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- Beverly of Graustark - 30/51 -


"You have the habit, I see," she smiled.

"I have several months yet to serve as a member of the guard. Besides, I am under orders to regard you as the princess. General Marlanx has given me severe instructions in that respect."

"You are willing to play the game to the end?" she demanded, more gratified than she should have been.

"Assuredly, yes. It is the only safeguard I have. To alter my belief publicly would expose me to--to--"

"To what, Baldos?"

"To ridicule, for one thing, and to the generous mercies of Count Marlanx. Besides, it would deprive me of the privilege I mentioned a moment ago--the right to kiss your hand, to be your slave and to do homage to the only sovereign I can recognize. Surely, you will not subject me to exile from the only joys that life holds for me. You have sought to deceive me, and I have tried to deceive you. Each has found the other out, so we are quits. May we not now combine forces in the very laudible effort to deceive the world? If the world doesn't know that we know, why, the comedy may be long drawn out and the climax be made the more amusing."

"I'm afraid there was a touch of your old-time sarcasm in that remark," she said. "Yes, I am willing to continue the comedy. It seems the safest way to protect you--especially from General Marlanx. No one must ever know, Baldos; it would be absolutely pitiful. I am glad, oh, so glad, that you have known all the time. It relieves my mind and my conscience tremendously."

"Yes," he said gently; "I have known all along that you were not Mr. Lorry's wife." He had divined her thought and she flushed hotly. "You are still a princess, however. A poor goat-hunter can only look upon the rich American girl as a sovereign whom he must worship from far below."

"Oh, I'm not so rich as all that," she cried." Besides, I think it is time for a general clearing-up of the mysteries. Are you Prince Dantan, Prince Frederic, or that other one--Christobal somebody? Come, be fair with me."

"It seems that all Edelweiss looks upon me as a prince in disguise. You found me in the hills--"

"No; you found me. I have not forgotten, sir."

"I was a vagabond and a fugitive. My friends are hunted as I am. We have no home. Why everyone should suspect me of being a prince I cannot understand. Every roamer in the hills is not a prince. There is a price upon my head, and there is a reward for the capture of every man who was with me in the pass. My name is Paul Baldos, Miss Calhoun. There is no mystery in that. If you were to mention it in a certain city, you would quickly find that the name of Baldos is not unknown to the people who are searching for him. No, your highness, I regret exceedingly that I must destroy the absurd impression that I am of royal blood. Perhaps I am spoiling a pretty romance, but it cannot be helped. I was Baldos, the goat-hunter; I am now Baldos, the guard. Do you think that I would be serving as a Graustark guard if I were any one of the men you mention?"

Beverly listened in wonder and some disappointment, it must be confessed. Somehow a spark of hope was being forever extinguished by this straightforward denial. He was not to be the prince she had seen in dreams. "You are not like anyone else," she said." That is why we thought of you as--as--as--"

"As one of those unhappy creatures they call princes? Thank fortune, your highness, I am not yet reduced to such straits. My exile will come only when you send me away."

They were silent for a long time. Neither was thinking of the hour, or the fact that her absence in the castle could not be unnoticed. Night had fallen heavily upon the earth. The two faithful chair-bearers, respectful but with wonder in their souls, stood afar off and waited. Baldos and Beverly were alone in their own little world.

"I think I liked you better when you wore the red feather and that horrid patch of black," she said musingly.

"And was a heart-free vagabond," he added, something imploring in his voice.

"An independent courtier, if you please, sir," she said severely.

"Do you want me to go back to the hills? I have the patch and the feather, and my friends are--"

"No! Don't suggest such a thing--yet." She began the protest eagerly and ended it in confusion.

"Alas, you mean that some day banishment is not unlikely?"

"You don't expect to be a guard all your life, do you?"

"Not to serve the princess of Graustark, I confess. My aim is much higher. If God lets me choose the crown I would serve, I shall enlist for life. The crown I would serve is wrought of love, the throne I would kneel before is a heart, the sceptre I would follow is in the slender hand of a woman. I could live and die in the service of my own choosing. But I am only the humble goat-hunter whose hopes are phantoms, whose ideals are conceived in impotence."

"That was beautiful," murmured Beverly, looking up, fascinated for the moment.

"Oh, that I had the courage to enlist," he cried, bending low once more. She felt the danger in his voice, half tremulous with some thing more than loyalty, and drew her hand away from a place of instant jeopardy. It was fire that she was playing with, she realized with a start of consciousness. Sweet as the spell had grown to be, she saw that it must be shattered.

"It is getting frightfully late," she sharply exclaimed. "They'll wonder where I've gone to. Why, it's actually dark."

"It has been dark for half an hour, your highness," said he, drawing himself up with sudden rigidness that distressed her. "Are you going to return to the castle?"

"Yes. They'll have out a searching party pretty soon if I don't appear."

"You have been good to me to-day," he said thoughtfully. "I shall try to merit the kindness. Let me--"

"Oh, please don't talk in that humble way! It's ridiculous! I'd rather have you absolutely impertinent, I declare upon my honor I would. Don't you remember how you talked when you wore the red feather? Well, I liked it."

Baldos laughed easily, happily. His heart was not very humble, though his voice and manner were.

"Red is the color of insolence, you mean."

"It's a good deal jauntier than blue," she declared.

"Before you call the bearers, Miss--your highness, I wish to retract something I said awhile ago," he said very seriously.

"I should think you would," she responded, utterly misinterpreting his intent.

"You asked me to tell you what my message to Ravone contained and I refused. Subsequently the extent of his message to me led us into a most thorough understanding. It is only just and right that you should know what I said to him."

"I trust you, Baldos," she protested simply.

"That is why I tell this to you. Yesterday, your highness, the castle guard received their month's pay. You may not know how well we are paid, so I will say that it is ten gavvos to each. The envelope which I gave to Ravone contained my wages for the past six weeks. They need it far more than I do. There was also a short note of good cheer to those poor comrades of mine, and the assurance that one day our luck may change and starvation be succeeded by plenty. And, still more, I told him that I knew you to be Miss Calhoun and that you were my angel of inspiration. That was all, your highness."

"Thank you, Baldos, for telling me," she said softly. "You have made me ashamed of myself."

"On the contrary, I fear that I have been indulging in mock heroics. Truth and egotism--like a salad--require a certain amount of dressing."

"Since you are Baldos, and not a fairy prince, I think you may instruct the men to carry me back, being without the magic tapestry which could transplant me in a whiff. Goodness, who's that?"

Within ten feet of the sedan chair and directly behind the tall guard stood a small group of people. He and Beverly, engrossed in each other, had not heard their approach. How long they had been silent spectators of the little scene only the intruders knew. The startled, abashed eyes of the girl in the chair were not long in distinguishing the newcomers. A pace in front of the others stood the gaunt, shadowy form of Count Marlanx.

Behind him were the Princess Yetive, the old prime minister, and Baron Dangloss.

CHAPTER XIX

THE NIGHT FIRES

"Why, good evening. Is that you?" struggled somewhat hysterically through Beverly's lips. Not since the dear old days of the stolen jam and sugar-bits had she known the feelings of a culprit caught red-handed. The light from the park lamps revealed a merry, accusing smile on the face of Yetive, but the faces of the men were serious. Marlanx was the picture of suppressed fury.

"It is the relief expedition, your highness," said Yetive warmly. "We


Beverly of Graustark - 30/51

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