Chapter 16 The Rider by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A few minutes later, after having been carefully searched, Main was conducted to a dark cell below the street level. The door clanged behind him, the turnkey shuffled away; and, so far as his eyes could penetrate the unaccustomed darkness, the American was alone.
But he had taken but a single turn of his tiny cell when a pleasant voice broke the silence of the prison—a voice which came from close at hand through the grating which separated Main’s cell from that adjoining it upon the left.

“Ah, my good friend the American joker!” exclaimed the voice. “But the joke seems also to be upon the joker, eh?”

Main stepped to the grating and peered through. His eyes, becoming accustomed to the darkness, presently discovered a familiar figure reclining at ease upon the hard wooden bench.

“Joker!” ejaculated Main. “You, my friend, are the prince of jokers; and this is the result of your pleasantry.”

The other was silent for a moment. “What is beyond me,” he said presently, “is how in the world you obtained the connivance of the royal chauffeur and even of the princess herself and her companion—none of them denied that they were the Basses.”

“I don’t understand you,” said Main. “I obtained the connivance of no one. Mrs. Bass and her daughter left Demia as I told you they would; but instead of being waylaid by you as we had arranged, they fell in some way into the hands of Prince Boris of Karlova. The note you gave me to Peter the inn-keeper resulted in my being taken to the hunting lodge of the prince, where I found Miss Bass, her mother and prince Boris—the latter was about to wed Miss Bass. It was in the altercation over this that he was shot.”

The man in the adjoining cell leaped to his feet.

“Shot?” he cried.

“Yes, I shot him in self defense—that is why I am here. Miss Bass and her mother are prisoners, too. Haven’t you seen the papers? Didn’t you know that they report the assassination of the crown prince of Karlova and the secret removal of his body from the lodge?”

“Well!” ejaculated M. Kargovitch; “you certainly have gotten into a devil of a muss—and you really didn’t have anything to do with my getting hold of Princess Mary instead of Miss Bass?”

“Upon my word of honor,” replied Hemmington Main.

“Then we are the victims of the strangest combination of circumstances it has been my ill fortune to experience,” said M. Kargovitch; “and I give you my word of honor, monsieur, that I honestly thought I was waylaying your American friends and helping you in your little affair of the heart. The note I gave you should have resulted in your being brought to where I awaited you. Why, I even went so far as to demand from the lady in waiting who accompanied her highness that she give her consent to the marriage of Mary of Margoth to Mr. Hemmington Main of New York,” and M. Kargovitch leaned back, against the steel bars of his cell and laughed heartily.

“You take things rather easily for a man who will probably make the acquaintance of a gibbet in a few days,” said Main, laughingly. “Do you know, my friend, that you are a mighty good sport? I only wish that I might help you some way.”

“You would laugh, too, Main, if you knew as much about certain matters as do I,” replied Kargovitch. “You think that I will be hanged as a brigand, but I won’t. You also think that you will be hanged for assassinating a prince of the blood-royal but you won’t.”

“Well,” said Main,”I hope you know what you are talking about.”

A door opened at the far end of the corridor as he spoke, and with the clanking of sabers a party of officers and soldiers approached the cells in which the two men were confined. They halted before that occupied by M. Kargovitch. An officer drew a formidable appearing document from the breast of his tunic, and as he unfolded it a soldier bearing a lighted lantern held it so that the rays of light fell upon the paper.

As he read in sonorous tones the solemn and formal words of a long preamble which recited the career of crime of one individual known only as The Rider the smile broadened upon the face of M. Kargovitch; but at the last paragraph it died, the man’s head went up haughtily, and though he paled his shoulders remained squared, nor did he give any outward sign of what might be passing in his breast.

For the paper concluded: “And so, through the clemency of His Gracious Majesty, Alexis III, King of Margoth, it is decreed that said The Rider shall not expiate his sins upon the scaffold as custom and the laws decree, but shall, instead be granted the more honorable death before a firing squad of the king’s soldiers at dawn upon the morrow.”

And having completed the reading the officers and soldiers turned and tramped away down the corridor, their footsteps resounding dismally through the gloomy prison vault.

It was several minutes after they had departed before either of the prisoners spoke. The Karlovian stood as they had left him, his shoulders squared, his chin up, staring straight before him. Hemmington Main was dumfounded. The other’s assurance had been so great just prior to the coming of the soldiers that even now the American could scarce believe that he really had heard read the death warrant of his fellow prisoner. He raised his eyes to the man’s face to note the effect of the announcement upon him. M. Kargovitch seemed to feel the American’s gaze for he turned slowly toward Main, and as he did so a smile spread across his face.

“If I recall correctly,” he said, “your last remark, before they came, was to the effect that you hoped I knew what I was talking about. You see now, don’t you, that I did know. I told you that I should not be hanged. Well, I shall not be hanged—they are going to shoot me.”

“I wonder,” mused Hemmington Main, “if your gift of prophesy will prove as painfully inspired in my case as it has in yours.”

M. Kargovitch laughed. “I have it in my power, my friend, to save us both,” he said; “but at a cost against which the lives of two men are as nothing for should I speak now it would throw Margoth and Karlova into bloody war. Alexis of Margoth could scarce overlook the double affront and injury which I have put upon his daughter; and could be, the people of Margoth could not. They worship her, nor, since I have seen her, do I wonder.

“If, through the American minister, you can obtain a sufficient stay the truth must eventually come out, and with the truth known you will be freed from the accusation of having attempted the life of Prince Boris of Karlova.”

“If the truth is bound to be known,” suggested Main, “why the devil don’t you divulge it now and save your own life?”

M. Kargovitch shrugged. “There are several things worse than death, at least to a man in my position. One of them is ridicule. I have made a fool of myself and I should be laughed at—deservedly. I could not endure it. There is another reason. Within the past two days I have been a party to a hideous hoax, the entire brunt of which fell upon a defenseless girl. I would almost as lief die as look her in the face again, for, inexplicable irony of fate, I have found that I love her.”

Hemmington Main, his head tilted to one side, looked quizzically through narrowed lids at his fellow prisoner.

“I can’t fathom you, Kargovitch,” he said. “You are certainly the most remarkable brigand the world has ever produced.”

“Yes,” replied Kargovitch, “I am a remarkable brigand. As a matter of fact, Main, I rather suspect, that the Lord never intended me for a brigand at all.”

In a little back room in the attic of Peter’s Inn a man tossed feverishly upon a pile of grimy quilts and blankets. Above him bent a bewhiskered little man whom two others in the room addressed as “Doctor.”

“He will live,” announced the man of medicine, “if he has proper nursing.”

“Bakla will look after him well,” said Peter. “Eh, Bakla?”

“Yes,” replied the girl, “I will take care of him.”

Peter and the doctor left the room, stumping down the rickety ladder which led to the floor below, and the girl took her place upon an upturned keg near the sick man’s head, that she might change the cold cloths upon his burning forehead.

An hour passed. The man’s mutterings and tossing ceased. He opened his eyes in which now shown the light of rationality.

“Bakla,” he exclaimed. “What has happened? What am I doing here?” And then, before she could reply: “Ah, yes; I remember. The American. He shot me. Have you heard anything? Have the papers come yet from Sovgrad? I should like to hear what they have to say, and also what Prince Boris says. I should like to learn how he has explained the thing. I am glad, Bakla, that I am a brigand and not a prince. Go down and fetch the papers, Bakla, will you?”

The girl renewed the cloth upon The Rider’s head and descended the ladder to the second floor from which she ran down to the bar room. The Sovgrad papers, still unopened, lay upon a table near the door. She gathered them all up and returned to her patient. They laughed together over the guarded announcement of the reported assassination of the crown prince, and of the strange disappearance of his body. Then Bakla read of the capture of The Rider by the soldiers of Margoth and the probable fate which awaited him in Demia.

The Rider whistled and looked solemn. “That will never do,” he said, “he is a real man, even if he is a prince—far too good a man to make the acquaintance of a rope’s end.”

“You think they would hang him?” almost screamed Bakla.

“They might,” replied The Rider. “They would not believe him should he say he was Prince Boris of Karlova—no, they would only laugh at him, for did they not see me in Demia only yesterday and vouched for as the crown prince of Karlova?”

“But his friends—they know the truth?” persisted Bakla.

“I wonder if they do,” mused The Rider. “The whole thing has been so terribly tangled and confused that it is possible they might really believe that it is the true Rider who lies in prison at Demia, and that Prince Boris, who was to have met me at his hunting lodge today, arrived there ahead of time and was actually the man who was shot by the American. They would be none too loath to have me out of the way, for if their connection with this affair becomes known they will probably suffer degradation and imprisonment. Oh, the devil take that American! He has put me in a fix which won’t let me do a thing.”

Bakla sat in silence for a long while. Her eyes were very wide, and fear-filled. Presently The Rider slept. His regular breathing denoted the deep and healing slumber which is Nature’s greatest remedy. The girl rose and tiptoed to the head of the ladder. Quietly she descended. Tillie was busy with the house work on the second floor.

“Listen for The Rider,” said Bakla to her. “If he calls, go to him. I am going to Sovgrad. I will be back as quickly as possible.”

Tillie would have interposed objections but the girl was gone before she could frame or voice them. A few minutes later, astride a tall, lanky roan who knew the highways of the border better by night than by day, she was riding at a rapid gallop toward Sovgrad.

In time to the drumming hoof beats of the great horse Bakla droned, over and over: “They’re goin’ to hang Dimmie! They’re goin’ to hang Dimmie! They’re goin’ to hang Dimmie!” and the horror in her eyes increased to the inborne suggestion of the hideous thought.

Prince Boris of Karlova spent a long and weary day in the prison at Demia. Early in the afternoon an officer had come and taken the American away without explanation. Boris wondered if they were going to shoot him, too, or if he had been extradited to Karlova, which was the more probable.

As a matter of fact Hemmington Main had been conducted to the palace, led to the second floor, and ushered, without a word of explanation, into the presence of three women. Two he recognized at once—Mrs. Bass and Gwendolyn, and a moment later he was presented to the third, and found himself bowing very low over the hand of Princess Mary of Margoth.

“It was the suggestion you wrote across Her Highness’s picture this morning which resulted in our being freed in less than half an hour,” explained Gwendolyn Bass; “but for the longest time nothing, could be done for you. His majesty could not be prevailed upon to release you, even though we all offered to vouch for your presence when ever you were wanted. He was awfully nice and kind about it all, but you see you are a very important prisoner, and he could take no chance of offending Karlova by seeming to look lightly upon your offense.”

“Well, how did you accomplish it then?” asked Main. “I don’t seem to be very rigidly imprisoned now.”

“We don’t know what happened to change my father’s mind,” said the princess. “All we know is that a few minutes since M. Klein came to announce that you were to be liberated, and I asked that you be brought directly here.”

“Well,” said Hemmington Main, “it beats me. I wish some good angel might intercede for my fellow prisoner. He seems an awfully good sort—not at all the kind one would take for a brigand, and he’s so brave in the face of the fact that he is to die at dawn.”

“Die at dawn?” cried Princess Mary of Margoth. “Die at dawn? What do you mean?”

“I heard them read his sentence just a short time before I was liberated—he is to be shot in the morning, poor fellow. And do you know,” continued the American, “there’s a mighty pathetic side to it. It seems that he has it within his power to save himself; but pride and honor are keeping his lips sealed. There’s something about a girl he has fallen in love with—I couldn’t make out just what it was all about—but he’s offended her in some way and would rather die than let her know the truth. Foolish of course; but none the less courageous and chivalrous. I tell you, that fellow, highwayman or no highway-man, is a real man—every inch of him.”

Princess Mary of Margoth was standing with her back to a window, so it is probable that none of her guests noticed that her face went from white to red and back to white again several times during Hemmington Main’s recital, or saw the moisture which gathered in her eyes, fight as she would to keep it back. A moment later she withdrew from the apartment, after summoning a lady-in-waiting and arranging for the comfort and entertainment of her American friends.

The king was seated in his cabinet, when, as was her custom, the Princess Mary entered unannounced. Prince Stroebel was there, too, and Baron Kantchi, the Karlovian minister, with a very tall young man in the uniform of The Black Guard.

They all rose as she entered the room; but she passed among them straight to the king as though she did not see them. Her eyes were very wide, and in them was a look of pain and terror that Alexis III had never seen there during all the short life of his little daughter.

“Mary!” he said, “What has happened?”

“I have just heard,” she said in a dull voice, “that you are going to have him shot tomorrow morning. It is a wicked thing and must not be done!”

“You mean,” exclaimed the king, “that you have come here to intercede for the life of the notorious Rider—confessed cutthroat and ruffian?”

“He is a brave man,” cried the princess. “He fought for me, and saved me, possibly, from worse than death. He deserves better at your hands.”

“He is a criminal of the lowest type,” expostulated Alexis III. “He is a menace to society. The world will be better for his death.”

“I do not believe that he is bad at heart,” insisted the girl. “To me and to Carlotta he was all that a noble and chivalrous gentleman should be. Imprison him if you must; but do not have him shot!”

“My daughter,” said the king, kindly but firmly, “The Rider should be hanged; but in the indictment and sentence which was recently read to the prisoner we explained that his honorable treatment of our daughter had won him our clemency—therefore he will be shot rather than hanged. No one could ask for more for The Rider—even for you I can grant him no more.”

“Oh, Da-da!” cried the girl, and there was a choking sob in her voice. “Please! Please!”