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- Beverly of Graustark - 6/51 -
THE RAGGED RETINUE
"I am very much relieved," said Beverly, who was not at all relieved." But why have you stopped us in this manner?"
"Stopped you?" cried the man with the patch. "I implore you to unsay that, your highness. Your coach was quite at a standstill before we knew of its presence. You do us a grave injustice."
"It's very strange," muttered Beverly, somewhat taken aback.
"Have you observed that it is quite dark?" asked the leader, putting away his brief show of indignation.
"Dear me; so it is!" cried she, now able to think more clearly.
"And you are miles from an inn or house of any kind," he went on. "Do you expect to stay here all night?"
"I'm--I'm not afraid," bravely shivered Beverly.
"It is most dangerous."
"I have a revolver," the weak little voice went on.
"Oho! What is it for?"
"To use in case of emergency."
"Such as repelling brigands who suddenly appear upon the scene?"
"May I ask why you did not use it this evening?"
"Because it is locked up in one of my bags--I don't know just which one--and Aunt Fanny has the key," confessed Beverly.
The chief of the "honest men" laughed again, a clear, ringing laugh that bespoke supreme confidence in his right to enjoy himself.
"And who is Aunt Fanny?" he asked, covering his patch carefully with his slouching hat.
"My servant. She's colored."
"Colored?" he asked in amazement. "What do you mean?"
"Why, she's a negress. Don't you know what a colored person is?"
"You mean she is a slave--a black slave?"
"We don't own slaves any mo'--more." He looked more puzzled than ever--then at last, to satisfy himself, walked over and peered into the coach. Aunt Fanny set up a dismal howl; an instant later Sir Honesty was pushed aside, and Miss Calhoun was anxiously trying to comfort her old friend through the window. The man looked on in silent wonder for a minute, and then strode off to where a group of his men stood talking.
"Is yo' daid yit, Miss Bev'ly--is de end came?" moaned Aunt Fanny. Beverly could not repress a smile.
"I am quite alive, Auntie. These men will not hurt us. They are _very nice_ gentlemen." She uttered the last observation in a loud voice and it had its effect, for the leader came to her side with long strides.
"Convince your servant that we mean no harm, your highness," he said eagerly, a new deference in his voice and manner. "We have only the best of motives in mind. True, the hills are full of lawless fellows and we are obliged to fight them almost daily, but you have fallen in with honest men--very nice gentlemen, I trust. Less than an hour ago we put a band of robbers to flight--"
"I heard the shooting," cried Beverly. "It was that which put my escort to flight."
"They could not have been soldiers of Graustark, then, your highness," quite gallantly.
"They were Cossacks, or whatever you call them. But, pray, why do you call me 'your highness'?" demanded Beverly. The tall leader swept the ground with his hat once more.
"All the outside world knows the Princess Yetive--why not the humble mountain man? You will pardon me, but every man in the hills knows that you are to pass through on the way from St. Petersburg to Ganlook. We are not so far from the world, after all, we rough people of the hills. We know that your highness left St. Petersburg by rail last Sunday and took to the highway day before yesterday, because the floods had washed away the bridges north of Axphain. Even the hills have eyes and ears."
Beverly listened with increasing perplexity. It was true that she had left St. Petersburg on Sunday; that the unprecedented floods had stopped all railway traffic in the hills, compelling her to travel for many miles by stage, and that the whole country was confusing her in some strange way with the Princess Yetive. The news had evidently sped through Axphain and the hills with the swiftness of fire. It would be useless to deny the story; these men would not believe her. In a flash she decided that it would be best to pose for the time being as the ruler of Graustark. It remained only for her to impress upon Aunt Fanny the importance of this resolution.
"What wise old hills they must be," she said, with evasive enthusiasm." You cannot expect me to admit, however, that I am the princess," she went on.
"It would not be just to your excellent reputation for tact if you did so, your highness," calmly spoke the man. "It is quite as easy to say that you are not the princess as to say that you are, so what matters, after all? We reserve the right, however, to do homage to the queen who rules over these wise old hills. I offer you the humble services of myself and my companions. We are yours to command."
"I am very grateful to find that you are not brigands, believe me," said Beverly. "Pray tell me who you are, then, and you shall be sufficiently rewarded for your good intentions."
"I? Oh, your highness, I am Baldos, the goat-hunter, a poor subject for reward at your hands. I may as well admit that I am a poacher, and have no legal right to the prosperity of your hills. The only reward I can ask is forgiveness for trespassing upon the property of others."
"You shall receive pardon for all transgressions. But you must get me to some place of safety," said Beverly, eagerly.
"And quickly, too, you might well have added," he said, lightly. "The horses have rested, I think, so with your permission we may proceed. I know of a place where you may spend the night comfortably and be refreshed for the rough journey to-morrow."
"To-morrow? How can I go on? I am alone," she cried, despairingly.
"Permit me to remind you that you are no longer alone. You have a ragged following, your highness, but it shall be a loyal one. Will you re-enter the coach? It is not far to the place I speak of, and I myself will drive you there. Come, it is getting late, and your retinue, at least, is hungry."
He flung open the coach door, and his hat swept the ground once more. The light of a lantern played fitfully upon his dark, gaunt face, with its gallant smile and ominous patch. She hesitated, fear entering her soul once more. He looked up quickly and saw the indecision in her eyes, the mute appeal.
"Trust me, your highness," he said, gravely, and she allowed him to hand her into the coach.
A moment later he was upon the driver's box, reins in hand. Calling out to his companions in a language strange to Beverly, he cracked the whip, and once more they were lumbering over the wretched road. Beverly sank back into the seat with a deep sigh of resignation.
"Well, I'm in for it," she thought. "It doesn't matter whether they are thieves or angels, I reckon I'll have to take what comes. He doesn't look very much like an angel, but he looked at me just now as if he thought I were one. Dear me, I wish I were back in Washin'ton!"
THE INN OF THE HAWK AND RAVEN
Two of the men walked close beside the door, one of them bearing a lantern. They conversed in low tones and in a language which Beverly could not understand. After awhile she found herself analyzing the garb and manner of the men. She was saying to herself that here were her first real specimens of Graustark peasantry, and they were to mark an ineffaceable spot in her memory. They were dark, strong-faced men of medium height, with fierce, black eyes and long black hair. As no two were dressed alike, it was impossible to recognize characteristic styles of attire. Some were in the rude, baggy costumes of the peasant as she had imagined him; others were dressed in the tight-fitting but dilapidated uniforms of the soldiery, while several were in clothes partly European and partly Oriental. There were hats and fezzes and caps, some with feathers In the bands, others without. The man nearest the coach wore the dirty gray uniform of as army officer, full of holes and rents, while another strode along in a pair of baggy yellow trousers and a dusty London dinner jacket. All in all, it was the motliest band of vagabonds she had ever seen. There were at least ten or a dozen in the party. While a few carried swords, all lugged the long rifles and crooked daggers of the Tartars.
"Aunt Fanny," Beverly whispered, suddenly moving to the side of the subdued servant, "where is my revolver?" It had come to her like a flash that a subsequent emergency should not find her unprepared. Aunt Fanny's jaw dropped, and her eyes were like white rings in a black screen.
"Good Lawd--wha--what fo' Miss Bev'ly--"
"Sh! Don't call me Miss Bev'ly. Now, just you pay 'tention to me and I'll tell you something queer. Get my revolver right away, and don't let those men see what you are doing." While Aunt Fanny's trembling fingers
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