"Well, you see, I must have lost my head." It was not a bright answer but he did not care; it was the best that occurred.
The prince strode restlessly away a few paces, then returned. "Were you ever at sea before?"
"I once owned a y——" Mr. Heatherbloom paused—with an effort resumed his part and a smile somewhat strained: "I once went on a cruise on a gentleman's yacht." Some one was in the state-room; was overhearing. His head hummed; the refrain of the taut lines rang louder.
"What as? Cabin-boy, cook?"
"Why, you see—" The prince certainly did not see him—he was once more staring away, over the dark water—"I acted in a good many capacities. Kind of general utility, as it were. Doing this, that, and the other!"
"'The other', I should surmise." Contemptuously.
Mr. Heatherbloom moved; the curtain had moved again. "Where are you going?" he asked a little wildly. "You see I might have important business on shore." Foolish talk,—yet it fitted in as well as anything.
The prince, for his part, did not at first seem to catch the other's words; when he did he laughed loudly, sardonically. "That is good; excellent! You have 'important business'!"
"Yes; important," repeated Mr. Heatherbloom. "I—" He got no further. His eyes met another's at the window, rested a moment on a woman's face which then suddenly vanished. But not before he realized that she, too, had seen him—seen and recognized. He had caught in that fleeting instant, wonder, irony, incredulity—a growing understanding! Then he heard a soft laugh—a musical but devilish laugh—Sonia Turgeinov's!
THE SWORD OF DAMOCLES
Mr. Heatherbloom stood as if stunned, his face very pale. For the instant all his suppressed emotion concentrated on this woman—his evil genius—who had betrayed him before and who would betray him again, now. He waited, breathing hard. Why did she not appear? Why did not the blow fall? He could not understand that interval—nothing happening. Was she but playing with him? The prince had abruptly turned; apparently he had not heard that very low laugh. Bored, no doubt, by the interview, he had started to walk away, almost at the same time Mr. Heatherbloom had caught sight of the face at the window. As in a dream Mr. Heatherbloom now heard his excellency's brusk voice addressing a command to the officer, listened to the latter a moment or two later, addressing him.
"Come along!" The officer's English was labored and guttural.
Mr. Heatherbloom's eyes swung swiftly from the near-by door through which he had momentarily expected the woman to emerge. Involuntarily he would have stepped after the vanishing figure of the prince—what to do, he knew not, when—
"Non, non," said the officer, intervening. "Hees excellenz dislikes to be—importuned." The last word cost the speaker an effort; to the listener it was hardly intelligible, but the officer's manner indicated plainly his meaning. Mr. Heatherbloom managed to hold himself still; he seemed standing in the center of a vortex. The prince had by this time gone; the woman did not step forth. This lame and impotent conclusion was out of all proportion to the seemingly inevitable. He could scarcely realize it was he—actually he!—who, after another pause, followed the officer, with scant interest, hardly any at all, to some inferno where flames leaped and hissed.
He could not but be aware of them, although the voice telling him that he would remain here, make himself useful, and, incidentally, work his way among the stokers, sounded very far off. He could have exclaimed scoffingly after the disappearing officer, not anxious to linger any longer than necessary here. Work his way, indeed! How long would he be permitted to do so? When would he be again sent for, and dealt with—in what manner?
He shoveled coal feverishly though the irony of the task smote him, for in feeding the insatiable beds, he was with his own hand helping to furnish the energy that wafted her, he would have served, farther and farther from the home land. Every additional mile put between that shore and the boat, increased the prince's sense of power. He was working for his excellency and against her. In a revulsion of feeling he leaned on his shovel, whereupon a besooted giant of the lower regions tapped his shoulder. This person—foreman of the gang—pointed significantly to the inactive implement. His brow was low, brutish, and he had a fist like a hammer. Mr. Heatherbloom lifted the shovel and looked at the low brow but, fortunately, he did not act on the impulse. It was as if some detaining angel reached down into those realms of Pluto and, at the critical moment, laid a white hand where the big paw had touched him.
The young man resumed his toil. After all, what did it matter?—some one would shovel the stuff. That brief revolt had been spasmodic, sentimental. Here where the heat was almost intolerable and the red tongues sprang like forked daggers before dulled eyes, brutality and hatred alone seemed to reign. The prince might be the prodigal, free-handed gentleman to his officers; he was the slave-driver, by proxy, to his stokers. He who dominated in that place of torment had been an overseer from one of the villages the prince owned; these men were the descendants of serfs.
Once or twice Heatherbloom rather incoherently tried to engage one or two of them in conversation, to learn where the yacht was going—to Southern seas, across the Atlantic?—but they only stared at him as if he were some strange being quite beyond their ken. So he desisted; of course they could not understand him, and, of course, they knew nothing he wished to know. In this prison a sense of motion and direction was as naught.
Fortunately Mr. Heatherbloom's muscles were in good condition and there was not a superfluous ounce on him, but he needed all his energies to escape the fist and the boot that day, to keep pace with the others. The perspiration poured from his face in sooty rivulets; he knew if he gave way what kind of consideration to expect. He was being tested. The foreman's eyes, themselves, seemed full of sparks; there was something tentative, expectant in their curious gleam as they rested on him. Heatherbloom now could hardly keep to his feet; his own eyes burned. The flames danced as if with a living hatred of him; in a semi-stupor he almost forgot the sword, without, that swung over him, held but by a thread that might be cut any instant.
He could not have lasted many minutes more when relief came; sodden sullen men took the places. Heatherbloom staggered out with his own herd; he felt the need of food as well as rest. He groped his way somewhere—into a dark close place; he found black-looking bread—or, was it handed to him? He ate, threw himself down, thought of her!—then ceased to think at all. The sword, his companions or specters no longer existed for him.
It may be some spiritual part of him during that physical coma, drew from a supermundane source beatific drafts, for he awoke refreshed, his mind clear, even alert. He gazed around; he, alone, moved. His companions resembled so many bags of rags cast here and there; only the snores, now diminuendo, then crescendo, dispelled the illusion. A smoking lamp threw a paucity of light and a good deal of odor around them. Was it night? The shadows played hide-and-seek in corners; there was no sound of the sea.
Mr. Heatherbloom moved toward a door. His pulses seemed to throb in rhythm with the engines whose strong pulsations shook those limp unconscious forms. He opened the iron door and looked out. Only blackness, relieved by a low-power electric light, met his gaze. He crept from the place.
Why did not some one rise up to detain him? Surely he was watched. He experienced an uncanny sense of being allowed to proceed just so far, when invisible fingers would pounce upon him, to hurl him back. The soot still lay on his face; he had seen no bucket and water. At the mouth of a tunnel-like aperture, he hesitated, but still no one sprang in front, or glided up from behind to interfere with his progress. He went on; a perpendicular iron ladder enabled him to reach an open space on the deserted lower deck. Another ladder led to the upper deck. Could he mount it and still escape detection? And in that case—to what end?
A bell struck the hour. Nine o'clock! He counted the strokes. Much time had, indeed, passed since leaving port. The yacht, he judged, should be capable of sixteen knots. Where were they now? And where was she—in what part of the boat had they confined the young girl? Come what might, he would try to ascertain. Creeping softly up the second ladder, he peered around. Still he saw no one. It was a dark night; a shadow lay like a blanket on the sea. He felt for his revolver—they had not taken it from him—- and started to make his way cautiously aft, when something he saw brought him to an abrupt halt.
A figure!—a woman's!—or a young girl's?—not far distant, looking over the side. The form was barely discernible; he could but make out the vague flutterings of a gown. Was it she whom he sought? How could he find out? He dared not speak. She moved, and he realized he could not let her go thus. It might be an opportunity—no doubt they would suffer the young girl the freedom of the deck. It would be along the line of a conciliatory policy on the prince's part to attempt to reassure her as much as possible after the indignities' she had suffered. The watcher's eyes strained. She was going. He half started forward—to risk all—to speak. His lips formed a name but did not breathe it, for at that moment the swaying of the boat had thrown a flicker of light on the face and Mr. Heatherbloom drew back, the edge of his ardor dulled.
The woman moved a few steps, this way and that; he heard the swish of her skirts. Now they almost touched him, standing motionless where the shadows were deepest, and at that near contact a blind anger swept over him, against her—who held him in her power to eliminate, when she would—When? What was her cue? But, of course, she must have spoken already—it was inconceivable otherwise. Then why had the prince not acted at once, summarily? His excellency was not one to hesitate about drastic measures. Mr. Heatherbloom could not solve the riddle at all. He could only crouch back farther now and wait.
Through the gloom he divined a new swiftness in her step, a certain sinuosity of movement that suddenly melted into immobility. A red spot had appeared close by, burned now on blackness; it was followed by another's footstep. A man, cigar in hand, joined her.
"Ah, Prince!" she said.
He muttered something Heatherbloom did not catch.
"What?" she exclaimed lightly. "No better humored?"
His answer was eloquent. A flicker of light he had moved toward revealed his face, gallant, romantic enough in its happier moments, but now distinctly unpleasant, with the stamp of ancestral Sybarites of the Petersburg court shining through the cruelty and intolerance of semi-Tartar forbears.
The woman laughed. How the young man, listening, detested that musical gurgle! "Patience, your Highness!"
The red spark leaped in the air. "What have I been?"
"That depends on the standpoint—yours, or hers," she returned in the same tone.
"It is always the same. She is—" The spark described swift angry motions.
"What would you—at first?" she retorted laughingly. "After all that has taken place? Mon Dieu! You remember I advised you against this madness—I told you in the beginning it might not all be like Watteau's masterpiece—the divine embarkation!"
"Bah!" he returned, as resenting her attitude. "You were ready enough for your part."
She shrugged. "Eh bien? Our little Moscow theatrical company had come to grief. New York—cruel monster!—did not want us. C'en est fait de nous! Your Excellency met and recognized me as one you had once been presented to at a merry party at the Hermitage in our beloved city of churches. Would I play the bon camarade in a little affair of the heart, or should I say une grande passion? The honorarium offered was enormous for a poor ill-treated player whose very soul was ready to sing De Profundis. Did it tempt her—forlorn, downhearted—"
She paused. Close by, the spark brightened, dimmed—brightened, dimmed! Mr. Heatherbloom bent nearer. "At any rate, she was honest enough to attempt to dissuade you—in vain! And then"—her voice changed—"since you willed it so, she yielded. It sounded wild, impossible, the plan you broached. Perhaps because it did seem so impossible it won over poor Sonia Turgeinov—she who had thrown her cap over the windmills. There would be excitement, fascination in playing such a thrilling part in real life. Were you ever hungry, Prince?" She broke off. "What an absurd question! What is more to the point, tell me it was all well done—the device, or excuse, of substituting another motor-car for her own, the mad flight far into the night, down the coast where save for that mishap—But I met all difficulties, did I not? And, believe me, it was not easy—to keep your little American inamorata concealed until the Nevski could be repaired and meet us elsewhere than we had originally planned. Dieu merci! I exclaimed last night when the little spitfire was brought safely aboard." Mr. Heatherbloom breathed quickly. Betty Dalrymple, then, had been with the woman in the big automobile—
"Why don't you praise me?" the woman went on. "Tell me I well earned the douceur? Although"—her accents were faintly scoffing—"I never dreamed you would not afterward be able to—" Her words leaped into a new channel. "What can the child want? Est-ce-qu'elle aime un autre? That might explain—"
An expletive smacking more of Montmartre than of the Boulevard Capucines, fell from the nobleman's lips. He brushed the ash fiercely from his cigar. "It is not so—it won't explain anything," he returned violently. "Didn't I once have it from her own lips that, at least, she was not—" He stopped. "Mon Dieu! That contingency—"
Suddenly she again laughed. "Delicious!"
"Nothing. My own thoughts. By the way, what has become of the man we picked up from the sail-boat?"
The prince made a gesture. "He's down below—among the stokers. Why do you ask?"
"It is natural, I suppose, to take a faint interest in a poor fisherman you've almost drowned."
"Not I!" Brutally.
"No?" A smile, enigmatical, played around her lips. "How droll!"
"Heartless, then. But you great nobles are that, a little, eh, mon ami?"
He shrugged and returned quickly to that other more interesting subject.
"Elle va m'epouser!" he exclaimed violently. "I will stake my life on it. She will; she must!"
"Must!" The woman raised her hand. "You say that to an American girl?"
"We're not at the finis yet!" An ugly crispness was manifest in his tones. "There are ports and priests a-plenty, and this voyage is apt to be a long one, unless she consents—"
"Charming man!" She spoke almost absently now.
"Haven't I anything to offer? Diable! One would think I was a beggar, not—am I ill-looking, repugnant? Your sex," with a suspicion of a sneer, "have not always found me so. I have given my heart before, you will say! But never as now! For she is a witch, like those that come out of the reeds on the Volga—to steal, alike, the souls of fisherman and prince." He paused; then went on moodily. "I suppose I should have gone—allowed myself to be dismissed as a boy from school. 'I have played with you; you have amused me; you no longer do so. Adieu!' So she would have said to me, if not in words, by implication. No, merci," he broke off angrily. "Tant s'en faut! I, too, shall have something to say—and soon—to-night—!"
He made a swift gesture, threw his cigar into the sea and walked off.
"How tiresome!" But the words fell from the woman's lips uneasily. She stretched her lithe form and looked up into the night. Then she, too, disappeared. Mr. Heatherbloom stood motionless. She knew who he was and yet she had not revealed his secret to the prince. Because she deemed him but a pawn, paltry, inconsequential? Because she wished to save the hot-headed nobleman from committing a deed of violence—a crime, even—if he should learn?
The reason mattered little. In Mr. Heatherbloom's mind his excellency's last words—all they portended—excluded now consideration of all else. He gazed uncertainly in the direction the nobleman had gone; suddenly started to follow, stealthily, cautiously, when another person approached. Mr. Heatherbloom would have drawn back, but it was too late—he was seen. His absence from the stokers' quarters had been discovered; after searching for him below and not finding him, the giant foreman had come up here to look around. He was swinging his long arms and muttering angrily when he caught sight of his delinquent helper. The man uttered a low hoarse sound that augured ill for Mr. Heatherbloom. The latter knew what he had to expect—that no mercy would be shown him. He stepped swiftly backward, at the same time looking about for something with which to defend himself.
Prince Boris, upon leaving Sonia Turgeinov, ascended to the officers' deck. For some moments he paced the narrow confines between the life-boats, then stepped into the wheel-house.
"How is she headed?"
An officer standing near the man at the helm, answered in French.
"This should bring us to"—the nobleman mentioned a group of islands—"by to-morrow night?"
The prince stared moodily. "Have you sighted any other vessels?"
"One or two sailing-craft that have paid no attention to us. The only boat that seemed interested since we left port was the little naphtha."
The nobleman stood as if he had not heard this last remark. About to move away, he suddenly lifted his head and listened. "What was that?" he said sharply.
"What, your Highness?"
"I thought I heard a sound like a cry."
"I heard nothing, Excellency. No doubt it was but the wind—it is loud here."
"No doubt." A moment the nobleman continued to listen, then his attention relaxed.
"Shall I come to your excellency later for orders?" said the officer as the prince made as if to turn away.
"It will not be necessary. If I have any I can 'phone from the cabin—I do not wish to be disturbed," he added and left.
"His excellency seems in rather an odd mood to-night," the officer, gazing after, muttered. "Nothing would surprise me—even if he commanded us to head for the pole next. Eh, Fedor?" The man at the helm made answer, moving the spokes mechanically. Nor' west, or sou' east—it was all one to him.
Prince Boris walked back; before a little cabin that stood out like an afterthought, he again paused.
Click! click! The wireless! His excellency, stepping nearer, peered through a window in upon the operator, a slender young man—French. A message was being received. Who were they that thus dared span space to reach out toward him? Ei! ei! "The devil has long arms." He recalled this saying of the Siberian priests and the mad Cossack answer: "Therefore let us ride fast!" The swaying of the yacht was like the rhythmic motion of his Arab through the long grass beyond the Dnieper, in that wild land where conventionality and laws were as naught.
He saw the operator now lean forward to write. The apparatus, which had become silent again, spoke; the words came now fast, then slow. Flame of flames! What an instrument that harnessed the sparks, chased destiny itself with them! They crackled like whips. The operator threw down his pen.
"Excellency!" He almost ran into the tall motionless figure. "Pardon! A message—they want to establish communication with the Nevski—to learn if we picked up a man from—"
"Have I not told you to receive all messages but to establish communication with no one? Mon Dieu! If I thought—"
"Your excellency, can depend upon me," Francois protested. "Did not my father serve your illustrious mother, the Princess Alix, all his life at her palace at Biarritz? Did not—"
The prince made a gesture. "I can depend upon you because it is to your advantage to serve me well," he said dryly. "Also, because if you didn't—" He left the sentence unfinished but Francois understood; in that part of the Czar's kingdom where the prince came from, life was held cheap. Besides, the lad had heard tales from his father—a garrulous Gascon—of his excellency's temper—those mad outbursts even when a child. There was a trace of the fierce, or half-insane temperament of the great Ivan in the uncontrollable Strogareff line, so the story went. Francois returned to his instrument; his excellency's look swept beyond. He heard now only the sound of the sea—restless, in unending tumult. The wind blew colder and he went below.
But not to rest! He was in no mood for that. What then? He hesitated, at war with himself. "Patience! patience!" What fool advice from Sonia Turgeinov! He helped himself liberally from a decanter on a Louis Quinze sideboard in the beautiful salle a manger. The soft lights revealed him, and him only, a solitary figure in that luxurious place—master of all he surveyed but not master of his own thoughts. He could order his men, but he could not order that invisible host. They made him their servant. He took a few steps back and forth; then suddenly encountered his own image reflected in a mirror.
"Boris, the superb"; "a tartar toreador of hearts"; "Prince of roubles and kopecs"! So they had jestingly called him in his own warm-cold capital of the north, or in that merry-holy city of four hundred churches. His glance now swept toward a distant door. "Faint heart ne'er won—"
Had he a faint heart? In the past—no! Why, then, now? The passionate lines of the poets sang in his ears—rhythms to the "little dove", the "peerless white flower"! He passed a big hand across his brow. His heart-beats were like the galloping hoofs of a horse, bearing him whither? Gold of her hair, violet of her eyes! Whither? The raving mad poets! Wine seemed running in his blood; he moved toward the distant door.
It was locked—of course! For the moment he had forgotten. Thrusting his hand into his pocket, he drew out a key and unsteadily fitted it. But before turning it he stood an instant listening. No sound! Should he wait until the morrow? Prudence dictated that course; precipitancy, however, drove him on. Now, as well as ever! Better have an understanding! She would have to accede to his plans, anyway—and the sooner, the better. He had burned his bridges; there was no drawing back now—
He turned slowly the knob, applied a sudden pressure to the door and entered.
A girl looked up and saw him. It was a superbly decorated salon he had invaded. Soft-hued rugs were on the floor and draperies of cloth of gold veiled the shadows. Betty Dalrymple had been standing at a window, gazing out at night—only night—or the white glimmer from an electric light that frosting the rail, made the dark darker. She appeared neither surprised nor perturbed at the appearance of the nobleman—doubtlessly she had been expecting that intrusion. He stopped short, his dark eyes gleaming. It was enough for the moment just to look at her. Place and circumstance seemed forgotten; the spirit of an old ancestor—one of the great khans—looked out in his gaze. Passion and anger alternated on his features; when she regarded him like that he longed to crush her to him; instead, now, he continued to stand motionless.
"Pardon me," he could say it with a faint smile. Then threw out a hand. "Ah, you are beautiful!" All that was oriental in him seemed to vibrate in the words.
Betty Dalrymple's answer was calculated to dispel illusion and glamour. "Don't you think we can dispense with superfluous words?" Her voice was as ice. "Under the circumstances," she added, full mistress of herself.
His glance wavered, again concentrated on her, slender, warm-hued as an houri in the ivory and gold palace of one of the old khans—but an houri with disconcerting straightness of gaze, and crisp matter-of-fact directness of utterance. "You are cruel; you have always been," he said. "I offer you all—everything—my life, and you—"
"More superfluous words," said Betty Dalrymple in the same tone, the flash of her eyes meeting the darkening gleam of his. "Put me ashore, and as soon as may be. This farce has gone far enough."
"Farce?" he repeated.
"You have only succeeded in making yourself absurd and in placing me in a ridiculous position. Put me ashore and—"
"Ask of me the possible—the humanly possible—" He moved slightly nearer; her figure swayed from him.
"You are mad—mad—"
"Granted!" he said. "A Russian in love is always a madman. But it was you who—"
"Don't!" she returned. "It is like a play—" The red lips curved.
He looked at them and breathed harder. Her words kindled anew the flame in his breast. "A play? That is what it has been for you. A mild comedy of flirtation!" The girl flushed hotly. "Deny it if you can—that you didn't flirt, as you Americans call it, outrageously."
An instant Betty Dalrymple bit her lip but she returned his gaze steadily enough. "The adjective is somewhat strong. Perhaps I might have done what you say, a little bit—for which," with an accent of self-scorn, "I am sorry, as I have already told you."
He brought together his hands. "Was it just a 'little bit' when at Homburg you danced with me nearly every time at the grand duchess' ball? Sapristi! I have not forgotten. Was it only a 'little bit' when you let me ride with you at Pau—those wild steeplechases!—or permitted me to follow you to Madrid, Nice, elsewhere?—wherever caprice took you?"
"I asked you not to—"
"But with a sparkle in your eyes—a challenge—"
"I knew you for a nobleman; I thought you a gentleman," said Betty Dalrymple spiritedly.
Prince Boris made a savage gesture. "You thought—" He broke off. "I will tell you what you thought: That after amusing yourself with me you could say, 'Va-t-en!' with a wave of the hand. As if I were a clod like those we once had under us! American girls would make serfs of their admirers. Their men," contemptuously, "are fools where their women are concerned. You dismiss them; they walk away meekly. Another comes. Voila!" He snapped his fingers. "The game goes on."
A spark appeared in her eyes. "Don't you think you are slightly insulting?" she asked in a low tense tone.
"Is it not the truth? And more"—with a harsh laugh—"I am even told that in your wonderful country the rejected suitor—mon Dieu!—often acts as best man at the wedding—that the body-guard on the holy occasion may be composed of a sad but sentimental phalanx from the army of the refused. But with us Russians these matters are different. We can not thus lightly control affairs of the heart; they control us, and—those who flirt, as you call it, must pay. The code of our honor demands it—"
"Your honor?" It was Betty Dalrymple who laughed now.
"You find that—me—very diverting?" slowly. "But you will learn this is no jest."
She disdained to answer and started toward a side door.
"No," he said, stepping between her and the threshold.
"Be good enough!" Miss Dalrymple's voice sounded imperiously; her eyes flashed.
"One moment!" He was fast losing self-control. "You hold yourself from me—refuse to listen to me. Why? Do you know what I think?" Vehemently. The words of Sonia Turgeinov—"Est ce qu'elle aime un autre?"—flamed through his mind. "That there is some one else; that there always was. And that is the reason you were so gay—so very gay. You sought to forget—"
A change came over Betty Dalrymple's face; she seemed to grow whiter—to become like ice—
"You let me think there wasn't any one; but there was. That story of some one out west?—you laughed it away as idle gossip. And I believed you then—but not now. Who is he—this American?" With a half-sneer.
"There is no one!—there never has been!" said the girl with sudden passion, almost wildly. "I told you the truth."
"Ah," said Prince Boris. "You speak with feeling. When a woman denies in a voice like that—"
"Let me by!" The violet eyes were black now.
"Not yet!" He studied her—the cheeks aflame like roses. "He shall never have you, that some one—I will meet him and kill him first—I swear it—"
"Let me by!"
"Carissima! Your eyes are like stars—the stars that look down on one alone on the wild steppe. Your lips are red flowers—poppies to lure to destruction. They are cruel, but the more beautiful—"
He suddenly reached out, took her in his arms.
The cry on her lips was stifled as his sought and almost touched them. At the same moment the door of the cabin, by which the prince had entered, was abruptly thrown open.
THE PRINCE IS PUZZLED
His excellency turned. The intruder's eyes were bloodshot from the glare of the furnaces, his face black, unrecognizable, from the soot. "What the dev—" began the nobleman, as if doubting the evidence of his senses.
He must have relaxed his hold, for the girl tore herself loose. She did not pause, but running swiftly to the inner door she had just turned toward, she hastily closed and locked it behind her. As she disappeared Mr. Heatherbloom stopped an instant to gaze after her; but the prince, with sagging jaw and amazement in his eyes, continued to regard only him.
"Who the—" he began again furiously.
The intruder's reply was a silent one. His excellency would have stepped back but it was too late. Mr. Heatherbloom's fist struck him fairly on the forehead. Behind the blow was the full impetus of the lithe form fairly launched across the spacious cabin. The prince went down, striking hard.
But he was up in a moment and, mad with rage, made a rush. The other, quick, agile, evaded him. The prince's muscles had lost some of their hardness from high living and he was, moreover, unversed in the great Anglo-American pastime. He strove to seize his aggressor, to strangle him, but his fingers failed to grip what they sought. At the same time Mr. Heatherbloom's arms shot up, down and around, with marvelous precision, seeking and finding the vulnerable spots. The prince soon realized he was being badly punished and the knowledge did not serve to improve his temper. Had he only been able to get hold of his opponent he could have crushed him with his superior weight. A stationary table, however, in the center of the room assisted Mr. Heatherbloom in eluding the wild dashes, the while he continued to lunge and dodge in a most businesslike manner.
Panting, the prince had, at length, to pause. His face revealed several marks of the contest and the sight did not seem displeasing to Mr. Heatherbloom. A quiet smile strained his lips; a cold satisfaction shone in the bloodshot eyes.
"Come on," he said, stepping a little from the table.
The prince did not respond to the invitation. His dazed mind was working now. Through bruised lids he regarded the soot-masked intruder—a nihilist, no doubt! His excellency had had one or two experiences with members of secret societies in the past. There was a nest of them in New Jersey. Though how one of them could have managed to get aboard the Nevski, he had no time just then to figure out. The nobleman looked over his shoulder toward a press-button.
"Come on!" repeated Mr. Heatherbloom softly.
The nobleman sprang, instead, the other way, but he did not reach what he sought. Mr. Heatherbloom's arm described an arc; the application was made with expert skill and effectiveness. His excellency swayed, relaxed, and, this time, remained where he fell. Mr. Heatherbloom locked the door leading into the dining salle—the other, opening upon the deck, he had already tried and found fastened—and drew closer the draperies before the windows. Then returning to the prince, he prodded gently the prostrate figure.
"Get up!" His excellency moved, then staggered with difficulty to his feet and gazed around. "You'll be able to think all right in a moment," said Heatherbloom. "Sit down. Only," in crisp tones, "I wouldn't move from the chair if I were you. Because—" His excellency understood; something bright gleamed close.
"Are you going to murder me?" he breathed hoarsely. His excellency's cousin—a grand duke—had been assassinated in Russia.
"I wouldn't call it that." The prince made a movement. "Sit still." The cold object pressed against the nobleman's temples. "If ever a scoundrel deserved death, it is you."
Plain talk! The prince could scarcely believe he heard aright; yet the thrill of that icy touch on his forehead was real. His dark face showed growing pallor. One may be brave—heroic even, but one does not like to die like a dog, to be struck down by a miserable unclean terrorist—hardly, from his standpoint, a human being—unfortunately, however, something that must be dealt with—not at first, under these circumstances, with force—but afterward! Ah, then? The prince's eyes seemed to grow smaller, to gleam with Tartar cunning.
"What do you want?" he said.
"Several things." Mr. Heatherbloom's own eyes were keen as darts. "First, you will give orders that the Nevski is to change her course—to head for the nearest American port."
"Impossible!" the prince exclaimed violently.
"On the contrary, it is quite possible. We have the fuel, as I can testify."
His excellency's thoughts ran riot; it was difficult to collect them, with that aching head. The fellow must be crazy; people of his class usually are, more or less, though they generally displayed a certain method in their madness, while this one—
"I must remind your excellency that time is of every importance to me," murmured Mr. Heatherbloom. "Hence, you will do what I ask, at once, or—"
"Very well." His excellency spoke quickly—too quickly. "I'll give the order." And, rising, he started toward the door.
The prince did. Venom and apprehension mingled in his look. Mr. Heatherbloom made a gesture. "You will give the order; but here—and as I direct." His voice was cold as the gleaming barrel. "That 'phone," indicating one on the wall, "connects with the bridge, of course. Don't deny. It will be useless."
His excellency didn't deny; he had a suspicion of what was coming.
"You will call up the officer in command on the bridge and give him the order to make at once for the nearest American port. You will ask him how far it is and how soon we can get there? Beyond that, you will say nothing, make no explanations, or utter a single superfluous word."
"Very well." The prince, seemingly acquiescent, but with a dangerous glitter in his eyes, moved toward the telephone.
The nobleman stopped with his hand near a receiver. His fingers trembled.
"You will speak in French. A syllable of Russian, just one, and—" Mr. Heatherbloom's expression left no doubt as to his meaning.
"Dog!" His excellency's swollen face became the hue of paper. An instant he seemed about to spring—then managed to control himself. "But why should I not speak in Russian? My officers know no French."
"A lie! Nearly all Russian officers speak French. I happen to know yours do." A newspaper article had made the statement and he did not doubt it. "Anyhow, you give the order in French and we'll see what happens."
The blood surged in the nobleman's face. The fierce desire to avenge himself at once on this man who threw the lie at him—august, illustrious—mingled, however, with yet another feeling—one of bewilderment. The fellow had spoken these last words in French, and choice French at that. His accents had all the elegance of the Faubourg Saint Germain.
"Quick!" The decision in the intruder's manner was unmistakable. "I have wasted all the time I intend to. My finger trembles on the trigger."
The prince, perforce, was quick. The telephone of foreign design, had two receivers. His excellency took one. Mr. Heatherbloom reached for the other and held it to his ear with his left hand. His right, holding the weapon, was behind the prince, as the latter poignantly realized. Ill-suppressed rage made his excellency's tones now slightly wavering:
"Are you there, M. le Capitaine?"
"Steady!" Mr. Heatherbloom whispered warningly in his excellency's free ear, emphasizing the caution with a significant pressure from his right hand. At the same time he caught the answer from afar—a deferential voice:
"Oui, Excellence." There was, fortunately, on the wires a singing sound that would serve to drown evidences of emotion in the nobleman's tone. "Excellence wishes to speak with me?" went on the distant voice.
"I do." The prince breathed fast—paused. "You will change the boat's course, and—" He spoke with difficulty. A warmer breath fanned his cheek; he felt a sensation like ice on the back of his neck. "Make for the nearest American port. How far is it?" Mr. Heatherbloom's prompting whisper was audible only to his excellency.
"Five hours," came over the wire.
Mr. Heatherbloom experienced a thrill of satisfaction. They were nearer the coast than he had supposed. He knew the yacht had been taking a southerly course; he had considered that when the bold idea came to act as he was doing. Possibly the prince had been driven out of the last port by the publicity attendant upon Mr. Heatherbloom's presence there, before certain needed repairs had been completed. These, Mr. Heatherbloom now surmised, it was his excellency's intention to have attended to in some island harbor before proceeding with a longer voyage.
Only five hours!
"Good-by!" now burst from the nobleman so violently that Mr. Heatherbloom's momentary exultation changed to a feeling of apprehension. But M. le Capitaine had evidently become accustomed to occasional explosive moments from his august patron. He concerned himself only with the command, not the manner in which it was given.
"Eh? Mon Dieu! Do I hear your excellency aright?" His accents expressed surprise, but not of an immoderate nature. He, no doubt, received many arbitrary and unexpected orders when his excellency went a-cruising.
"Repeat the order." Heatherbloom's whisper seemed fairly to sting the nobleman's disengaged ear.
The latter did repeat—savagely—jerkily, but the humming wires tempered the tones. M. le Capitaine understood fully; he said as much; his excellency should be obeyed—Mr. Heatherbloom pushed the nobleman's head abruptly aside, covering the mouthpiece with his hand. Perhaps he divined that irresistible malediction about to fall from his excellency's lips.
"Hang it up," he said.
The nobleman's breath was labored but he placed his receiver where it belonged; Mr. Heatherbloom did likewise. Both now stepped back. Upon the prince's brow stood drops of perspiration. The yacht had already slowed up and was turning. His excellency listened.
"May I ask how much longer you are desirous of my company here?"
"Oh, yes; you may ask."
The boat had begun to quiver again; she was going at full speed once more. Only now she headed directly for the land Mr. Heatherbloom wished to see. Five hours to an American port! Then? He glanced toward the door through which the girl had disappeared. Since that moment he had caught no sound from her. Had she heard, did she know anything of what was happening—that the yacht was now turned homeward? He dared not linger on the thought. The prince was watching him with eyes that seemed to dilate and contract. A moment's carelessness, the briefest cessation of watchfulness would be at once seized upon by his excellency, enabling him to shift the advantage. The young man met that expectant gleam.
"Sorry to seem officious, but if your excellency will sit down once more? Not here—over there!" Indicating a stationary arm-chair before a desk in a recess of the room.
The prince obeyed; he had no alternative. The fellow must, of course, be a madman, the prince reiterated in his own mind unless—
"I told your excellency I had no wish for a long sea voyage." A mocking voice now made itself heard.
The nobleman started, and looked closer; a mist seemed to fall from before his gaze. He recognized the fellow now—the man they had run down. The shock of that terrible experience, the strain of the disaster, had turned the fellow's brain. That would explain everything—this extraordinary occurrence. There was nothing to do but to humor him for the moment, though it was awkward—devilish!—or might soon be!—if this game should be continued much longer.
Mr. Heatherbloom glided silently toward the hangings near the alcove. What now?—the prince asked with his eyes. Mr. Heatherbloom unloosened from a brass holder a silk cord as thick as his thumb.
"If your excellency will permit me—" He stepped to the prince's side.
That person regarded the cord, strong as hemp.
"What do you mean?" burst from him.
"It is quite apparent."
An oath escaped the prince's throat; regardless of consequences, he sprang to his feet. "Never!"
A desperate determination gleamed in his eyes. This crowning outrage! He, a nobleman!—to suffer himself to be bound ignominiously by some low polisson of a raffish mushroom country! It was inconceivable. "Jamais!" he repeated.
"Ah, well!" said Mr. Heatherbloom resignedly. "Nevertheless, I shall make the attempt to do what I propose, and if you resist—"
"You will assassinate me?" stammered the nobleman.
"We won't discuss how the law might characterize the act. Only," the words came quickly, "don't waste vain hopes that I won't assassinate you, if it is necessary. I never waste powder, either—can clip a coin every time. One of my few accomplishments." Enigmatically. "And"—as the prince hesitated one breathless second—"I can get you straight, first shot, sure!"
His excellency believed him. He had heard how in this bizarre America a single man sometimes "held up" an entire train out west and had his own sweet way with engineer, conductor and passengers. This madman, on the slightest provocation now, was evidently prepared to emulate that extraordinary and undesirable type. What might he not do, or attempt to do? The nobleman's figure relaxed slightly, his lips twitched. Then he sank back once more into the strong solid chair at the desk.
"Good," said Mr. Heatherbloom. A cold smile like a faint ripple on a mountain lake swept his lips. "Now we shall get on faster."
Mr. Heatherbloom, with fingers deft as a sailor's, secured the prince. The single silken band did not suffice; other cords, diverted from the ornamental to a like practical purpose, were wound around and around his excellency's legs and arms, holding him so tightly to the chair he could scarcely move. Having completed this task, Mr. Heatherbloom next, with vandal hands, whipped from the wall a bit of priceless embroidery, threw it over the nobleman's head and, in spite of sundry frenzied objections, effectually gagged him. Then drawing the heavy curtains so that they almost concealed the bound figure in the dim recess, the young man stepped once more out into the salon.
How still it suddenly seemed! His glance swept toward the door through which the young girl had vanished. Why had he heard no sound from her? Why did she not appear now? She must have caught something of what had been going on. He went swiftly to the door.
No answer. He rapped again—louder—then tried the door. It resisted; he shook it.
"Betty!" Yes; he called her that in the alarm and excitement of the moment. "It's—it's all right. Open the door."
Again that hush—nothing more. Mr. Heatherbloom pulled rather wildly at the lock of hair over his brow; then a sudden frenzy seemed to seize him. He launched himself forward and struck fairly with his shoulder—once—twice. The door, at length, yielded with a crash. He rushed in—fell to his knees.
"Betty! Oh, Betty!" For the moment he stared helplessly at the motionless form on the floor, then, lifting the girl in his arms, he laid her on a couch. One little white hand swung limp; he seized it with grimy fingers. It was oddly cold, and a shiver went over him. He felt for her pulse—her heart—at first caught no answering throb, for his own heart was beating so wildly. The world seemed to swim—then he straightened. The filmy dress, not so white now in spots, had fluttered beneath her throat. He gazed rapturously.
"It'll be all right," he said again. "Darling!"
He could say it now, when she couldn't hear. "Darling! Darling!" he repeated. It constituted his vocabulary of terms of endearment. He felt the need of no other. She lay like a lily. He saw nothing anomalous in certain stains of soot, even on the wonderful face where his had unconsciously touched it when he had raised her and strained her to him one mad instant in his arms. In fact, he did not see those stains; his eyes were closed to such details—and the crimson marks, too, on her gown! His knuckles were bleeding; he was unaware of it. He was not, outwardly, a very presentable adorer but he became suddenly a most daring one. His grimy hand touched the shining hair, half-unbound; he raised one of the marvelous tresses—his hungry lips swept it lightly—or did he but breathe a divine fragrance? By some inner process his spirit seemed to have come that instant very near to hers. He forgot where he was; time and space were annihilated.
He was brought abruptly back to the living present by a sudden knock at the door without, which he had locked after entering that way from the deck. Mr. Heatherbloom listened; the person, whoever he was, on receiving no response, soon went away. Had they discovered what had happened to the foreman of the stokers whom Heatherbloom had struck down with a heavy iron belaying-pin? The man had attacked him with murderous intent. In defending himself, Heatherbloom believed he had killed the fellow. The chance blow he had delivered with the formidable weapon had been one of desperation and despair. It had been more than a question of his life or the other's. Her fate had been involved in that critical moment. He had dragged the unconscious figure to the shadows behind a life-boat. They would not be likely to stumble across the incriminating evidence while it was dark. Nor was it likely that the foreman's absence below would cause the men to look for him. The overworked stokers would be but too pleased to escape, for a spell, their tyrannous master.
Mr. Heatherbloom, standing near the threshold of the dressing-room, glanced now toward the little French clock without. Over four hours yet to port! How slowly time went. He turned out all the lights, save one shaded lamp of low candle-power in the cabin; then he did the same in the room where the girl was. No one must peer in on him from unexpected places. He looked up, and saw that the skylights were covered with canvas. Mr. Heatherbloom remained in the salon; he needed to continue master of his thoughts. In the dressing-room he had just now forgotten himself. That would not do; he must concentrate all his faculties, every energy, to bringing this coup, born on the inspiration of the moment, to a successful conclusion. Desperate as his plan was, he believed now he would win out. By the vibrations he knew the boat was still steaming full speed on her new course. The conditions were all favorable. They would reach port before dawn; at break of day the health officers would come aboard. And after that—
The telephone suddenly rang. Should he answer that imperious summons? Perhaps the man who had just knocked at the door had been one of the officers, or the captain himself, come in person to speak with his excellency about the unexpected change in the boat's course, or some technical question or difficulty that might have arisen in consequence thereof.
He looked toward the recess; between the curtains he caught sight of the prince's eyes and in the dim light he fancied they shone with sudden hope—expectancy. The nobleman must have heard the crashing of the door to the dressing-room. What he had thought was of no moment. A viperish fervor replaced that other brief expression in his excellency's gaze.
Once more that metallic call—harsh, loud, as not to be denied! Mr. Heatherbloom made up his mind; perhaps all depended on his decision; he would answer. Stepping across the salon, he took down the receivers. The singing on the wires had been pronounced; he could imitate the prince's autocratic tones, and the person at the other end would not discover, in all likelihood, the deception.
"Well?" said Mr. Heatherbloom loudly, in French. "What do you want? Haven't I given orders not to be—"
His voice died away; he nearly dropped the receivers. A woman answered. Moreover, the wires did not seem to "sing" so much now. Sonia Turgeinov's tones were transmitted in all their intrinsic, flute-like lucidity.
"What has happened, your Excellency?" she asked anxiously.
"Happened?" the young man managed to say. "Nothing."
"Then why has the yacht's course been changed? I can tell by the stars from my cabin window that we are not headed at all in the same direction we were going—"
He tried to speak unconcernedly: "Just changed for a short time on account of some reefs and the currents! Go to sleep," he commanded, "and leave the problems of navigation to others."
"Sleep? Mon Dieu! If I only could—"
Mr. Heatherbloom dared talk no more, so rang off. The prince might have been capable of such bruskness. Sonia Turgeinov had not seemed to suspect anything wrong; she had merely been inquisitive, and had taken it for granted the nobleman was at the other end of the wire. Mr. Heatherbloom strode restlessly to and fro. Seconds went by—minutes. He counted the tickings of the clock—suddenly wheeled sharply.
* * * * *
The young girl stood in the doorway—he had heard and now saw her. She came forward quickly, though uncertainly; in the dim light she looked like a shadow. He drew in his breath.
"Miss—" he began, then stopped.
Her gaze rested on him, almost indistinguishable on the other side of the salon.
"What does it mean? Who are you?" She spoke intrepidly enough but he saw her slender form sway.
Who was he? About to explain in a rush of words, Mr. Heatherbloom hesitated. To her he had been, of course, but a conspirator of the Russian woman in the affair. Miss Van Rolsen had deemed him culpable; the detective had been sure of it. Would Miss Dalrymple think more leniently of him than mere unprejudiced people, those who knew less of him than she? His very presence on the yacht, although somewhat inexplicably complicated in recent occurrences, was per se a primal damning circumstance. But she spared him the necessity of answering. She divined now from his blackened features what his position on the yacht must be. He was only a poor stoker, but—
"You are a brave fellow," cried Betty Dalrymple, "and I'll not forget it. You interfered—I remember—"
"A brave fellow!" It was well he had not betrayed himself. Let her think that of him, for the moment. A poignant mockery lent pain to the thrill of her words.
"You rushed in, struck him. What then?"
"He won't play the bully and scoundrel again for some time!" burst from Mr. Heatherbloom. His tones were impetuous; once more he seemed to see what he had seen during those last moments on the deck—when he had been unable to restrain himself longer—and had yielded to a single hot-blooded impulse. "The big brute!" he muttered.
She seemed to regard him in slight surprise. "Where is he? What has become of him?"
"He is safe—"
"You mean you conquered him, beat him—you?" Her voice thrilled.
"You bet I did," said Mr. Heatherbloom with the least evidence of incoherency. Her words had been verbal champagne to him. "I gave him the dandiest best licking—" He stopped. Perhaps he realized that his explanation was beginning to seem slightly tinged with too great evidence of personal satisfaction if not boastfulness. "You see I had a gun," he murmured rather apologetically.
"But," said the girl, coming nearer, "I don't understand."
He started to meet that advance, then backed away a little. "I've got him safe, where he can't move, or bother you any more." Mr. Heatherbloom glanced over his shoulder; but he did not tell her where he "had him". "And the yacht's going back to the nearest American port," he couldn't help adding, impetuously, to reassure her.
"Going back? Impossible!" Wonder, incredulity were in her voice.
"It's true as shooting, Bet—"
She was too bewildered to notice that slight slip of the tongue. "It's a fact, miss," he added more gruffly.
"But how?" Her tones betrayed reticence in crediting the miracle. Yet this blackened figure must have prevailed over the prince or the latter would not have so mysteriously disappeared. "How did it happen?"
"Well, you see I just happened around."
"You, a stoker?"
Stokers, he was reminded by her tone, did not usually "happen around" on decks of palatial private yachts. He must seek a different, more definite explanation. He thought he saw a way; he could let her know part of the truth. "The fact is, I was looking for this boat at the last port she stopped at. I had cause to think you would be on her. Couldn't stop the yacht from going to sea, for reasons too numerous to mention, so I just slipped out and came aboard in a kind of disguise—"
"A disguise? Then you are a detective?"
"I think I may truthfully say I am, but in a sort of private capacity. When a really important case occurs, it interests me. Now this was an important case, and—and it interested me." He hardly knew what he was saying, her eyes were so insistent. Betty Dalrymple had always had the most disconcerting eyes. "Because, you see, your—your aunt was so anxious—and"—with a flash of inspiration—"the reward was a big one."
"The reward? Of course." Her voice died away. "You hoped to get it. That is the reason—"
He let his silence answer in the affirmative; he felt relieved now. She had not recognized him—yet. In the recess behind the draperies the chair in which his excellency was bound, creaked. Was he struggling to release himself? Mr. Heatherbloom had faith in the knots and the silken cords. The girl turned her head.
"Don't you think it would be better"—he spoke quickly—"for you to return to your cabin? I'll let you know when I want you and—"
"But if I prefer to stay here? May I not turn on the lights?"
"Not for worlds!" Hastily. "It is necessary they should not see me. If they did—"
He was obliged to explain a little of the real situation to her; of the stratagem he had employed. This he did in few words. She listened eagerly. The mantle of the commonplace, which to her eyes had fallen a few moments before on his shoulders, became at least partly withdrawn. She divined the great hazard, the danger he had faced—was facing now. Detective or not, it had been daringly done. Her voice, with a warm thrill in it, said as much. Her eyes shone like stars. She came of a live virile stock, from men and women who had done things themselves.
"If only I, too, had a weapon!" she said, leaning toward him. "In case they should discover—"
"No, no. It wouldn't do at all."
"Why not?" the warm lips breathed. "I can shoot. Some one once taught me—"
She stopped short. A chill seemed descending. "You were saying—" he prompted eagerly.
But she did not answer. The sweep of her hair made a shadowy veil around her; his mind harked swiftly back. She had always had wondrous hair. It had taken two big braids to hold it; most girls could get their hair in one braid. He had been very proud, for her, of those two braids—once—with their blue or pink ribbons that had popped below the edge of her skirts. He continued to see blue and pink ribbons now.
Both were for some time silent. At length she stirred—seated herself. Mr. Heatherbloom mechanically did likewise, but at a distance from her. He tried not to see her, to become mentally oblivious of her presence, to concentrate again solely on the matter in hand. A long, long interval passed. Chug! chug! the engines continued to grind. How far away they sounded. Another sound, too, at length broke the stillness—a stealthy footfall on the deck. It sent him at once softly to the window; he gazed out. She followed.
"Are—are we getting anywhere near port?"
He did not tell her that it was not port he was looking for so soon as he gazed out searchingly into the night.
"What is it?" She had drawn the curtain a little. Her shoulder touched him.
Suddenly his arm swept her back. "What do you mean"—he turned on her sternly—"by drawing that curtain?"
"Was any one there?"
"Any one—" he began almost fiercely; then paused. The figure he had seen in that flash looked like that of the foreman of the stokers. In that case, then, the fellow was not dead; he had recovered. Through a mistaken sense of mercy Mr. Heatherbloom had not slipped the seemingly lifeless body over the side. Now he, and she, too, were likely to pay dearly for that clemency. Bitterly he clenched his hands. Had the man caught a glimpse of him at the window? A flicker of electric light, without, shone on it.
The girl started again to speak. "Hush!" He drew her back yet farther. Above, some one had raised the corner of the canvas covering the skylight. It was too dark, however, for the person, whoever it might be, to discern very much below. Neither Mr. Heatherbloom nor his companion now moved. The tenseness and excitement of the moment held them. The girl breathed quickly; her hand was at his sleeve. Even in that moment of suspense and peril he was conscious of the nearness of her—the lithe young form so close!
The creaking of the chair in the recess was again heard. Had his excellency caught sight of the person above? Was he endeavoring to attract attention? And could the observer at the skylight discern the nobleman? It seemed unlikely. The glass above did not appear to extend quite over the recess. Through a slight opening of the draperies Mr. Heatherbloom, however, could see his captive and noticed he seemed to be trying to tip back farther in his chair, to reach out behind with his bound hands—toward what? The young man abruptly realized, and half started to his feet—but not in time! The chair went over backward and came down with a crash, but not before his excellency's fingers had succeeded in touching an electric button near the desk. A flood of light filled the place.
It was answered by a shout—a signal for other voices. Fragments of glass fell around; a figure dropped into the salon; others followed. The door to the deck yielded to force from without. Mr. Heatherbloom, though surprised and outnumbered, struggled as best he might; his weapon rang out; then, as they pressed closer, he defended himself with the butt of his revolver and his fist.
There could be but one end to the unequal contest. The girl—a helpless spectator—realized that, though she could with difficulty perceive what took place, it was all so chaotic. She tried to draw nearer, but bearded faces intervened; rough hands thrust her back. She would have called out but the words would not come. It was like an evil dream. As through a mist she saw one among many who had entered from the deck—a giant in size. He carried an oaken bar in his hand and now stole sidewise with murderous intent toward the single figure striving so gallantly.
"No, no!" Betty Dalrymple's voice came back to her suddenly; she exclaimed wildly, incoherently.
But the foreman of the stokers raised the bar, waited. He found his opportunity; his arm descended.
Mr. Heatherbloom regained consciousness, or semi-consciousness, in an ill-smelling place. His first impulse was to raise his hands to his aching head, but he could not do this on account of two iron bands that held his wrists to a stanchion. His legs, too, he next became vaguely aware, were fastened by a similar contrivance to the deck. He closed his eyes, and leaned back; the throbbings seemed to beat on his brain like the angry surf, smiting harder and harder until nature at length came to his relief and oblivion once more claimed him.
How long it was before he again opened his eyes he could not tell. The shooting throes were still there but he could endure them now and even think in an incoherent fashion. He gazed around. The light grudgingly admitted by a small port-hole revealed a bare prison-like cell. Realization of what it all meant, his being there, swept over him, and, in a semi-delirious frenzy, he tugged at his fastenings. He did not succeed in releasing himself; he only increased the hurtling waves of pain in his head. What did she think of her valiant rescuer now, he who had raised her hopes so high but to dash them utterly?
Some one, some time later, brought him water and gave him bread, releasing his wrists while he ate and fastening them again when he had finished. The hours that seemed days passed. During that time he half thought he had another visitor but was not sure. The delirium had returned; he strove to think lucidly, but knew himself very light-headed. He imagined Sonia Turgeinov came to him, that she looked down on him.
"Mon Dieu! It is my canine keeper; the man with the dogs. What a lame and impotent conclusion for one so clever! I looked for something better from you, my intrepid friend, who dared to come aboard in that thrilling manner—who managed to follow me, through what arts, I do not know. How are the mighty fallen!"
Her tone was low, mocking. He disdained to reply.
"Really, I am disappointed, after my not having betrayed who you were to the prince."
"Why didn't you?" he said.
She laughed. "Perhaps because I am an artist, and it seemed inartistic to intervene—to interrupt the action at an inopportune moment—to stultify what promised to be an unusually involved complication. When first I saw and recognized you on the Nevski, it was like one of those divine surprises of the master dramatist, M. Sardou. Really, I was indebted for the thrill of it. Besides, had I spoken, the prince might have tossed you overboard; he is quite capable of doing so. That, too, would have been inartistic, would have turned a comedy of love into rank melodrama."
Rank nonsense! Of course such a conversation could not be real. But he cried out in the dream: "What matter if his excellency had tossed me overboard? What good am I here?"
"To her, you mean?"
"To her, of course." Bitterly.
The vision's eyes were very bright; her plastic, rather mature form bent nearer. He felt a cool hand at the bandage, readjusting it about his head. That, naturally, could not be. She who had betrayed Betty Dalrymple to the prince would not be sedulous about Mr. Heatherbloom's injury.
"Foolish boy!" she breathed. Incongruous solicitude! "Who are you? No common dog-tender—of that I am sure. What have you been?"
"There! there!" said half-soothingly that immaterial, now maternal visitant. "Never mind."
"How is she? Where is she?" he demanded, incoherently.
"She is well, and is going to be, very soon now, the prince's bride."
"Don't let his excellency hear you say so in that tone. He thinks you only a detective, not an ardent, though secret wooer yourself. The Strogareffs brook no rivals," she laughed, "and he is already like a madman. I should tremble for your life if he dreamed—"
"Help me to help her—" he said. "It will be more than worth your while. You did this for—"
She shook her head. "I have descended very low, indeed, but not so low as that. Like the bravos of old"—was it she who spoke bitterly now?—"Sonia Turgeinov is, at least, true to him who has given her the little douceur. No, no; do not look to me, my young and Quixotic friend. You have only yourself to depend upon—"
"Myself!" He felt the sharp iron cut his flesh. That seemed indubitable—no mere fantasy of pain but pain itself.
"Let well enough alone," she advised. "The prince will probably put you ashore somewhere—I'll beg him to do that. He'll be better natured after—after the happy event," she laughed. "Perhaps, he'll even slip a little purse into your pocket though you did hurt a few of his men. Not that he cares much for them—mere serfs. You could find a little consolation, eh? With a bottle, perhaps. Besides, I have heard these island girls have bright eyes." He could not speak. "Are you adamant, save for one?" she mocked. "Content yourself with what must be. It is a good match for her. The little fool might scour the world for a better one. As for you—your crazy infatuation—what have you to offer? Tres drole! Do dog-tenders mate with such as she? No; destiny says to her, be a grand lady at the court of Petersburg. I am doing her a great favor. Many American families would pay me well, I tell you—"
She paused. "You will smile at it all, some day, my friend. You played and lost. At least, it was daringly done. You deceived even me over the telephone. 'Go to sleep,' forsooth! You commanded in a right princely tone. And I obeyed."
An instant her hand lingered once more near the bandage. It was ridiculous, that tentative, almost sympathetic touch. Then, she—a figment of disordered imagination—receded; there was no doubt about his light-headedness now.
They sent again bread and water, and, after what seemed an intolerable interval, he found himself eating with zest; he was exceedingly hungry. He also began to feel mentally normal, although his thoughts were the reverse of agreeable. Days had, no doubt, gone by. He chafed at this enforced inaction, but sometimes through sheer weariness fell into a semblance of natural sleep despite the sitting posture he was obliged to maintain. On one such occasion he was abruptly awakened by a light thrown suddenly on his face. He would have started to his feet but the fetters restrained him.
It was night; a lantern, held by a hand that shook slightly, revealed a face he did not know. He felt assured, however, of his mental lucidity at the moment. The new-comer, though a stranger, was undoubtedly flesh and blood.
"What do you want?" said the prisoner.
"A word with you, Monsieur." The speaker had a smooth face and dark soulful eyes. His manner was both furtive and constrained. He looked around as if uncomfortable at finding himself in that place.
"Well, I guess you can have it. I can't get away," muttered the manacled man.
"Miss Dalrymple sent me."
Mr. Heatherbloom's interest was manifest; he strove to suppress outward signs of it. "What—what for?"
"She wanted to make sure you were not dead."
The prisoner did not answer; his emotion was too great at the moment to permit his doing so. She was in trouble, yet she considered the poor detective. That was like her—straight as a string—true blue—
The visitor started to go. "Hold on!" said Mr. Heatherbloom, whose ideas were surging fast. This youth had managed to come here at her instigation. Had she made a friend of him, an ally? He did not appear an heroic one, but he was, no doubt, the best that had offered. Betty Dalrymple was not one to sit idly; she would seek ways and means. She was clever, knew how to use those violet eyes. (Did not Mr. Heatherbloom himself remember?) Who was he—this nocturnal caller? Not an officer—he was too young. Cabin-boy, perhaps? More likely the operator. Mr. Heatherbloom had noticed that the yacht was provided with the wireless outfit.
"How long have I been here?" he now asked abruptly.
"It is three days since monsieur was knocked on the head."
Mr. Heatherbloom looked down. "Three days? Well, it cost me a fortune," he sighed, remembering the role of detective that had been thrust upon him. "I could have stood for the sore head."
The other had his foot at the threshold but he lingered. "How much of a fortune? What was the reward?" He strove to speak carelessly but there was a trace of eagerness in his tones.
"You mean what is it?" returned Mr. Heatherbloom, and named an amount large enough to make the soulful eyes open. "And to think," watchfully, "one little message to the shore might procure for the sender such a sum!"
"Monsieur!" Indignantly. "You think that I would—"
"Then you are the wireless operator?"
"I was." Francois spoke more calmly. "His excellency has had the apparatus destroyed. He will take no chances of other spies or detectives being aboard who might understand its use."
The prisoner hardly heard the last words; for the moment he was concerned only with his disappointment. A sudden hope had died almost as soon as it had been born. "Too bad!" he murmured. Then—"How did you get here?"
"The third officer has the keys and our cabins are adjoining. I seized an opportune moment, slipped in, and took a wax impression of what I wanted. Then with an old key and a file—Monsieur is a great detective, perhaps, but I, too," with Gaston boastfulness, "can aspire to a little cleverness."
"A great deal," said Mr. Heatherbloom, the while his brain worked rapidly. Betty Dalrymple must have paid the youth well for serving her thus far. Thrift, as well as sentiment, seemed to shine from Francois' eloquent dark eyes. Could he be induced to espouse her cause yet further?
"Monsieur must not think I would prove disloyal to his excellency, my employer," spoke up the youth as if reading what had been passing through the other's mind. "There could be no harm in a mere inquiry as to monsieur's state of health."
"None at all," assented the prisoner quickly. "Though"—a sudden inspiration came to Mr. Heatherbloom—"contingencies may arise when one can best serve those who employ him by secretly opposing them."
"I don't understand, Monsieur," said Francois cautiously.
"The prince is a madman. By incurring the enmity of his Imperial Master he would rush on to his own destruction. Suppose by this misalliance, the very map of Europe itself were destined to be changed?"
The words sounded portentous, and Francois stared. He had imagination. The beautiful American girl had told him that this man before him was a great and daring detective. He spoke now even as an emissary of the czar himself. The prince was a high lord, close to the throne. These were deep waters. The youth looked troubled; Mr. Heatherbloom allowed the thought he had inspired to sink in.
"What is our first port?" his voice, more authoritative, now demanded.
Francois mentioned an island.
"When do we get there?"
"We are near it to-night but on account of the rocks and reefs, I heard the captain say we would slow down, so as not to enter the harbor until daybreak."
Daybreak! And then? Mr. Heatherbloom closed his eyes; when he again opened them they revealed none of the poignant emotion that had swept over him. "What time is it now?"
"My jailer—the third officer, you say—visits this cell once every night. Do you know what time he comes?"
"I shouldn't be here, Monsieur, at this moment, if I didn't know that. He comes in an hour, after his watch is over, with the bread and water—monsieur's frugal fare. And now"—those apprehensions, momentarily dulled by wonderment seemed returning to Francois—"I will bid monsieur—"
"Stay! One moment!" Mr. Heatherbloom's accents were feverish, commanding. "You must—in the name of the czar!—for the prince's sake!—for hers—for—for the reward—"
"Monsieur!" Again that flicker of indignation.
Mr. Heatherbloom swept it aside. "She has asked you to help her escape?" he demanded swiftly.
Francois did not exactly deny. There were no listeners here. "It would be impossible for her to escape," he answered rather sullenly.
"Then she did broach a plan—one you refused to accede to. What was it?"
"Mere madness!" Scoffingly. "Mademoiselle may be generous, and mon Dieu! very persuasive, but she doesn't get me to—"
"What was her proposal? Answer." Sternly. "You can't incriminate yourself here."
Francois knew that. The cell was remote. There could be no harm in letting the talk drift a little further. He replied, briefly outlining the plan.
"Excellent!" observed Mr. Heatherbloom.
"Mere madness!" reiterated Francois.
"Not at all. But if it were, some people would, under the circumstances," with subtle accent, "gladly undertake it—just as you will!" he added.
"Oh, will I?" Ironically.
"Yes, when you hear all I have to say. In the first place, I relinquish all claim to the reward. Sufficient for me—" And Mr. Heatherbloom mumbled something about the czar.
"Bah! That sounds very well, only there wouldn't be any reward," retorted Francois. "The prince would only capture us again and then—" He shrugged. "I know his temper and have no desire for the longer voyage with old man Charon—"
"Wait!" More aggressively. "I have not done. No one will suspect that you have been here to-nigh't?" he asked.
"Does monsieur think I am a fool? No, no! And now my little errand for mademoiselle being finished—"
"You can do as Miss Dalrymple wishes, achieve an embarrassment of riches, and run no risk whatever yourself."
"Indeed?" Starting slightly.
"At least, no appreciable one." Mr. Heatherbloom explained his plan quickly. Francois listened, at first with open skepticism, then with growing interest.
"Mon Dieu! If it were possible!" he muttered. South-of-France imagination had again been appealed to. "But no—"
"Remember all the reward will be for you"—swiftly—"sufficient to buy vineyards and settle down for a life of peace and plenty—" Francois' eyes wavered; any Frenchman would have found the picture enticing. Already the beautiful American girl had, as Mr. Heatherbloom suspected, surreptitiously thrust several valuable jewels upon the youth as a reward for this preliminary service. Having experienced a foretaste of riches, Francois perhaps secretly longed for more of the glittering gems and for some of those American dollars which sounded five times as large in francs. Besides, this man, the great detective, or emissary, inspired confidence; his tones were vibrant, compelling.
"And for you, Monsieur?—the risk for you—" Francois faltered.
"Never mind about me. You consent?"
The other swallowed, muttered a monosyllable in a low tone.
"Then—" Heatherbloom murmured a few instructions. "Miss Dalrymple is not to know."
"I understand," said Francois quickly. And going out stealthily, he closed and locked the door behind him.
INTO THE INFINITE
The midnight hour drew near, and, above deck, tranquillity reigned. It was, however, the comparative quiet that follows a storm. A threatening day had culminated in a fierce tropical downpour—a cloud-burst—when the very heavens had seemed to open. The Nevski, steaming forward at half speed, had come almost to a stop; struck by the masses of water, she had fairly staggered beneath the impact. Now she lay motionless, while every shroud and line dripped; the darkness had become inky. Only the light from cabin windows which lay on the wet deck like shafts of silver relieved that Cimmerian effect. The sea moaned from the lashing it had received—a faint undertone, however, that became suddenly drowned by loud and harsh clangor, the hammering on metal somewhere below. Possibly something had gone wrong with a hatch or iron compartment door inadvertently left open, or one of the ventilators may have got jammed and needed adjusting. The captain, as he hastened down a companionway, muttered angrily beneath his breath about water in the stoke room. The decks, in the vicinity of the cabins, seemed now deserted, when from the shadows, a figure that had merged in the general gloom, stepped out and passed swiftly through one of the trails of light. Gliding stealthily toward the stern, this person drew near the rail, and, peering cautiously over, looked down on one of the small boats swung out in readiness for the landing party at dawn.
"Mademoiselle," he breathed low.
"Is that you, Francois?" came up softly from the boat.
He murmured something. "Is all in readiness?"
"Quite! Make haste."
The person above, about to swing himself over the rail, paused; a cabin door, near by, had been thrown open and a stream of light shot near him. Some one came out; moreover, she—for the some one was a woman—did not close the door. The youth crouched back, trying to draw himself from sight but the woman saw him, and coming quickly forward spoke. She thought him, no doubt, one of the sailors. He did not answer, perhaps was too frightened to do so, and his silence caused her to draw nearer. More sharply she started to address him in her own native Russian but the words abruptly ceased; a sudden exclamation fell from her lips. He, as if made desperate by what the woman, now at the rail, saw or divined, seemed imbued with extraordinary strength. The success or failure of the enterprise hung on how he met this unexpected emergency. Heroic, if needs be, brutal measures were demanded. Her outcry was stifled but Sonia Turgeinov was strong and resisted like a tigress. Perhaps she thought he meant to kill her, and in an excess of fear she managed to call out once. Fortunately for the youth, the hammering below continued, but whether she had made herself heard or not was uncertain. Confronted by a dire possibility, he exerted himself to the utmost to still that warning voice. In frenzied haste he seized the heavy scarf she had thrown around her shoulders upon leaving the cabin and wound it about her face and head. The sinuous body seemed to grow limp in his arms. His was not a pleasant task but a necessary one. This woman had delivered the girl to the prince in the first place; would now attempt to frustrate her escape. Any moment some one else might come on deck and discover them.
"Quick! Why don't you come?" Betty Dalrymple's anxious voice ascended from the darkness.
The youth knew well that no time must be lost, but what to do? He could not leave the woman. She might be only feigning unconsciousness. And anyway they would soon find her and learn the truth. That would mean their quick recapture. Already he thought he heard a footstep descending from the bridge—approaching—With extraordinary strength for one of Francois' slender build, he swung the figure of the woman over the side, dropped her into the boat and followed himself. A breathless moment of suspense ensued; he listened. The approaching footsteps came on; then paused, and turned the other way. The youth waited no longer. The little boat at the side was lowered softly; it touched the water and floated away from the Nevski like a leaf. Then the darkness swallowed it.
"How far are we from the yacht now, Francois?"
"Only a few miles, Mademoiselle."
"Do you think we'll be far enough away at daybreak so they can't see us?"
"Have no fear, Mademoiselle." The voice of Francois in the stern, thrilled. "There's a fair sailing wind."
"Isn't it strange"—Betty Dalrymple, speaking half to herself, regarded the motionless form in the bottom of the boat—"that she, of all persons, and I, should be thus thrust together, in such a tiny craft, on such an enormous sea?"
"I really couldn't help it, Mademoiselle"—apologetically—"bringing her with us. There was no alternative."
"Oh, I'm not criticizing you, who did so splendidly." The girl's eyes again fell. "She is unconscious a long time, Francois."
The youth's reply was lost amid the sound of the waters. Only the sea talked now, wildly, moodily; flying feathers of foam flecked the night. The boat took the waves laboriously and came down with shrill seething. She seemed ludicrously minute amid that vast unrest. The youth steered steadily; to Betty Dalrymple he seemed just going on anyhow, dashing toward a black blanket with nothing beyond. It was all very wonderful and awe-inspiring as well as somewhat fearsome. The waves had a cruel sound if one listened to them closely. A question floating in her mind found, after a long time, hesitating but audible expression:
"Do you think there's any doubt about our being able to make one of the islands, Francois?"
"None whatever!" came back the confident, almost eager reply. "Not the slightest doubt in the world, Mademoiselle. The islands are very near and we can't help seeing one of them at daybreak."
"Daybreak?" she said. "I wish it were here now."
Swish! swish! went the sea with more menacing sound. For the moment Francois steered wildly, and the boat careened; he brought her up sharply. The girl spoke no more. Perhaps the motion of the little craft gradually became more soothing as she accustomed herself to it, for, before long, her head drooped. It was dry in the bow; a blanket protected her from the wind, and, weary with the events of the last few days, she seemed to rest as securely on this wave-rocked couch as a child in its cradle. The youth, uncertain whether she slept or not, forbore to disturb her. Hours went by.
As the night wore on a few stars came out in a discouraged kind of way. Heretofore he had been steering by the wind; now, that scanty peripatetic band, adrift on celestial highways, assisted him in keeping his course. When one sleepy-eyed planet went in, another, not far away (from the human scope of survey) came out, and Francois, with the perspicacity of a follower of the sea, seemed to have learned how to gage direction by a visual game of hide-and-seek with the pin-points of infinitude. Between watching the stars, the sea and the sail, he found absorbing occupation for mind and muscle. Sometimes, in the water's depressions, a lull would catch them, then when the wind boomed again over the tops of the crests, slapping fiercely the canvas, a brief period of hazard had to be met. The boat, like a delicate live creature, needed a fine as well as a firm hand.
His faculties thus concentrated, Francois had remained oblivious to the dark form in the center of the boat, although long ago Sonia Turgeinov had first moved and looked up. If she made any sound, he whose glance passed steadily over her had not heard it. She raised herself slightly; sat a long time motionless, an arm thrown over a seat, her eyes alternating in direction, from the seas near the downward gunwale, to the almost indistinguishable figure of him in the stern, the while her fingers played with a scarf—the one that had been wound around her head. Once she leaned back, her cheek against the sharp thwart, her gaze heavenward. She remained thus a long while, with body motionless, though her fingers continued to toy with the bit of heavy silk, as if keeping pace with some mercurial rush of thoughts.
A wastrel, she had been in many strange places, but never before had she found herself in a situation so extraordinary. To her startled outlook, the boat might well have seemed a chip tossed on the mad foam of chaos. This figure, almost indistinguishable, yet so steadfastly present at the stern of the little craft, appeared grim and ghostlike. But that he was no ghost—His grip had been real; certainly that. He had been, too, perforce, a master of action. She leaned her head on her elbow. Strangely, she felt no resentment.
The tired stars, as by a community of interest and common understanding, slowly faded altogether. The woman bent her glance bow-ward. The day—what would it reveal? She understood a good deal, yet much still puzzled her. As through a dream, she had seemed to hear the name, "Francois"—to listen to a crystalline voice, fresh as the tinkling bells in some temple at the dawn. The darkness of the sky fused into a murky gray, and as that somber tone began, in turn, to be replaced by a lighter neutral tint, she made out dimly the figure of the girl. As by a species of fascination, she continued to look at her while the morn unfolded slowly. From behind a dark promontory of vapor, Aurora's warm hand now tossed out a few careless ribbons. They lightened the chilly-looking sea; they touched a golden tress—just one, that stole out from under the gray blanket. The girl's face could not be seen; the heavy covering concealed the lines of the lithe young form.
As she continued to sleep—undisturbed by the first manifestations of the dawn—the woman's glance swept backward to him at the helm. The shafts of light showed now his face, worn and set, yet strangely transfigured. He did not seem to notice her; beneath heavy lids his quick glances shot this way and that to where wisps of mist on the surface of the sea partly obscured the outlook. Sonia Turgeinov divined his purpose; he was looking for the Nevski. But although he continued to search in the direction of the yacht, he did not catch sight of her. Only the winding and twining diaphanous veils played where he feared she might have been visible. An expression of great satisfaction passed over his features.