Chapter 18 The Rider by Edgar Rice Burroughs

All night he sat there, and there they found him when they came just before dawn to lead him to the courtyard of the prison where the blank wall is.
At their summons he rose and shook himself, and when he stepped into the corridor between the files of soldiery his shoulders were as stiff and his chin as high as when he rode at the head of The Black Guard through the boulevards of Sovgrad. With a firm step, and a half smile upon his lips, he marched out into the chill of the early morning. An arc lamp sputtered above the courtyard close to the blank wall. He saw it and the squad of soldiers drawn up opposite, and he knew that the light was there for the purpose of revealing their target to the men.

He spoke but once as they placed him in position with his back against the wall, and that was to ask that they leave his hands free and his eyes unbandaged. Then the soldiers who had brought him from his cell stepped aside; an officer asked him if he had anything to say before his sentence was carried out. Prince Boris shook his head.

Very clearly he heard the short, sharp commands of the lieutenant in command of the firing squad. “Ready! Aim!-” Prince Boris licked his dry lips and stared very hard at the young lieutenant.

Why did the man hesitate so long before giving the final command? The prisoner saw the officer cast an uneasy glance in the direction of a door which led from the interior of the prison into the courtyard, then he saw the door open and an officer in full uniform hurry toward them. His hand was upraised, and as he came he cried aloud: “Stop! In the name of the king, stop!”

The newcomer exchanged a few words with the lieutenant, then he approached the prisoner.

“You will accompany me,” he said. “His Majesty, the King has sent for you.”

Under guard Boris was conducted to the palace, up a broad staircase and along a marble corridor at the end of which were two massive doors. At these doors his guard halted, and the officer who had brought him from the courtyard and the stone wall advanced and struck upon the panels with his gloved knuckles. Instantly the doors swung inward, revealing to Prince Boris as astonishing a sight as he had ever witnessed.

A dozen officers, resplendent in showy uniforms were grouped on either side of a table at which sat two elderly men. There was Prince Stroebel, and two other functionaries of Margoth, the prime minister of Karlova, Baron Kantchi, Boris’ three cronies, Alexander, Ivan, and Nicholas; the American, Hemmington Main; General Demetrius Gregovitch, Karlovian Minister of War; and a very much frightened little girl whom Boris’ astounded eyes recognized as Bakla, the barmaid of Peter’s Inn. But the one which caused the prisoner the greatest surprise by his presence there was he who sat at the table beside Alexis III of Margoth. Like a man in a trance the crown prince of Karlova stood staring at the big-fisted, red-faced man who glared at him from beneath his bushy eyebrows, and who was none other than his royal sire, King Constans of Karlova.

Boris advanced to the table behind which the two rulers sat, and bowed low before them. King Constans rose and walked around the end of the table to his son’s side.

“You are a damn fool,” he said, and his voice was husky with emotions; “but I watched you just now from a window of the prison overlooking the court-yard. I saw you before the firing squad, and my only regret is that I haven’t a dozen more damn fools for sons.

For the first time in many years Constans of Karlova put his arms about his only child and embraced him with real affection.

“I don’t understand,” stammered Prince Boris. “What does all this mean? How did you find out?”

“You may thank this young person,” replied his father, pointing to Bakla. “She rode to Sovgrad and found Ivan—told him the fix you were in—made him come to me, by Jove, and confess the whole fool thing.

“And you may thank his gracious majesty, King Alexis, and our good friend and servant Baron Kantchi for the lesson which they prepared for you and which terminated just now before the stone wall in the prison courtyard.”

“You mean that the whole thing was a hoax,” exclaimed Boris, flushing—“that it was never intended that I be shot?”

“We knew who you were before that indictment and sentence were read to you,” said Alexis.

“And the Princess Mary—did she know? he asked.

“She does not know yet,” replied the king of Margoth, “and I rather doubt that she would care much what became of Prince Boris of Karlova after her experience with him in Demia day before yesterday—do you?” and Alexis III scowled his fiercest scowl.

“Yes, Your Majesty, I do,” blurted Prince Boris, “because she loves me and I love her.”

“Then you’d better go and tell her about it, my son,” said Alexis; “you’ll find her in the adjoining room.”

As Prince Boris crossed the threshold and closed the door behind him he found himself in a dimly lighted room on the opposite side of which, a little figure crouched in a huge easy chair before a log fire. At the sound of the opening and closing door the figure leaped to its feet and turning toward Boris cried: “What word? Have they murdered him, or have they set him free?” and then as the man crossed toward her and she saw who he was, she gave a little cry and ran toward him. “You?” she gasped.

“I, Your Highness,” he replied, and going upon one knee he raised her fingers to his lips. “It is I with a confession and a plea for mercy,” and then he told her.

“I can’t be angry,” she said, “For I didn’t want to marry you any more than you wanted to marry me. How could we know, who had never seen one another, that we were born into the world, just you for me and I for you?”

It was fully half an hour before Alexis III sent Ivan Kantchi into the adjoining room to discover what had become of Prince Boris of Karlova. Though he rapped upon the door a dozen times he received no response, and so he turned the knob and entered. What he saw beyond the arm of the easy chair before the log fire sent him back into the room from which he had come.

“War is hell,” he said, bowing low before the two kings, “and from what I have just seen in the adjoining room I am positive that there will never be war between Margoth and Karlova.”

Hemmington Main and Gwendolyn Bass were married in Demia before they left for America. Prince Boris of Karlova was best man and Princess Mary of Margoth maid of honor.

And what became of The Rider? I wish that I could tell you that he reformed and was pardoned by both King Alexis III and King Constans, and that he married Bakla and settled down to run a nice, respectable, little tavern on the Roman road just out of Sovgrad. Would you like to have me tell you that? All right, I will; but it isn’t so.

THE END