Chapter 17 The Rider by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Prince Boris paced back and forth the narrow limits of his cell. He had discovered that by standing with his back against the bars at one side three equal paces should bring his boot in contact with the bars upon the opposite side. After a little practice he was able to measure’ his strides so accurately that with eyes closed he could take the three steps, and on the third have the toe of his boot just touching the bars. It was not an exciting form of diversion; but it was better than nothing and fully as profitable as counting the upright bars which formed three sides of his cell. He was engaged in this thrilling pastime when the door at the end of the corridor opened once again.
Prince Boris halted and strained his eyes through the darkness. He welcomed the break in the monotony of his solitary confinement, and wondered who the visitor might be and what his errand. There was but a single individual, whose light foot falls caused scarcely a reverberation in the dismal corridor. As the new comer approached Boris saw a small figure wrapped in a long, dark cloak.

“An assassin with a dagger,” mused Prince Boris, with a grin. “I would welcome him none the less, though. The devil would be better company than none.”

Now the little figure stopped before his cell, and threw back the hood which had covered its head and face. At sight of the latter Prince Boris of Karlova gave a gasp of astonishment and delight.

“Your Highness!” he cried.

The girl looked up into his face, so far above hers. She was very white, and Boris could see that it was with difficulty that she composed herself. “What in the world brings you to this place’?” he asked.

“Mr. Main has told me that you might free yourself if you would,” she replied, “and I have come to beg of you to speak—to tell them the thing that will liberate you, no matter how it may affect any other. I have done my best to save you; but I can do nothing—nothing. My father, the king, is determined that you shall die. Tell me, O tell me, what it is that you know which would gain your freedom for you.”

“I cannot understand,” he said, “what has brought your highness here other than a sense of honorable gratitude to one who deserves nothing but your scorn and contempt. I don’t wish to die; but I could face death, your highness, rather than tell you the thing you ask to know. I have been a fool; but I am not entirely without a sense of honor.”

His hands gripped the iron bars which separated them. His face was pressed close in an interstice between two cold, steel rods. The Princess Mary stepped impulsively closer. She laid her two warm little hands upon his, sending a thrill tingling through every fiber of his being; but when she tried to say the thing that trembled upon her lips, she hesitated, stammered, and dropped her eyes to the rough flagging of the floor.

“What is it?” he whispered. “What do you wish to say to The Rider?”

“Oh, it is so hard,” she cried. “Hard, because I am what I am. Were I just a girl I might find the courage to say what I want to say; but I am a princess, muzzled, fettered and constrained by ages of hereditary pride, by silly etiquette, and senseless customs.”

Gently he laid one of his hands upon hers.

“Do not say it then,” he said “I would not for the world have you suffer even the slightest embarrassment on my account. Remember, your highness, who and what I am.”

“I will say it!” she cried. “Last night, just before The Guard came, when you thought that death was very near, you told me that you loved me.” She stumbled pitifully over the last three words. “If you spoke the truth then, you will speak the truth now and say the words that will free you, because—because—Oh, God have mercy on my soul!—I—love—you!”

Prince Boris of Karlova trembled as the leaves of the aspen tremble to a breeze. Even though the whispered words were plain enough he could not believe that he bad heard aright, yet there could be no mistake. Slowly he extended his arms through the grating of his cell and took the little figure of the Princess Mary in them; but as he bent his lips toward hers, the girl placed a palm across them and pushed him away.

“Not that!” she gasped. “I have sunk pride and endured shame to tell you the thing I have told you; but I am still a princess—my lips are not for you even though I love you. For your sake alone I have acknowledged my love, in the hope that because of it you would speak the truth that will save your life and mitigate the misery of mine. Promise me that if I send an officer you will tell him what you will not tell me.”

Prince Boris’ arms dropped to his sides. He turned back into his cell, his shoulders stooped like those of an old man.

“I cannot,” he said, “for when you know, Mary of Margoth, you will hate me—I prefer death to that.”

“You will not tell, then?” she asked.

He shook his head. Without another word the girl turned and walked slowly up the corridor. The man saw the door open, saw her pass through, and saw it close behind her. Then he threw himself upon the hard bench at the back of his cell and buried his face in his hands. For the first time in his life Prince Boris of Karlova knew utter misery.