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- Beverly of Graustark - 20/51 -
"Oh, I wish you wouldn't be so dismal," she cried in despair. "It seems just like a funeral."
"A thousand apologies, your highness," he murmured, with a sudden lightness of speech and manner. "Henceforth I shall be a most amiable jester, to please you."
Beverly and the faithful Aunt Fanny were driven to the castle, where the former bade farewell to her new knight until the following morning, when he was to appear before her for personal instructions. Colonel Quinnox escorted him to the barracks of the guards where he was to share a room with young Haddan, a corporal in the service.
"The wild, untamed gentleman from the hills came without a word, I see," said Lorry, who had watched the approach. He and Yetive stood in the window overlooking the grounds from the princess's boudoir, Beverly had just entered and thrown herself upon a divan.
"Yes, he's here," she said shortly.
"How long do you, with all your cleverness, expect to hoodwink him into the belief that you are the princess?" asked Yetive, amused but anxious.
"He's a great fool for being hoodwinked at all," said Beverly, very much at odds with her protege. "In an hour from now he will know the truth and will be howling like a madman for his freedom."
"Not so soon as that, Beverly," said Lorry consolingly. "The guards and officers have their instructions to keep him in the dark as long as possible."
"Well, I'm tired and mad and hungry and everything else that isn't compatible. Let's talk about the war," said Beverly, the sunshine in her face momentarily eclipsed by the dark cloud of disappointment.
Baldos was notified that duty would be assigned to him in the morning. He went through the formalities which bound him to the service for six months, listening indifferently to the words that foretold the fate of a traitor. It was not until his hew uniform and equipment came into his possession that he remembered the note resting in his pocket. He drew it out and began to read it with the slight interest of one who has anticipated the effect. But not for long was he to remain apathetic. The first few lines brought a look of understanding to his eyes; then he laughed the easy laugh of one who has cast care and confidence to the winds. This is what he read:
"She is not the princess. We have been duped. Last night I learned the truth. She is Miss Calhoun, an American, going to be a guest at the castle. Refuse to go with her into Edelweiss. It may be a trap and may mean death. Question her boldly before committing yourself."
There came the natural impulse to make a dash for the outside world, fighting his way through if necessary. Looking back over the ground, he wondered how he could have been deceived at all by the unconventional American. In the clear light of retrospection he now saw how impossible it was for her to have been the princess. Every act, every word, every look should have told him the truth. Every flaw in her masquerading now presented itself to him and he was compelled to laugh at his own simplicity. Caution, after all, was the largest component part of his makeup; the craftiness of the hunted was deeply rooted in his being. He saw a very serious side to the adventure. Stretching himself upon the cot in the corner of the room he gave himself over to plotting, planning, thinking.
In the midst of his thoughts a sudden light burst in upon him. His eyes gleamed with a new fire, his heart leaped with new animation, his blood ran warm again. Leaping to his feet he ran to the window to re-read the note from old Franz. Then he settled back and laughed with a fervor that cleared the brain of a thousand vague misgivings.
"She is Miss Calhoun, an American going to be a guest at the castle,"--not the princess, but _Miss_ Calhoun. Once more the memory of the clear gray eyes leaped into life; again he saw her asleep in the coach on the road from Ganlook; again he recalled the fervent throbs his guilty heart had felt as he looked upon this fair creature, at one time the supposed treasure of another man. Now she was Miss Calhoun, and her gray eyes, her entrancing smile, her wondrous vivacity were not for one man alone. It was marvelous what a change this sudden realization wrought in the view ahead of him. The whole situation seemed to be transformed into something more desirable than ever before. His face cleared, his spirits leaped higher and higher with the buoyancy of fresh relief, his confidence in himself crept back into existence. And all because the fair deceiver, the slim girl with the brave gray eyes who had drawn him into a net, was not a princess!
Something told him that she had not drawn him into his present position with any desire to injure or with the slightest sense of malice. To her it had been a merry jest, a pleasant comedy. Underneath all he saw the goodness of her motive in taking him from the old life, and putting him into his present position of trust. He had helped her, and she was ready to help him to the limit of her power. His position in Edelweiss was clearly enough defined. The more he thought of it, the more justifiable it seemed as viewed from her point of observation. How long she hoped to keep him in the dark he could not tell. The outcome would be entertaining; her efforts to deceive. If she kept them up, would be amusing. Altogether, he was ready, with the leisure and joy of youth, to await developments and to enjoy the comedy from a point of view which she could not at once suspect.
His subtle efforts to draw Haddan into a discussion of the princess and her household resulted unsatisfactorily. The young guard was annoyingly unresponsive. He had his secret instructions and could not be inveigled into betraying himself. Baldos went to sleep that night with his mind confused by doubts. His talk with Haddan had left him quite undecided as to the value of old Franz's warning. Either Franz was mistaken, or Haddan was a most skilful dissembler. It struck him as utterly beyond the pale of reason that the entire castle guard should have been enlisted in the scheme to deceive him. When sleep came, he was contenting himself with the thought that morning doubtless would give him clearer insight to the situation.
Both he and Beverly Calhoun were ignorant of the true conditions that attached themselves to the new recruit. Baron Dangloss alone knew that Haddan was a trusted agent of the secret service, with instructions to shadow the newcomer day and night. That there was a mystery surrounding the character of Baldos, the goat-hunter, Dangloss did not question for an instant: and in spite of the instructions received at the outset, he was using all his skill to unravel it.
Baldos was not summoned to the castle until noon. His serene indifference to the outcome of the visit was calculated to deceive the friendly but watchful Haddan. Dressed carefully in the close-fitting uniform of the royal guard, taller than most of his fellows, handsomer by far than any, he was the most noticeable figure in and about the barracks. Haddan coached him in the way he was to approach the princess, Baldos listening with exaggerated intentness and with deep regard for detail.
Beverly was in the small audience-room off the main reception hall when he was ushered into her presence. The servants and ladies-in-waiting disappeared at a signal from her. She arose to greet him and he knelt to kiss her hand. For a moment her tongue was bound. The keen eyes of the new guard had looked into hers with a directness that seemed to penetrate her brain. That this scene was to be one of the most interesting in the little comedy was proved by the fact that two eager young women were hidden behind a heavy curtain in a corner of the room. The Princess Yetive and the Countess Dagmar were there to enjoy Beverly's first hour of authority, and she was aware of their presence.
"Have they told you that you are to act as my especial guard and escort?" she asked, with a queer flutter in her voice. Somehow this tall fellow with the broad shoulders was not the same as the ragged goat-hunter she had known at first.
"No, your highness," said he, easily. "I have come for instructions. It pleases me to know that I am to have a place of honor and trust such as this."
"General Marlanx has told me that a vacancy exists, and I have selected you to fill it. The compensation will be attended to by the proper persons, and your duties will be explained to you by one of the officers. This afternoon, I believe, you are to accompany me on my visit to the fortress, which I am to inspect."
"Very well, your highness," he respectfully said. He was thinking of Miss Calhoun, an American girl, although he called her "your highness." "May I be permitted to ask for instructions that can come only from your highness?"
"Certainly," she replied. His manner was more deferential than she had ever known it to be, but he threw a bomb into her fine composure with his next remark. He addressed her in the Graustark language:
"Is it your desire that I shall continue to address you in English?"
Beverly's face turned a bit red and her eyes wavered. By a wonderful effort she retained her self-control, stammering ever so faintly when she said in English:
"I wish you would speak English," unwittingly giving answer to his question. "I shall insist upon that. Your English is too good to be spoiled."
Then he made a bold test, his first having failed. He spoke once more in the native tongue, this time softly and earnestly.
"As you wish, your highness, but I think it is a most ridiculous practice," he said, and his heart lost none of its courage. Beverly looked at him almost pathetically. She knew that behind the curtain two young women were enjoying her discomfiture. Something told her that they were stifling their mirth with dainty lace-bordered handkerchiefs.
"That will do, sir," she managed to say firmly. "It's very nice of you, but after this pay your homage in English," she went on, taking a long chance on his remark. It must have been complimentary, she reasoned. As for Baldos, the faintest sign of a smile touched his lips and his eyes were twinkling as he bent his head quickly. Franz was right; she did not know a word of the Graustark language.
"I have entered the service for six months, your highness," he said in English. "You have honored me, and I give my heart as well as my arm to your cause."
Beverly, breathing easier, was properly impressed by this promise of fealty. She was looking with pride upon the figure of her stalwart protege.
"I hope you have destroyed that horrid black patch," she said.
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