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- Beverly of Graustark - 4/51 -
permission to escort her as far as Ganlook, a town in Graustark not more than fifteen miles from Edelweiss and at least two days from Balak. Two competent Axphainian guides had been retained, and the party was quite ready to start. He had been warned of the presence of brigands in the wild mountainous passes north of Ganlook. The Russians could go no farther than Ganlook because of a royal edict from Edelweiss forbidding the nearer approach of armed forces. At that town, however, he was sure she easily could obtain an escort of Graustarkian soldiers. As the big coach crawled up the mountain road and further into the oppressive solitudes, Beverly Calhoun drew from the difficult lieutenant considerable information concerning the state of affairs in Graustark. She had been eagerly awaiting the time when something definite could be learned. Before leaving St. Petersburg early in the week she was assured that a state of war did not exist. The Princess Yetive had been in Edelweiss for six weeks. A formal demand was framed soon after her return from America, requiring Dawsbergen to surrender the person of Prince Gabriel to the authorities of Graustark. To this demand there was no definite response, Dawsbergen insolently requesting time in which to consider the proposition. Axphain immediately sent an envoy to Edelweiss to say that all friendly relations between the two governments would cease unless Graustark took vigorous steps to recapture the royal assassin. On one side of the unhappy principality a strong, overbearing princess was egging Graustark on to fight, while on the other side an equally aggressive people defied Yetive to come and take the fugitive if she could. The poor princess was between two ugly alternatives, and a struggle seemed inevitable. At Balak it was learned that Axphain had recently sent a final appeal to the government of Graustark, and it was no secret that something like a threat accompanied the message.
Prince Gabriel was in complete control at Serros and was disposed to laugh at the demands of his late captors. His half-brother, the dethroned Prince Dantan, was still hiding in the fastnesses of the hills, protected by a small company of nobles, and there was no hope that he ever could regain his crown. Gabriel's power over the army was supreme. The general public admired Dantan, but it was helpless in the face of circumstances.
"But why should Axphain seek to harass Graustark at this time?" demanded Beverly Calhoun, in perplexity and wrath. "I should think the brutes would try to help her."
"There is an element of opposition to the course the government is taking," the officer informed her in his own way, "but it is greatly in the minority. The Axphainians have hated Graustark since the last war, and the princess despises this American. It is an open fact that the Duke of Mizrox leads the opposition to Princess Volga, and she is sure to have him beheaded if the chance affords. He is friendly to Graustark and has been against the policy of his princess from the start."
"I'd like to hug the Duke of Mizrox," cried Beverly, warmly. The officer did not understand her, but Aunt Fanny was scandalized.
"Good Lawd!" she muttered to the boxes and bags.
As the coach rolled deeper and deeper into the rock-shadowed wilderness, Beverly Calhoun felt an undeniable sensation of awe creeping over her. The brave, impetuous girl had plunged gaily into the project which now led her into the deadliest of uncertainties, with but little thought of the consequences.
The first stage of the journey by coach had been good fun. They had passed along pleasant roads, through quaint villages and among interesting people, and progress had been rapid. The second stage had presented rather terrifying prospects, and the third day promised even greater vicissitudes. Looking from the coach windows out upon the quiet, desolate grandeur of her surroundings, poor Beverly began to appreciate how abjectly helpless and alone she was. Her companions were ugly, vicious-looking men, any one of whom could inspire terror by a look. She had entrusted herself to the care of these strange creatures in the moment of inspired courage and now she was constrained to regret her action. True, they had proved worthy protectors as far as they had gone, but the very possibilities that lay in their power were appalling, now that she had time to consider the situation.
The officer in charge had been recommended as a trusted servant of the Czar; an American consul had secured the escort for her direct from the frontier patrol authorities. Men high in power had vouched for the integrity of the detachment, but all this was forgotten in the mighty solitude of the mountains. She was beginning to fear her escort more than she feared the brigands of the hills.
Treachery seemed printed on their backs as they rode ahead of her. The big officer was ever polite and alert, but she was ready to distrust him on the slightest excuse. These men could not help knowing that she was rich, and it was reasonable for them to suspect that she carried money and jewels with her. In her mind's eye she could picture these traitors rifling her bags and boxes in some dark pass, and then there were other horrors that almost petrified her when she allowed herself to think of them.
Here and there the travelers passed by rude cots where dwelt woodmen and mountaineers, and at long intervals a solitary but picturesque horseman stood aside and gave them the road. As the coach penetrated deeper into the gorge, signs of human life and activity became fewer. The sun could not send his light into this shadowy tomb of granite. The rattle of the wheels and the clatter of the horses' hoofs sounded like a constant crash of thunder in the ears of the tender traveler, a dainty morsel among hawks and wolves.
There was an unmistakable tremor in her voice when she at last found heart to ask the officer where they were to spend the night. It was far past noon and Aunt Fanny had suggested opening the lunch-baskets. One of the guides was called back, the leader being as much in the dark as his charge.
"There is no village within twenty miles," he said, "and we must sleep in the pass."
Beverly's voice faltered. "Out here in all this awful--" Then she caught herself quickly. It came to her suddenly that she must not let these men see that she was apprehensive. Her voice was a trifle shrill and her eyes glistened with a strange new light as she went on, changing her tack completely: "How romantic! I've often wanted to do something like this."
The officer looked bewildered, and said nothing. Aunt Fanny was speechless. Later on, when the lieutenant had gone ahead to confer with the guides about the suspicious actions of a small troop of horsemen they had seen, Beverly confided to the old negress that she was frightened almost out of her boots, but that she'd die before the men should see a sign of cowardice in a Calhoun. Aunt Fanny was not so proud and imperious. It was with difficulty that her high-strung young mistress suppressed the wails that long had been under restraint in Aunt Fanny's huge and turbulent bosom.
"Good Lawd, Miss Bev'ly, dey'll chop us all to pieces an' take ouah jewl'ry an' money an' clo'es and ev'ything else we done got about us. Good Lawd, le's tu'n back, Miss Bev'ly. We ain' got no mo' show out heah in dese mountings dan a--"
"Be still, Aunt Fanny!" commanded Beverly, with a fine show of courage. "You must be brave. Don't you see we can't turn back? It's just as dangerous and a heap sight more so. If we let on we're not one bit afraid they'll respect us, don't you see, and men never harm women whom they respect."
"Umph!" grunted Aunt Fanny, with exaggerated irony.
"Well, they never do!" maintained Beverly, who was not at all sure about it. "And they look like real nice men--honest men, even though they have such awful whiskers."
"Dey's de wust trash Ah eveh did see," exploded Aunt Fanny.
"Sh! Don't let them hear you," whispered Beverly.
In spite of her terror and perplexity, she was compelled to smile. It was all so like the farce comedies one sees at the theatre.
As the officer rode up, his face was pale in the shadowy light of the afternoon and he was plainly nervous.
"What is the latest news from the front?" she inquired cheerfully.
"The men refuse to ride on," he exclaimed, speaking rapidly, making it still harder for her to understand. "Our advance guard has met a party of hunters from Axphain. They insist that you--'the fine lady in the coach'--are the Princess Yetive, returning from a secret visit to St. Petersburg, where you went to plead for assistance from the Czar."
Beverly Calhoun gasped in astonishment. It was too incredible to believe. It was actually ludicrous. She laughed heartily. "How perfectly absurd."
"I am well aware that you are not the Princess Yetive," he continued emphatically; "but what can I do; the men won't believe me. They swear they have been tricked and are panic-stricken over the situation. The hunters tell them that the Axphain authorities, fully aware of the hurried flight of the Princess through these wilds, are preparing to intercept her. A large detachment of soldiers are already across the Graustark frontier. It is only a question of time before the 'red legs' will be upon them. I have assured them that their beautiful charge is not the Princess, but an American girl, and that there is no mystery about the coach and escort. All in vain. The Axphain guides already feel that their heads are on the block; while as for the Cossacks, not even my dire threats of the awful anger of the White Czar, when he finds they have disobeyed his commands, will move them."
"Speak to your men once more, sir, and promise them big purses of gold when we reach Ganlook. I have no money or valuables with me; but there I can obtain plenty," said Beverly, shrewdly thinking it better that they should believe her to be without funds.
The cavalcade had halted during this colloquy. All the men were ahead conversing sullenly and excitedly with much gesticulation. The driver, a stolid creature, seemingly indifferent to all that was going on, alone remained at his post. The situation, apparently dangerous, was certainly most annoying. But if Beverly could have read the mind of that silent figure on the box, she would have felt slightly relieved, for he was infinitely more anxious to proceed than even she; but from far different reasons. He was a Russian convict, who had escaped on the way to Siberia. Disguised as a coachman he was seeking life and safety in Graustark, or any out-of-the-way place. It mattered little to him where the escort concluded to go. He was going ahead. He dared not go back--he must go on.
At the end of half an hour, the officer returned; all hope had gone from his face. "It is useless!" he cried out. "The guides refuse to proceed. See! They are going off with their countrymen! We are lost without them. I do not know what to do. We cannot get to Ganlook; I do
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