers.”

“Anyway, let’s not take it,” John objected. “Why pass up another day or
so of driving? You never know what you may find if you don’t know where
you’re going.”

I agreed.

“Helena doesn’t expect us any particular day, so that’s all right,” I
said. “Let’s take the wrong road.”

It was a very long and beautiful wrong road. The mountains changed their
angles, but did not move from their commanding position to our left. The
sea became bluer, the sun climbed higher, and then presently, we were
turning inland. We passed only small villages, or isolated farms, their
buildings connected, in true Central-European fashion, by a series of
little walled courts, where pigs and chickens, cows, human beings, dogs,
donkeys, and even mules and horses mingled but did not stop. With firm
faith in the brakes of passing cars they overflowed into the highway.
John dodged them all expertly, having had almost a week of practise at
it, and presently we came suddenly to a customs house with a barrier
across the road.

“This must be the Alarian frontier,” John said. “There’s always
something at the end of a road. Shall we go through?”

“Why not?” I said. “We’re here, and we can get back to Helena’s across
the mountains. There’s a rather famous Pass. Handsome scenery.”

“There are no shortcuts to beauty,” he proclaimed, grinning. “The
farther we go the better it gets. Where’s your passport?”

The inspector peered into the tonneau of our car, and seemed pained by
the number of tightly strapped pieces he saw there. He gratefully
accepted a pair of cigars from me, and then dutifully read our names
with a thick accent, so that John became _Yohn Coltaire_, and I
_Marr-s-hall Carrr-veen_. Our likenesses puzzled him a little. He stared
from them to us several times before he decided that they were, after
all, passable. He then waved us through the barrier, and we came, a
hundred yards or so farther on, to a second barrier, where the
performance was repeated, in the same order, as though rehearsed, like a
comic opera chorus. The only difference was the uniform of the
examiners. We were then given gracious permission to enter the realm of
King Bela of Alaria.

“Chap I know,” John said, “went all through here last year and wrote a
book about it. He said the roads were fine and the food and wines even
better, if you like garlic and mutton. And he’s never tired of raving
about the people. Maybe we’d better stop and do some painting.”

“You don’t have to go to Waldek,” I said. “If you’re seeking refuge in
working I can go there by train alone.”

“Nonsense,” he said. “Of course I want to go to Waldek. Those mountains
make me feel as though they ought to be set down on canvas.”

“Work’s pretty fascinating,” I agreed, “if you’re not doing any.”

“That’s not true,” John objected. “I’m not doing any, and don’t want to,
but once I start I like it. You’ll see when we get to Waldek.”

“The mountains are there, too,” I promised him.

“I know,” he answered. “And I’ve never visited a Countess in a mediæval
castle. I’m expecting a couple of ghosts and a bookful of legends, to
say nothing of all the neighbors in for Kaffee Klatsch, and the feudal
retainers in costume.”

“I hope so,” I said. “I feel a bit doubtful myself. I’ve never been to
Waldek, and it’s eight years since I’ve seen Helena.”

“The grand finale to a perfect trip,” he enthused politely. “Reunion
with a lost cousin and her beautiful daughter, the Countess Marie.”

“Only don’t blame me,” I warned, “if she isn’t. I haven’t seen the kid
since she was about twelve or so. She was thin and pig-tailed then, and
over fond of sticky French pastry and marrons glacés.”

“She’s probably grown fat on them in eight years, and had a permanent
wave. Still, I always hope for the best, and sometimes I’m surprised by
getting something like it. Look at that, for instance.”

We had topped the crest of a long, rolling hilltop, to the sudden edge
of a low cliff, and looked almost directly upon the historic and
fantastic city of Herrovosca, capital of Alaria. It was the first time
either of us had ever seen an Oriental city. Geographically, of course,
Herrovosca is not Oriental, but the Turks occupied it too long for it
ever to look like a European city again. The houses below were
whitewashed, or color washed, the shrubbery was thick and of an
unbelievably luscious and vivid green, as I imagine the green of an
oasis to be, with flecks of bright flowers to accent it and slender
poplars pointed heavenward like minarets of silver. From the hilltop we
looked almost directly down on the new part of the town. Pleasant villas
were set back in their gardens behind high white walls, awninged roofs
showed bright among the trees, the bright face of a small lake flashed,
and through the center of the city flowed a river, crossed by a dozen
bridges. Everything on our side of the river was new and bright, with
ample space for trees. On the opposite bank there was little greenery
except for a park that covered a small rocky hill. In the park was a
huge old building, a massive grey stone structure with long wings of
lighter stone that had been added later. Obviously it was the Royal
Palace, the abode of the only Christian bachelor King in the world.
Around the whole district was a double line of fortifications in perfect
preservation. The outer wall crossed two of the bridges and was
continued on our side of the river. In mediæval days the Herrovoscans
did not dare to leave their defense to chance and the perfection of the
walls suggested that the mediæval period was a very recent fact.

At the foot of the little hill on which the Royal Palace stood, was a
large square, flanked by a Cathedral on one side, and by two large,
official-looking buildings on the other two, with the park of the Palace
forming the fourth. It was all very quiet and peaceful. Not a sound came
up to us from the city, though we were very close to it. We passed a few
cars, some market and trucking wagons drawn by mules, horses and oxen in
mixed pairs, a scattering of foot passengers, laden donkeys, and riders,
each making its own special sound; but from the city there was only
silence. It seemed unnaturally still, like a dead town.

“It’s the wind,” John said, practically. “It’s carrying the sound away
from us. Odd effect, though, isn’t it?”

“It’s the most scene-painterish city I ever saw in real life,” I said.
It was hard to believe that it was real, but as we rolled down the hill
sounds of activity gradually rose to meet us. As we crossed the river
over one of the wide stone bridges, the first impression of unnatural
quiet was erased. Herrovosca was like all cities, noisy, busy,
self-centered, and its color faded a little as we approached. John
turned away from the wide thoroughfare leading from the bridge, and
followed several short narrow streets. They were quaint and full of
atmosphere, both ocular and olfactory, but so short that in a few
moments we found ourselves on another wide avenue, lined with trees and
flowers, their wide walks dotted with nurse maids in gay caps with
colored streamers, men and women of less than the highest class making
quite a business of their promenade, staring at the fine, open carriages
and cars in which the great ladies drove, and the handsome horses being
ridden by young officers of the army. We were so much amused by the
people that we almost drove past a gendarme who motioned us to one side
so that two lancers might ride down the center of the street, tiny blue
pennons waving from the tip of their long lances. A victoria followed,
drawn by a handsome pair of black stallions. Behind that were two more
lancers with four soldiers following on motor cycles. In the victoria
were two ladies. One of them was bowing from right to left, graciously
acknowledging the salutes of her subjects. The Queen Mother, of course.
She was as handsome as her pictures, and of a conscious presence, like a
great actress. She stared slightly as she bowed to us. Evidently
tourists were not plentiful in Alaria.

John fell in behind the cortege, driving slowly of necessity. We had a
Baedeker, but did not bother to open it. It was so much pleasanter to
wander on haphazard. When we came to a side street that looked
interesting, we turned into it again. It smelt strongly of cheese and
other native food products. White walls, grated windows, cobblestones,
were everywhere, and nearly all of the lower classes wore their bright
native costumes. There were so many of them, and so many uniforms, that
civilian clothes became conspicuous. Practically no one lowly enough to
walk wore them except the promenaders on the avenue.

“That’s the way people ought to dress,” John approved. “Bright colors.
Makes you feel cheerful.”

After we had been driving about for some minutes we came suddenly out of
the twisting maze of streets, and found ourselves in the large square we
had seen from the hill above the city. John stopped the car to look
around us. If he had not we should have been run into by a large dark
car travelling very fast. It turned into the open gates of the Palace
park. The sentries jumped out of the way and managed to salute almost at
the same time as it charged up the steep short hill with a roar of its
open motor. We caught just a glimpse of a young girl alone in the
tonneau. She was leaning forward in an eager and excited pose. I
probably should not have noticed her otherwise. Almost before that car
had disappeared another followed it, with another lone passenger, this
time a thin man, and two liveried servants. Though his car was
travelling at the same frantic rate as the first, the thin man was
leaning back as though time meant nothing to him.

“Something’s going on,” John said. “That’s what always happens sooner or
later to spoil any trip.”

“Excitement?” I asked.

“Yes,” John said, disgustedly. “Something you can’t be in on because
you’re a stranger.”

“Look how pleasant and peaceful this square is,” I protested.

It was quite a beautiful square, paved with huge blocks of red and black
marble. The roadway ran around the four sides, but the two cars that
passed us had driven across the center. Royal prerogative, probably.
Facing us rose the great bulk of the Cathedral, built of some dark
stone, so weathered that it seemed almost black. Its twin spires had
once been gilded, but were now a rusty red. To our right and left were
the two large grey buildings of obviously official character, and
further to the right rose the Royal Palace on its rocky, park-like hill.
A stone wall ran around it, and, toward the square, where a tower jutted
down, it almost touched the wall, just beyond two colossal wrought-iron
gates. Farther back, a light and fanciful covered bridge had been added,
reaching from the wall to the Cathedral, and offering the members of the
Royal Household a private entrance to the church. Its architecture was
Renaissance, and it might have been a part of Versailles, so graceful
and completely French was its style. It was a noticeable contrast to the
Cathedral and the Palace. Through its rows of glazed windows I could see
the blue sky beyond.

“Let’s stay here a few days,” I suggested. “We can amuse ourselves,
though the place looks so quiet and tranquil I don’t suppose anything
will ever happen here again.”

“That’s a fine reason for staying in a place.” John snorted.

“You could paint,” I offered.

“Let’s find a hotel,” he said. “I’m hungry, and I’d like to get a bath
before dinner. You probably have to announce your intention to bathe
well ahead here.”

Artists and actors, I have noticed, are always thinking of food. In
John’s case it is not poverty but appetite. If he had less money he
might be a better artist. Not that he can’t paint, but that his money
buys him so many more vivid amusements that he doesn’t. He stepped on
the starter, but before he got the motor running a great bell began to
toll. At first we thought it came from the Cathedral in front of us, but
in a moment we realised that it was in the great tower of the
fortress-Palace. It was twenty minutes past three, too early for an
Angelus, and no clock rings at twenty minutes past an hour. It boomed
solemnly, funereally.

“Sounds like a death knell,” John said. “But if any member of the Royal
Family were dead the Queen wouldn’t have been driving around the city as
she was half an hour ago, bowing to the populace. She’s supposed to be
hard boiled, but she’d have to be pretty icy to manage that.”

The bell tolled on, and as it rang, people began running into the
square. They were excited, gesticulating, talking rapidly. Obviously the
bell had some serious significance. I called in German to several people
before one would stop. And, as he answered, the Cathedral bell began
ringing, and others all over the city followed it.

“Der König ist tod!”

The King was dead. It must have been very sudden, then. Assassinated,
probably. To Balkan rulers assassination is almost a natural form of
death.

And still the people came. More and more thickly they packed the square.

“We’d better get out of this,” John said, and started the motor, “if we
don’t we’ll be hemmed in by the crowd, and won’t be able to.” But we
were already hemmed in. We moved ahead not more than a few feet, the
crowds were coming too fast to let us through. A man in a blue blouse
climbed on the running board. He had a full red beard and shining brown
eyes.

“How did the King die?” I asked.

“They are all saying different things,” the man replied, “but all I know
is that the King is dead, and there will be trouble in Herrovosca.”

“Revolution?” I asked.

“Who knows? Perhaps. The Soviet—a republic—perhaps the Prince Conrad may
be clever enough and strong enough to hold the throne—who knows? And the
Queen will not be idle.”

“But the King died suddenly?”

“Oh, very suddenly. I saw him myself only this morning. He was driving
out with some friends. Two cars full. Going up to the mountains to hunt,
I heard, and not an hour ago the Queen was driving through the streets
as she does every day when the weather is fine.”

“Not such a comfortable moment to time our visit,” I said. “There’ll
probably be just enough trouble here to be a bother.”

“I suppose so,” John said, “and we don’t understand the language enough
to be in the fun. Let’s go on tomorrow to your Cousin Helena’s place and
leave the Alarians to settle their difficulties without us.”

“Yes,” I agreed. I was afraid that he would want to stay. “She’ll be
glad enough to see someone from home, at least she ought to be. She
hasn’t for a long enough time. We can’t very well go on today. It’ll be
too late by the time we’ve had dinner.”

The whole city seemed to be alive with the sound of the bells. And,
then, quite suddenly, they stopped. Not quite all at once. The Palace
bell stopped first, and then the Cathedral bell, and then all the
others, one after another. In the odd silence that followed we looked at
each other in something like alarm, for the populace was silent, too,
and a silent populace may so easily be a dangerous one. In a moment,
though, they all began shouting, in cumulative waves of noise, louder
and more frantically. Little groups formed around leaders. Speakers
began haranguing all who would listen, and if the silence had been
ominous the din was enormously more so.

“Do not be alarmed,” our bearded giant counselled. “The knell has been
tolled for King Bela. Now you will hear, they will ring again for the
new King. Prince Conrad has become King Conrad the Fourth.”

As he spoke a carillon sounded from the Cathedral, playing a fine
marching hymn. Voices took up the melody, the whole square swayed and
sang, the men’s heads were uncovered, many people dropped to their
knees, others shouted above the singing.

The King was dead. The city was singing a greeting to the new King, and
praying that his reign might be a happy and a prosperous one. I
remembered, as I sat listening to those bells, all the troubles of
Alaria in the last years. Yolanda, the Queen Mother, was a German; an
energetic, politically-minded woman who had ruled her husband and
bettered the condition of the country relentlessly, without ever winning
anything from her adopted people but dislike. Her husband, and her elder
son, and a daughter, had been assassinated seven or eight years before.
I counted back. It was after I had seen Helena in Paris. Someone, how or
why I could not remember, had thrown a bomb. Bela, the younger son, had
become King, with his mother as Regent until he was eighteen. Then he
had ruled badly and erratically, partly dominated by his mother, whose
unpopularity he shared and augmented by his cruelty and by refusing to
marry. He was not more than twenty-five or six, but already he had
become a figure of motley reputation, his name linked with that of a
half dozen ladies of prominence in their chosen profession. He was an
irresponsible and rather savage wastrel. I could just remember having
seen a few mentions of a Prince Conrad, the heir to the throne, who was
reputed to be on extremely bad terms with his cousin the King, and was
consequently living more or less in retirement. Now the bells were
calling him from obscurity to a throne. I wondered if he knew yet that
he was a king.

The carillons ceased, one by one, as the tolling had ceased, and a new
bell began sounding from the Cathedral. The ringing seemed to have been
going on for hours. I felt deafened, tired. I glanced at my watch. It
was quarter past four, an hour since the first bell had tolled.

The man beside us explained, “Now they will proclaim Conrad King, from
the steps of the Cathedral. If he is in the city he will appear. Wait
only, you will see it all.”

We waited, of course. We had to, since all the others apparently wanted
to see it all, too. Such part of the crowd as could get near enough
climbed on our car. We watched while more minutes went by.

The other bells were still, only the great bell of the Cathedral boomed
on and on. Then through the windows of the bridge we saw the silhouettes
of several figures pass. A murmur ran through the crowd.

Slowly the great door of the Cathedral opened. Behind it there was
revealed an impressive group. Ceremonially they advanced to the top of
the steps. There were probably twenty soldiers first. They turned, and
spread out fanwise. Then came four officers in brilliant uniforms, to
stand in front of the soldiers, their gold braid shining. Next came nine
men in sober black, their ages and figures widely varied. They took
their places in front of the officers. Then came the Queen Mother,
draped theatrically, and becomingly, in black crepe, leaning on the arm
of another man in black. She walked to the very edge of the steps and
stood there in an attitude so simple as to suggest a pose. A cheer
started in several parts of the square at once, but before it gained any
volume it died out again in little ripples of surprise and chatter. The
red-bearded man beside us was talking so hard in Alarian with a dozen
people at once that he could not answer our questions. A slender girl in
white and a tall thin man in black were coming through the Cathedral
doorway. I was reasonably certain they were the two who had rushed past
us in their cars when we first came into the square. No wonder they had
been in a hurry. The man, obviously, was Prince Conrad, but I wondered
who the girl in white could be. She was in an important position on the
platform, yet I could not remember that there was any woman in the Royal
Family of Alaria except the Queen Mother. I wondered if Bela could have
married secretly one of the many girls whose pictures had been in the
papers with his.

The crowd began to cheer in earnest at the sight of Conrad, and in
staccato counterpoint rose also flashes of disapproval, and some of the
people were merely silent. I held my breath. This wasn’t my country, it
was all a lot of hocus-pocus, and the government of Alaria was nothing
to me anyway, but I was thrilled for all that. I couldn’t help myself,
and John was like a child with a toy.

“The King! The King! King Conrad!” shouted our red-bearded man.

“Who is the girl in white?” John asked him for the dozenth time, and at
last he answered. “No one knows,” he said, “I never saw her before.
Perhaps Conrad will soon be married. They will tell us presently.”

Conrad held up his hand for silence, and the Queen Mother, whose head
had been bowed in her grief, raised it in a triumphant gesture, as
though instead of having reached the end of a long reign at the death of
her son, she had just begun a new one. It was the gesture of a woman of
courage. She had always had that, certainly. Queen Yolanda of Alaria had
made her name the symbol of the successful and beautiful, but
domineering and unpopular, woman, full of energy and even of genius. I
was suddenly sorry for Yolanda. For years she had been lending her Royal
name to every project that offered her money—especially in America. No
doubt she shared the usual European view that America was so far beyond
the limits of the known world that what she might authorise on that
broad continent did not matter. She had written for the magazines,
endorsed cigarettes, extended her illustrious hospitality to wealthy but
otherwise socially dubious persons. Alaria had benefitted by her
scheming. So, no doubt, had she. The country had for years been too poor
to afford hospitals or other public improvements. It had also been too
poor to afford her the array and the surroundings suitable to a queen.
What she wanted she had acquired by the means she found possible. But
she had reached the end of her road. Even her ingenuity would not be
able to find a way out of giving up the crown of her adopted country to
Conrad, and he had opposed her openly for years.

And then Conrad began to speak. The crowd listened with interest. Our
guide translated for us in a whisper, very quickly and roughly. The
first part of his speech was a eulogy of King Bela. There wasn’t much to
be said in praise of that young man, but what there was Conrad said.
From Bela he turned to praise Yolanda for her energy, her enterprise,
her cleverness in the face of all obstacles and difficulties. Then he
spoke of Bela’s father, and what a happy family they had been until that
terrible day of the assassination. He described the dreadful moment when
the bomb had burst, and the drive back to the Palace, the mother weeping
tragically over her children and her dead husband. The scene in the
Palace when the royal physician had declared the King and his elder son
dead. The little Princess Maria Lalena was yet alive. The mother’s
misery because of the child’s wounds, her prayers for her life.

All that was known to the crowd. They listened politely, even
interestedly, but little murmurs of impatience began to float about that
he should tell again a tale so old and so well known, and having so
little to do with his own accession to the throne. But still he spoke
on, and suddenly he said something that brought gasps from the crowd.
Our interpreter forgot us again until John pulled at his arm. Conrad
then was ushering forward the girl in white, the soldiers presented arms
at the gesture. The girl bowed, her hands crossed on her breast, like a
picture of some early Christian martyr. The red-beard’s eyes were wide
with amazement, “The Princess!” he cried, “The dead Princess! It is she!
Viva Maria Lalena! Viva, viva! The Queen! She is the Queen!”

John was almost as excited as the man himself, “That girl in white?” he
demanded.

“Yes, yes, the one in white, who else? They will hold the coronation
festivities in two weeks’ time. We have not had a reigning queen since
the days of good Queen Anna, two hundred years ago. She will be another
Queen Anna, and we will all be prosperous and happy as our ancestors
were in the days of Queen Anna! Viva! Viva!” and he threw his hat in the
air and caught it again, to show his approval.

But in other parts of the crowd there was less enthusiasm. One woman in
a red shawl was hissing through strong white teeth, her brown face
alight with venom. The crowd surged forward toward the steps. If the new
slim Queen had been there alone they might have done her some harm, but
Yolanda stood on one side of her, and Conrad on the other, and each of
them looked quite capable of holding any mere crowd at bay.

“That girl in white,” John said, “is the prettiest little thing I ever
saw—appealing. Poor child, she looks dazed.”

A short man in a red blouse began shouting then, others echoed him,
“Conrad, Conrad! Maria Lalena is dead—Impostor—Conrad! Conrad!”

And Conrad, slim and black on the Cathedral steps, seemed to grow in
height. The crowd moved and swayed and pushed and shouted. They were
growing more and more excited. In their efforts to get a better view,
the people left a lane in front of our car.

“There’s your chance,” I urged. “Start the car, and let’s get away,
now.”

“It’s a fine show, free,” John objected.

“It’s not going to be free, long,” I said. “There are a lot of police
over there, and if they start getting ugly we’ll probably spend a month
or so in a smelly jail for having been present, though foreign.”

“All right,” John agreed, and started the engine. Little by little he
inched his way along. Our interpreter lost his hat and jumped off our
running board. A woman with a baby took his place. The baby was crying.
The woman’s hair had come unpinned, and covered her shoulders in a dark
curly mass, not too clean. The car crawled along slowly, stopped, rolled
on for another slow foot or two. Not far to the right a narrow alley
opened, leading apparently to some back door in one of the government
buildings. The turbulence grew. Conrad was speaking again, but we could
not understand him. Then there were more people coming up the alley, but
they were so anxious to see that they ran around the car, and let us
through, foot by foot: we obstructed their view.

It was almost half a city block down the alley, which was practically a
tunnel. The corner was difficult. Probably ours was the first car that
had attempted it, but by edging forward and back, and bending one
mudguard a little, we made it. Then a few feet and we were in a street
again, a street we might have thought crowded an hour ago. However, we
could get through it slowly, and then, quite suddenly, there was no more
crowd, only scattered, running figures, all going the same way, toward
the square, the Princess, Conrad, and the Queen.

“Do you suppose we can get food in this town?” John asked. I didn’t. The
whole population seemed to be either in the square or on its way there.
Every house and shop was closed and barred.

“Barricaded inside as well is my guess,” John said, “for there’s very
likely to be a lot of trouble for someone here tonight unless something
is done to stop it. Yolanda has played a trump, but now it’s Conrad’s
turn, and he talked to the crowd as though he knew what he was about. If
he wants the throne, and he isn’t assassinated, I’m betting on him, for
all of Maria Lalena’s pretty, childish appeal.”

“Still,” I said, “if he wants the throne he’s gummed his own game a bit,
presenting her to the world as the Queen. I don’t see how he can expect
to eat his own words later and remain much of a favorite.”

“All the same,” John went on, “he has waited a long time, and he doesn’t
look as though he were fool enough to let a couple of women all dressed
up for the last act get away with an eleventh hour conjuring trick to
grab his throne away again.”

“He must want peace,” I protested, “more than a throne, or he never
would have made that speech. And I’m all for that little Princess. Sweet
sixteen, and baby eyes.”

“Nice to look at,” John agreed, “but not quite the stuff to cope with
the ubiquitous Soviet and all the other problems of a modern state. I’d
rather do my rooting for Prince Conrad. I think he looks like a decent
chap.”

“All right,” I said, “but I suggest that you do any rooting in English.
Then no one will understand you and it won’t get us in trouble with the
authorities. And now, I have a fine suggestion. Let’s beat it for the
frontier and Castle Waldek.”

John agreed to that, but added a proviso that we beat it fast because we
probably should not be allowed to cross the frontier after whatever
moment the authorities might have settled as the right one to close the
Pass to strangers. Mountain roads would probably be inconvenient in the
dark, anyway. My watch showed seven minutes past six. It was three hours
since we had first stopped in the Cathedral Square. “We may have time,
tonight,” I said, “though I doubt it. Let’s get out of here anyway. Once
we are out of the city we will be able to forget all about the affairs
of the Alarian Royal Family, and good riddance, too.”

“Stick-in-a-rut,” said John, “I was just beginning to enjoy myself.”

All the traffic was headed in the opposite direction, so we made
excellent time. There were no road signs in the city, but I guided our
career by a combination of the Baedeker map and the sun. We were lucky,
and came out on the right road after only one short detour. When we
found it, it was a wide city street, closely lined with beautiful
houses, with grass and trees before them. Soon it became a street of
villas, and then quite suddenly we were in the real country, with the
high mountains of the frontier looming ahead of us in the distance.

We drove probably five or six miles before we came to a small town with
an inn. We stopped there long enough to buy cold meat, sliced bread, and
a bottle of warm wine so that we could eat as we drove. I took the
wheel, and munched contentedly. The bread was heavy, dark, peasant’s
fare, the wine was the commonest, and the meat mere boiled mutton, but
we were hungry enough to enjoy it, while feeling a little sorry to be on
the road again, and even I was a little sorrier that our way did not lie
in the path of riots and revolutions. I was just thinking that it was a
pity, in a way, not to have stayed, when john spoke. “Of course all that
was none of our business,” he said, “and if we had stayed we should
probably have been jailed as spies and died of boredom and bad food and
dirt, and I know I’m talking nonsense, but I have a small boy’s
hankering to be back in the middle of that square.”

“Don’t worry,” I cautioned, “we’re not out of Alaria yet, though we’ll
go back if you say so.”

However, like two civilised men, though we both really wanted to go
back, we did not want to enough to turn the car around, or perhaps we
were ashamed to admit it to each other. In any case we continued on our
way toward the frontier and Helena. I took out my desire for excitement
in driving faster.


The customs house on the Alarian side of the frontier was a small stone
and stucco building at the bottom of a steep incline. Straight ahead the
road rose toward the Pass. It was lonely at the foot of the mountains,
and the shadows were deep enough to breed superstition. No wonder the
people could believe that queer old legend of the Black Ghost, so famous
as to be mentioned even by Baedeker. The shadowy rocky masses ahead of
us provided a perfect setting for any ghost, particularly a black one.

“There’s something about this fool country,” John said, “that I like. I
suppose it would be ghastly dull to live here, but I’d almost be willing
to have a whack at it. Consider that as a permanent home, for instance,
and compare it with a neat suburban house in Brookline.”

On our right was a high hill, about a mile or so away, but the air was
clear enough so that we could see it distinctly. On the rocky top of the
hill a long white manor house stood as though it had grown there.
Probably once it had been fortified to resist an army. No doubt it had
been called upon to do so not long ago. I could imagine its owners
swooping down on travellers through the Pass and exacting tolls with a
heavy hand. Perhaps, I thought, they might have been responsible for the
legend of the Black Ghost, though it looked like a pretty solid home for
a phantom.

We drew up, perforce, before the customs house. Alaria had taken no
chances when she built it there. The road narrowed to make its way
between two sharp high walls of rock, which had been supplemented by
masonry and a gateway with tightly closed, wrought iron gates. I
produced my passport, and John not only offered his for examination, but
a bill of sale for the car, a round dozen French cards of varying sizes
and colors permitting him to drive and to circulate and what not in the
streets of Paris. “They’re so impressive-looking,” he explained to me,
with his un-Bostonian grin.

A common soldier took them and gave them to a sergeant. The sergeant
looked wise, turned them all over to examine the reverse sides, and held
them to the light to look for a watermark. No doubt that would be quite
as illuminating to an Alarian as Paris driving permits. At last he shook
his head dubiously, and took the whole lot inside the building.

After a moment or two he returned and beckoned to us.

“It’s their damned revolution following us up,” John said, “and it would
have been a lot more fun to be detained in Herrovosca than it will
here.”

“You never can tell,” I said, “we may find doom, or romance, or any
number of amusing things ahead.”



                              _CHAPTER II_


We did not like to leave our luggage to the mercy of the lounging
soldiers, but there was nothing to do but follow the sergeant into the
customs house.

Inside there was a rather dirty, not too large, room, with a single
heavy table on which lay cards that had been obviously laid down so as
not to disturb a game that would be resumed as soon as we had been
disposed of. An army officer of evidently small importance sat behind
the card table. He bowed as we entered, but did not offer us seats. It
was John’s car, so I let him do the talking. He had had the bright idea
of offering that ridiculous collection of French souvenirs of
bureaucracy as evidence that we were fit persons to be allowed to dodge
a revolution. I stood in the window to watch the luggage. The sergeant
who had ushered us in went to the door and lighted a lantern such as we
called a bull’s eye when I was a child. I hadn’t seen one in years. They
had been useful before the days of electric torches. The Alarian
sergeant was flashing signals with it. Knowing neither the Alarian
language nor any telegraphic or heliographic code, I did not bother to
watch the flashes, but contented myself with looking to see whether he
would be answered. He could only be sending a message about us.

It was, of course, from the white manor house that the answer came. It
was the only building in sight. The residence of a superior officer, no
doubt, and telephone service either disconnected or not trusted or not
available. The under officer rapped suddenly on the table.

“May I claim your attention, gnädiger Herr?” It was not a question but a
command. He ordered me to stay away from the window. We were, then,
suspicious characters. I obeyed, but satisfied my pride by sitting down
without permission. He cleared his throat and glared, then began talking
volubly, but very little, so it seemed to me, to the point. “And who is
it your intention to see while you are in Rheatia?” he asked, among a
lot of other things. John had his mouth open to answer, when I spoke at
random, suddenly determined to tell nothing that was not necessary.

“We are in search of beautiful scenery,” I announced, with a
comprehensive wave of my hand. “We are strangers both in Alaria and
Rheatia. We have no ultimate destination.”

John showed no surprise. He did not even glance at me. No doubt he
thought I wished to spare Helena any possible gossip which our visit
might occasion among the rough soldiers. And I had had some such idea,
but I felt more that our character as innocuous American tourists had
been somewhat impaired by John’s nonsense with the Parisian permits. A
small country is always suspicious, and at the moment the Alarians were
right to be suspicious of anyone.

The officer asked more questions, addressing them to me, now. They were
for the most part the same questions he had asked John. How long had we
had the car, where had we come from, where did we live in the United
States, what was our occupation? Everything, indeed, except whether we
had any dutiable merchandise. Obviously he was merely filling in time,
while he waited for someone to come. It was quite useless to do more
than be polite. A large fly droned against the window, the soldiers
outside gossiped in gradually louder tones, while the sun slid down
slowly, point by point, behind an invisible Herrovosca. It began to grow
darker, and John was openly fidgeting, when we heard a car approaching,
its cut-out wide open after the now familiar Balkan custom. The officer
hastily lighted two kerosene lamps, and a moment or two later the car
stopped. We heard the door slam. The officer rose, expectantly. We
followed suit, and turned to face the doorway and the official who
should enter.

But it wasn’t an official who came in. It was a woman.

I stared in surprise, not only because I had expected a man, but because
this was a new kind of woman to me. She was tall, and handsomely
built—that’s not so new, nor was any one thing about her. After all, a
newspaper man sees a lot of women, sees them with reddish-brown hair
that is red in the lamplight, sees them with tawny eyes, almost the
color of a cat’s, sees them with clear olive skin, warm and sunny, and
sees them with a ruthless yet luscious mouth. But he rarely sees all
those things in one woman, and combined with a direct and forceful
authority of manner, but without any loss of femininity. Her figure,
which was less voluptuous than most Central European women’s, was
covered with gold-embroidered green velvet. She wore a gold chain around
her neck, and rings and earrings, but no hat, and her velvet dress was
cut like the peasants’, tight bodice, short bolero jacket, and full,
long skirt. She might have stepped out of a mediæval play, but she was
not theatrical, as the Queen Mother was. John was staring at her, more
delighted than I have ever seen him. She was returning his stare with
little humorous lines curled around her mouth and the corners of her
eyes. I deduced that she was quite accustomed to admiration.

“I hope,” John said to me in English, “that our passports are all wrong
and keep us here forever.”

“I cannot imagine,” she took him up quickly, “why you could wish such a
thing.” John had the decency to blush.

“I did not know you spoke English,” he apologised.

“It is sometimes a little fretting,” she replied, “when I do not say so,
soon.”

And I decided that she was no knee-high sport. Her manner was neither
over friendly nor severe. Her presence was a tonic; we had both
forgotten our annoyance at waiting so long. She had too much personality
to make a comfortable companion; she was, in fact, a creature to admire;
a woman to wear a crown or lead armies; a Pompadour or a Joan of Arc; an
actress or a politician. John had grown a full inch taller, he had a new
poise, he was all gallantry and charm. As I looked at him I realised
that she had done the same thing to me, that I was standing before her,
all attention, waiting for any small jot of notice she might care to
bestow on me. I felt that if she had stood on the Cathedral steps at
Herrovosca instead of that slim little girl in white there would have
been no question of revolution. This woman had the authoritative
presence of Queen Yolanda, and a friendly, gracious manner besides.

She looked at John for a full half minute, without once blinking those
yellow eyes, then she turned to me, and I felt that I should have been
more careful when I dressed. My shoes had not been properly shined, and
the spot where I had spilled the wine must show, and I had worn the same
collar all day, and my hair needed combing, but in spite of my many
defects, she was kind enough to smile at me.

“These gentlemen ’ave passports?” she asked of the officer, holding out
her hand for them. She laughed at the Paris driving cards. “You ’ave
forgotten, per’aps, to bring your diploma from a school?” she asked
John, quite seriously. “I imagine you ’ave gone to one?”

“And,” he admitted, “my insurance policy. But I will be quite happy to
write home for them if you wish. I should be delighted to wait here
until they come.”

“That,” she answered, not displeased, “is just the way all the Americans
speak in the books I ’ave read. Your passports seem to be quite in
order. What is your destination in Rheatia?”

John looked so chagrined that I answered, “We are merely tourists, we
have no real destination. I am a writer, Mr. Colton is an artist, we
mean to write and paint, but so far we have not stopped long enough to
do any work.”

“Ah, then you are Marshall Carvin? You may proceed,” she permitted,
sweetly. She referred to the passports for another moment, then handed
them back to us with a smile. “Au revoir, messieurs.”

“Thank you,” I acknowledged. “Au revoir, madame.”

John had lost the smartness of his manner when he first saw her. “I hope
you will forgive me for being too enthusiastic about your country,” he
said. “We are a naturally effusive nation, and are sometimes led into
overdoing things, through excess of appreciation. We even sing praises
to things so unreachable as the moon.”

She smiled again, looking straight at John, “Oh, I am sure the moon is
not unreachable—by songs and praises,” she said. “Au revoir, messieurs.”

“And I wonder,” John murmured as we climbed into the car again, “just
why she said ‘au revoir’ instead of ‘à dieu’—”

I humored him by saying the thing he obviously wanted to hear. “Perhaps
she wanted to see you again.”

“Oh,” John grinned, “you think she is a booster for Alaria—bigger and
better tourists—and more of them—sort of thing? All the same I wonder
who the devil she can be. She didn’t even consult that idiot officer,
just waved us out, and they let us go. And that car was a
Hispano-Suiza.”

“And none too good for her?” I suggested. “Did you notice the regal air
of the lady? Or the gold embroidery on the green velvet? We’ll have to
ask Helena who she is. It would be a good thing to know, because, for
all she is ornamental, and so very charming, I should hate to oppose
that lady seriously.”

“Sure you would,” John chortled enthusiastically, “she knows what she
wants, but she has nice, warm eyes, and a woman with warm, pleasant eyes
is always manageable.” With which bit of optimism he drove on through
the Pass, too intent on dreaming to talk any more.

The sun had touched the top of the western hills when we left the
customs house. The mountains ahead of us raised their black jagged mass
in the ruddy light, coppery and blown bare except in the valleys, where
the trees showed dark and shadowy now.

The road was surprisingly good, for a mountain road in that distant part
of the world. The rocks closed in around us almost within a stone’s
throw of the customs house. The engine climbed bravely for an
unbelievable time before it succumbed to the grade and made a shift
necessary. Up and up and up, and then down a little, and then up again
and a long way around a projecting ledge, into a gorge that made John
switch on the lights suddenly; past that, and up again, then through a
small wooded valley, and never a side road or a human being in sight, or
any signs of habitation except a half dozen tiny cabins high above the
road, and, a few times, narrow winding trails that would have been fit
for a mule or perhaps a horse, but bad for a car. It was the wildest
country I had ever driven through, and though the day had been almost
hot, it was cold at that altitude. A narrow young moon came out and
added by its familiar brilliance to the wild, deep shadows on either
side of us.

And then, almost suddenly, we began to go down, and came upon a barrier
across the road, with a small stone building beside it. It was the
Rheatian customs. We had forgotten all about that. The frontier, of
course, was somewhere back in the mountains. I remembered it as I had
seen it traced in a dash-and-dot line on the Baedeker map. Each country,
for the safety and comfort of its men, no doubt, ignored the rocky strip
of no-man’s-land with its dozen or so inhabitants,—if there were more
they were hidden well—and placed its customs houses miles apart.

We stopped and honked the horn, and presently a soldier came with an
electric torch in one hand and a red and a white table napkin in the
other. He glanced casually at our passports, asked us if we had any
tobacco or spirits, and then waved us on, too intent to get back to his
dinner to prove our statements by examination. We bade him “Gute nacht,”
as he opened the gates, but he did not wait even for us to get through
them before he had gone back to his dinner.

A few hundred yards farther and we were out of that dismal country, on a
lower spur of the mountains, with lights twinkling through the trees
below us, and soon there were fields and fences and farm animals, and a
trim hamlet where we asked the way to Waldek, and were directed with
German politeness to continue as we were going, “but three kilometers
farther, then turn to the left, and at the top of the hill you will see
the castle directly ahead.”

We were at the top of the hill almost before we knew it, looking down
into the little valley where Helena’s widowhood had made her sole
mistress. It was prosperously cultivated, and dotted with little
thatched farm houses. Beyond, high on a jagged hill, rose the dark
towers of the castle, with lights in the lower windows. It was a
fairy-book sort of place, with cypress trees cutting clean lines into
the sky, less wild and warlike than the manor house on the Alarian side
of the mountains, yet stern with the feudal flavor of an old ballad.
Over it loomed a thunder cloud, cut at jagged intervals by lightning.

“Entirely up to specifications,” John said, as we dipped into the
valley. “We’ll stay here and do some painting.”

“Right,” I said, “she’ll be glad to have us, so don’t worry about that.”

The steep grade to the castle we made with difficulty, in slippery,
sticky mud, through a driving rain. The car coughed and sputtered, but
climbed steadily enough, and we finally arrived, wet, but hopeful of
food and rest, at Helena’s ancient threshold. We rolled across a wooden
bridge over the old moat that had once protected the Waldeks from
invading hordes, then I climbed out stiffly, and rattled the great,
wrought-iron knocker that hung on the gate, and presently footsteps came
toward us. The gate swung open in two giant halves. We entered a large
courtyard. At one side, part of an ancient stable had been converted
into a garage. Two servants carried the luggage from the car, and
another presently came to lead us to the living quarters of the castle.

“Spooky place,” John muttered.

“Nonsense,” I said, “you’re afraid it’s going to be dull, and you are
trying to cook up an excuse to leave, which isn’t decent, before you’ve
even met your hostess. Wait till you see Marie, too. I’ve a hunch she’s
going to be rather a nice little thing, in spite of the pastries and
marrons glacés.”

Helena came to receive us in the great Hall. It was hung with ancient
embroideries, and furnished like a department store. Antique French
upholstery, Turkish carpets, Russian enamels, English prints, Asiatic
vases, Chinese jades, and a hundred other varieties of bibelots combined
themselves, under the immensity of the carved stone groinings, into a
somehow beautiful whole. John was impressed.

“What a joy to see you in this lonely place!” Helena smiled at us, a
little wearily, perhaps. “I had your letter, and was delighted. How did
you come? By Herrovosca? Oh. Did you stop there? Such a lovely
city—or—did this terrible news hurry you through?” Her voice sounded
strained, she talked too fast, and her eyes were certainly anxious. Also
she twisted her hands when she talked. While I was a police reporter I
saw lots of women do that: women accused of crimes, or whose children
were lost.

“Do you think there will be trouble?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” she said, as though relieved to hear the words.

“But surely that will not affect you, across the frontier?” said John,
looking at her hard.

“We are very near the frontier.” She smiled, nervously, “and very
lonely.”

“You don’t have visitors often?” I asked.

“Not now, especially, with this trouble in Alaria.”

“Does that affect your visitors?” John asked, interested.

“Naturally. The political situation has been strained for so long. There
have been two open attempts on Prince Conrad’s life. There is a rumor
that Bela was responsible but I cannot believe that. And now Bela
killed. The other rumor makes me wonder if Conrad is not responsible,
but there were so many who would have liked to see him dead.”

“How was he killed?” I asked.

“That is a queer thing,” she said. “He was out hunting with several
friends. He became separated from most of them, and when they missed him
and searched they found his body terribly crushed at the foot of a
cliff. Two of the friends who went with him have disappeared. Of course,
the mountains are dangerous for climbing, but there is little doubt that
he was thrown down. They know it is Bela because he was fully dressed,
and wore all his jewelry. Yolanda said his face was horrible, crushed
beyond recognition. Oh, dear, if I only knew what is happening in
Herrovosca.”

We told her what we had seen. She leaned forward, listening intently.
“The poor, poor, Queen,” she murmured when we told of her appearance in
the street as we entered the city. “She had known of Bela’s death for
three hours then.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Oh, news travels fast here,” she said. “In order to avert possible
trouble she went for her usual drive. That is what it means to be a
queen. Never a moment that does not belong to the people. She is a
wonderful, wonderful woman. You cannot imagine how wonderful a woman,
Marshall, unless you know her. Go on, tell me what happened next.”

We told her the story of the afternoon in Herrovosca. When we reached
the description of the girl in white she jumped up suddenly. “How did
they receive her?” she asked, excitedly.

“Pretty well, on the whole,” John said.

“There was no trouble? What did Conrad do?”

“He made a splendid address to introduce her, and the crowd seemed to
want to listen to him.”

“Oh, yes, I was afraid of that. That is bad,” Helena interrupted.
“Conrad is the cleverest man in Alaria, but he is not so clever as the
dear Queen. Oh, you don’t know how she has planned and worked with never
a thought of herself. She knew that Bela must be assassinated sooner or
later. He was so desperately hated, you see. And after Conrad had been
shot at twice, we knew that something more must happen. Yolanda tried to
guide Bela, but even when he did good things he managed to make himself
even more unpopular. He was so tactless, so careless and stubborn and
profligate. He was jealous of Conrad, and loathed being a king. He even
hated Alaria. He would have abdicated long ago if Yolanda had not
prevented him. She played on his dislike of Conrad to prevent his giving
up the throne to him. Of course there are a lot of reasons to think it
may be Conrad who has assassinated Bela, but what worries me is that
whoever did strike at Bela may strike at Marie, too. Oh, but I can’t
think of that. I won’t think of it.”

“Marie?” I asked, suddenly realising that we had not seen Marie.
“_Marie_, Helena?”

She laughed sharply, walking up and down that long hall—laughed and
cried, and then stumbled into a chair, and began sobbing desperately. I
felt helpless before this phase of feminine grief. She wanted to talk,
to tell us about it all, and yet just telling was too much for her. I
patted her shoulder, awkwardly, I fear, and motioned John back when I
saw him start for the bell. That, I was sure, was not the right thing to
do. Helena wanted to confide in people of her own sort. She had been
among her Rheatian servants too long, and lonely. We had arrived at an
opportune time. Soon she would stop crying and feel better. I had seen
women in hysterics before.

And I was right. In a few minutes she sat up straight again. “Yes,
Marie,” she said, quite calmly. “The girl I called my daughter, Maria
Lalena, Princess of Alaria. Queen of Alaria, now, if God is being
gracious to her.”

“You mean,” I asked, trying to remember all I could of Marie, “you never
had a daughter?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, “I had a daughter. But my Marie—died, and Yolanda
gave Maria Lalena to me to bring up. It was her idea. We all thought,
then, that the monarchy would fall any day, with only a boy on the
throne, and a bad boy at that. I went to Yolanda in her grief. A lonely
widow, bereft of her child, to another lonely woman in a worse plight.”

“I didn’t know she was a friend of yours,” I said.

“Since she is a queen it is more correct to put it the other way,” she
said. “She has honored me with her friendship ever since my marriage. I
am probably the only intimate she has, because I am the only one who has
no political interest in her, but only a personal one. I have not even
profited in a social way, since I have lived here so quietly, in order
not to attract attention to Maria Lalena.”

“That’s why I haven’t seen you,” I put in.

“Yes. You haven’t seen me since I was in Paris with Marie. Poor Marie.
To me she is merged in Maria Lalena. It is as though they were one
person and my child. I have loved her like my own child. And then this
noon—was it only this noon?—it seems a week ago, at least—they phoned to
send Marie. I wanted to go with her, but Yolanda said it was best not,
so I sent her alone in my car, and the car has not come back. Oh, we
have been so careful of her. She has not been in Herrovosca since the
day she came here, after the awful affair of that bomb. Think what it
must have meant to her today, to brave the mob in that square, with
Conrad beside her, her only spokesman.”

“Poor child,” John said, “but she looked very calm and very charming,
and Conrad was really nice about it.”

“He’s not to be trusted. Not to be trusted for a moment.”

“Aren’t you perhaps prejudiced because he and the Queen are enemies?”

“Perhaps, but there is something very strange about Conrad. He goes off
to that old manor house of his—”

“Not the one near the frontier customs house?” John asked.

“No, no, that is the Count Visichich’s place. The young Count is in
charge of the post there. Why?”

We told her about the young woman in green velvet.

“Katerina,” she said, “the old Count’s daughter, Countess Katerina
Visichich. She dresses like that, and it was just as well you didn’t
tell her you were coming here. You’d have stayed there for a while on
some pretext or other. Being Americans, she did not suspect you.
Probably she knows her mistake by now, though. They are not fools, those
Visichiches. Strong supporters of Conrad’s, intimate friends of his,
too. He lives about ten miles from their place, nearer Herrovosca. The
Visichich men are probably busy brewing trouble somewhere while Katerina
watches the road into Rheatia. This is the only way through the
mountains for ninety miles in one direction and sixty in the other. And
the only other important way is the railroad tunnel. You were lucky to
get through.” She rose suddenly and moved about the room restlessly. “If
I could only get word from Alaria. Oh, they know. They will send news
when they can. They are afraid of Conrad—and of Katerina and the Black
Ghost and the Soviets and the Republicans, and the people Bela has
antagonized. There are so many people to be afraid of here.”

“The others, naturally,” John interrupted, “but why should you be afraid
of the Black Ghost? You surely don’t believe in ghosts?”

“Not in most ghosts,” Helena answered, “but the Black Ghost I do believe
in. Since the first Turkish occupation of Alaria he and his band have
guarded the Pass. The legend is that the leader was a Knight Templar. At
least he always wears the white cross of the Templars on his breast.”

“And has done so for eight hundred years?” I asked. “Oh, come, now,
Helena, really.”

“And has done so from time to time at least, for eight hundred years,”
Helena answered, and I knew by her voice that she was quite convinced of
the truth of her statement, “and I can’t see the necessity for laughing
at my belief. I have seen him on the Pass. He was looking down at me
when I came back from Herrovosca one day. He was standing on a shelf of
rock overlooking the road. It was dusk, but I saw him quite plainly. The
chauffeur saw him, too, and almost ran the car off the road, he was so
frightened. I am afraid, too.”

“You imagined it,” I said.

“No,” she stated, firmly, “I did not imagine that. But even if you don’t
believe in it, do me the favor to stay here with me a few days. Take a
few day’s leave from the twentieth century, and visit me in these middle
ages, will you?”

“We began our leave from the twentieth century this afternoon,” John
said, “in the square at Herrovosca. And certainly we’ll stay, won’t we,
Carvin?”

“Of course,” I agreed, “with the greatest eagerness. As a matter of fact
you simply couldn’t pry me away.”

“And not just a few days,” John announced, “we’re on indefinite leave
from modernity. We’ll stay until everything is quiet again.”

Helena shook her head. “No,” she said. “That would be forever. A few
days will cheer me up, nicely, and I’ll be most grateful. Of course
you’ve had no dinner. It must be nine o’clock or after. I’ll have some
food brought for you. Will you go to your rooms first?”

We went meekly, without argument.

Fifteen minutes later, by the sort of miracle common in large European
households, we were served with a complete and beautifully cooked
dinner. Helena nibbled a bit at first, and then began to eat hungrily,
as she conquered her worry talking about it. About half past ten she
insisted that we must be tired, as of course we were, and urged us off
to bed. She looked exhausted, so we went obediently up to the three
rooms that had been allotted to us. As I threw open the long window in
my bedroom I saw that the rain had stopped. The night was clear and
quiet, and I turned in with never a further thought of Marie or any
other disturbing thing.

I don’t know quite how long I slept, but I awoke, feeling stifled, from
a nightmare of a roaring motor car and a jumbled impression of Conrad,
Marie, Yolanda and the Countess Visichich. I got up and went for air to
the window. Outside, a narrow gallery ran along one whole side of the
castle. I put on my dressing gown and, trying to shake off the
unpleasant impression of my dream, walked slowly along, looking down
over the face of the cliff below. An eagle surveying the valley from his
eyrie could have had no more unbroken view of the world of mankind below
him. I thought that the gallery would end at the corner, but when I
reached it I found that it continued along one of the irregular juts on
the north face of the castle, where the rising ground had been made into
a garden. Tall cypress trees cut their sharp silhouettes against the
starlit sky. It was all so beautiful that I wandered on down a short
flight of steps to where a marble bench showed white under the dark
green of the shrubbery. There I sat down and felt in my pocket for a
cigarette. I usually keep a package and matches in that pocket, but this
time they were missing, so I merely sat still and did nothing.

And suddenly I was glad I had not lit a match that would have made my
presence obvious, for I distinctly saw a dark figure—the figure of a
man—come through the bushes, and approach the castle. I rose and
followed, feeling that midnight prowlers should be watched, though I
realised that this might easily be a friendly, though silent, visitor.

He approached the blank wall of the castle. Its great stone bulk loomed
above, sinister in the dim starlight, and then, without a sound, the man
disappeared.

Now, I am prejudiced against prowling figures that disappear suddenly
while I am watching them. It was a new experience to me, and I felt that
the world was not living up to its proper matter-of-fact character. I
went to the spot where he had last been visible. A tall bush grew there,
beside a vine that clung to the old wall of the castle. Under the bush—I
felt carefully—was only stone wall. The vine was very thick, and cast a
deeper blackness in the dark, but so far as I could feel there was no
door there. Yet a man had been in that spot, and was gone, and somewhere
in that great mass of stonework Helena was quite probably out of earshot
of any of her servants.

I went quickly back to our rooms, and awoke John to tell him what I had
seen. He put on shoes and trousers and a dressing gown and went down
into the garden to watch, while I went inside to find and warn Helena.

I found the great hall, and then knew in a general way where her rooms
were, because she had waved vaguely toward them as she talked during the
evening. However, the old castle was such a rambling, crooked pile, that
I should probably never have found my way if I had not roused a maid who
came rushing at me with a tall candle lighting a thick white cotton
nightgown.

“Madame will not be disturbed,” she proclaimed, gloomily,
Cassandra-like, “every night she locks her door, and no one dares go
near her. Not for my life, gnädiger Herr, would I knock at her door.”

“Show me the door, then,” I said, “and I will knock.”

“No, the Herrschaften must understand, if I disobey her, my lady will
send me away forever, and then how will my old mother and father live?”

I fished an American dollar from my pocket. It is an all-potent open
sesame in Europe. The girl’s eyes opened wide, her hand stretched out,
then she drew it back, and shook her head, longingly, “I dare not,
wohlgeborner Herr,” she said, politely.

“Show me her door, merely, and I will knock, and never tell her how I
found it,” I offered, and put the dollar in her fingers. She looked at
me, then at the dollar. Then, as nonchalantly as though she were putting
it in a gold-mesh purse, she lifted her nightgown, and placed the dollar
safely inside a long thick woollen stocking. She seemed to be quite
dressed under the nightgown.

“That door,” she said, and pointed down the hall, and then she ran away,
shamelessly. Her candle flickered down the corridor, and was gone.

The indicated door was wider than its neighbors; wider and heavier. It
had a somber and secretive air about it. I paused, as I raised my hand
to knock, and then, amused that a mere wooden door should awe me, I
knocked, and waited. After a moment I knocked again, and called. Then
the door opened, and Helena stood before me, still fully dressed. Behind
her the room was dimly lighted by not more than three or four candles.

“You are safe?” I asked.

Her voice was so calm as to be almost cold as she answered slowly,
“Safe? Why should I not be safe? My door is locked and no one can get to
me.”

“I was afraid something might have happened to you,” I said, “because I
was in the garden just now, and I distinctly saw a man prowling around.
Finally he disappeared into what seemed to be the blank wall of the
castle.”

She laughed, then, a little. “Oh, Marshall,” she said, “I am afraid I
led you to expect too much tonight, telling you that we lived in the
middle ages here. Better go back to bed, and don’t dream dreams.
Everything will come right in the morning. Good night, Marshall. Thanks
for coming to see.”

“I tell you, Helena, I saw—”

“You dreamed, Marshall.”

“Are you quite sure there isn’t an old secret passage into the castle?”

“If there had been my husband would have told me about it. I’ve lived
here a number of years, you know.”

“There are others who’ve lived here longer.”

“My husband’s ancestors built the place. I am afraid you have been
reading novels.”

“I saw a man prowling in the garden. And he disappeared into a stone
wall.”

“One of the servants, probably.”

“If he was, he didn’t want to be seen.”

“Oh, probably he came to see one of the maids. I can’t watch them all
the time.”

“You shouldn’t be so far away from everyone, it isn’t safe.”

“Don’t worry, Marshall,” she answered. She was so calm that, half
convinced, I began to think that I had been making a lot of fuss over
nothing, when a crash sounded behind her, like a small table going over,
and one of the candles went out. I could tell that because the room was
a shade darker after the crash than before. Helena did not move. I
waited for her to look around, or make some explanation. She was silent.

“Very well,” I said. “Good night, Helena,” and turned away, a little
hurt and angry. Then I remembered how fast and excitedly she had talked
before dinner, and tried once more. “You’re sure you’re all right?”

“Believe me,” she answered, “I am in no need of protection, but thanks
for coming, Marshall.” She closed the door, then. It was no affair of
mine, of course, if she did not want it to be. Though I was her only
living relative, I had never seen much of her. I was an outsider and an
interloper. I went back to my room, and then down into the garden to
find John. We sat again on the white bench where I had first seen the
prowler.

A tiny crack of light showed down the center of a corner window, just
above us. I decided that that must be one of Helena’s windows. That
would be likely, for they overlooked the garden and the valley, too. A
beautiful location. I showed John the point where I had last seen the
figure that had so mysteriously disappeared. And then we both saw
something that I had missed before. It lay just at the foot of the bush
that I still felt must mask a secret entrance into the castle. A small
square of white. We stooped together, and our heads bumped. John came up
from the affray, rubbing his head, but with the paper. I am only five
years older than John, but I was born a little slower.

“I am going to wait here,” he said. “Take it inside and have a look.”

“It proves there was someone here,” I said.

“I never doubted it,” he replied.

“Helena said she did.”

“There may have been someone there, forcing her to speak as she did.”

I had thought of that, too. “I have a feeling that something’s wrong,” I
told him, “but it’s so hard to butt in when you don’t know. After all, I
haven’t seen Helena for eight years. I haven’t known her well since her
marriage. That’s twenty years, and there’s all this Alarian business.”

I held the paper closely inside my hand until I gained the safety of our
sitting room, where I pulled the open curtain tight across the window
before I looked at it. The air of the old place had so caught me that I
felt I might be looking on the key to some mystery of life and death.

I cannot speak Alarian, but German is spoken in Rheatia and I do speak
German. Alarian is a Turkish language written in Latin characters with a
large number of borrowed words. I know nothing of Turkish, but its
general appearance is familiar to me. I learned a lot of things as a
boy, collecting stamps. At least I can distinguish that language group
from other groups, which isn’t much of a feat. This paper was slightly
crumpled. On it, in ink, were scrawled twelve words that I was quite
sure were Alarian. Not one word could I distinguish, yet I suddenly felt
guilty staring at that note intended for other eyes. Only the language
had saved me from reading it. I stuffed the thing in my pocket, and
started back for John. We must stop spying. Probably the whole business
was nonsense, anyway, and if not, the man who had come may have been a
messenger from the Queen, and it was conceivable that she would not wish
him to discover that she had confided in us. Probably she regretted that
confidence, now. We were outsiders, we could do her harm, but no good.

When I got back to the bench, John was gone. He was not near the bush,
either. I sat down to wait. No use hurrying and scurrying around a dark
garden in frantic search for a missing man when that man was six feet
one, and as heavy as John. Still, I felt uneasy. If there were one
midnight prowler, there might so easily be two. And the bench where I
was sitting was open on all sides. I went back to the bush, and leaned
against the wall. It was a good enough place to wait, since we had not
agreed on any meeting place. The time seemed eternal. I was getting
sleepy again. The garden was still. Too still. Only the leaves rustled a
little. I could almost imagine that I could hear the stars gossiping
among themselves. Something that was probably an owl made a cool,
fluttering sound. I shifted my position. Where could he be? And suddenly
I fell backward. The wall had given way, something fell on me and I
heard a muttered curse. An unseen pair of hands threw me into some
bushes. I tried to scramble to my feet, but the bushes were full of
thorns. I have hated roses ever since. I scratched my face and hands in
my efforts, then something struck me glancingly on the jaw, and I fell
back again.



                              CHAPTER III


After an eternity I got to my feet from the doubled-up position I had
fallen in. My ears were singing, and I should have felt dizzy if there
had been any light. Strange how many sensations depend on light for
their realisation. I stumbled against things in my path. Yet there was
no sound of any sort, and I suddenly realised that I was following
nothing. The figure that had struck me was gone. Only two things I was
certain of—there was a secret passage, and two figures had passed me,
not one.

I stopped for a moment at the marble bench to recover my equilibrium.
What a fool I was making of myself, to be sure, prowling around in the
night like a school-boy, looking for impossible adventures.

A step, quite near me, interrupted—I rose, and waited in the shadow of a
tree. Stealthily the step came closer, a slinking, soft-footed step. I
saw the fellow dimly outlined before me. He was a big man, bigger than
I. The rose scratches stung on my face and hands. I was very quiet, and
so was he. It was so dark, I could see him only indistinctly. I got
ready to jump on him if he came any closer. I saw him stop, and knew he
had seen me. Suddenly he had me by the shoulders, and I spun around and
landed in the path. I struck back, took a blow on the face, stumbled and
fell, caught at his legs, got him fairly around the knees, and with a
quick jerk heaved him sideways into a dim mass of bushes on the other
side of the path. I hoped they were rose bushes.

I was well winded, and I knew he must be, too. I counted five slowly
before I got to my feet. He was just struggling up when I reached him
again. I got his neck in the crook of my elbow, and dragged him toward
the castle. He was choking too much to make any outcry, and I had caught
him too suddenly for him to do much else. His hands tore at my arm
frantically. It was not far. As I reached the steps he got me by the
ankle, and we went down in a heap, but I never let go my hold of his
throat. I knew that if I lost that he would have me, since he was
heavier than I. He must be got up those steps and into the light. We
struggled desperately, yet, somehow, though we were both wrenching at
each other, step by step we were getting up to the balcony. The man had
become impossible to handle, and I should never have managed it if at
the last he had not almost pushed me before him. Apparently he wanted to
go into the castle as much as I. We rolled along the balustrade a few
steps, and then he picked me off my feet, and ran, half dragging me with
him. I kicked at him, and we fell again. In the scuffle I got away from
him a step or two. The everlasting darkness was on my nerves. I wanted
to see. He caught me again, before we reached the French window, hurled
me through it, into the room, and against the leg of a table.

I was up again almost as soon as I was down, and at him, but I did not
strike. Instead, I sank back breathless on the nearest chair.

The man was John.

For a few moments we grunted and gurgled at each other in unison. I
ached all over. My face was scratched. My knees were bleeding, my chest
was constricted from the violence of my efforts John was almost as badly
off. He sat opposite me, staring dazedly.

“You’re a tough old nut to crack,” he said, finally, “I thought you were
another of them.”

“Sorry,” my words jerked out with difficulty, “one of them came out of
that secret passage. I was leaning against the door, and he fell over
me, and then chucked me into some rose bushes. All scratched up. I
thought he was coming back. Wanted a look at him in the light.”

“Same here,” he said, “what did the paper say?”

“Oh, paper.” I had almost forgotten the paper. “In Alarian. Can’t read
it.”

“Oh, well, I was standing looking over the garden wall. I heard a noise
below it, and there was a car at the foot of the cliffs. While I was
standing there a man came up behind me, and hit me on the head, then he
chucked me aside, and they went right past. Two of them. One had on a
heavy cloak. I saw them quite definitely, though it was so dark. I’m
sure of it. They went down over the wall. Must be a path. I considered
trying to follow them, but decided it was too risky for any use unless I
had a torch or at least some matches. They had a car down there. I heard
the motor start.”

I considered. “I hope Helena knows what she is about,” I said. “I feel
as though I should do something, and yet—she gave me quite plainly to
understand she wanted to be let alone. John! There were two men who got
into that car? I’m sure there was only one who attacked me, and only one
who went into the castle. Only—was the second figure a man, John?”

“You mean, was the second figure a woman?”

“Exactly.”

“I think—perhaps—it may have been.”

“Was she going willingly, John?”

“Apparently. But there may have been mental compulsion as easily as
physical.”

“I hate to butt in,” I said, “but I think we’d better go back to
Helena’s rooms, and see what we can find, don’t you?”

“I do.” John was quite decided. He began dressing hurriedly. I followed
suit. My joints could ache later, flapping a dressing gown around dim
cold halls is undignified.

“Still,” I suggested, “I’ve been turned out of Helena’s rooms once this
evening. She shut the door purposefully, which was her privilege, of
course. But it makes me hesitant to go back again at this hour. After
all, she’s our hostess.”

“She’s a woman, and alone,” John said, “and there was someone in that
room. You know that. That someone may have been threatening her while
she was talking to you.”

“Yes.”

“And she denied that anyone was there.”

“She said she was not in need of protection.”

“But suppose she’s been kidnapped while you hesitate to bother her?”

“The man who came may very easily have been a messenger from Queen
Yolanda. She was expecting news.”

“Or from Conrad. She’s afraid of Conrad.”

“Yes, and rightly. I shouldn’t like her if I were Conrad. After all, she
has conspired to keep him off the throne.”

“Exactly. He has a case against her, and he looks like the sort of
person who sees things through.”

“Efficiently, I should say. Yes. What do you suggest, then?”

“Go back and see if she is there still, and all right. We know the man
is gone, now. If she is there she will be free to explain, and I can’t
see what harm we can do.”

“Come with me, then,” I said, “you’re right, of course.”

I knocked at the door as I had knocked the first time. There was no
answer. Undoubtedly Helena had more rooms than one behind her door, as
John and I had. She might be in the farthest of her suite, and could not
hear our knock, but I did not believe that for a moment. For better or
worse, I was sure she had gone. Nevertheless, I pounded with my fist,
and added another bruise to my growing collection. Silence. At last I
turned around and kicked with the heel of my shoe. If she were there she
must hear that, but there was no answer.

Then another problem presented itself. Helena was gone. What should we
do next? Follow her in our car? Or break down the door? Or do nothing?
The door was too heavy to be broken open with less than an axe.

John said casually, as though he broke into ladies’ apartments every
morning of his life, “perhaps her maid has a key.” He walked off down
the passage. I waited quietly until he came back. I was too sore to
move. He had two men with him and the maid who had worn woollen
stockings under her nightgown. She seemed to be dressed in the same way
still, so I decided that it was quite probably merely her usual nightly
attire. One of the men carried an iron crowbar, the maid a bunch of
keys. They were all talking excitedly, and when they saw me they broke
out afresh. They assured me that Madame would kill them all if they
opened her door. The maid was crying. No one dared disturb madame, ever.

“The fact remains,” I said, “we distinctly saw a man enter and two
people leave this house tonight. And there was someone in madame’s room.
Now she does not answer. It must be she either is not there, or she
cannot answer. It is our duty to find out.”

“The gnädige Gräfin,” the maid said, in her dismal voice, “knows many
things of enormous importance, of which we know nothing. She has friends
in high places.”

“And,” John said, impressively, “she has also enemies in high places. We
wish her only good. Come, open the door at once.” His tone had its
effect. He held out his hand, and the maid gave him the keys, indicating
a large brass one, with an ornamental handle. John turned it in the
lock, and in silence flung open the door.

Behind it were three rooms opening into each other. All three were quite
empty. A long desk was piled neatly with papers in the study, a shawl
lay where it had been dropped on the back of a chair. Bookcases lined
the walls, the books soberly in their places. An American magazine lay
on an easy chair by the window. We passed on to a dressing room. There,
too, everything was in order, though one or two bureau drawers were
open. Beyond the dressing room was the bedroom. It was like the others.
A pair of satin slippers lay where they had been kicked, in the middle
of the floor, otherwise nothing was disturbed.

“Madame is gone!” the maid cried in wonder.

“Not here!” echoed the two men.

John went to the desk in the study and stood drumming his fingers on the
cover of an account book. The servants waited respectfully for us to
speak. The maid looked much more cheerful in the face of possible
tragedy.

“It may be all right,” I said, “we know that. But it also may not be.” I
turned to the servants, “Have you extra petrol for our car?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, gnädiger Herr,” they answered in chorus. We had achieved a
good deal of prestige in the last few minutes.

“Yes,” John said, “you’re right, Carvin. It would take them ten minutes
to get down that hill and into the car. Whatever path there is isn’t
visible at night, and it can’t be very good. They went not twenty
minutes ago, I’m sure. They won’t have so much of a start—not more than
fifteen minutes. They won’t think we are following, and I can show a bit
of speed, too. Come along, hurry up. I’ll see the gas put in and get the
car into the yard while you get our things. Be sure you bring me a cap
and some cigarettes, and a coat—it’s cold on that Pass.”

It was a quarter to five by the clock on the dash as the big gates
opened for us for the second time. It had been a quarter past eight as
we drove in through them. Our carefully planned visit to Helena had
lasted barely nine hours.

Before us our lamps cast a long white trail on the still muddy road.
John stepped on the accelerator and we leaped ahead down the hill. In a
moment we were going so fast that in his effort to hold the car on the
winding road, he sat still and tense, moving only at the curves, and
then so studiedly that he seemed almost automatic. The speedometer
climbed up and up, then dropped somewhat for a sharp curve, then climbed
again. We were making an almost impossible pace for so winding a road. I
reflected that if another car should appear ahead of us we were unlikely
ever to know it. The wreck would be so complete that it was not
necessary to worry about it. It is only half wrecks that are terrifying.
A neat, quick smashing is a more or less jolly end to a life that is
only interesting at intervals. This happened to be very much one of the
intervals, however. Certainly I didn’t want to be wrecked before we had
sifted the mystery, and found Helena.

As we neared the bottom of the hill, the whole valley proved to be
bathed in mist thick enough to cloud the windshield, so that John was
forced to lean out of the car to see the road, which was wet and a
little slippery. I busied myself pushing up the glass. It was hard to
manage at that pace, but I got it up just in time, for a moment after
John righted himself we passed a car facing in the opposite direction,
mending a tire. They seemed, in the quick glance I spared them, to have
finished. A man was throwing the blown shoe into the tonneau. The whole
thing flashed by so suddenly that I scarcely gave it a thought, except
that as we skinned past I heard a shout that flashed by as quickly as
the car from which it came.

“Lucky miss, that,” John grunted.

“Fools to stay so far on the road.”

“It’s a lonely road. Not many cars here at any time, almost none at this
time of night. I wonder if they were going to Waldek? Perhaps we should
have stopped to find out. I’ve just thought of something. They aren’t
going to let us through the Rheatian customs house.”

“Why not? They let us through the other way.”

“That was reasonable. This isn’t, and we haven’t any possible
explanation that will make it sound so.”

“We must overtake Helena, then,” I said, doubtfully, “before they reach
the customs house.”

“That’s our only chance, and we are almost there, too. It wasn’t far,
you remember.”

We were heading due south again, rising steadily toward the Pass. On the
smooth surface of the road the kilometers were going past us two to the
minute and more. I decided that the speedometer must be out of order. We
couldn’t really be doing eighty, almost without fluctuation, yet as I
looked out at the side, the landscape slipped by so fast I couldn’t
count it.

Then, as we began to climb, the indicator fell back slowly from eighty
to seventy-five, to seventy, a sudden drop to sixty, stayed there for a
moment, then when we climbed sharply again it went down to thirty and
below.

Even at thirty we had some reserve. John suddenly stepped on the gas as
we rounded a curve and saw before us the low stone building that served
the Rheatians for a customs house. Between it and us was no iron gate
barring the way, and not more than a hundred feet to go. We zoomed
forward with a fierce roar, and before I had time to realise what had
happened, we were through the barrier, heading for the Alarian side of
the Pass, with no chance that anyone could catch up with us before we
caught up with Helena.

“Great work,” I said, trying to sound casual, “but perhaps the Rheatians
may not think it so funny that we did that. We’re caught neatly enough
now between the two customs houses, in the bleakest bit of country I’ve
ever been in. In the name of mercy why didn’t you stop?”

John laughed, “She’s your cousin,” he said, “you said you wanted to
follow her and I am following. If you don’t like it you should. I’ve
been doing a bit of fancy driving tonight, setting a record, I’ll bet,
for this stretch of road. What’s a Rheatian government to us? It was
their own fault anyway, for leaving the gate open. We can just say we
didn’t see it.”

We seemed to be crawling, then, by contrast to our former speed. We
wound around mountains, zig-zagging on the edges of precipices, coming
out miles beyond on some horse shoe curve a few hundred feet away as the
crow flies. The first grey light of the dawn was just showing it to us.
When we had gone through the other way it had been too dark to see. Once
behind us, and twice ahead of us, I saw the flash of lights, whether
they were car lights or not I could not tell. They might be the signal
lights of some frontier guard announcing our approach—or Helena’s.

We had been driving so fast that it seemed we should have overtaken any
other car if there was one. I began to doubt that they had taken the
Herrovosca road at all, unless they were equalling our speed on some
matter of life and death while we were left outlawed between two customs
houses, chasing butterflies over deserted and eerie mountain passes.

We came abruptly to a stop. Just between two high rock walls, where the
road had been graded steeply, a white barricade had been placed. Our
lights picked it up in time to come to a neat stop a foot or two too
soon to crash. The brakes shrieked like a dog in torture. I reached for
our passports. As well to put up a bluff, anyway. We might get by.

We didn’t.

“Damned frontier guards,” John started, and stopped. Two men in black
with black masks over their unshaven faces covered us with hard-boiled
modern shotguns, while two others climbed into the car. Then the two
with the guns stepped on the running boards on either side, others
pulled the barricade off the road far enough for our car to squeeze by,
and one of the men poked his gun insinuatingly into John’s face.

“They’re the funniest looking lot of frontier guards I ever saw,” I
whispered, uncomfortably.

“They’re bandits, dressed up like this, and a smelly crew, too,” John
said, happily, “unless we’re still asleep and dreaming at Castle
Waldek.”

I did not resist. There were too many of them to make it feasible. When
the gun came away from his face for a moment, John knocked its owner
down with his fist, but all they did was tie him up tight with a rope
end. I was surprised that they were so gentle. They tied our hands
behind us, and bandaged our eyes with our own handkerchiefs. I wondered
why men so much in need of baths themselves should have the finesse to
use a gentleman’s own handkerchief to tie across his eyes. Obviously
someone had told them to do it. I felt happier after I had thought that
out.

They pulled us out of the car, felt us over carefully for weapons, and
then shoved us into the tonneau on top of all the painting stuff. It was
uncomfortable, especially since we could neither see what was in our
way, nor move it with our hands tied behind us. John cursed in a low but
definite tone. I considered silence a little better policy, and finally
wriggled myself into a position where I was almost lying down, and had
slipped the handkerchief half off my eyes. I could see out on one side
of the car. The stars were still visible, though the sky was beginning
to lighten. We were heading south, roughly, I decided, by trying to
average up our twistings. South, by south-west. That meant that we were
crossing the mountain ridge as we had come, but not by the road, for we
were bumping over dirt, and uneven, sloping rock, alternately.
Herrovosca would have lain about due south-west, if I remembered my map
correctly. Not that a map would be of any appreciable value to us in our
present plight. In fact, I judged that it might easily be some little
time before we should have any further use for a map. The only
consolation to me was the beautiful excuse our capture made for our
irregular position between the two customs houses, without benefit of
stamp on our passports. That was small enough consolation, however, for
the discomfort of a sharp and heavy box end that kept jouncing into my
shin. I tried again and again to kick it out of the way, but without
budging it.

After a long time of slow and bumpy running, with the sun just beginning
to show pinkly on some of the highest peaks, we came, at last, to a
stop. Our guards led us out of the car and we went, since the
alternative seemed to be a dozen or so holes from the business ends of
their shot guns. They still were not rough with us, but they discovered
my loose bandage, and tightened it firmly. Then they started us
marching.

We were led slowly along a rough path, a man on either side. John I
could hear still cussing occasionally. He had been interrupted in what,
to him, was the marathon of the century, and he was displeased. All
about us rose the lovely smells of high altitude in late summer. As we
climbed up—and it was always up—I began almost to hear the light, as the
blind say they can hear color. I had never been able to understand that
before. I had always thought they were merely trying to express some
esoteric yearning after the things that were denied to them, rather than
that they really felt and heard things that by us are seen only. But,
blindfolded as I was, I found that they are literally right, and that
our sense of seeing is so much stronger that it blinds us to the less
acute sensitiveness of the other organs. Partly by hearing, partly by
that sixth sense of the blind, I knew that we passed through a thriving
hamlet of people, not men alone, but women and children. When at last we
were stopped, I knew that we were in a large room. I was somewhat
prepared when the bandages were removed, and we could look around. But I
was not entirely prepared for what I saw.

The room was hung with tapestries that must have been worth a fortune.
The light came from a window of finely leaded glass. Before us was a
work table on which were spread maps and papers, and closely typed
sheets that might have been a report. It looked for all the world like
the work desk of some busy army officer during the war. A few books were
neatly piled at one side. A servant was placing two chairs before the
desk, and a voice said in German, “Sit down, gentlemen.” But, though I
saw all that, and obeyed the order to sit, and though it was all far
from what I had expected to see then, I was not really interested in it.
What did interest me was the man who sat behind the desk. I first saw
his long white hands, thin and blue-veined. He wore a ring with an
enormous ruby—the most enormous I had ever seen actually worn—a ring for
a king in a play.

From the slim, restless hands, that might have been the hands of a great
musician, my eye followed up his figure. Black. Dull, black sleeves,
with no relieving white at the wrists. He wore a sort of soutane, and
across the breast was sewn a white Templar’s cross. Not only was there
no white collar showing at the neck, there was no neck, either. His
whole head was masked by a black silk hood, that covered his throat and
face down to the shoulders, with slits for the mouth and for the eyes,
which showed as black as his dress. The man might have the hands of a
musician and the ring of a king, but he must be a bandit, else why the
obvious disguise as the Black Ghost of the Pass?

“My men have unfortunately made a mistake, gentlemen,” the man in the
mask spoke suavely, in German, “I hope you understand me.”

“Yes,” I answered, and then explained, hoping our nationality would
prove some sort of protection, “we are Americans.”

“We will talk in English, then,” he replied, which was the only effect
the mention of the United States had on him. His voice reminded me
vividly of the Countess Visichich’s, and I wondered if he could be a
relative of hers until I decided that it was only a similar accent.

“I am very sorry for this mistake,” he went on, “but I shall be obliged
to keep you ’ere for a few days, probably. Otherwise you will not be
inconvenienced—that is, if all is as I ’ope it is. I shall be very ’appy
if you will be so kind as to answer a few questions I shall like to ask
you.”

“By all means,” John put in glibly.

“In the first place, I should like to know where you ’ave bought your
car?”

Memories of those Paris driving cards flashed through my mind. “In
Havre,” John said. “Here is the bill of sale, if you wish to see it.” I
was glad John had decided to be pleasant to him. It was our only hope,
of course. He might really intend to let us go. Quite probably they had
made a mistake. I could hope they had, but in the meantime we were most
certainly his prisoners, and no man wears a mask unless he does not wish
to be recognised, and he does not wish to go unrecognised unless he is
doing something at least outside, if not definitely opposed to the law.

“’ow long ago?”

“About two months.”

“In ’avre, two months ago, ’m. And just where do you expect to be two
months from now? I mean by that, what were your plans, for the next two
months?”

“I am a painter,” John said quickly. “You’ll find a lot of my kit in the
car. That’s almost all there is in the tonneau. I wanted to find new
things to paint. My friend here is a writer with a taste for scenery, so
he came, too. He has a typewriter in with my painting stuff.”

“May I see your passports?”

We gave them to him. He examined them in detail, and finally nodded and
laid them down on the desk.

“Most orderly,” he said, bowing, “except for one thing. Your last stamp
was on the Rheatian frontier yesterday, and there is also an Alarian
stamp of the same day, which means that you drove yesterday across the
pass into Rheatia, yet, strangely, there is no return stamp, and I do
not understand ’ow that can be.”

“Oh, simple enough,” John announced airily. “We had got as far as the
Rheatian customs house, and had the stamp put on our passports, when we
changed our minds about going into Rheatia, and started back again.”

“Which, no doubt, is also supposed to account for the fact that your
engine was most unusually ’ot. You passed through the Alarian customs, I
’ave been informed, at sundown yesterday, and I understand from your
story that you have been driving backward and forward on the Pass ever
since. A most enormous passion for scenery that leads you to feast your
eyes upon it in the dark.”

He was having a bit of fun with us, but John went on blandly, “Oh, yes,
that motor always heats up.”

The Black Mask laughed aloud, and John grinned and shrugged his
shoulders. “As a matter of fact,” he acknowledged a little sheepishly,
“I was driving fast. I like to drive fast. That’s why we drive at night.
It’s the only time to be sure of having a clear road.”

The Black Mask laughed again. “That is such a good answer,” he said,
gently, “that I shall ’ave to remember it for some time when I may be
asked such a question. ’owever, I am in great need of information at the
moment, so that even my appreciation of your ingenuity must not
interfere with it. Either you were running away from something, or
seeking something. Now, gentlemen, which was it?”

We were both silent, each hoping the other would think of something to
say. Neither of us did.

“Really not such a difficult question,” the Black Ghost went on,
smoothly. “You might ’ave been following something, but there was
nothing on the road a’ead of you. Ah, I see, you thought you were
following something.” He had been looking directly at John, and even I
saw John’s surprise, though he tried to hide it. “So. But if anyone was
following you we shall soon know it. The barricade was replaced ten
minutes after you were—shall we say—deflected?”

It had been down ten minutes, though. If Helena had been travelling at
nearly our pace she had got through. Thanks to us, then, for she had not
been ahead of us—if she had been going to Herrovosca at all, and I
believed she had. I began thinking how lucky we had been for her, when
the telephone on the Black Ghost’s desk rang sharply. He made us a
slight bow of apology as he picked up the instrument. It seemed a
strangely out of place thing for a bandit in a fancy dress costume to
answer a telephone like a New York business man, yet he did it quite as
naturally. The government customs office had no telephone, but a
mountain bandit did. A bandit, of course, would find it necessary to be
more efficient than Bela’s government would bother to be. Not for more
than half a minute did the Black Ghost listen. Then he said something
hard and sharp into the mouthpiece, hung it back on its stand, and sat
silent for a moment. When he turned back to us his manner had changed.

“So,” he said, “you were leading the way. Clever. But it did not prove a
good plan because the other car lagged just a little too far be’ind. I
was quite deceived in you. I cannot imagine where her Majesty finds so
many ad’erents. She is a remarkably resourceful woman. You will per’aps
answer a few questions truthfully, because I shall find the answers
anyway. Are your passports real or are they falsified? I ask because it
seems so remarkable that two men of your apparent standing should be
willing to interfere in a matter that may so easily become very
unpleasant for you.”

“Our passports are quite in order,” I answered, “except for the slight
discrepancy of the Rheatian border stamp.”

“Most remarkable,” was his comment. “May I enquire why you were willing
to do such a risky thing?”

“The gate was open,” John answered, “and I was in a hurry. I really
drove through without thinking.”

“May I enquire again why you were in such a ’urry?”

I decided that we had better tell at least a part of the truth. What
could be the harm now in telling that we were following Helena? “What
you say about leading the way,” I began, “I do not altogether
understand. We were following someone, but she did not know it. You say
there was no one ahead of us on that road. We passed a car mending a
tire, but facing the other way. That must have been the leading car. The
road was wet and slippery, and when the tire went they may very easily
have skidded so that they turned around. We were so intent on hurrying
to catch them that we went by without thinking of that. Very stupid
indeed.”

“Ah. Surely you will not object to tell me who this leader was?”

“My cousin,” I said.

“So. Another artist, this unnamed cousin?”

“No. Does it matter?”

“To me, yes, gentlemen. I quite understand your ’esitancy. A lady’s name
should not be mentioned before a bandit. ’owever, I am becoming ’ungry.
Breakfast is waiting for all of us when we ’ave finished our little
talk. I will tell you a few things that will ’elp you to talk, I think.
Countess Waldek was an American lady. She came from Boston, I ’ave
’eard. It is not impossible that she is the cousin. It becomes more
possible when I tell you that she ’as been captured by my men, and is on
’er way ’ere. I think I will not let ’er see you. It may be better so. I
’eard already that she would ’ave a cousin to visit her sometime soon. I
believe now that you arrived last evening. That is so, is it not?”

“We did arrive.”

“You made a very short visit, gentlemen, after so long a trip.”

“Yes.”

“You passed through Herrovosca yesterday.” He pronounced the _H_ hard,
almost like a _K_. “Did you, by any chance, learn of the events that
were passing in the Cathedral Square?”

“We were there,” I said.

“Ah. And you recognised the new Queen?”

“No,” I said.

“No?” he crowded a good deal of disbelief into that word. “Ah,” he
continued, “but per’aps you do not see this one-time American lady
often?”

“No,” I said again.

“So. And per’aps she does not confide in you by letter?”

“I haven’t had a letter from her in a year,” I said.

“No? Then ’ow did you come so exactly to Herrovosca when you could be
useful?”

“We started on a casual, friendly trip, and wrote to her that we were
coming,” I said. “We had no idea that anything was about to happen, and
unless you are accusing Countess von Waldek of participating in the
assassination of King Bela I don’t see how you can imagine she knew.”

“I am not accusing the lady of that,” he answered, “but of conspiring to
keep the rightful king from the throne. And I will relieve your natural
anxiety. I have not detained ’er to ’arm her, but for ’er own safety.
She is an intimate friend of Queen Yolanda. She brought up as ’er
daughter the very pretty young girl who ’as been presented to a doubting
people as the Princess Maria Lalena. It is a somewhat girlish prank to
play on grown people, whether she is the true Princess or not. Even in
the Balkans it is what the English call a bit thick to ’ide the heir to
a throne for eight years. But it ’as been played at such a moment that
if it is not ’andled very carefully it may lead to a very serious
situation. To civil war, per’aps, that ’as been threatening for a long
time, but might ’ave been averted. You follow me?”

“Perfectly,” I said. “You mean that Prince Conrad would have been strong
enough to hold the throne, but that he may not be able to hold it for
this girl.” I wasn’t sure at all that that was what he meant, but I
thought I could find out by putting it that way.

The Black Ghost laughed, “Now I know,” he said, “that you know much
about this situation. And I will tell you more. Not secrets, but things
that I wish known, though you will not ’ave the chance to tell them for
some time, I regret. Now, first, I ’ave the greatest personal regard for
this cousin of yours. She is a very lovely lady, but she is not a
politician. If she were not a very loyal friend of the Queen she would
not trouble ’erself about such things, and that would be right. She
makes trouble for ’erself, talking, and she will make trouble also for
Prince Conrad. It is because I wish to stop ’er talking that when the
Queen’s car went through the Pass tonight, I put up the barricade, and
waited for ’er to come back. I guessed she would be in it. My men made a
most annoying mistake when they caught you instead, for I do not like to
disturb citizens of large countries. Also, you ’ave learned too much of
my retreat ’ere. It is awkward, but you must stay now, for a little, as
my most honored guests.” He bowed deeply.

“We are flattered,” I said, and laughed at him. I decided that even if
he were a bandit I liked him.

“We appreciate your hospitality,” John grinned at him. “I assure you I
never stayed anywhere that offered to be more diverting.”

“I am glad,” the Black Ghost said, simply. “I will explain some more
things to you that you may not understand. I do not wish to boast, but
for the moment I rule Alaria, since I command the only troops of whose
loyalty anyone can be sure. That is true. There were to ’ave been three
factions in the country. Now there are four. The Dowager Queen still
leads one. With Bela’s—removal—we thought that Prince Conrad would
succeed to that place, and I would support ’im with my troops and my
loyal followers. They are many. Prince Conrad ’as always kept ’is
personal influence dormant in the interest of peace. For the same reason
’e ’as been forced to support the new Queen. She is to be dressed in
white in contrast to my black garb, and the Reds’ arm bands. They are
the third party ’ere. The Republicans are the fourth. They ’ave various
’eads. It is always so with Republicans. Bela was a libertine and a
fool. Three times ’e attempted to kill Prince Conrad. Twice by ’iring
men to shoot at ’im, and once ’e put poison in some wine with ’is own
’and. Fortunately ’e looked too eager, and Prince Conrad did not drink
the wine. ’e was so ’ated that ’is removal was a necessity if civil war
was to be averted. Probably even ’is mother was relieved if she would
acknowledge it. ’e was to ’er a bridge to power. While she did not ’ave
a ’and in ’is removal, I am sure, when it came it gave ’er a chance she
’ad most carefully prepared, to bring forward this little girl in white.
A sweet and pretty little girl. I am very sorry for ’er. The Countess
Waldek ’as been a most loyal friend. There is something magic in a
personal friend who is also a queen, especially for a very democratic
American.”

“Americans are apt to be loyal friends,” I defended Helena almost
automatically. I was beginning to feel she needed defense, which was a
disloyal thought.

“It does not matter very seriously to me,” he went on, “if later you
should reach Herrovosca. When Prince Conrad is in power ’e can show the
American Minister very quickly that you were concerning yourselves in
affairs that are outside the proper province of American citizens. I
shall detain you ’ere only until after the coronation, as a precaution.
Queen Yolanda ’as indulged in one trick, and this is not a time for
tricks. We must consolidate the interests of the Royal Family, and to do
that we must be opportunists. And now we may all go in to breakfast.
Pray go first, gentlemen. Since I was stabbed in the back I allow no one
to walk be’ind me.”

We preceded him across the hall, and into the dining room, where we ate
alone with the Black Ghost.

The meal was excellent, and we talked of Paris, and the races, and our
trip across Europe, and the weather. The Black Ghost had been
everywhere, and seemed inclined to make himself agreeable. After we had
finished he spoke to the man who had served us, and four more bandits
entered the room.

“I am sorry, gentlemen,” he said suavely, “believe me, as my English
governess used to say, this ’urts me worse than it does you. It is
necessary for me to occupy myself with other things than your
entertainment. ’owever, you will be lodged, I think, not uncomfortably,
and no doubt you will wish to sleep. You ’ave driven most of the night.
I ’ave given orders that you are to receive your luggage, but as it will
not contain any weapons or papers when it is delivered to you, it might
be as well that you give me your keys, though we ’ave a man who is quite
expert with locks. And since I already ’ave your passports, both the
Alarian and Rheatian governments, while not altogether friendly to me,
will still act as my lieutenants in guarding you, in case you should
effect the impossible and escape this place. You could not very well
leave this no-man’s-land without passports. I tell you this that you may
more easily compose yourselves to rest, gentlemen.” He waved his hand in
a wide and graceful gesture so that the ruby flashed handsomely. We both
bowed, and followed our jailors. As a matter of fact I was quite content
to stay. Helena was there, we might be of some service to her, and when
we were released we would probably be relieved of the necessity of
explaining the discrepancy in our passports. My only sorrow was that the
luggage in the car consisted mainly of John’s painting kit. All the rest
was safely, but inconveniently, at Castle Waldek.

We were led down a long dark stone-paved hallway, with several doors
leading from it. Most of the doors were open, for light and air, since
there was no other means of ventilating the passage. I glanced through
them as we passed, noting the rooms. One was a handsome bedchamber, hung
in crimson damask. The Black Ghost had luxurious tastes. Another had
three beds in it, and little else—for his more important lieutenants, I
judged. No doubt they gave him only part time service. A third, also a
bedroom, was less cluttered with furniture than the others. A great
bunch of wild flowers stood in the window, and a row of bottles on a
dressing table proclaimed it a woman’s room. Surprised, I looked more
carefully. On a chair at the foot of the bed lay a green velvet gown
embroidered in gold thread. I had seen the gown before, in the customs
house at the Alarian entrance to the Pass.



                              _CHAPTER IV_


I said nothing to John about the velvet gown. I knew that if I did he
would keep me awake talking about all its possible ramifications.
Besides, it wasn’t any business of mine. We were led down a damp flight
of stone steps, and along another corridor into a part of the building
where the floors were wood. I was glad of that because stone floors are
cold. We were shown into a room with a heavily barred window, the door
of iron bound oak. Its dull thud as it closed told the story of its
solidity. I went to the window and found that it overlooked a deep cañon
whose opposite wall was sheer and rocky. We could see nothing else
except, below us, about two stories down on that side, where the
building conformed to the shape of the mountain, a ledge path, with a
stone wall along it. I guessed that it might be the path by which we had
climbed to this eyrie.

I was very sleepy, and so was John, so we lay down on the only bed,
fully dressed, and the next thing I knew the sun was pouring in the
window. We were facing west. I looked at my watch. It had stopped, but
from the position of the sun, I guessed it to be, roughly, around five
o’clock. It would begin to be dark inside a couple of hours. I lay still
for a minute, wondering what had awakened me. Then a heavy door shut
with a dull thud. It was in the next room, I decided, and noticed at the
same time that the walls must be much thinner than the doors or I could
not have heard the sound so plainly.

Then I heard voices. They were too dim to distinguish words, but there
was a man’s voice and a woman’s. I tiptoed to the wall, and placed my
ear against it but could not distinguish words. In a moment the door to
the other room closed again, and I walked away from the wall just in
time. The lock rattled, and then our door swung inward on its hinges,
creaking rustily. Not used much, I noted, which mattered to us in that
it suggested that the Black Ghost was not in the habit of harboring many
prisoners. A man entered, carrying a tray of food.

“We had orders not to bring lunch because it was thought you would be
sleeping,” he said in German, “the Herr Fakat Zol trusts that you have
not been inconvenienced.”

“And who,” I asked, “may the Herr Fakat Zol be?”

“The Black Ghost,” he answered, “his name is Fakat Zol.”

“Oh,” I said. “Yes, we were sleeping. I only just wakened. My watch has
stopped. Would you mind telling me the time?”

“I have not a watch, gnädiger Herr, I cannot tell you exactly,” he
answered, “but it should be half past four. It is the afternoon coffee
on the tray and the paper from Herrovosca.”

John got off the bed sleepily, and the man left us.

More from lack of occupation than for any other reason, I opened the
paper. Of course I could not read it. In the exact center of the front
page was the portrait of a woman. John came over and stared at the paper
over my shoulder. I pointed to the name under the portrait. It read:
“Maria Lalena, Rhenia Alariavni.” Which, of course it took no great
knowledge of the language to know meant “Maria Lalena, Queen of Alaria.”
There was another picture on each side of Maria Lalena’s. One was
Conrad’s—we read that, too, and felt like sleuths doing it—and the other
was a drawing of the Black Ghost, white Templar’s cross and all. Under
it was the legend, “Fakat Zol” and more that we could not understand.
And glancing through the rest of the paper, each column seemed peppered
with the three names. There was a fourth I feared to find, and did not.
It was Helena, Countess Waldek. If Prince Conrad had attacked the
validity of Maria Lalena’s claim the name Waldek would have appeared. It
did not.

“What do you make of it?” John asked.

“Oh, Conrad is waiting for something to start, that’s all. You remember
what the Black Ghost said yesterday about being an opportunist?”

“He’s right, too,” John said, “whatever happens can only be to Conrad’s
advantage. This business of raking that girl up was only a mad idea that
couldn’t possibly succeed, even in a crazy-quilt country like this. She
isn’t the Princess, she’s your cousin’s daughter.”

“You don’t know that,” I said, “and even if it is true Conrad isn’t
going to start anything himself, he’s too afraid of a civil war.”

“Why do you think that? Because the Black Ghost said so? Do you suppose
he really knows much?”

“I do think he knows much,” I said, “which is merely guess work, of
course. I was very much impressed with him. But I have another reason
for thinking Conrad wants peace. He wouldn’t have made that speech on
the Cathedral steps if he hadn’t.”

“Yes, that’s true,” John admitted. “I wish we could read this paper.”

“Nonsense,” I laughed, “a lot of reporters have got themselves a few
interviews, and filled the paper with them. I don’t believe a thing has
happened since yesterday. Everyone is waiting to see what his neighbor
is going to do about it.”

“I bow to your superior knowledge,” John laughed, “let’s drink the
coffee.”

“I have discovered something,” I said, as we poured it out. “There is a
woman in the next room.”

“The Countess Waldek?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “the wall is too thick to tell, but it is very
probable.”

“We ought to be able to communicate with her if it is,” John began to be
interested.

“We might dig a hole in the wall,” I suggested.

“Monte Cristo!” he laughed. “That takes too long. I know an easier way.
Got a long piece of string?”

“No,” I said. “Why should I have? I don’t save string.”

“Must have a long cord,” he said, fussing in one of his bags. I felt in
my pockets hopelessly. I knew quite well I had no string.

“Are you any good,” he asked suddenly, “at puzzles?”

“No,” I said. “I’m not.”

“Nor, I suppose,” he went on, “do you know anything about knitting?”

“It’s a pity,” I said, “that they didn’t shut your grandmother up here
with you instead of me.”

“Yes,” he said. “She is a nice, helpful old lady. However, if, between
us, we can manage to unravel that nice handmade sock which cost me half
a guinea in London, we will have a long piece of yarn which will
immediately put us in communication with the lady next door.”

“I’ll do that,” I said, “nothing easier. During the war they used to
send me the most horrible socks from home, and I found an old
Frenchwoman who knitted them all up again into good ones. I unravelled
them for her, to be sure she would finish before we moved on.” I laid
the sock flat on the edge of a wooden chair, took out my slender little
gold pen knife which I reflected would have been much more useful to two
Monte Cristos if it had been four times as large, with a rough bone
handle, though for slicing off the top of the sock it was admirable.
After that all I did was pull at it until it began to unravel, and then
I went on pulling until in a few minutes we had a very long piece of
wool yarn, lying curled at our feet. It took us an hour, then, to
untangle it again. I remembered too late that I had learned to wind as I
unravelled, to avoid that untangling process. We had to light a candle
before we were through. When we had it all wound single, John decided he
wanted it wound double, so we started all over again.

“It would have been less trouble,” I said, “to have dug a hole in the
wall.”

“You would say that, now that we are all ready to start operations,” he
answered. He then wrote a short note, tucked it into the ball, tied one
end of the yarn to the window bar, thrust his arm outside and began
throwing the ball toward the next room, and then pulling it back again.
I was afraid that before he managed to throw it into the other window
the ball of yarn would be frayed beyond use, but I was wrong. John often
takes the long way around, but he usually gets there. To my surprise the
ball was caught and the line pulled taut. Then we waited, a long time it
seemed to me, until at last the yarn slackened, and then John untied it,
and pulling very gently on the double loop, finally reached a place on
its length where a note had been tied. We opened it eagerly. “Yes,” it
began, “I am Helena Waldek. How did you get here? I presume you must
have been in that car that passed us last night on the road. We are
uncomfortable here, but I think in no personal danger. If you get out
before I do _please_ go to Herrovosca to Marie. She may need your help
to get away. The Queen is so helpless, she has only her wits now against
almost everybody. She sent for me because even Marie has grown hard to
manage. I have no hope of getting out in time to be of any help, but
they may release you because you are Americans. If they do you must take
a message to the Queen. It is most important. Tell her that the Black
Ghost wears a ruby ring. I will not tell you what that implies because
it will be safer for you not to know. But it is of the utmost importance
that the Queen should know it. I cannot tell you how important. It makes
their danger far greater than before. Burn this note. H. W.”

It was a desperate note, and Helena, of course, must be desperate.
Whoever Maria Lalena might really be, she had been Helena’s daughter for
eight years, anyway. And if she were Marie Waldek, she was in very great
personal danger. This Black Ghost would not even consider her, and I
couldn’t blame him very much. She had committed a serious offense. And
she could not count on popular help. Mobs are never respecters of
persons.

“‘Tell the Queen that the Black Ghost wears a ruby ring,’” John quoted.

“That means,” I said, “that she has recognised the ring, and that the
Queen does not know who he is.”

“Yes,” John said, slowly, “Yes. We ought to get out of this. And we
ought to hurry. This is a particularly nasty mess for those two women.”

“Helena and Marie?” I asked.

“No. Marie and the Queen. Helena is safer right here, I believe, than
she would be anywhere. They aren’t afraid of her while she’s here, and
they are afraid of the other two. It’s not normal to hurt people unless
you are afraid of them. I think we ought to try to take that message to
Yolanda, and try to get it there before anything breaks that the Black
Ghost may consider an opportunity, and turn to his own advantage at
their cost.”

“I agree,” I said, “but I hope we don’t get caught. It’s been a nice
world so far.”

“Don’t worry,” John said, “I think we have a friend among our jailors.”

“The Black Ghost?” I asked, “don’t fool yourself. He is merely showing
off his gentlemanly manners.”

John laughed, “I know that,” he said, “but as we came down the hall I
saw a green velvet gown in one of those rooms, and unless it’s a
uniform, it belongs to the Countess Visichich.”

“I saw that,” I said. “I wasn’t going to tell you.”

He laughed. “Afraid to spoil my faith in the lady’s morals?” he asked.
“Nonsense, Carvin. I don’t know anything about her, but she’s politician
first, and I’d be willing to put a big wager on her—well, on her being
mostly just politician, at least so far. She had an unattached look
about the eyes.”

“And you think she’ll help us to escape?”

“Oh, no, not at all. But I don’t think she’d let us face a firing squad
if we were caught trying to escape.”

“That may be,” I acknowledged, “but I’m not going to count on it too
heavily. It would be so easy to shoot first and tell her afterward.”

John went to the Window and twisted his arms through the bars, to shake
them. I remembered reading somewhere that it was a trick prisoners
developed. The bars were solid.

“The walls are fairly thin,” I suggested.

“Only on the side toward the Countess’ room. It would do us no good to
get in there. The other side is stone—look.”

It was true. Stone, roughly cemented over. A month’s job at the least,
to dig through that without proper tools, and we had no idea where we’d
be if we did get through. “The wall into the hall is thinner than that,”
John went on, “but it wouldn’t be much good to us. They’d find any hole
we dug in it before it was big enough to get through. This may have been
a cellar or a barracks before they made it into—guest rooms. There’s
probably a guard in the hall, anyway.”

“Yes.”

“That leaves the ceiling or the floor, or the bars. The ceiling is too
high to reach, so let’s try the floor. We want to go down, anyway, so
let’s start. Besides, the boards are wide and old.”

“And fastened together with nice little wooden pegs instead of nails.”

“Dowels, you call them,” John said. “If we select a shortish board and
dig out said dowels, we might get through to something interesting.”

John had a pen knife, too, a little larger than mine, but no bowie
knife. We selected a suitable board after a little search. Fifteen
minutes loosened the board. The wood had shrunk a little in the years
since it had been laid, and we dug the dowels out almost easily. Then,
by sticking our little fingers into the holes and pulling upward gently
and together, we raised the board from the floor. I looked into the hole
before we had it up more than a few inches. There was only darkness
below. John blew out our candle, and we took the board away, and peered
down. There was a room much like ours below; though it was dark, we
could see its outlines. It was quite empty. Looking farther we saw that
the door was closed, and it smelled damp and musty, but not poisonously
so. It was also bare of any sort of furniture, which indicated that it
was never used.

“I’ll jump down,” John said, “and have a go at those bars. I may be able
to get them out. Better make a lump under the bedclothes, so if that man
comes back he’ll think I’m asleep; and drop the board back in place
after I’m through. If I have to get up again you can tie the sheets
together for a rope.” Then he dropped through the hole, and I wrapped my
overcoat around most of the blankets, which made a passable body except
for the head. I finally decided on an old brown angora sweater from the
painting stuff where it had been used as packing, with John’s cap tipped
at an angle over it, as though to keep the light out of his eyes. Then I
carried the candle to the other side of the room, and decided that it
was a good enough mummy to deceive a casual eye in that light. There was
one rug in the room. Instead of replacing the board I decided to throw
it over the hole, and pulled the table over that. Then I turned to
Helena’s side of the room.

In order to get her out we must break down the wall that separated us. I
couldn’t quite see leaving her without trying to do something about it.
I pulled a package of four canvasses strapped together over to the wall,
and behind it I dug a small hole in the cement with my gold knife. I
knew that Helena heard me because I presently heard her moving some
things about in her room, and then she began digging, too. I wanted to
warn her about hiding the dust from the hole, but decided that a woman
would think of that.

I had not dug more than a few minutes before my knife snapped off at the
handle. The jeweller who made it had not reinforced it for cement
digging. I had no other sharp instrument, so I had to stop. I could hear
Helena still at it on the other side, though. Then John called to me,
and I pulled the carpet away from the hole in the floor.

“In my painting stuff,” he said, “you will find a large wooden box
marked ‘etching’ on the cover. In that is some paraffin and a bottle of
acid in a wooden barrel with a screw top. You might dig out a couple of
small brushes, too, from the other stuff, and give them to me.”

“What’s all that for?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m going to try etching through the bars,” he explained, “it’s so
damp here that they are pretty well rusted through anyway. I can do it
easily if there’s enough of the acid.”

“You’d better work quietly down there,” I said, “they’ll be bringing our
dinner any moment now.”

I felt quite sure as I went to look for the things that I should not
find the acid, as undoubtedly the Black Ghost would consider it a very
dangerous weapon. I was mistaken, however, or else they did not know
what it was. Probably they considered all painting materials harmless.
There was about five ounces of the stuff—enough to rout a small army if
anyone had the indecency to throw it in a man’s eyes. I made sure the
top of the container was safely screwed on again before I handed it down
to John. I knelt and lifted the edge of the rug and was reaching
downward as far as possible to meet John’s hand, when a key was turned
in the door. John’s fingers had just closed over the wooden barrel of
acid. I dropped the other things perforce, trusting to the creaking of
the opening door to mask the sound of their fall. I was trying to look
as though I were tying my shoe as the man entered with our dinner. I
continued to tie it serenely after the door opened, merely glancing up
and saying “guten Abend” in what I hoped would pass for a casual tone of
voice.

This time there were two men instead of one. One carried the heavy tray
of food, and I was hungry enough to be glad it was heavy, the other held
a lantern, and stayed near the door. By the time the first man had put
the tray on the table I had straightened up, and was moving toward him
quite calmly.

“The Herr Fakat Zol,” he said, rather elaborately, “presents his
compliments to the gnädigen Herrn, and regrets that he cannot entertain
them at dinner.”

I have always read about heroes who remained calm in all emergencies,
and now I had found that when one of them happened to me, I was not calm
and therefore not a hero. I felt nervous and jumpy even after the men
had gone and locked the door again, which was a little hard on my self
esteem since it had been such a small emergency.

When I dared to look down again John was standing just where he had been
when I handed him the acid. He had not moved even to pick up the things
I had dropped.

“We missed by an eyelash having to dine with the Black Ghost,” I told
him. “Come on up and eat.”

“Not on your life.” He shook his head, excitedly, “it would take half an
hour to get me up there and down again. Have to rig up the sheets to
climb by. Can’t spare the time. Give me some food through the hole, and
I think we may make it before midnight. The moon will come up soon
after, so we can’t risk it later.”

I gave him soup in a coffee cup, and two huge sandwiches with
thick-sauced meat in them, and an apple. Then I smeared his plate with
gravy, and a few edges of meat, to look as though he had eaten, and ate
my own dinner. Later when John had finished the soup I rinsed the cup
and gave him coffee in it. Then I put even the apple core back on the
tray, and finally stuck the knife and fork he should have eaten with in
some of the gravy. Altogether it was an artistic job, that tray. I took
off one knife with a prayer that its absence would not be noticed.

I did not dare start work on the wall again until the tray should be
taken away, and while I sat waiting idly I thought over Helena’s
position, and decided that John was right about not wanting to get her
out. She had been meddling very seriously in the affairs of a country
that was as foreign to her as it was to us. The Rheatian government
would probably not help her under the circumstances, the Alarians would
hate her, and if she got out she would rush straight to Herrovosca. The
Black Ghost, I felt sure, would release her when—and if—there was no
further end to be served by keeping her quiet. That would be when
Yolanda and Maria Lalena had been driven out of the country. And Conrad
was right, of course, from every standpoint, especially that of
expediency. An unpopular dowager and an unknown and inexperienced girl
could not hope to keep peace and a throne in a tumultuous country like
Alaria.

However, in spite of my feeling that she should be left behind, as soon
as the tray had been removed I started back at the wall again with my
stolen table knife. Reasoning that a woman should be left to the mercy
of a masked bandit was one thing, and not trying to get her out was
another.

It must have been two hours before our knives met through the wall. Then
we examined the sides of the hole, and found that we had been playing
the fool. The wall was of concrete laid on a modern steel lath, and not
a single layer of lath, but a double one, with about four inches between
where the joists ran up. All we had accomplished was a more direct
method of communication than our yarn telegraph.

I put my mouth as close to the hole as possible, “Helena!” I said.

“Yes, Marshall,” she answered. “I have seen how hopeless it is, and it’s
quite all right. The important thing is for one of you to get out. If
you could stab the guard when he brings the tray—”

“So that’s the sort of thing the Balkans have taught a lady from
Boston?” I asked. “Suppose your grandmother Collins could hear you now?
Anyway, we’d have to stab two of them at the door of this room, and no
one knows how many more before the way out of this nest was clear. No,
that may have been all right in the eighteenth century, but I’m afraid
we shouldn’t get away with it.” Then I told her about the loosened board
and the acid. “If you could tell us how to get to Herrovosca without a
car after we leave this place—” I finished.

“I can’t,” she said, “I’ve only the most hazy idea where we may be.”

“South or southwest of the place where we were captured.”

“I did not know even that,” she said. “We must be somewhere near the
Visichich’s manor. We’re not in it. The country there is hilly, but not
rocky and bare like the cliff out of that window. No, we’re still in the
mountains. I think,” she went on, “if we only knew just where we are,
and how to get here, we should hold the key to the control of Alaria—if
we had some loyal troops.”

“I fear,” I said, “that two ‘ifs’ make a negative.”

“If that’s supposed to be funny,” she said, “I think it’s ill-timed.”

“It wasn’t,” I assured her, solemnly. “I was only trying to point out
that this man’s secrecy is strength for him but not strength for anyone
trying to undermine him. I just don’t believe that the people who
believe in the supernatural Black Ghost would listen even if he were
unmasked before them. They would merely say that the man who was
unmasked was an impostor, and the Black Ghost would go right on.”

“That’s what I mean,” she said, cryptically, “these legends have endured
for eight hundred years, and now a living man has conceived the idea of
impersonating them, and making political capital out of the
impersonation.”

“I believe it’s more than that,” I answered, “this ghost held an army
back not a hundred years ago. And this stronghold bears all the earmarks
of a place that has been built for centuries. Isn’t the Black Ghost
rather a secret society?”

“That has been kept secret for eight hundred years?” she laughed. “I
find it less fantastic to believe in the supernatural. A secret society
it might be, but not a society that has been kept secret for centuries.”

“Yet here it all is,” I said, “and the food’s not ghostly, at any rate.”

“A ghost would be the lesser miracle,” she answered.

“And a real man the greater danger,” I said.

“Much the greater danger, Marshall, if you don’t get to the Queen. I
have a pass that will take you to her through all accredited government
barriers, but don’t forget that there may be no accredited government by
now. They did not search me—thought it quite useless, I suppose. Your
Black Ghost asked me if I carried any despatches or state papers, and
when I gave him my word of honor that I did not, he sent me down here.
Decent of him.” Through one of the diamond shaped spaces in the lath she
handed me a small folded paper. “I hid it in my shoe,” she said. “It’s
as good a hiding place as any. I shall be far safer here than you are,
so do not hesitate on my account. A friend of the Queen will be treated
with respect, so don’t worry.”

I took the paper from her, and placed it in my own shoe. Then I pushed
the canvasses against the hole in the wall again, and went over to see
how John was progressing. As I looked down through the floor I found him
prying at the remaining bars with one that was already loose. At each
pull they moved, but the opening was still closed effectively against
our escape. I looked at my watch. It was a few minutes to eleven. I
called down to John, “What do you say I come down there? The two of us
ought to get that out pretty easily.”

“If we had another lever,” he said, “but we haven’t, and if anyone comes
into that room while you are down here the game will be up. I’ll have it
out in a few minutes now. The acid gave out, but I weakened all the bars
with it. I couldn’t hold it where I wanted it, and it ran down the
stone. We’ll have to be careful getting out of here or we’ll be burned
by it.”

“I’ll bring a blanket from the bed,” I said.

“Yes,” John agreed, “and get out a couple of socks from that black bag,
and a clean collar apiece, and four handkerchiefs, and a comb and the
jar of salve. Also I want some water to wash my hands in before we go.
Might as well be civilised if we’re going to pay our first call on
Royalty. And say good-bye to your cousin for me, with apologies and
regrets.”

I obeyed all his instructions and stuffed the things into my pockets. I
had hardly finished when I heard a sharp crack from the room below. I
went to the hole in the wall again and called through to Helena, “He’s
got the bars out, and I am going now. I hope and pray you may be safe.”

“And you,” she said, “don’t forget that the Black Ghost wears a ruby
ring. All my prayers go with you. À dieu.”

“À dieu,” I replied, feeling pretty mean about leaving her, but not
seeing anything else to do. I pushed a blanket through the hole in the
floor, then tied the water pitcher to a torn pillow case, and let that
down, after which I dropped down myself, carefully, so that the rug
would fall back smoothly over the hole. The longer they puzzled over how
we had got out the more time we should have to get away.

“Don’t think about your cousin now,” John said, “there’s very little
chance of our being useful to her if we stay, whereas if we should
really manage to get away we might conceivably be able to get back here
again with a rescue party.”

“The rescue will be accomplished another way,” I said, “if at all.”

John showed me his hands then, they were raw with burns and blisters.
“Good Lord,” I said, “you can’t go with hands like that.”

“Don’t be silly,” he answered, “that’s what I want the handkerchiefs and
salve for. Time’s precious, but I guess we’ll save it by using a little
sense.” He soaked his wounds carefully in the clean water, and then held
them out while I applied the salve. It must have been a stinging dose,
but he stood it well. Then I put the jar back in my pocket, and arranged
the blanket in the window so that what acid remained there should not
burn us or our clothes. John climbed through first. I waited and slowly
counted ten before I followed. The drop was really quite short. I let
myself down from the ledge, holding fast by my hands until I was hanging
flat against the wall of the building. Then I let go. It was all very
simple. Almost too simple. I suspected an ambush any moment as we went
down the path single file. Overhead, the stars were shining; below us,
far down the valley, a single light flickered, though whether it was a
signal light or in a cabin we could not tell. Then, suddenly, the stars
and the light below us were cut off. We had entered a tunnel. I was sure
then, that we were trapped after all. It had been too easy a matter,
getting out of the place. The end of the path must be blocked, and all
that we had won was the pleasure of spending the night outdoors.

But I was wrong. The tunnel was a long one, but unguarded, and fairly
straight. It was damp, however, and very slippery underfoot, and there
were bats in it. Once or twice we brought up square against a wall, but
we always found, a moment or so later, that the way continued at an
angle. It was pitch dark, of course, and though I had brought candles
and some matches from our room, we did not dare to strike a light.

At last, ahead of us, we saw a star. I stopped, and spoke in the lowest
whisper I could manage, to urge John to extra caution. Without a light
we had no means of knowing how much longer the tunnel was, and at its
end there would undoubtedly be a guard. We must go carefully.

That last few yards was so slow and silent that it seemed like years
before we saw the sky above and not ahead of us. The path was still
narrow, and, like that we had seen below our prison windows, a mere
ledge along the cliff. There was no one on the path itself, but on a
level a little above it, with a rifle at his shoulder, his body
silhouetted against the sky from where we crouched, stalked a sentinel.
He was guarding not only the path where we were, but another that
branched off from it as well. The other must be the important one or he
would have stayed down on our level. A short flight of stone steps
connected the two. I could just see them in the darkness. John dropped
to his knees, close to the low retaining wall, and, step by slow step,
began making his way across the open space. I dropped to my knees, too,
but merely to be less obvious in case the man should flash a light. I
could not see John after a moment or two. He disappeared into the
darkness. There was no way for me to tell how far he had crawled, for he
literally made not a sound. Two bats circled round and round over our
heads, swooping close to the sentinel at times. I did not know whether
they would prove a help to us in distracting the man’s attention, or, by
coming too close to us, betray us. Our fate seemed to hang on a bat’s
whim.

I waited a long time before I dared begin my slow and rather painful
crawl. I had to lift my knee quite off the ground at each advance,
because the roll of a pebble would have been suicidal. I passed the
steps at last. They marked the end of the sentinel’s beat. I waited for
him to turn before I moved again. Before he returned I had taken four
steps. He was above me, and just four steps behind, when, careful as I
had been, I struck a loose stone with my knee, and sent it rolling a
yard or two across the path. The sentinel turned suddenly. I heard him.
I jumped to my feet, and ran. Three shots sounded, but I did not stop. A
moment later John was beside me. We wasted no breath talking, but ran on
desperately until he stumbled and fell. He tripped me as he went down,
and we lay for a second, listening for our pursuers. There was no sound.
We had left the path and were no longer on the edge of the cliff, though
still on a side hill, but overhead trees arched so that we could not see
the stars. We were in a forest, which meant that we had come quite far
down the mountain, and were in a valley, for on the exposed upper slopes
there were no trees. We must have run a mile at least.

“There’s no one after us,” John said.

“What does that mean, do you suppose?”

“Either that we lost the way in the darkness or that they can’t be
bothered with catching us. What I think is that if we find our way to
the high road we’ll walk into more of the gang, and if we are lost in
the mountains, as we may be, we don’t count. I was lost in quite
civilised woods in northern Connecticut once, for a day and a night.
This may not be funny before we’re through. There won’t be any friendly
neighbors to come out looking for us. That get-away was too easy.”

“Don’t be so gloomy,” I said, “being lost is probably our only hope of
getting away. We can steer south-west by the stars.”

“That’s all very well to suggest,” John said, “but there is a lot of
rough going around here, and while we twist north and east and all the
ways between to get around gullies and boulders, who is going to tell us
we are really going south-west? I tried that steering by the stars
business in Connecticut and it’ll be the same sort of thing here only
worse.”

“You think we should try to find the high road, then?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “I don’t think it’s going to matter much what we try to
find. It’s going to be entirely a matter of luck—good luck or bad luck.
What I chiefly hope is that there aren’t any more Fakat Zols working on
their own around here.”

I told him I thought that very unlikely, because one strong bandit would
clean up all the little ones in short order, and he agreed. “Let’s just
keep on down this slope,” he said. “At least it’s down hill, and south.
We’ll undoubtedly have to climb up again before we’re through, and twist
around a lot, but we may come out.”

It was a nightmare journey. At every slightest sound we stopped to
listen. The hillside was smooth enough so that in spite of the darkness
we had little difficulty keeping on it, but there were a thousand noises
in the night that brought us up short to listen again.

We must have walked for more than an hour, when at last a pale gleam on
the highest branches of some trees told us that the moon was up.
Suddenly we heard unmistakable footsteps, and a beam of light from an
electric torch showed us a path, sloping downward, directly ahead of us.
John and I hid as well as we could behind the trees. Unfortunately our
cover was poor. They were pines and sparse, with little underbrush, but
the night was dark, and by crouching low we hoped to escape notice. The
steps approached, there was no attempt at concealment, so we judged that
the person approaching must be one of the Black Ghost’s men. The light
flashed again on the path, nearer, in a wide sweep, blinding to us, who
had been in darkness so long. We waited without moving.

Suddenly a second swathe of light fell across John’s face. I saw him
distinctly from my partial cover. The light stopped an instant, flashed
wider, across me, and then went out.



                              _CHAPTER V._


There was a moment’s silence, as I edged toward the figure that had held
the light. Before I reached it there was a scuffle a few feet to my
left. I rushed toward it. It was a short fight. The man seemed to have
little strength, but a great deal of determination to get away. He was
nothing to our combined forces. In a moment John had him down, and I
tied his hands behind him with my handkerchief. As an all-purpose tool,
I recommend the humble handkerchief. Then, while I held our prisoner,
John felt about on the path for the electric torch. After a moment he
found it. By its light we stared at our capture. His hat had fallen off,
and long chestnut hair tumbled loose about his—her, shoulders. She wore
well-cut riding breeches, and was young and very good looking, though
she was glaring at us furiously.

“Hell!” I said.

“My God,” said John. “It’s the Countess Visichich!”

“’ow did you get away?” she demanded. “They told me you ’ad got out, but
I couldn’t wait to find out ’ow. I never could see what ’arm you would
do anyway—only ’e wanted to be sure. And you lied to me yesterday.”

“Yesterday?” I echoed—“why, so it was only yesterday. At a guess I
should have said week before last.”

“What are we going to do now?” John asked crossly. “We can’t tie her up
and leave her here. We can’t take her with us, and if we let her go
she’ll bring all of the gang down on us before we even know where we
are.”

“Why not let me go?” she suggested, pleasantly.

“That isn’t so easy,” John said, and sounded so sorry that I almost
laughed at him.

“You are gentlemen,” she continued, “what else can you do?”

“Thank you,” I said. “We are complimented, but after all, you do present
difficulties.”

“I come of honorable antecedents,” she said, proudly.

“And take them seriously,” I suggested.

“Of course she does,” John took her part sternly.

“If you will let me go,” she offered, “I swear I will say nothing of
’aving seen you for, say, twenty-four hours. Will that be long enough?”

I agreed, gloomily, but John was more enthusiastic. “Of course,
Countess, of course, it will be quite enough. We really ought to see you
home, but there are difficulties, you know. Forgive us, won’t you?”

“Oh, we are not civilised ’ere,” she laughed. “I am quite safe on this
mountain alone, I assure you. No one could be safer. You might untie my
hands, though, if you don’t mind.”

John made a wry face, and let me do it, his own hands being in a state
of skinlessness that would have been embarrassing to him if she had seen
them, to say nothing of being painful.

“We couldn’t quite,” I said, “tie a lady up and leave her helpless on a
wild mountain side. It’s nice of you to help us out of our difficulties.
Have you a watch, by the way?”

“A watch?” she echoed. “Yes, what for?”

“Will you give us your word to wait here for half an hour before you
start on again?”

“Oh, I say,” John interrupted. “That’s a bit thick, you know. She can’t
do that, Carvin. She’s all alone, and she ought to get home as quickly
as possible.”

“Ten minutes?” she offered.

“Very well,” I grumbled at her. “Ten minutes, then. It’s not very long,
though.” I untied her wrists, and turned to continue our way down the
mountain, taking advantage of the path.

“You ’ave been very kind,” she said, suddenly, “I will do more for you.
Something I should not do. If you go straight down that path you will
meet the men of the Black Ghost. They are in camp at the foot of the
mountain. If they had not been, you would have been followed. If you
watch carefully, about one kilometer from ’ere you will find a path that
branches off to the left. Keep to that, and you will come to a dirt road
in the valley. Follow that road and you will come to another that will
lead to Herrovosca, but farther west than the road of the Pass. I think
you will prefer that. But I must warn you that even the road I suggest
is not free from danger for you.”

“Awfully good of you,” John said.

“It would have been safer for you to ’ave killed me or to ’ave left me
for wild animals to kill. I feel I am making you a very small payment on
a great debt.”

John was about to make some more remarks, so I took him firmly by the
arm. “Only ten minutes,” I reminded him. “Come, now, and don’t waste
time. We have to travel a long way.” He came, then, a little
unwillingly, and with several backward glances to where we had left her
sitting on a stone, slowly twisting up her long hair and shoving it
under her hat in that seductive way women have with hair. When we were
quite out of earshot I was surprised to hear John ask me, “shall we
follow her directions or not?” I had supposed him too much under the
spell of her personality to doubt her.

“Why not?” I said. “Since we have no idea where we are, and she seems
rather a decent sort, even to me, who have not fallen a victim to her
charms. I don’t see why she shouldn’t do us a good turn to repay our
decent treatment of her.”

“That’s what I thought,” John said contentedly. “I’m glad you think so,
too. She must have a swell time up here, swashbuckling around these
mountains. Exactly my idea of the right way to spend a lifetime.”

I laughed, though I was in the act of stumbling over a twig.
Swashbuckling around a lot of bleak mountains in the dark was my idea of
no way to spend a lifetime, or even a small part of it, and I said so.
However, when we found the branch path to the left, we followed it,
still going down the mountain, and, I hoped, not too far from the
general direction of Herrovosca. The only thing that really puzzled me
was her remark about the Black Ghost’s men being in camp. Just what did
that mean? For one thing, that they weren’t up at their mountain
stronghold, which accounted for our escape. But it would mean more than
that. It probably meant trouble somewhere.

The moon was full and high in the heavens when we finally came out on
the roadway. A narrow, muddy roadway, deep with ruts. “A dirt road” had
been the Countess’ description, I found it rather an understatement. It
was a dirty road. I hoped John liked it, but I didn’t ask him. By that
time I was too tired to waste energy asking silly questions. In the dark
it was hard to judge distances or time, but I felt it should be near
dawn. We must have followed it for two miles or more when the sound of a
car drove us off the road. There was a high stone wall on either side at
that point, and John said he’d rather be captured again than attempt to
climb it, and he was sure he couldn’t make it if he did try. The lamps
of the car showed us plainly to its occupants, and they came to a sudden
stop beside us. A voice addressed us in Alarian, John cursed sibilantly
in English, and the voice adopted that language obligingly, asking who
we were and why we were there.

I replied, “Our car broke down, and we had to leave it. We are trying to
find help, and I fear we have lost our way.”

“You are going away from the ’ighway. It is be’ind you about seven
miles. Where did you leave your car?”

That question was a difficult one. However, John answered it quickly
enough. “We don’t know,” he said. “We’ve been walking, it seems, for
years. We lost our way before the moon came up. We thought we’d find a
house on this road, but it apparently goes nowhere.”

“It goes,” the man said, sternly, “to Visichich Manor. If you will get
in we will take you with us, but don’t be ’eadstrong because we ’ave
revolvers.”

There was no means of resisting them. We were exhausted and unarmed and
John was suffering with his burned hands. We were seven miles from the
highway, and heaven only knew how many miles from any inn or town on
that highway. Altogether, we were fairly caught. John climbed slowly
into the car, a little saddened, I feared, with the realisation that the
Visichich woman had set us a trap. Not a mean trap, but a trap, for all
that. She would undoubtedly keep her word and say nothing to anyone
about having seen us, but she had arranged that we should not be a
menace to the Black Ghost. My admiration for her increased a little. I
wondered whether John would feel that way.

It was a seven-passenger car. Our captors let down the two small seats
in the tonneau, so that we sat facing them. They were right, of course.
The state of the country was too unsettled to take chances. Our story of
the broken car would not hold water, because they would not have passed
any abandoned car on the way—unless, and that might be true—they had not
come from the highway, but from the Black Ghost’s camp, which might be
between their manor house and the road. It was possible they had not
heard of our escape, and they still might believe our story. And there
were twenty-four hours in which Countess Katerina would not tell them.
There was still some hope we might get to Herrovosca.

We rode on in silence for about twenty minutes, bumping uncomfortably
over the bad road. Then we thundered through an archway and into an open
space before the long low white building which we had first seen from
the customs house. The ancient archway through which we had come, and
the tower and wall connected with it, might have belonged to a fortress.
A single light showed in the house. The driver of the car got down first
and helped us out, then preceded us up to the door, and knocked loudly
on it. Presently a servant came, and only then did our hosts get out.
They kept discreetly behind us as we entered the wide hallway, and the
driver showed us the way into a room at the right. It was an interesting
room. The walls were white, the iron hardware was handwrought and I
thought very old. Three hanging lamps supplied light of the oil age. The
furniture was of that peculiarly ornate character which usually graces
southern and central European homes. Against their severe white walls
and rich carpets it loses the tawdry appearance that it would have among
the gimcracks of our homes.

The chauffeur and the servant remained in the doorway, in case we should
make any disturbances, of course. I decided we would not. We stood in
silence for several minutes, looking each other over quite frankly, each
pair of us wondering how the other pair might fit into the complicated
scheme of things in this Balkan state. The elder of our captors was a
man of medium height, grey haired, with a beard and a mustache. Both
their mouths had the same ruthless line as the Countess Katerina’s and
they both had the same relieving lines of humor around their amber-brown
eyes. Altogether they were not an alarming pair, and I judged they came
to the same conclusion about us, for they relaxed in a moment or two,
and the older man spoke. “Sit down gentlemen,” he invited.

We obeyed willingly. We had walked enough that night to make sitting
welcome.

“Now, about that car,” he went on. “Perhaps you will tell me some
details of it? I will have a man search for it in the morning.”

“By morning,” John said easily, “it will quite likely have been stripped
beyond recognition by the bandits that I hear are in these mountains.”

The two men looked merely mildly surprised at the mention of bandits.
“Bandits?” the younger inquired pleasantly, “you ’ave ’eard there are
bandits ’ere?”

“Yes,” John went on, “we were very anxious not to meet any of them when
our car broke down. I can imagine a mountain bandit, supreme in his
power and responsible to no one, could be a most unpleasant person to
meet on a dark night. Especially so for two unarmed men.”

“Who has told you of bandits?” The younger man seemed only slightly
interested, as though he asked merely out of politeness.

“We heard of them before we left Rheatia.”

“Oh, Rheatia!” He dismissed Rheatia as though that overgrown neighbor of
his were not worth mentioning. “In Rheatia you will ’ear many tales. The
only bandit I know of in these mountains is Fakat Zol, the Black Ghost.
You may ’ave ’eard of ’im?”

“Yes,” John said, slowly, “that was the name.”

“The ghost of Fakat Zol,” the man went on, slowly, “of course ’e is not
a ghost, but it is true ’e maintains almost an army in the mountains.
That is why the Rheatians ’ate him. ’is band ’as defeated them several
times when they were bent on aggression. That is ’istory. No one goes
through the Pass unless Fakat Zol permits. It ’as always been so. That
is, it ’as been so for eight hundred years, which is long enough. He
rules by superstition, tradition and right. Our ’istory is full of
incidents of ’is appearance. ’e is like your English Robin ’ood, but
become immortal.”

“We are Americans,” John corrected.

“The same thing.” He shrugged his shoulders. “You come from Rheatia?”

“We came through Rheatia.”

“You ’ave business in Alaria?”

We went through the old story of the writer and the artist. I was so
tired of it I wished that it might be safe to change our professions for
a little variety.

“At present,” the younger man said slowly, “Alaria is not a ’ealthy
place for strangers.”

“No?” I was all innocence, or tried to be. “Is there some trouble?”

“There seems to be a slight uneasiness since the King’s death. You
cannot tell what it may lead to. For the present I think we are all very
tired. Let us continue our discussion in the morning.”

He had not asked for passports, but I realised that by morning he would
have made inquiries, and know exactly who we were. Our escape would
undoubtedly be reported to him even if his daughter kept her word. There
was nothing to do but allow ourselves to be led off to bed, hoping that
we should be put where we could get out easily, though even if we got
out of the house, there would still be the wall and its gate to pass.
However, we were at least several miles nearer Herrovosca than we had
been at midnight. We must content ourselves with that reflection and get
some sleep, since we could not do anything else.

They took us to a room in the ancient tower. It was quite comfortable
enough to have been intended as a guest room instead of a prison cell,
though it was not large. The walls were a good four feet thick, of solid
stone, and we climbed up three flights of stairs to get to it. The view
in the very early dawn was magnificent. Rolling hills to the south and
west, and to the north and east, higher and yet higher and more jagged
rose the mountains, all bathed in the romantic light just before the sun
shows itself.

“We really accomplished a big night’s work getting out of that piece of
scenery,” John said, “I guess we deserve a rest.”

I dressed his hands again with fresh water and the remaining
handkerchiefs. They looked better than I had thought they would. Then we
went to bed.

The staircase by which we had come to our room did not end at our floor,
but went on, whether to a roof or another floor I could not see. Outside
on the landing a guard settled himself in a chair against our door. A
few minutes after we were in bed I heard a low conversation between him
and another man, then footsteps went upwards. As I lay quietly, looking
out toward the highest mountains, I caught suddenly a flash of distant
light from one of the lower peaks. It came and went intermittently,
flashing in code, as they had flashed in code from the customs house to
the tower we were now in. No doubt they were flashing a message about
us, but that wasn’t important. What was important was that the point
from which they were being answered was now visible, and must be the
stronghold of Fakat Zol. I spent the next hour drawing a careful sketch
of the mountain peaks, with an indication of the one from which the
signals came, and put the sketch in my shoe under the pass from the
Queen. Then I lay down again, feeling like the best of counter-plotters.
I wondered what my quiet newspaper friends at home would think of me.
They didn’t think they were quiet, but the best they could do for
excitement was a night at a speakeasy, or a little poker, with an
occasional big murder case to liven the day’s work. And with that
comforting thought I went to sleep.

I dreamed of witches in Salem being crushed by the weight of huge stones
on their chests. I was a witch, and the stone struck suddenly, and was
followed by a shout from the onlookers, and then by another. I sat up in
bed, sneezing, and found that a large piece of plaster had fallen from
the ceiling, and struck me on the chest. The dust was so bad I felt
choked. I looked up at the place from which it had fallen, and saw a
large hole, and in it a man’s face peering down at us. He was not
altogether a pleasant looking person, and seemed to be more the night
club type than a wily politician who would deserve imprisonment. He had
bulgy dark eyes, a curly brown mustache and thick wet lips above a three
days’ growth of beard. He was speaking to us in Alarian.

“We don’t speak Alarian,” I said. “Sorry, can’t understand you.”

The man immediately switched to English, “Quick, you hide the plaster,”
he ordered, “they will not know, perhaps. Be quick, I tell you, they may
come any time.”

John lay looking up at him, “Oh, all right,” he said. “We’ll do that for
you, but you needn’t be so upset about it.” He got out of bed slowly,
groaning with the stiffness of his muscles. I slid out as carefully as I
could so as not to disturb the plaster. Then I looked at John’s hands.
They were much improved. “Be all right in a few days,” John said.
“Really not bad at all now, they have stopped smarting entirely.” The
man above scolded at us. “Time for that later,” he said, “hide the
plaster, now, quick.”

“Shut up!” I ordered, “I’ll hide that plaster when and if I get good and
ready.”

He replied in a string of Alarian which I judged to be oaths of no mean
venom. For a moment he left the hole, probably to tear his hair. I then
rebandaged John’s hands, and when I had finished, the man above was
again peering down through his hole and seemed inclined to treat us with
less abruptness. At least he was silent while I pulled the bed apart,
found two mattresses on it, spread all of the plaster I could gather up
between them, and then remade the bed, taking a great deal of trouble to
have it look as much as possible as though it had been slept in. My
efforts did not satisfy John. He laughed at me, lay down on the bed, and
rolled around on it. When he got up again the bed was perfect. It was
tumbled just enough.

“There is one place beside the washing table,” I was directed again. I
didn’t wish the man any harm, and for the time being, of course, we were
friends of the Visichiches’ enemies, but he was peculiarly irritating.
However, I picked up the piece beside the washstand, and tossed it out
of the window. He grunted a protest, but said nothing. I had barely
finished when there came a knock at the door, and when I had opened it,
a man gave us a large can of hot water, a flat leather case containing
seven old-fashioned razors—one for each day in the week and I hoped we
shouldn’t have time to use them—a whisk broom, two tooth brushes, a cake
of perfumed toilet soap, and a note. The latter bore no signature. It
read, simply, “When you are ready to come down stairs, knock on the
door. The man will be waiting for you. We will discuss our affairs over
lunch.”

John, meanwhile, had been dressing. His hands handicapped him a little,
but not seriously. “You’re not to get them wet,” I said, and I washed
his face for him, and shaved him. It was a risky business with the open
razors, but I accomplished it with no great casualties, and then brushed
our clothes, and shined our shoes with a towel.

“Oh, for a whole lot of clean clothes, and a cold shower,” I said,
remembering with a sigh the little pleasant luxuries of life back home.
The common people in the Balkans look on bathing as at least unorthodox,
if not actually sinful, and very unhealthy, and the upper classes have
only progressed beyond the Saturday night stage if they have lived in
more civilised communities. In other words, the people of the Balkans
live as our grandparents did.

At last we were ready, but before we knocked on the door we whispered
“Good-bye” to the man above us. He had recovered his poise, and smiled
down quite pleasantly.

“Gentlemen,” he spoke very softly because of the man outside the door.
“Tell me, gentlemen, you are guests here? You are friends of the Count
Visichich?”

“Not in the least,” John answered, casually, “we are very probably
prisoners here, though no one has said so yet.”

“Ah,” the face above was suddenly wreathed in smiles. He looked almost a
decent sort of chap when he smiled, and vaguely familiar. Probably, I
considered, because he was so very much the night club type.

“If you find you are not prisoners,” he asked, “where will you go?”

“We had started for Herrovosca,” I answered. “If they let us we’ll go
there.”

He smiled again, this time almost supplicatingly. “And you are
Americans, yes?”

“Yes, we told you that.”

“I know, I know. Will you take a message for me in Herrovosca, if you
can get to it? But if you cannot go yourselves will you write it to
someone I will tell you?”

“Is it likely to get us into trouble?” I asked.

“Trouble?” he shook his head so protestingly, so innocently, that I knew
he was lying. “Trouble? Oh, no, gentlemen, not possible.” And then he
stopped and thought for a moment. “Wait, only, please,” he said, and was
gone for a few seconds. When he reappeared he reached down through the
hole, and gave me a folded piece of paper. His arm was covered with a
loose brown sleeve of rough material, but the hand was smooth and white
and the nails were polished. The hand and the sleeve did not match at
all. I took the paper and turned it over. There was nothing on the
outside.

“Open it,” he directed, still smiling ingratiatingly, “it is
instructions that will admit you to the presence of the Queen Yolanda.
My message is to her.”

“Is this the message?” I asked. It looked too short.

“No,” he said. “The message is for you to tell her. I do not wish to
write it on paper. Perhaps someone would find it, then it might make you
trouble. You will tell the Queen—h’m—there is no need, perhaps, to tell
her anything, except that I am here, and I wrote that paper. Only when
you see her, tell her how I look. See, carefully, and that will be
enough. Yes, gentlemen. You will do that?”

“Yes,” I said. “If we are able to get to the Queen we will certainly
tell her about you, but don’t you want to tell us your name?”

“No,” he said, “no. I think I will not tell my name. Only tell her how I
look, and if you cannot see her, write to her. It will be enough. À
dieu, gentlemen, I will _nevaire_ forget you have help me. I will always
be most grateful to you.”

His face disappeared again. John and I exchanged glances. He smiled a
little, shrugged his shoulders, and I took off my shoe and put the third
piece of paper in the heel. It began to feel stuffed, and the lace
spread a little wider than that on the other foot.

Then we knocked on the door, and heard the key grate in the lock, and
our prison was opened. I closed the door behind us, and noticed that
there was no guard on the stairs below except the man who preceded us.
Above, I heard the scrape of a boot, and knew that there was a guard
outside the door of the man with the polished finger nails. He had a
chance, then, to get out, by dropping down to our bed, which would dull
the sound of his fall, and the door of our room was not locked now.

We were bowed through the door of a large dining room, and John said
“Oh” appreciatively, as he saw it. Like the whole house, the walls and
woodwork were white, with heavy wrought iron hardware of intricate
patterns showing smartly black against it. The furniture was polished or
painted with scenes and portraits, or covered with colored leather or
vivid brocades. It was fresh and bright, and I liked it. John spoke in
praise of it. “My God,” he said, “it would be priceless in New York. The
decorators would go mad with excitement.” He leaned down to examine a
series of tiny brilliant medallions painted on the top of a chest. “But
what a crime it would be to move it,” he said. “Here it is perfect, with
the mountains outside as a complement.”

“It’ll make a pleasant memory,” I said. “I’m getting pretty fond of
home, suddenly. It was nice and comfortable there.”

“Yes,” John said. “Yes, I suppose so.” But he didn’t sound as though he
meant it entirely. He was absorbed in studying the lovely old furniture.

Our two captors came in, then. They looked refreshed and ready for the
day. I knew that we did not. In spite of our brushing and shaving we
were still bedraggled and rumpled and unpresentable. The last two days
and nights had been almost as hard on our appearance as on our feelings,
but we must have been a great improvement on the two unshaven tramps
they had found on the road the night before. The elder introduced
himself. “I am Colonel Count Visichich,” he said. “This is my son,
Lieutenant Count Ivan Visichich, in charge of the customs house at the
foot of the Pass. I have also a daughter who will be ’ere in a moment.
When she arrives we will eat lunch. Meanwhile it would be well to sit
down. You gentlemen are probably not yet fully rested. I am afraid you
’ad a difficult time last night.”

We sat on a long carved bench with a crimson damask cushion. It was
under a window and faced the door. John was absorbed in two very old
portraits that hung across the room. He was so much absorbed in them,
indeed, that he did not notice the Countess Visichich when she entered
the room.

“Katerina,” said the Colonel, “I wish to present the two gentlemen of
whom I spoke to you. Gentlemen, this is my daughter, Countess Katerina
Visichich.”

We both hesitated, to see whether she would show any sign of having seen
us before. She did not, but bowed formally. She was keeping the letter
of her word to us. I was not surprised. I had already decided that she
probably would do that. She had the courteous manners of a Frenchwoman,
together with a barbaric sense of honor, and a fearlessness that was the
result of her half civilised surroundings and not-too-distant nomad
ancestors. She smiled at us candidly. “My father and brother tell me you
came ’ere late last night,” she said. “Just before I returned myself, in
fact. Yesterday was very busy for many of us, it would seem. I am so
glad you—’appened to find your way here. It was better as sleeping on
the road, no?” Her eyes teased us, she might be our jailor but she was a
pleasant and a friendly one. “You ’ave ’urt your ’ands,” she went on
concernedly, to John. “Please, may I be of service? I have studied in
the ’ospitals—almost I am a nurse. Come with me—yes?—and I will fix
them.”

She led John out of the room, talking as they went, while the two
Visichich men entertained me assiduously for a quarter of an hour until
she chose to bring John back again, his hands swathed in great white
mounds of gauze. They were no doubt very professional, but they looked
ridiculous, and I saw that he meant to get them off again as soon as
possible. “I have been very cruel to ’im,” she announced, “but my
cruelty was of a moment only, and he is already almost well again of
it.” They smiled at each other, and we sat down to lunch. We were
treated like guests of the house. I hoped that was an omen of release,
but somehow I doubted it. I could not see why they should let us go, and
I was right. After we had finished the meal, they led us to the garden.
As we stepped out into the sunlight the old Count said, gently, “You
gentlemen will find time a little ’eavy on your ’ands, I fear. So long
as you do not go beyond the archway you are quite free to wander as you
will through the garden as long as we remain at ’ome. I regret that we
must leave late this afternoon, and must then request you to return to
the tower for a time. I am sure you understand me without further
explanation.” He offered us cigarettes, and as we took them he said, “I
’ave warned you, gentlemen. This is an uncivilised country.” It might be
uncivilised, but the manners of its people were perfect. I began to wish
that a few of my former bosses could have said threatening things—or
unthreatening ones, for that matter—half so pleasantly. He seemed to be
laughing at some kindly joke, as he waved his hand at us, and turned
away into the house followed by his son. The Countess Katerina stepped
down to a low, tiled terrace. “Come look at my roses for a moment,” she
called, “then I shall be obliged to leave you, too. I am a very busy
woman—so much ’ousekeeping!” She laughed a little. That might easily be
a joke, though I could imagine the Countess Katerina an excellent
housekeeper. European ladies, especially southern European ladies, waste
very little of their time going to parties as American ones do. They
learn, instead, every step in the primitive keeping of their
homes—spinning, weaving, lace-making and all the rest of the thousand
arts that with us are represented by the corner delicatessen and the
department store. Not that I suspected the Countess Katerina of leaving
us to make lace. For that day at least I was sure her cares were not of
the house.

We looked at the roses. Beautiful roses, in a sunken garden, to protect
them from the cold winds of the mountains. Countess Katerina broke off a
lovely peach-colored bud and put it in John’s buttonhole; she took less
time when she did it for me.

“Do you grow roses in America?” she asked.

I laughed. “Yes,” I confessed, “in fact, at the last formal dinner I
went to before I came away the conversation was so horticultural you
might easily have supposed it a gardener’s convention.”

She looked a little puzzled at that until John explained the nature of a
convention. “In Alaria,” she said, “there are not many rose gardens.
This is the finest in the country. I ’ad an English aunt, the wife of my
uncle. She made this garden, with brick walls around it, like England.
We do not use many bricks ’ere. There is so much stone. But she would
’ave it, and I like it. Every year there is a man in London who sends us
new flowers. They are so nice.” She pulled a small red one, “See—’ow
sweet it smells?” She poked it at John’s nose, then at mine. From the
house there was a shout, then a bell began to ring, like an
old-fashioned fire-bell. There was more shouting in a different tone.
Countess Katerina turned and ran back without a word.

“Our friend from the room upstairs has been missed,” I said.

“She’s a swell girl,” John said by way of answer.

“Don’t be a fool,” I protested, “everybody is busy hunting that chap who
dropped the plaster on us. If we look around we may find a way out while
they are looking for him.”

“It seems a mean advantage to take of her,” John began, but he blushed
as he caught my look, and said, “Oh, all right. Yes, of course, I
suppose we must. Come along, then, quietly, and let’s see what we can
find.”

We walked up the five steps from the rose garden, and tried to be as
casually inconspicuous as possible. A car snorted and pop-popped to our
right, and then the motor started and it drove away, cut-out open,
roaring like a plane. A second followed in a moment. Two men shouted.
Another appeared above us on the roof of the old tower, his head just
showing above the battlements. Some electrical instrument up there began
making a fizzy noise like a radio, but as there were no aerials visible
I decided it must be a daytime version of the heliograph. A radio would
be too public for these people, and a telephone too easily put out of
order.

The manor was really a collection of buildings strung together after the
fashion of northern New England farm houses, but these were less
geometric. They had been built to conform to the shape of the hill
rather than with any studied plan. The wall which circled the whole was
high enough to keep off marauders, but not high enough for any defense
against determined attack. The house itself was a maze of walls and
gateways constituting, so far as we were concerned, an inner series of
barriers against escape. Thus the garage, to the right of the place we
stood when the two cars went out, was only a few feet from us, but in
order to reach it we turned in the opposite direction, through an
opening in a low stable, passed an enclosed yard full of chickens and
ducks, with a pond in the center, and a movable pen containing two sheep
busily engaged in cropping the lawn, through another gateway with a
crude wooden gate, into another yard with a cow, past the cow, and
there, on our left, was the garage, and in it, at the back, stood a
third car. I walked forward a few steps to a spot where I could see the
outer gate. A sentry was walking back and forth on the inside, but the
gate itself was open. I nodded to John, who immediately climbed in.
Behind us, in the garden, the Countess called, anxiously. “Quick,” John
whispered, “they’ve missed us.” I jumped in behind the wheel. The key
was in the lock. I slipped into high, and let out the clutch very slowly
as I stepped on the gas with the other foot. The car moved, and began to
creep forward almost noiselessly. Before the sentry saw us we had
reached him. He jumped aside just in time to save himself, and we were
through the forbidden gate. The road sloped suddenly downward, then to
the right in a sharp curve. Just as we rounded it two shots rang out
behind us.

“All right,” I said. “Nothing hit.”

“Nothing but me,” said John.

“Where?” I demanded, alarmed, and swung the car in an abrupt and rutty
curve. He groaned. “Right arm. I don’t think I’m going to do anything
strange, faint or anything like that, but you can’t tell. If I do, don’t
pay any attention, for God’s sake, but keep on going. Good driving, old
man. We’d never have made it if you had stopped to shift gears.”

“Luck,” I said. As it was, with a strange car. “It might have stalled
just as well as not. Hold on to the seat, we’ll have to make as good
time as we can for a while in spite of your arm. If they catch up with
us they’ll shoot us up some more.”

For the next three miles, perhaps, we drove down the rough and muddy
road, then John slowly slumped down in his seat, so that I had to slow
the car while I held him so that he would not fall on the gear lever. I
felt guilty that I was always urging that we escape, and John was always
getting hurt doing it.



                              _CHAPTER VI_


It seemed years before I reached the high road. Before then I had slowed
down with the realisation that since we had the last car in the garage,
danger must lie ahead of us, and not behind. We had two passes to the
Queen in Herrovosca, so our lack of passports would probably be
overlooked except by the Black Ghost’s adherents, who would shut us up
again in any case if they caught us. John had only fainted, but I had no
idea how badly he might be hurt. My first concern was to get him to a
doctor, though that was a dangerous business, with everyone but the
legal authorities against us, in a country where the legal authorities
had almost become fugitives.

The high road where we turned into it was deserted, except for an old
donkey cart with a small girl driving. She looked too stupid to be a
menace even if she had wished. About three miles farther on we came to a
small village. There was nowhere to go but through it, so I drove
boldly, if not straight, up the main street. It was not very much like
our main streets in America. Here were small thatched-roof houses, many
only one story high. The vehicles in the street were propelled by ox,
horse, mule and donkey power, most of them had solid squeaking wooden
wheels. I felt John move. He sat up.

“How’s your arm?” I asked.

“Feels better, thanks. Aches like the devil, still, but this isn’t so
bad. It was the jolting over those ruts that did me up. I’ll last all
right now till we get to a doctor in Herrovosca. You go right on
driving.”

We left the little village behind us and came suddenly upon a branch
road leading to the left. I turned down it unhesitatingly. Anything
would be better than to stay on the main road where they were looking
for us.

“That’s right,” John agreed. “Safer. I may be the family invalid, but
we’ve got to get to Herrovosca.”

The road was dirt, but smooth enough to make fairly good time, although
there was more traffic than I had expected. Then we came into another
town, this one much larger than the last. The houses were higher, and
closer together. There was still more traffic, and in a moment as we
neared the center of the village, the streets became full of standing
vehicles. There was, however, almost no person in sight. Those that were
still moving were going in the same direction we were. Even children
were conspicuously absent. It was with greater and greater difficulty
that I found space for the car to move. At last, in sight of the large
square that seems to form the center of all Alarian towns, as it does of
all New England towns, we came, perforce, to a stop. Four slow-moving
vehicles closed in behind us, with still more coming, effectually
blocking that way out. Ahead of us a vast crowd mulled, shouting,
gesticulating. We were stopped again. I began to feel that Herrovosca
was the ultimate and dearly attainable goal of those who had served a
proper term in purgatory.

From somewhere in the distance, standing, apparently, on the fountain in
the center of the square, a man was addressing the crowd. A man, as I
could see, with a long white beard, and long white hair that reached to
his shoulders. He held a staff in his hand, with a crucifix on the top.
More vehicles came up behind us, their occupants jumping out, and
rushing on to the square. Here, undoubtedly, was news, if we could get
someone to interpret it for us, but the first need was for a doctor,
since we had to halt, anyway.

John could walk alone, but I helped him out to make sure. We skirted our
way around the standing vehicles, and found a crooked alley, empty of
people, and at its end, near the square, there was a doctor’s sign. I
rang the old-fashioned bell. There was no answer. I rang again, and
still again. At last I heard slow feet shuffling a little, and the door
was opened grudgingly by an old, deaf woman, who waited for us to speak,
scowling, with her hand to her ear. I took refuge in signs, pointing to
John’s arm, and repeating the one word, “doctor,” the same in so many
languages that I hoped she might understand it. She beckoned us to
follow her, and shambled along the passage, grunting as she walked.
Presently we heard shouts and the revivalistic sound of the
white-beard’s voice, and then we were ushered into a room overlooking
the square. There the old woman left us, shutting the door carefully
behind her.

While we waited I looked out of the window. We were not half a city
block from the fountain and the man on it. It was a remarkable thing to
watch, though we did not know what it was all about. He seemed to be
having difficulties with his audience. He was answering questions from
all sides at once, and dramatically waving his arms. From our vantage
point we could see his face plainly when he turned in our direction. He
was younger than his white hair suggested, and rather fine looking in a
patriarchal fashion reminiscent of moving picture Bible scenes. His eyes
were large and dark, his nose aquiline. Words were audible to us, but we
could not understand them. At last a man came into the room, and I
turned as I heard him close the door behind me. He seemed excited. I
spoke to him in German, and hoped that he believed me when I told him
that we had been shot at on the highway, probably by robbers, and my
friend must have his wound dressed.

“What is the matter with your hands?” he asked John.

“I blistered them fixing our car,” John replied innocently, “and a very
charming young lady insisted upon bandaging them up in this absurd way.”
He reached for a pair of surgical scissors the doctor had laid out, to
take the bandages off, but I stopped him. “You are better off that way,”
I said, “let them be, for a while. You don’t want to do anything with
your hands, anyway, so what is the difference?”

The doctor gave us a suspicious look, but got to work, though he divided
his attention somewhat between John and the scene out of the window.
Twice, a woman dashed into the room and shouted something at him, at
which he grew still more excited.

“I wish you would tell us what this is all about,” I said, “who is the
man on the fountain?”

“A mad monk,” he said, “who says he is sent by God to lead the people of
Alaria to a holier form of government. He is an old hermit who is said
to have worked miracles. He is quite mad but some of the people believe
him and there will be trouble here unless something is done.”

“Why not arrest him?” I asked.

The doctor shook his head. “We would not dare,” he said. “In Alaria the
supernatural is always a higher power than any other. But we have one
sure savior.”

“Who?” John asked, though I saw he knew the answer.

“Fakat Zol, the Black Ghost,” the doctor said, simply. “If you do not
keep quiet I cannot help hurting you. Our _hetman_ has sent a message to
him. He will come soon, I hope.”

“Do Alarian ghosts always come when they are sent for?” I asked.

“This is a live ghost,” the doctor answered, winding yards of bandage
around John’s arm. “It is fortunate, too, for with a strange impostor in
Herrovosca, to be crowned as Queen, and a prophet here, raising a mob,
we need something more than police to keep order.”

“But surely,” I said, “if this Princess can establish her identity that
will be the end of the trouble?”

“That has been the beginning of the trouble,” the doctor said, coldly.
“No pretender can ever establish his identity to everyone’s
satisfaction, nor can one ever be proved a fraud to everyone’s
conviction. There will always be some who believe or disbelieve and make
trouble. But something will happen. The Black Ghost, or Prince Conrad,
who is the rightful king, will find a way to arrange matters.”

“Then,” I asked, “there are two rulers in Alaria now?”

“No,” he answered, “there is only one ruler in Alaria.”

“Conrad?” John asked.

“No, the Black Ghost,” the doctor answered, and laughed.

“And who is the Black Ghost?” I asked, “does anyone know? Is he just a
bandit chief, or an Alarian in good standing who plays this part as a
side issue?”

The doctor frowned. “There must be some who know,” he said, “but they do
not tell. The great mass of the people believe he is really the old
crusader, Fakat Zol. Even many of his followers believe that. If it were
not so he would have no power. As it is, if that statue of the Holy
Virgin should step down from the front of the church and the Black Ghost
said it was a trick of the devil, the people would believe the Black
Ghost.” He tied the end of the bandage, and began putting away his
instruments.

“Thank you,” John said, “and now we must go back to our car. Alarian
politics are not for us, even though a prophet and the ghost of a
crusader are about to do battle before our eyes. I’d like to see it so I
could tell about it when we’re home again where things like that don’t
happen. Still, we started for Herrovosca, and as soon as this meeting
breaks up enough to let us through the streets, we must go on. Also, our
car will be robbed if we leave it alone.”

“Two Americans going to Herrovosca in a car,” the doctor said
ruminatively.

“Yes,” John answered, “thanks for doing my arm—if you’ll let us settle
our bill now—”

The noise in the square was increasing momentarily. The prophet’s voice
was no longer audible above the shouts of the townsfolk. Suddenly a
stone crashed through a window not far away. We could hear the breaking
glass, and then the storm broke. The doctor turned to us, “You had
better wait here,” he said, “it won’t be safe for you to go out, even by
the back way. Besides, you gentlemen have not yet explained to me this
gunshot wound. The only bandits of the mountains are Fakat Zol’s men.
They do not fire on harmless travellers. In order that you may remain
here quite safely I will lock the door as I go out.” He smiled, not
pleasantly, and went out quite suddenly. The key turned in the lock on
the other side of the door. I started to intercept him, but since I had
been standing by the window and he had been beside the door while he
spoke, I was too late. We were prisoners again.

“If,” said John, “we ever get back to a slightly less hospitable country
I shall feel lonely and neglected. This sound of keys that turn in locks
has grown to be a familiar lullaby.”

“Let’s see what they do to the prophet,” I said, and went back to the
window. The sound of keys turning in locks had become so familiar to me
that I scarcely paid any attention to it. John, exhausted by his wound
and its dressing, stayed on the sofa.

“Funny,” he groaned, “that of all the doctors in Alaria we should have
happened to come to this man, who is obviously such a staunch adherent
of Conrad’s.”

“Not funny a bit,” I said, “it would have been a bit of amazing luck if
we had happened to find one who wasn’t. Those two women are not exactly
popular heroines.”

Outside was the greatest confusion. The prophet was no longer on the
fountain. In his place half a dozen men were standing, all speaking at
once, but no one paying much attention to them. Every once in a while a
stone crashed through a window, or someone screamed. Then, from
somewhere to the left, came the sound of a trumpet. “The gendarmes!” I
cried. “Listen, John.”

The crowd parted slowly, and into the square rode a small troop of
cavalry. We were in a second story window, and I could see
uninterruptedly from the moment they entered the square. At their head
rode the Black Ghost, on a black horse, his crusader’s cross showing
white against his breast. All his men were in black, and rode black
horses, and every man in the troop wore a short black mask across the
upper part of his face. Only the Black Ghost was entirely covered, even
to the hands.

“Enter the villain of the piece,” I said. “It’s our old friend, Fakat
Zol.”

“I guess that lets us out of our week-end in Herrovosca,” John said, “I
wonder where he’ll send us now, and what he has done with the Countess
Waldek? She thought we’d have her message delivered by now. I wonder who
the devil he is, anyway?”

“Devil is right,” I said, “and that door is far too thick to smash
without being heard, even supposing there’s no one guarding the other
side of it. Too bad. This is our only chance for a getaway. This time
they’ll shut us up so we can’t get out.”

“There’s the window,” said John.

“With your wounded arm? You’d never be able to get through that crowd.
They’d jostle you and you’d faint again.”

There was a narrow iron balcony outside the window and it was not so
very high above the street. We could have dropped without any special
risk, perhaps, if there had not been such a crowd below, and if, on a
similar balcony belonging to the next room, the doctor and various
members of his household had not been standing. They were shouting and
cheering, “Fakat Zol! Fakat Zol! Fakat Zol!”

The black troop rode straight through the square to the fountain. There
they paused, and Fakat Zol, scorning the eminence of the masonry beside
him, raised one arm straight above his head in the fashion made famous
by the Fascisti. It is a dramatic gesture, and he was a dramatic
personification of direct action and force to people to whom pageantry
is the outward and visible sign of authority. And he was more than that.
He was a holy creature, a saint, supernatural, a subject for worship and
the hero of an infinite number of legends. Friends and enemies alike
were his publicity agents.

“I’d like to know,” I said, “that Helena’s safe, though I’m damned if I
think she deserves to be. So far as I can see she’s an out-and-out
political meddler.”

“She probably has the best of intentions,” John answered, “and I don’t
like to think of her in trouble, but I quite agree. Still, I think we
must try to deliver her message to the Queen, though I’m inclined to
wish no one had ever interfered with Conrad. That girl Maria Lalena, or
whoever she is, is too young to know what she’s about.”

I agreed, decidedly.

“Pretty girl, too,” said John, thoughtfully. “We mustn’t be too hard on
them, though it’s the craziest scheme I ever heard of even if she really
is the Princess.”

“Yes,” I said, “I’d like to know who thought of the whole silly plot in
the first place, and who persuaded my poor cousin to go into it. Being
Queen of a poverty-stricken, unsettled Balkan country isn’t my idea of a
proper destiny for a young girl who ought to be going to dances and
having a lot of trips to Paris, and all that sort of thing.”

“Queen Yolanda thought of it,” John said, “it fairly reeks of her.”

“Thought of what?” I asked. “Killing her son, or only of importing this
girl to take his place?”

“Oh,” John said. “Suppose Fakat to be responsible for killing Bela, what
more natural than that a lady who had been practically the ruler of the
country for a number of years should object to relinquishing her place
to an old hermit brother-in-law, and want to keep her position as mother
of a weak, or at least inexperienced ruler? No doubt it had got to be a
habit.”

“Don’t be too sure,” I interposed, “it may quite well be that the girl
really is the Princess. If the old lady had wanted her only daughter
brought up away from the court, what could be more natural than that she
should give her to her only disinterested friend, a woman whom she could
trust, and who lived nearby, and yet outside the country?”

“Yes,” John admitted, “not that it is going to make much difference, as
I see it. Her fate isn’t going to be determined by her identity, but by
Conrad and the Black Ghost. My guess is that they mean to assassinate
her as quietly as possible, blame it on someone else, and take the
throne.”

I agreed, but said that it wasn’t any of our affair, anyway, but that we
must get Helena’s message to the Queen.

“All I wish,” John said, “is that I were sure that that nice Countess
Visichich were not mixed up in the assassination part. That I should
hate.”

“Our business at present,” I said, “is to get out of this place before
we are returned with thanks to the more careful custody of our
black-masked friend. We may be able to save the girl’s life, and save
Countess Visichich from even a reflected guilt in her death.”

“Bravo,” said John, “and a splendid chance of escape we’d have hopping
on the heads of that mob out there. You might try picking the lock of
that door, though.”

“Ever try it?”

“No.”

“Besides, we haven’t anything to pick it with. Have to have something in
the way of tools.”

“Oh, for a woman with hairpins.”

“Those days are passed. They all have cropped hair except your favorite
Countess Visichich.”

“She’d do nicely. Still, if we were to raise some sort of disturbance—”

“Have to be a good deal of disturbance before it would be heard over
this excitement.”

“Couldn’t we set the house on fire?”

“That’s arson. After all, we’re not criminals, and there’s strong
practical objection in that we’d probably be burned up in it before they
noticed.”

“Yes, but if we made a smudge, and they thought it was on fire—”

“I’m afraid there’d still be more chance of smothering ourselves than of
attracting their attention.”

He gave up the idea, then, and we both sat down gloomily to wait. The
crowd outside calmed down, and little by little it thinned, as the
excitement faded. The Black Ghost went into the house next door, and his
troop sat their horses under our window. The mob was still disturbed,
and from time to time a new center of argument would bubble up, and die
out again after a few shouts. The presence of the black masked horsemen
was wonderfully soothing.

At last the key turned again in the lock and the doctor reappeared.
“This way, gentlemen, if you please,” he said. John rose a little
unsteadily, and we followed the doctor down a corridor, and through two
rooms and a heavy door in a thick wall, into a dining room. Behind a
long table, in a high-backed, red-cushioned chair, sat Fakat Zol in
state. Around him were grouped three of his followers in their
outlandish uniform, and several men of the town, looking very important
with reflected mystery.

The Black Ghost spoke in a somewhat husky voice. “We meet again, a
little sooner than I expected.”

He had taken off the gloves that covered his hands when I saw him from
the window. He waved John to a chair with a hand that should have worn a
ruby ring. Automatically I looked for it. It was not there.

John answered him, smiling, and seeming to have lost his weakness.
“Perhaps a little sooner than any of us wished,” he suggested.

“I am sorry you ’ave suffered a wound,” the Black Ghost went on, “and
yet I am very glad that it brought you ’ere. I am sure Doctor Carlo ’as
given you the best of medical care, and I ’ope you are not in pain.”

He seemed very much concerned, yet I would not allow myself to be
deceived. He was a bandit. We were to be disposed of by him, and though
he was as pleasant as ever, I felt that something was wrong. It was not
that he seemed displeased with us, quite the contrary. But he seemed
changed. John noticed it, too. He was staring at him thoughtfully. The
accent was the same, but the voice, for all its huskiness, was more
debonair. I argued that a sudden success had wrought the change. That
was bad for us, in one way, yet it might be that we could count on him
now to be more magnanimous to two American citizens. Still, who would
ever know anything about it if he were not?

“You ’ave escaped twice from my—er—our—’ospitality. They say the number
three is symbolic of good luck.”

“A singular recurrence of good luck, certainly,” said John.

“Exactly. The Black Ghost brings good luck to ’is friends. Though you
’ave opposed yourselves to me, I feel that you would like to be my
friends. Is that not so?”

“That might be true if we knew you better,” John said.

The Black Ghost laughed. “That is what I mean,” he said. “I believe you
gentlemen wish to go to Herrovosca to see Queen Yolanda. At least that
is the way I interpreted the news of the ’ole between your room and that
occupied by a certain lady. Now, it may be a surprise to you if I
withdraw my objection to your going there. As prisoners, gentlemen, you
are very troublesome. I think I would rather ’ave you for friends. If
you will give me your word of honor to say nothing of what you ’ave
learned of the politics of the Visichich family, or of the location of
the castle in the mountains, you may go to Herrovosca. Except, I ask you
to do me a favor.”

“And what sort of favor can we do you?” I asked, feeling that it would
probably prove a joker.

“I ’ave a passenger for you as far as Herrovosca.”

“A passenger?” I repeated, stupidly.

“Yes. Only one.”

“May we ask the identity of this passenger?”

“It is the self-styled prophet who was preaching from the fountain. ’e
is a mad monk, a ’ermit, who takes every opportunity to preach sedition
to people who believe ’im a saint. ’e is suppose to ’ave effected a few
miraculous cures. ’e is a great fakir, but ’armless except at a time
like this, when any slight disturbance may create a civil war. I do not
wish to arrest ’im ’ere for fear the people may take ’is part. ’e ’as
refused to go with my men to Herrovosca, though ’e wishes to go there,
but ’e ’as agreed to go with two American tourists. If you will not take
’im I will arrest ’im, but this way may prevent bloodshed.”

“That sounds most reasonable,” said John.

“It is best that you should not speak to ’im, nor to answer ’im if ’e
speaks to you. ’e ’as also promised not to speak, though I am not so
sure ’e will keep ’is word. You will drive by the straight road, going
through the city as far as the church of St. Nicholas. There you will
turn to the left. Do not mistake that. At the Central Bridge you will be
met by police who will remove the Prophet from the car, and you will be
free to do, from that time forward, whatever it may please you, even so
far as a visit to our Dowager Queen.”

“Well,” said John, “of all the topsy-turvy countries I’ve ever been
in—though, of course, that is no affair of ours.”

“None,” said the Black Ghost, “unless, of course, you would wish to make
it so.”

“And the alternative?” I asked.

“The alternative—will be to return to the frontier under
guard—immediately.”

“We’re not interested in the alternative,” John said. “Are we, Carvin?”

Of course I had to protest that we were not. I wasn’t, really, either,
though I was beginning to wish we’d stop somewhere a little while.

“The Doctor Carlo’s most charming wife ’as prepared some food for you to
eat upon the journey,” the Black Ghost went on. “That is so you need not
stop on the way. There is no ’urry to ’ave you arrive there, but I do
not wish you to stop with your passenger, ’e might jump out.”

“We haven’t enough petrol,” I said.

The Black Ghost turned to one of his men, and gave an order in Alarian.
“Your tank will be filled immediately,” he said. “Anything else you
wish?”

“We should like our passports back,” I suggested.

“Ah, your passports. Oh, yes, to be sure. I shall ’ave to send for them,
but I promise you shall ’ave them back again.” He turned to the doctor
and spoke again in Alarian. The doctor fumbled in his pocket and drew
out a card with an official-looking stamp on it. The Black Ghost
motioned him to give it to me.

“That,” he explained, “is a pass that will take you through any police
lines. With it you will be able to reach the servants in the Royal
Palace. No doubt you ’ave been provided with some means of gaining an
interview with the Queen after that. Can you think of anything else you
will require?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“Naturally,” he continued, “you will do your passenger no ’arm of any
sort on the way. I think he will not try to make any trouble for you.
You give me your word of honor, gentlemen?”

“My word of honor,” I answered.

“Mine, also,” said John.

“Then you will start immediately. Oh, one thing more. Your passenger may
understand any language that you do. Kindly say nothing to each other
during the trip. There will be no necessity for speech.” He waved his
hand, and four of his black-masked followers went with us, out of the
house, by the same back way we had entered. The alley was crowded now,
but not too much so for passage back to the car, where another Black
Mask was already filling the gas tank from two large tin cans. We would
have got in the front seat, but our guards stopped us, and we stood
waiting until two more Black Masks joined us, leading the Prophet
between them. They put him in front next to me, standing close to him to
prevent his jumping out. He was followed by a large crowd who eyed us
all curiously.

Meanwhile John got into the tonneau, and I heard him say “damn!” in a
surprised tone. “All right?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered, “quite. Get
in.” I mounted beside the prophet. “Straight ahead on this road,”
directed one of the masked men, “make no turning until you come back to
the main road, then turn to your left. About a hundred kilometers
farther.”

I started the car with a groan of relief. We were again on our
much-interrupted way to Herrovosca. The road was too full of people to
make quick time at first, but as soon as we were out of the congested
area I stepped on the gas. At last there seemed to be nothing between us
and our goal, though I could not help wondering what had happened to
make the Black Ghost change his mind about letting us go. However, just
driving again without feeling hunted was such fun that I relaxed
presently, for the first time in days, and stepped on the accelerator,
hard.

We came to the wide, metalled main road, and made splendid time. Farther
on we topped a hill, and saw below us again the broad, fertile valley
beyond which was Herrovosca. In the distance I could just see, a little
mistily, the towers and roofs of the city. My watch had stopped the
night before, but by the position of the sun I judged it to be about the
same time of day we had passed this way three days before, fatuously
running away from possible trouble. We made splendid time. I wanted to
comment on it to John, but remembered in time not to speak. I glanced
back at him. He was smoking quietly, and winked at me. He was having a
fine Roman holiday.

In half an hour or so more we would be in the city again, and rid of our
passenger and our responsibilities. The prophet sat straight and silent
all the way, holding fast to his cross-handled staff, his eyes fixed on
the city with a fanatic intensity. It was quite evident he was not
expecting arrest there. It was a little cruel of us to deceive him, I
felt.

We passed the little inn where we had bought bread and mutton and wine
on our way to Helena’s. Gradually the small houses grew more frequent,
they assumed the style of villas, their gardens became more ornamental,
the traffic was heavier, and then we were suddenly in the city again,
where we had so often despaired of being. The shadows were lengthening.
I did not remember the way very well, but he had said straight to the
church of St. Nicholas, then right—or left?—to the river. I could not
remember which it was, so I tried to think of all the things the Black
Ghost had said, but still I could not determine whether it was right or
left. Then I came to the church of St. Nicholas, and slowed down while I
motioned to John. He pointed to the right. I turned that way. I did not
know the bridges by name, but I knew that Central Bridge must be a large
one, so I drove on until we came to a large bridge. I drove beyond it,
and then turned widely so as not to stop the car, and drove back,
looking for gendarmes. There were none. I decided that that was the
wrong bridge, and drove on farther the same way, until I came to
another. There were no gendarmes there, either, so I went on still
farther. And at the next there were also no gendarmes, so I continued,
but came suddenly to the high city wall, with a great gate through it.
There were no more bridges, so I turned around to go back. But there was
not so much space to turn there, and I had to stop and back and stop and
back again. The second time I stopped, the prophet suddenly opened the
door at his side, and jumped out. He stood for a moment beside the car,
holding up three fingers of his right hand in blessing. We had been told
not to harm him or to speak to him, so I left him there, not knowing
what else to do with him. As soon as we saw some gendarmes we could tell
them where we had left him. John said “what the hell!”

I said, “what could I do?”

“Nothing,” he answered. “It was their fault not to meet us. You either
drove faster than they expected or didn’t go to the right bridge. We
ought to have grabbed him, but there is a reason back here why I
couldn’t.”

“Oh, it’s their own fault,” I said. “Are you all in?”

“No,” he said. “Keep on moving and I’ll tell you. We have a second
passenger. He’s hidden under the robe back here. I stepped on him as I
got into the car in that town. I almost gave the show away saying
‘damn.’ It’s the chap who dropped the plaster on us. He was in the car
before we left Visichich manor, and he seems to want to stay hidden.”

“So while they were looking for him outside the manor,” I said, “he was
in the car?”

“They were not looking for me,” answered a muffled voice. “There was
another riot. There will be many. I heard them talking about it when
they took the other cars. I was afraid they would take this one, too,
but they did not. They had not missed me. But now I must quickly be
taken to the Palace. No one must see me.”

“Why should we take you to the Palace?” John asked. “For all we know you
may be an assassin. We don’t even know any name to call you by, right or
wrong.”

“I cannot tell you my name,” the man said, “but I did give you a pass to
the Queen, did I not? If you will try to use that you will see that it
will be honored.”

“You may have stolen it.”

“I will write you another, and you may see me write it. It also will be
honored.”

“The Queen knows you, then?”

“Yes, yes, she knows me. But I am in great danger here if anyone should
see me. I have enemies. Enemies to the King. Enemies to the Queen.”

“John,” I said, “if he’ll write another pass, and you see him do it, and
they think it is all right at the Palace, I guess we’d better take him
up there. But we won’t vouch for him.”

There was a half-choked expletive from under the blanket, which stopped
abruptly, and then changed to saccharine sweetness. “Any way you like,
gentlemen,” the voice said. “Stop the car while I write, but be sure
there is no one to see me. I cannot write while the car moves.”

We went through the little ceremony without mishap. John compared the
signatures on the two passes. “Whatever this is meant for,” he said, “it
is quite illegible, but the two look exactly alike.”

“All right,” I agreed, “we’ll go, but I shall tell the guards that we do
not know the man, and are not responsible for him, and that I shall feel
safer if he is carefully watched.”

“I don’t care what you tell the guards,” came from under the robe. “Only
I wish to be taken to the Royal Palace, and queeck. Perhaps you know
what has been happening since I was in prison?”

I heard John say, “why, yes, a little, I guess. Though we don’t really
know much of what has been going on the last two days. We’ve been about
as much out of touch as you have. Of course you knew the King is dead?”

“Oh. The King is dead! No, I did not know that.”

“Yes, assassinated.”

“Ah. The poor King! And is Conrad already in power in the Palace, then?”

“No. The Queen sprung a surprise on everybody. She produced a princess
everyone thought was dead. Maria Lalena is Queen of Alaria now.”

“Maria Lalena!” the voice whispered, and I could not tell whether the
man was laughing or sobbing, but his voice was shaking. “You are sure
the Queen did that, not Conrad?”

“Look here,” I said. “This doesn’t sound right to me. Who the devil are
you, anyway?”

“That I must not tell you.”

“I am afraid to take you to the Palace unless you do.”

“I am a monk,” he said, “attached to the service of the Royal Family. I
was King Bela’s confidant, and, in many things, the Queen’s also, but of
this Princess Maria Lalena I knew nothing. Gentlemen, I beg of you, take
me to the Royal Palace.”

And, still doubting the safety and wisdom of the course, I did.

A sentry stood motionless on either side of the gate. John leaned
forward, and showed the pass the monk had written. “Do you know that
signature?” He asked in German. The man saluted smartly. “Yes, sir,” he
answered. “Certainly I know it, but we have orders to allow no one to
enter here without a special pass signed within twenty-four hours. I am
sorry.”

“Oh,” John said. “I did not notice that that had a date. Here, anyway,
is one signed within twenty-four hours, for I saw it signed myself.” He
offered the second of our passenger’s signed slips of paper.

For answer, the two sentries stared for an instant, and then thrust
their bayonets at us, and called out. Two more men appeared from behind
the gate.

“You are under arrest,” said the first man.



                             _CHAPTER VII_


Of course we were accustomed to being arrested, but this was a different
matter from the other times. This might be a criminal offense.
Foreigners, without passports, and with only a mad story about how they
had lost them, trying to obtain entrance to the Royal Palace with a
strange man hidden under a robe in the back of the car. And Helena, the
only person who could vouch for us, a prisoner of the Black Ghost.

“What for?” John asked truculently.

“Because you must repeat that story to a higher officer,” the man
answered. “If you saw that paper signed within twenty-four hours it is a
forgery. The city of Herrovosca is under martial law.”

“Wait,” I said, holding up my hand with all the authority I could
muster. I was frightened, and it seemed ridiculous to have come through
so many difficulties only to be arrested at the very end of our journey,
almost within speaking distance of the Queen. A few passersby added
themselves, gaping, to the group of soldiers.

“We really have a legitimate errand to the Queen,” I said. “We only
showed you those passes to see whether you thought them real. We
suspected them ourselves. Here.” I offered him the red card that the
Black Ghost had given us. He stared at it in surprise, and said,
indifferently, “Yes, of course. This will let you through any police
lines. If you drive your car on the wrong side of the street, and show
this, it will be forgiven, but it makes no mention of the Royal Palace,
and though I do not say so, there are many of these cards, and you may
have stolen this one. You must go before the Colonel tomorrow.”

Tomorrow! Even that was not so bad as the presence of that man in the
back of the car. While they were about to discover him at any moment,
and we were under arrest, we certainly did not want to proclaim his
presence. I cursed myself for a fool not to have told the soldiers about
him immediately. We had only agreed to take him to the Palace, and we
had done that. Now quite a crowd was collecting around us.

“Wait a moment,” I said. “I realise that you must take every precaution.
You are right to do that, of course.” I stooped, took off my shoe, and
since they looked suspiciously at me, I held it up in plain sight, while
I removed the paper Helena had given me. Then I laid the shoe on the
seat beside me.

For the first time the guard looked impressed. “Countess von Waldek,” he
said. “Ah, yes, Countess von Waldek we know, and have had orders for
three days to admit her immediately when she comes, but she does not
come. She has disappeared. You will have to show this as well to the
Colonel tomorrow.” He opened the front door, and another man opened the
back one.

“You are making a mistake,” I said. “Our business is urgent, we—”

John interrupted me. “I must tell you, then,” he began, “that—”

John was too impulsive. Besides, I saw that we must declare the presence
of the man in back or perhaps suffer serious consequences if they found
him first. I interrupted John.

“We have come,” I said, “from Visichich Manor. We were asked to bring to
Herrovosca a—”

But I got no farther than that, for there appeared suddenly on the other
side of the square a large open car, and in it sat the new Queen Maria
Lalena in a long veil of white mourning crepe and looking as sweet and
pretty as a Queen of the May. The car, like most Royal cars, was
travelling at a swift pace, and was preceded and followed by soldiers on
motor cycles, but it had to slow down as it neared the now large crowd
that had collected around us, blocking the gate. In the sudden movement
as it approached a voice shouted, “See! See! The impostor! She is
dressed like the Holy Virgin! Blasphemer!”

A figure lunged forward from the edge of the group. It was all so quick
and unexpected that I must have acted instinctively, as one does
sometimes in a moment of impending accident. Mechanically. I can
remember the act, but not any thought on my part that directed it. My
hand closed over the shoe that I had laid on the seat beside me, and I
flung it at the upraised arm of the man who had shouted. The only
conscious thought I had was a sudden realisation of his identity.

It was the prophet.

I had come all the way from home, through three imprisonments, for the
purpose of hitting a false prophet with an old shoe.

But I did hit him. The shoe struck him squarely in the face just as he
threw something round and black, and the something round and black
hurtled high above the white head of the Queen Maria Lalena, and fell
far beyond her on the deserted pavement of the square, where it burst
with such a roar as I had not heard since I left the trenches in 1918.

Everybody began shouting at once. The crowd pushed and surged until I
thought our car would be turned over. John and I were jerked out
roughly, and held against the Palace wall by the soldiers, while the
crowd, which seemed to double with each passing second, yelled at us.
All the doors of the car were open. The rug, under which the mysterious
man of the plaster had hidden, was gone, and so was he. It was the only
bright spot in our last disaster. We no longer had to explain him, at
least. I felt I wanted to laugh about that, but didn’t dare. People
might think I was laughing at them. Someone struck me in the face. I
slipped sideways and cut my shoeless foot on a sharp stone. John cursed
in English, and I could just hear him above the din. The soldiers were
doing all they could for us, but they were hopelessly outnumbered by the
mob. Step by step we were half dragged, half pushed, toward the Palace
gate. It was only a short distance, but each inch was being fought for,
hard. A woman in a red dress spat at us, a man kicked me deliberately on
the shin. I couldn’t get my balance quick enough to kick back, and the
soldiers were holding my arms. At last, our lungs almost bursting, we
half fell through the gate, which was closed behind us amid furious
shouts and threatening gestures from the crowd. I found myself on the
calm side of the barrier, sitting in the middle of the roadway, too
dazed for the moment to care. I closed my eyes in relief, but I wasn’t
allowed to sit quietly. A soldier pulled at me, and made me go behind
the wall, where I could not be seen from the street. There was a stone
coping there and I sat on it. John, battered and grimy, and making a wry
face over his arm, but with his eyes shining with excitement, grinned at
me delightedly.

“I see now,” he announced to any who cared to listen, which was me, “why
war was a noble career in the days when it was fought like that. There’s
some point in being allowed by the rules to kick a man and know it was a
good job.”

“You’re a disreputable looking savage,” I told him.

“And a bit of a wreck, yourself,” he chortled at me. “I hand it to these
soldiers. They’re a swell bunch of guys.”

The swell bunch of guys began wrapping a stout rope around his good arm,
tying it effectually to his body. I protested violently, but the only
attention they paid to me was to tie my wrists. They were all talking so
hard that no one would answer a question or speak to us at all. I
stopped trying to do anything more, and just leaned back against the
wall, too exhausted to worry even in the face of our latest capture.

“We should have stayed,” John said to me, “at Visichich Manor. That
Countess is a damned nice girl. I wish she were here now, she’d get us
out of this mess.”

“While we are wishing,” I said, “we might as well wish a little higher.
I wish the Black Ghost were here.”

“Which one?” John asked, grinning.

“Oh,” I said. “Were there two, do you think?”

“I know it,” John said. “And what is more, I think I know who the second
one is.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Not here,” he said. “I’ll tell you as soon as we are alone.”

“Well,” I said, “both men’s manners were charming, and his—or
their—prison is well appointed. It would be rather acceptable after this
last scrap. I’m tired.”

“Yes,” John agreed. “Especially as we have no guarantee that the
Herrovosca jail won’t be ratty. Joke on you, though. Afraid to stay in a
town where there might be a riot, and then get into mess after mess. And
don’t forget we’re wrong all the way around now. There isn’t a faction
here that hasn’t at least one count against us. We’re messengers to the
Queen, but we brought a regicide to town. We promised to be friendly
toward the Black Ghost, but didn’t deliver the prophet to the gendarmes.
We are friends of Helena’s, but she has disappeared, and we were about
the last people to see her so far as anyone can prove. The Visichiches
were nice to us, but we stole their car and took off their prisoner.
We’re Americans, but we haven’t any good excuse for not having our
passports, and, anyway, I rather think they thought you threw that bomb.
Probably I was the only person who saw what you did. And a lot of good
my testimony will be.”

“What do we do next?” I asked.

“Whatever offers,” John said, confidently.

From outside came the sound of motor cars. Our captors opened the gate,
and more soldiers came through. Two grasped my arms tightly, two more
grasped John, more formed a lane, and they started leading us toward the
square again.

We had been actually inside the Palace wall, and now we were going out
again, without having seen the Queen. I groaned, but we could not start
a war with the whole Alarian army.

They got us out to the sidewalk. The mob had not diminished in size, but
it was subdued by the new soldiers. Our appearance was the signal for
redoubled shoutings, and the line of guards was jostled so hard that we
were delayed on our way to the large black car—a proper Black
Maria—drawn up at the curb, its black yawning interior waiting for us.

“Guess I might as well resign,” John said. “Being a queen’s messenger
doesn’t seem to be my metier. Hereafter I suppose I’ll have to stick to
painting. I’m afraid I’m better at it.”

The noise grew confusing. There were shouts in front of us, and shouts
to both sides, and even, I thought, shouts behind us. The line of
soldiers suddenly closed altogether, and instead of forcing us into the
Black Maria, we were led back again inside the Palace gate, nor, this
time, were we stopped there, but led up the incline toward the Palace
itself.

“Going to take us out by a back gate and save trouble,” John said. “We
tried saving trouble, but we learned better, didn’t we?”

We did not go up the great state stairs that led to the huge arched
doorway, but to a small door under the staircase, along an almost dark
corridor with a cold stone floor. We were inside the Palace at last, but
not in the way we had expected to get there. I was too discouraged to
care much what they did to us. John might be cheerful. Being wounded,
the soldiers had protected him better than they had me, and he had both
his shoes. My only immediate interest was in stepping as lightly as
possible on my unshod foot, but I retained a faith that the future would
sometime permit me to leave Alaria. Nobody ever loved any country less
than I did that fantastic, mediæval kingdom at that moment. I did not
even care that we had failed in our errand.

We reached a room with a soft carpet, for which my foot was grateful. It
was a blue carpet, without figures, and never made in Alaria. Indeed,
the color was so unexpected, underfoot in a country of bare stone floors
or bright Oriental rugs that I summoned interest enough to look around
me. White enamelled French furniture, upholstered in pink and blue
striped silk, and on a mantel bright French porcelain vases with a clock
to match. I reflected that Palace dungeons were more daintily furnished
than any we had hitherto been lodged in.

A door was opened, and we were ushered through it, into a less formal
room, where, at last, and when we least expected to see her, sat Queen
Yolanda.

She was draped, like a Ziegfeld Niobe, in heavy black, and sat before a
large and elaborately carved desk. Beside her, flushed with excitement,
her eyes bright, but frightened, stood Maria Lalena. She nodded when she
saw us, and said something I did not hear to Queen Yolanda. The soldiers
stood very close to us so that we should not be able to make any attack
upon their royal persons.

I was beyond being surprised, but it was somewhat unexpected. It was
also the first time I had ever been ushered into the presence of two
Queens, and I was not sure just what might be the proper ritual. John
smiled ecstatically, bowed deeply, and said, “your Majesties.”

Both ladies returned the bow, formally. Yolanda spoke then. It was the
first time I had heard her. Her voice was throatily vibrant. “Why do you
bring these gentlemen here like criminals?” she demanded. “Have you so
little regard for your Queen’s life that you arrest her saviors?”

The officer with us protested. “Your Majesty, this is the man who threw
the bomb.”

Maria Lalena said, excitedly, “No, no, it isn’t. He threw something that
made the bomb go wild. I saw it. I was looking straight at him.”

Queen Yolanda spoke again resonantly. “You should know your business
better than that. Untie those ropes.” She turned to us. “We are very
grateful, and we apologise for our soldiers’ mistake. They have been
stupidly rough with you. Forgive them, they thought you assassins. We
sent for you to thank you, and also because her Majesty tells me that
you were in a dangerous situation at the gate. We acted as quickly as we
could.”

“Please sit down, do,” Maria Lalena spoke quickly. “I am afraid you are
hurt.”

Yolanda turned to look at her annoyedly. I was glad enough of the
opportunity. I sat down, and shoved my stockinged foot under the chair.
John sat beside me.

“We should apologise,” he said, “for our appearance. We would not
willingly have presented ourselves before your Majesties in such a
dishevelled state, but we were, as you know, given no choice. We were
under the impression, in fact, that we were being taken to prison.”

Yolanda said “Yes, yes, to be sure,” very stiffly, while she stared at
us crossly for having sat down. She could set her stage magnificently,
she could play her part with conviction and authority amid insuperable
difficulties, but she could not make her audience love her. It was
amazing to me that she had been right often enough, and clever enough,
to keep her place in spite of all the hatred she stirred up. They were
so different, those two women facing us. The person who would take
Yolanda’s place must have brains and experience, and Maria Lalena was so
young and untried, though she was pretty and appealing. Her eyes were
amazing. She was looking at John now as she had looked at a counter of
pastries in Paris eight years ago. There was the same hopeful, wistful,
long-lashed glance. Quite irresistible. She turned the same look on me,
and then dropped her eyes. That was what she used to do about the
pastries. Drop her eyes after one lingering, devastating glance, and the
family bought them for her.

Yolanda was sitting in silence. She knew how to use the old stage
tricks. In a second, from the vantage point of her high backed, red
damask chair, she would graciously give us permission to retire.

I spoke before she should have an opportunity. “Your Majesty, we have
brought you a message from the Countess Waldek.”

Maria Lalena answered, and jumped from her chair to do it. Even Yolanda
sat up a little straighter.

“Oh,” Maria Lalena cried, “oh, where is she? Is she safe?”

Yolanda admonished her in a low voice, sibilant with annoyance. She sat
down again.

“Yes,” I answered, “she is quite safe.”

“Give it to me,” commanded Yolanda, holding out her hand.

“It is a verbal message,” I answered. “We were to tell you that the
Black Ghost wears a ruby ring.”

Maria Lalena stared at us in blank surprise. The message meant nothing
to her. If it meant anything to Yolanda she hid it effectively. She said
merely, “oh, yes, a code we had arranged. Thank you very much.”

“That’s all very well,” John answered, “but he does wear a ruby ring.”

“Oh,” Maria Lalena cried in surprise, “how do you know?”

Yolanda glared. “Do you happen to know where the Countess is at
present?”

“When we last saw her,” I said, “she was a prisoner at the Black Ghost’s
stronghold in the mountains.”

Maria Lalena gave a loud gasp.

“You saw her there?” asked Yolanda, interested at last.

“We were imprisoned in the next room to hers. We escaped, but were
unfortunately not able to release her.”

“I see,” she said, slowly, and her voice lost its fine resonances, and
became almost sharp. “You gentlemen will wish to refresh yourselves. You
should probably also see a doctor, for I fear my overzealous guards have
not been as careful of your well-being as I could wish. Meanwhile I have
one small favor to ask of you. You brought to Herrovosca a man hidden in
the back of your car. He came up to the Palace during the trouble at the
gate. I wish that you should say nothing of this man to anyone. You will
give me your word?”

“Certainly,” I said.

“And who,” Maria Lalena asked, her eyes turned wide and frightened
toward her mother, “was the man they brought here? Was that who was
locked in here with you when I came to tell you about these gentlemen?”

“That,” said Yolanda, drily, “is just what I do not wish discussed.”

“But surely I may know?” the girl persisted. I saw that her hands were
trembling. She had had a bad fright with the bomb.

“You? Certainly.” Yolanda’s voice was honeyed. “The man is a monk who
has left his monastery to bring me consolation in my sorrow.” But her
voice sounded triumphant. A monk, and with manicured finger nails? The
sleeve was a monk’s sleeve, but he had a mustache and not more than
three days’ beard.

“A monk?” asked Maria Lalena, uneasily. “Then why not speak of his
coming?”

“That,” Yolanda answered, firmly, “we can easily discuss later. These
gentlemen are exhausted, and we must not keep them any longer. Some
other time, perhaps.”

“There is still the matter of Countess Waldek,” John protested. “I
should like to know that you will send a rescue expedition to her.”

Queen Yolanda answered coldly, “You can surely leave that to us,
Countess Waldek is our affair.”

John took a long breath. “Not altogether, your Majesty. She is Mr.
Carvin’s cousin, and that makes her partly our affair.”

Maria Lalena jumped up from her chair. “Oh,” she cried, “then you
are—now isn’t that splendid? I see now, you came straight from the Black
Ghost’s den.”

“No,” I said, “not quite. We were forcibly detained at Visichich Manor
last night—”

“Visichich Manor?” Yolanda spoke almost crossly. “I thought you said you
were prisoners in the Black Ghost’s mountain stronghold. Surely you
don’t think that they are the same?”

“Oh, no,” John was gently explanatory. “We were held in both places.”

“In two days?”

“A day and a half.”

Maria Lalena laughed as though she were pleased. “Americans are like
that,” she approved. “And I’m so excited to see you. I know who you are
now. I knew you were coming, you see. I—”

Queen Yolanda interrupted her with a quick sentence in Alarian. She
flushed, sat down again, and went on more hesitantly. “Now I feel as
though I had some real friends here.”

Yolanda sat staring at her stonily. “You have many friends,” she said
severely. “These gentlemen—”

But Maria Lalena had started, and was not to be stopped. Yolanda had
pulled all the strings, but the puppet was dancing to her own tune. “Go
on,” she said, leaning forward, “tell me all about what happened next.”

John cleared his throat, and then spoke carefully. “There was a very
minor little excitement at Visichich Manor while we were talking to the
Countess Katerina, and we had a chance to get into the garage, and stole
a car. Afterward we found this monk in the tonneau under a rug.
Ridiculous, wasn’t it?”

Yolanda said stiffly, “not at all.”

Maria Lalena shook her head, sadly. “I always did think those
Visichiches were a funny lot,” she murmured. “Do they know much about
this monk?”

“I haven’t the least idea,” said John, smoothly. “He can probably tell
you more than we can.”

“He is not to be questioned,” Yolanda announced.

“Well,” Maria Lalena said. “Colonel Count Visichich is in the Palace. I
saw him. I think we should send for him, my mother. Confront him with
these gentlemen. Perhaps he wouldn’t be so mysterious then.”

Yolanda flushed a little, but she answered gently, “No, my dear, by no
means. Later we will attend to all that. Now these gentlemen must be
allowed to refresh themselves.” She leaned forward to press a button on
her desk.

“Oh, do you want to go?” Maria Lalena asked us. “Wouldn’t you rather
find out all about this now?”

A servant appeared, and Maria Lalena spoke quickly to him in Alarian.
Yolanda glared, and her hands clenched angrily. The servant went out. We
all waited in uncomfortable silence, until, very quickly, the Count
Visichich came in. He was very dapper, very punctilious, and very ready
for anything until he saw us. Then he looked startled. I decided that he
had not yet heard of our escape. That was quite possible if he had left
the manor in one of the first two cars. His mouth opened for a second,
before he recovered his composure. He made deep bows to the two Queens,
and to us, and then stood stock still with conscious poise.

The ladies acknowledged his salutation solemnly, Yolanda sitting back in
her crimson chair, while Maria Lalena shivered in excitement. A wise,
wise, woman and an over-eager frightened child. There was just the
shadow of satisfaction on Count Visichich’s face as the girl spoke. He
was ready enough for anything she might have to say. I felt sorry for
her. She was frightened, but she didn’t yet know what a bad corner she
was in, or that we were in it, too. We had delivered our message at
last, and were probably worse off than ever. There wasn’t a chance that
we would be allowed to leave the Palace without being re-arrested under
any one of a half dozen possible charges. And neither of the two women
who were supposed to be the rulers of the country would be able to help
us. I tried hard to plan something, but my brain was a blank.

“Count Visichich,” said Maria Lalena, “I want to know a lot of things,
if you please. The first of them is, what, exactly is the nature of the
relationship between your family and Prince Conrad?” Yolanda shivered
perceptibly.

Count Visichich answered suavely, surely, with just a touch of irony in
his pleasant voice, “Prince Conrad is a member of the Royal Family, a
cousin of your Majesty’s, and as such he ’as always found me a loyal
subject, a friend, if I may be allowed the term.”

“And what,” she pursued, relentlessly, “is your relation, then, to the
Black Ghost of the Pass?”

“We are good Catholics,” the Count answered, with the trace of a smile,
“and as such we pray daily to the Saints, but ’ave no traffic with the
restless ghosts of dead men, even though they may ’ave been ’eroes and
patriots in life.”

Yolanda looked up as though she were amused. Maria Lalena spoke quickly,
“I did not mean the ghost of a dead hero or patriot,” she answered, “but
the masked man who plays the part of the Black Ghost. Who is he? Do you
serve him or us?”

Count Visichich looked surprised. He did it excellently. “Is someone
masquerading as the Black Ghost?” he asked.

“The Black Ghost imprisoned these gentlemen,” Maria Lalena was growing
more and more nervous, “and when they escaped from him you imprisoned
them at Visichich Manor. Why—”

“Ah,” Count Visichich looked as though he understood everything at last.
“I think these gentlemen will tell you quite willingly that my son and I
discovered them walking on the road that leads to our ’ome. It was late
at night, and they ’ad only a mysterious story to tell about a car that
they ’ad abandoned somewhere be’ind us. There was no car be’ind us
because we ’ad just come over that road, and must ’ave seen it. We took
the very natural precaution of insisting that they accept our
hospitality for the night. We gave them every comfort and treated them
as guests. They will surely acknowledge this.”

“Oh, quite,” John said. “You were delightful. We did not deserve nearly
such charming entertainment as we received, and we were almost as
disreputable looking tramps as we are now.”

“Then why did you run away?” Maria Lalena asked.

“Because we wished to tell her Majesty, Queen Yolanda, what had happened
to the Countess von Waldek,” John said, smoothly.

“You mean,” Marie Lalena said, “to tell her that the Black—”

“These gentlemen,” said Yolanda quickly, “should be allowed to—”

“Exactly,” I interrupted. “My friend—”

Count Visichich interrupted again. He was not going to let us leave
before he had found out, if he could, what we had told Yolanda about the
Black Ghost. And if he found out, something sudden would probably happen
to us.

“These gentlemen,” he said, smiling, “would only seek out more
adventures if they left here. I assure you they are most astoundingly
avid for excitement. They cannot stay in one place for more than a few
hours. That is the reason why they ran away from us, of course. Your
Majesty cannot, surely, be in doubt as to the fidelity of our family.
For ’undreds of years we ’ave been loyal to the Crown. We wish only the
long and successful continuance of the dynasty, and peace to the
country. Prince Conrad is of one mind with us. He, also, is bending
every effort to avert any possible trouble. He telephoned to me
personally this morning when there was a riot in Pranga, and I went
there. I advised him to stay ’ere, as it is the most important city. My
son and I went to Pranga, and quieted the disturbance there. We were
brought word that there ’ad been the beginning of a riot in Vorgo also,
but that it ’ad been stopped. I left my son in Pranga, and came on ’ere
to be ready to help in case of any disturbance. I am ’ere to obey any
orders your Majesties may care to give.”

Yolanda sat still silent in her high red chair. She had a fine poker
face. Maria Lalena looked relieved. I had an idea at last. I whispered
to John out of one side of my mouth, “If you would faint we could get
out of here—best way.”

He did not turn his head to whisper back, “Faint yourself, if you want
to. I’m staying.”

I knew we ought to get out, but I didn’t want to, either. My nose for
news would have made going hard, if I may be allowed so high sounding a
term for ordinary curiosity.

Count Visichich was speaking slowly again, watching Maria Lalena. “You
said something about the Black Ghost a few moments ago—per’aps I can
clear up something for you if you will tell me what it is?”

“Nothing, nothing at all,” Yolanda said, icily. “Her Majesty is very
tired. She has had a great shock. She should rest. Come, my dear.”

“No,” Maria Lalena said, nervously, “I don’t want to rest.”

Count Visichich said thoughtfully, “I was talking to Prince Conrad when
you so kindly sent for me. Perhaps Your Majesty would wish to allow ’im
to explain any matter that may be troubling you?”

“Yes,” Maria Lalena agreed, a little doubtfully. Yolanda looked
resigned. She touched the bell again. If she had been French or American
she would have shrugged her shoulders. The same servant appeared to
receive the order. Maria Lalena spoke to him first, and then Yolanda
beckoned him to her, and gave him a further whispered instruction. He
presently returned to usher in Prince Conrad, who bowed almost
reverently to the two Queens, his tall figure quite graceful, his face
serious but a little quizzical, his eyes very black under straight
brows. We rose formally. I balanced uncomfortably on my one shoe.
Yolanda bowed, and motioned him to another high-backed red damask chair,
like that on which she throned herself. Then she nodded to Count
Visichich and to us, and we all sat down again, neatly and a little
absurdly, like a row of dolls in a toy shop. If we were going to have
exposures that might shake dynasties we were to have them, at least,
with the most polite formalities.

“This is a very important conference,” Maria Lalena said in words. The
tone of her voice said, “I wish I were a long way out of all this, and
had someone’s shoulder to cry on, but I’ve got to do something. Anything
is better than just letting things drift.”

“So I judged,” said Prince Conrad, looking at us, pointedly.

“These gentlemen,” Maria Lalena continued, “are a cousin of—of Countess
von Waldek’s and a friend of his. They know a great many things.”

“They are lucky to know,” he answered, gently. “There are so many things
that I only suspect.”

She flushed, and looked quite miserable for a moment, but his smile was
amused, candid, tolerant, absolutely without rancor; she took a little
courage from it, and went on, “something should be done. The Black Ghost
and his band imprisoned these gentlemen, and are now holding my very
dear—my very dear Countess von Waldek up in the mountains in a castle,
or whatever it is. I beg you, dear Prince, to organise a rescue
expedition to put an end to his disgraceful banditry.”

Prince Conrad looked at her and then at us, and then slowly took from
his pocket a jewelled gold cigarette case, and with a movement that
asked permission of the ladies without words, he selected a cigarette
with his left hand, then closed the case, and put it back in his pocket,
holding the cigarette ready to light. On the hand that held it blazed a
ruby ring. A ring fit for a king, large enough for a king in a play.



                              CHAPTER VIII


Yolanda did not move. She, of course, had known the identity of the
Black Ghost since we had given her Helena’s message. Maria Lalena sat
staring at the ring with eyes that seemed hypnotised. Her face was
white, but she gathered all her courage, and lifted her chin to look
squarely at him. Her voice trembled a little as she spoke, “Hail, Fakat
Zol, Guardian Spirit of Alaria,” she cried.

Prince Conrad looked at her, and lifted his eyebrows. Then he continued
deliberately lighting his cigarette, and turned to us. “So you are
actually ’ere!” he said, cheerfully. “Men after my own ’eart. If I were
the ruler of Alaria I should offer you posts that would tempt you to
stay ’ere. This country needs men who can do the impossible.”

“Not impossible at all,” John apologised. “Luck was with us.”

“That is always true when the impossible is accomplished,” the Prince
answered. “I am lucky, myself, and I like to surround myself with lucky
men. Luck is a state of mind, and a most useful one. Your Majesty, may I
recommend these very excellent and lucky men to your consideration? If
you ’ave a use for professional escapers—and we all may ’ave—there are
not many men alive who could escape from two arrests in two days.”

“At that,” John said, not too modestly, “it was really four, counting
the trouble at the Palace gate, and that at Vorgo.”

“You see?” Prince Conrad said to Maria Lalena. “What did I tell you? It
is stupendous.”

“Let us be serious,” she pleaded.

“Certainly,” agreed the Prince. “If you wish. I merely thought to save
us all embarrassment, for you will notice that when one is serious in a
situation like this, one becomes—dare I suggest such a thing?—just a
trifle ridiculous.”

Yolanda turned towards him disagreeably. “You always see situations so
clearly,” she said, “but before we worry about such small
considerations, I have a question to ask you. No doubt you will be glad
to tell, and I prefer to ask you rather than Count Visichich or any
other of your supporters. Who is the man the Visichiches found it
necessary to imprison in their manor?”

For the fraction of a second Prince Conrad lost his amused air of
authority. He stared at Yolanda in surprise. I could not tell whether he
was a little sorry for her or upset for himself. I knew then that the
man, whoever he might be, was no monk.

“’ow did you learn there was such a man?” he asked.

“Will you tell me who he is?” she repeated. I knew she must know who he
was, she would not have been so anxious not to talk about him if she had
been in any doubt. She was marking time, and making him uncomfortable
while she did it.

“I prefer not,” he replied gently.

She shrugged her shoulders. “I merely wanted to make sure,” she said,
“whether, as I supposed, you were a party to his imprisonment. I now
know you were.” She was smiling; for the first time since I had seen
her, showing some human feeling. I heard a footstep in the corridor. A
note of triumph came into her voice. “You are right not to answer, our
Cousin Conrad,” she said, theatrically. “That was a question whose
answer will be most embarrassing to you. No man can be both Prince and
bandit forever.”

“Quite true,” Conrad agreed, affably. “The time must come when he will
take his rightful place.”

The door opened again, and the servant appeared for an instant to bow
low before a monk in a brown habit, with the very unmonklike face we had
seen through the ceiling at Visichich manor. The only change was that
now he was shaved. Yolanda rose, the other men rose. We followed suit,
perforce. Only Maria Lalena remained seated, staring at him as though
she were looking at a ghost.

Yolanda’s rich voice almost intoned, “Bela, my son that was dead, is
alive again. Bela the King has returned to his throne.” She moved half
across the room, giving up her high-backed crimson chair to him. He took
it without a glance at her.

“Very good,” he said. “Just the people I wished most to see, and all
together, waiting for me. Perhaps, my very hated Cousin Conrad, you will
put out your cigarette, since the King has not given you permission to
smoke in his presence?”

With a graceful gesture Conrad dropped the offending luxury into a tray
on the desk, and bowed, ceremoniously. Bela swaggered in his sarcasm
like an angry schoolboy. If he could have spit fire he would have been
pleased to do it, I am sure.

“I was never amused by affairs of state,” he went on, his small boy’s
fury mounting, minute by minute, “so we will not spend too much of my
time on the matters before us. It would seem that several people wish to
rule this small and undesirable portion of Europe. Some of you I have
even seen wax quite sentimental over the place. I think it fit for
breeding pigs, and it has certainly been used extensively for the
purpose.” He stopped a moment to show his fangs while we had time to
digest his stupid venom. “I have had three days away from my mother
lately, for the first time in eight years, and I really enjoyed them.
Also, I did some thinking.”

“Also for the first time in eight years?” Conrad asked in a mild voice.

“Silence!” Bela ordered angrily. “I have come to a decision. Probably
you will all be astonished. I am only sorry that I must please you in
this. I can think of no way out of that. According to the constitution
of Alaria I am, with a few restrictions, the absolute ruler of this
country. I can do everything except imprison men without a fair trial in
due course of law. My subjects have relegated that privilege to
themselves. They do not even limit themselves to ordinary people who
would not be missed. They imprison their King. If it had not been that
they are careless, and that Americans are thoughtless meddlers, I should
still be languishing in a tower room with a splendid view of the
particular mountain where the Black Ghost has his eyrie. I could see the
heliograph signals he sent to my very disloyal subjects, the
Visichiches.”

“Your Majesty,” Count Visichich bowed, apologetically, “the disloyalty I
readily admit, but if the eyrie of the Black Ghost were on the mountain
to which you refer we should have lodged Your Majesty somewhere with a
less extensive view. The mountain to which you refer is merely a
convenient point from which the signals are relayed to a few of his many
strongholds.”

And I had wasted an hour’s sleep drawing a picture of that peak.

“Indeed?” Bela shivered with temper, and slapped a book down on the desk
before him so hard that it bounced up again a full two inches. “These
children’s games,” he went on, “are of very little importance. I do not
even seek to punish you, since I am not permitted your license, and I
have no stomach for the slow law. If I could see a way to clap you all
into tower rooms and dungeons, I would leave you to rot there. My
ancestors devised excellent and most suitable tortures for disloyal
subjects. I should enjoy reviving them but I have more important things
to occupy me. I have made two momentous decisions. Momentous for Alaria.
The first concerns my too competent and intriguing mother, the most
ubiquitous Queen in Europe. Just what part she played in my imprisonment
I do not know. I was trying to make her tell me when this girl,” he made
a motion toward Maria Lalena, “started such a hullaballoo outside this
door that I retired until the matter should have been attended to.
Something about a bomb and a riot at the gate. My suspicion remains
unsatisfactorily denied. It does not matter. She was, in any case, far
too ready with a substitute for me.” He turned to Yolanda insolently.
“You,” he said. “While I thought you devoted to me, I could forgive your
assumption of power, but now that I know that your devotion was only to
your own place in the world I do not forgive you anything. While I can
still issue commands you will leave Alaria, never to return. Go now. I
have ordered a car and four soldiers to accompany you. Your maids can
follow with your personal belongings. You are to leave immediately.” He
banged hard at the bell on the desk. When the servant answered he spit
two words at him, and an officer appeared. Yolanda was staring at him
unbelievingly, but his large wet mouth was curled back in so ugly a
snarl that she read the answer to any plea she might make without
further words.

“The devil take you!” she cried, letting her anger mar her carefully
built-up theatricalism. “I hope you fail as ignominiously as you would
have done many times during the last eight years if I had not guided and
protected you. I provided against all contingencies, not your death
alone. I foresaw this also, and provided against it with good American
government bonds. Quite a lot of them. I shall live very comfortably in
Switzerland or England or anywhere else that shall please me, and I hope
you all may have as bad luck as my ungrateful son will surely bring upon
himself.”

She swept out of the room without any other farewell, her long crepe
veil brushing against the son for whom she had donned it a little
prematurely.

Bela laughed as the door closed. Then he turned back to Prince Conrad.
“Now I shall really surprise you,” he said. “I have decided to do what I
have always wished, and what now seems to have become a necessity if I
am to have any pleasure at all. I have decided to abdicate. You will be
so glad of that that you will pay me four million francs a year for the
rest of my life.”

Four million francs—about a hundred and sixty thousand dollars. A
generous income, but not really an exorbitant price to pay for the
peaceful removal of this dangerously petulant and vindictive young man.

“Four million francs.” Conrad was evidently considering the bargain
seriously.

“Four million francs,” Maria Lalena gasped, “why that would build the
new hospital—”

“Be quiet,” Bela snarled at her. “I have named my terms. The alternative
is that I stay and throw the lot of you into prison on charges of
conspiracy and treason, of which you are most certainly guilty. You
might not be convicted, but there would inevitably be civil war. This
way I agree to remain dead to Alaria.”

“Oh, we accept your terms without question,” Conrad said, calmly.

“Good,” Bela cried. “Then I leave you now to struggle with this mare’s
nest as best you may. I hope you get into a lot of trouble, but that you
remain in power, since, if you do not, my allowance will cease, and I
have made no provision for the future as my mother did. If I had known
that, I should not have been so firm with her.”

“In the matter of offence,” Conrad said drily, “it may be more
profitable to receive than to give.”

Bela shrugged his shoulders. “Nevertheless I enjoyed sending her away,”
he said, “and if it may have been costly, a King’s enjoyment should not
be niggardly. And you will be prompt in your payments to me, for if you
should not be you will know that I will come alive again, and gladly see
you all torn apart by the populace.” He pushed back the high throne
chair roughly, and walked to the door where he stopped to deliver a last
thrust.

“I leave you that girl for a legacy,” he announced, “and I hope you
never discover whether she is the Princess or not.” He slammed the door
and was gone.

After a moment Maria Lalena spoke. “You will discover immediately that I
am not,” she said in a small, tired voice. “I tell you so. My mother
rushed me into this and gave me no time to think. It was something she
and Queen Yolanda devised. I believed the whole thing until I had time
to think, then I knew I could not be the Princess, since I remembered my
life at Waldek before she was killed.”

“Still,” Conrad interrupted, “I ’ave publicly proclaimed you Maria
Lalena and Queen of Alaria. If I now declare I made a mistake—it is
awkward.”

“Very,” she agreed. “I throw myself contritely on your mercy, and beg
that since you have committed sins yourself, posing as the Black Ghost,
and imprisoning King Bela, you will pardon and help me.” She turned on
him her melting glance, but this time it did not remind me of Parisian
pastry. It was sweet, but honest.

“I will most certainly pardon and ’elp you,” he promised, going over to
her. “But the sins you ’ave named will always be my greatest pride. They
’ave saved my country from revolution. Shall I explain? It might be as
well, I think. We are all friends ’ere and even Count Visichich is
ignorant of a few things that ’ave taken place. Not that I keep anything
from ’im, but that there was no time for explanations.

“First, I will state that I am the only man in Alaria who can see the
country through this storm. You ’ave discovered that I ’ave been the
Black Ghost. That was my idea, but the part ’as been played by all of
us, even by the Countess Katerina Visichich.”

John interrupted to say, “yes, but I recognised her in Vorgo. It should
be done by a man.”

“Ah?” said Conrad. “You are the first who ’as done that.” He continued,
“After the accession of Bela I saw that something must be done. I
considered the possibilities and decided that the legend of the Black
Ghost was the only one that offered a sure way to the loyalties of the
people. There ’ave always been communities of semi-bandits in the
mountains. When they were attacked they simply separated and ’id until
their attackers tired themselves out. They burned charcoal part of the
time, and were a continual but rather petty annoyance to travellers
through the Pass, and to neighboring villages. It is because of them
that Visichich manor is so well fortified. Like most mountaineers they
were backward, illiterate, fierce in loyalties and ’ates, and very
superstitious. I donned the dress of Fakat Zol, and went among them with
more money than they ’ad seen in a ’undred years, and won them easily. I
drilled them, gave them medical care, repaired their fortresses, and
made them the nucleus of a real power. That power must continue. It is
the greatest and most loyal force we ’ave.” He paused. “I am talking a
great deal,” he apologised with a smile, “I beg your pardon. I confess I
am a little proud of my secret soldiery.”

He paused again, and then went on. “You will wish to understand about
Bela’s imprisonment. It was necessary to remove Bela. I could not quite
bring myself to murder ’im, though since he ’ad tried three times to
murder me, it would ’ave been justified. I am not afraid to kill men for
revenge, or for another’s benefit, per’aps, but I am too much a Royalist
to kill my King that I might mount ’is throne myself. To imprison ’im
for my own safety and the peace of Alaria was a different matter. With
Count Visichich I arranged the coup very elaborately. ’e would appear to
’ave been thrown down a precipice, and the body at the bottom would be
found dressed in ’is clothes, complete, but the face too crushed for
recognition. The friends with whom ’e ’unted that day would ’ave
separated from ’im all but two, and those two were badly in debt. They
are now in Switzerland, and receive an allowance from me so they will be
silent. Bela was to stay quietly in Visichich Manor until ’is beard grew
long enough so that with ’is mustache cut shorter and a tonsure ’e would
not be easily recognised. Then I should ’ave ’im taken to one of the
mountain castles, where ’e would be surrounded by as many books and
wines and phonographs as ’e wished. We would say ’e was a mad monk, and
that would explain all he said. It was a perfect plan, but I fear that
my friends and I are not good jailors. We lack experience. You
gentlemen,” he smiled at us amusedly, “would probably ’ave shown a
natural aptitude for such a problem. I wish I ’ad known you in time. May
I inquire whether your facility in escaping is the result of much
experience or are you untrained geniuses?”

“I fear we must immodestly claim genius,” John admitted.

“’owever,” Prince Conrad considered, still smiling, “you are Americans,
and I ’ave been informed that lawbreaking and the related arts enjoy a
great vogue in that remarkable country.”

John grinned back at him. “Yes,” he admitted, “we have an innate love of
swashbuckling for which our more conventional forms of endeavor offer no
outlet.”

Prince Conrad laughed good-naturedly. “Touché,” he said. “With your
permission I will proceed with my story. Our cousin, the ex-Queen
Yolanda,” he fondled the _ex_ lovingly, “is a determined and clever
woman. She summoned me to the Palace, but only some hours after the news
of Bela’s supposed death reached ’er. In the meantime she ’ad driven
through the city as was her ’abit, and telephoned to ’er friend Countess
von Waldek to send this young lady speeding across the country. When I
arrived, very quickly, as you can imagine, on the ’eels of her message
to me, she brought forward the little Princess Maria Lalena, whom I ’ad
seen dead with my own eyes eight years before. The country was seriously
divided into factions, and the Royal Family remained in power only
because no one had disturbed the _status quo_. If we made a misstep that
would ’ave been a bad moment. She ’ad me, and she knew it. If I ’ad
refused to present Maria Lalena to a wondering people, she would ’ave
done it ’erself. I agreed to sponsor ’er, not because I believed ’er a
Princess; but because I knew that if I did not, Queen Yolanda would
raise such a storm as our poor government would never be able to
weather, even with the ’elp of my loyal small army from the mountains,
and all my ’ocus-pocus. Speed was essential. The crown must be offered
to someone, so its proper heir offered it to a usurper.”

Maria Lalena seemed to be on the verge of tears. She raised her wide
eyes to Conrad, “I am so helpless,” she pleaded, “I never wanted to do
it, and now you are the only person who can help me.”

“I ’ave thought of a way,” he said, quite gently, in a tone he had not
used before. “It is a little drastic, but will at once restore me to my
throne, and resolve all these difficulties, yours, and ours.”

She seemed surprised for a moment until she realised what he meant, and
then she blushed, and there were tears in her eyes. “Oh, Prince Conrad!”
she said, managing to look like something off the top of a wedding cake,
bright and pretty and very, very delicate and sweet. She lacked all the
magnificence of Countess Katerina. She would probably be the perfect
wife for Conrad, he could swash enough for any family, even a Royal one.
Her eyes were acclaiming him marvelous, and there was no doubt that she
meant it. Her cheeks were winsomely pink, her hands clasped ecstatically
at her throat. I felt rather proud to have a Queen for a cousin, and
such a pretty one. Conrad was smiling down at her in pleased surprise.
He had suggested a cool affair of state and found a worshipper. He was
flattered. He took her hands in his and kissed them both formally, but
with a look which promised less formality later.

“For the moment,” he said, very gently, “I must give my attention to
these dull affairs, with your permission.”

“Of course,” she said softly. “Affairs of state must always come first
to a King.”

I had felt a little cynical for the first moment or two, remembering the
pastries. But why should I be? Conrad was a handsome man, a romantically
ill-treated Prince, a forceful person, an idol for any young girl. And
she was a pretty, sweet little thing. Any man would think that.
Appealingly pathetic and gentle. Her adoration would be agreeable even
to a Prince.

Conrad turned to us, and his manner had become a little hurried. The
time had come to get us out of the way.

“There are several things to be said to you,” he announced. “But for the
moment I will be quick. First, I must apologise. We ’ave been most
unkind to you. I was not merely making conversation when I suggested
earlier that you be offered posts in Alaria. You are lucky men, and we
need luck ’ere. If we can find something interesting for you to do will
you consider the offer to stay?”

“Not I, though I am very grateful to you for thinking of it,” I said. “I
am for the quiet life as soon as I can find another shoe.”

“To be sure,” he answered. “As you wish. You will always be welcome
’ere, but I understand your feeling. I fear you ’ave not tasted the
pleasures of Alaria.”

“Oh,” John protested. “Really, now! I’ve never had a better time in my
life.” He was grinning like a naughty boy who expects to be reproved.
“I’d like to stay. There is a job here I should like to have, and I
happen to know it is open.”

“Good,” Conrad said, smiling at his enthusiasm. “And what is your
choice?”

John answered quickly, “I should like to be the Black Ghost.”

Prince Conrad laughed at that, appreciatively. “Ah,” he said, “but
unfortunately you ’ave been misinformed. That post is not open.”

“Neither,” John said pointedly, “is the throne of Alaria.”

Conrad laughed again. “Under similar circumstances, I wish you all
success—” he said, and would have said more except that John broke into
his speech.

“Good-bye to your Majesties,” he cried, and started for the door,
dragging me with him. We were through it before I caught my breath.

“You’ll tear my sleeve off,” I protested. “Don’t slam that door, this is
a palace. What’s the matter, anyway? Where are you going?”

“You don’t know where we’re going?” John laughed. “I can’t drive a car
with this arm.” He was piloting me down long corridors and back and
forth among servants and guards who stared but did not interfere. “We’re
going to Katerina, of course, and you have to do the driving. Come
along.”

“Her father was right there,” I said, “and you ran off without saying
good-bye to him.”

“If I’m successful,” he grinned, “I’ll have plenty of time to talk to
him, and if I’m not it doesn’t matter. Anyway, it would have been lèse
majesté to stay there any longer. Even you should have seen that.” We
rushed down more corridors, and then, just outside, we found the car
standing in a row of others. John greeted it with a low whoop of
triumph.

“Step into it, old man, and step on it,” he urged. “Let’s get there
before it’s too late to make a call on a lady.”

And so, for the third time in three days we drove rather wildly over the
road between Herrovosca and the Pass. I recognised as we saw them again,
a hundred unconsidered landmarks, a house of a deep pink, with
white-flowering vines growing over it, a pair of light bay horses in a
field, twin poplars beside a brook, long strings of mushrooms and
garlics hanging at the windows of the peasants’ cottages, and always,
across the wide, fertile valley, the towering, dark jagged mountains of
the frontier, rocky, barren on their upper surfaces, orange where the
sun fell on them.

“Don’t drive like the tortoise,” John urged. “I’ve always wanted to
swashbuckle, and now is my chance. Step on it.”

I stepped, and the little familiar landmarks hurtled by. We thundered
around corners, and past crossroads, and the Providence that keeps watch
over fools and lovers protected us, so that presently we saw the customs
house, and turned off to the right, down the long, rutty road that leads
to Visichich manor.

“It’s only this morning we left here,” I reminisced. The road was worse
than I remembered, but it wasn’t stopping us much.

“Honk the horn,” John ordered. “I think it is just over that hill.”

I honked the horn, loud and long, and as I came in sight of the manor
wall, the gate opened to us.

“That’s an omen,” I said, and drove under the arch, and up to the door
of the old house. I was pretty much excited myself, anticipating a warm
welcome and all the little pleasant attentions I had missed the last
three days.

It was a very old and beautiful stone doorway, and the carving of the
oak door was worn with long use. It opened to us as we approached, and
there stood Katerina on the threshold, in her green velvet gown, smiling
ecstatically, her hair shining against the light like an aureole, her
eyes bright with pleasure.

“I rub my magic lamp and you appear,” said John.

“They signalled to me from the customs house,” she answered. “I knew you
must be coming here. Did you forget something?”

He jumped out of the car, and caught her hand. “Never,” he promised. “I
couldn’t do that.”

Her voice trembled happily as she answered, “do you know, I rather
thought you would come?”

“You asked me in Vorgo,” he smiled. “You said the affairs of this
country might become mine if I chose. I have chosen. That’s why I went
away from here, and why I came back.”

“The best of reasons,” she answered, teasingly, “patriotism! But are you
always so sudden in your entrances and your exits?”

“I’m too entranced ever to make another exit,” he said, and together
they went into the old house.

I muttered something about putting the car in the garage, but there was
no one to pay any attention to me, so I stayed where I was.

I didn’t want to get out of the car without a shoe.

I had taken three days’ leave of my senses, and all it had gotten me was
a hole in my sock.

But of course with John it was different.



                          Transcriber’s Notes


--Copyright notice provided as in the original—this e-text is public
  domain in the country of publication.

--Silently corrected palpable typos; left non-standard spellings and
  dialect unchanged.

--In the text versions, delimited italics text in _underscores_ (the
  HTML version reproduces the font form of the printed book.)





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