The words he read were: "The Lost Prince."
"Silence is still the order," was the first thought which flashed through his mind. "Silence is still the order."
"What does it mean?" he said aloud.
"There isn't much of it. I wish there was more," The Rat said fretfully. "Read and see. Of course they say it mayn't be true—but I believe it is. They say that people think some one knows where he is—at least where one of his descendants is. It'd be the same thing. He'd be the real king. If he'd just show himself, it might stop all the fighting. Just read."
Marco read, and his skin prickled as the blood went racing through his body. But his face did not change. There was a sketch of the story of the Lost Prince to begin with. It had been regarded by most people, the article said, as a sort of legend. Now there was a definite rumor that it was not a legend at all, but a part of the long past history of Samavia. It was said that through the centuries there had always been a party secretly loyal to the memory of this worshiped and lost Fedorovitch. It was even said that from father to son, generation after generation after generation, had descended the oath of fealty to him and his descendants. The people had made a god of him, and now, romantic as it seemed, it was beginning to be an open secret that some persons believed that a descendant had been found—a Fedorovitch worthy of his young ancestor—and that a certain Secret Party also held that, if he were called back to the throne of Samavia, the interminable wars and bloodshed would reach an end.
The Rat had begun to bite his nails fast.
"Do you believe he's found?" he asked feverishly. "DON'T YOU? I do!"
"I wonder where he is, if it's true? I wonder! Where?" exclaimed Marco. He could say that, and he might seem as eager as he felt.
The Squad all began to jabber at once. "Yus, where wos'e? There is no knowin'. It'd be likely to be in some o' these furrin places. England'd be too far from Samavia. 'Ow far off wos Samavia? Wos it in Roosha, or where the Frenchies were, or the Germans? But wherever 'e wos, 'e'd be the right sort, an' 'e'd be the sort a chap'd turn and look at in the street."
The Rat continued to bite his nails.
"He might be anywhere," he said, his small fierce face glowing.
"That's what I like to think about. He might be passing in the street outside there; he might be up in one of those houses," jerking his head over his shoulder toward the backs of the inclosing dwellings. "Perhaps he knows he's a king, and perhaps he doesn't. He'd know if what you said yesterday was true—about the king always being made ready for Samavia."
"Yes, he'd know," put in Marco.
"Well, it'd be finer if he did," went on The Rat. "However poor and shabby he was, he'd know the secret all the time. And if people sneered at him, he'd sneer at them and laugh to himself. I dare say he'd walk tremendously straight and hold his head up. If I was him, I'd like to make people suspect a bit that I wasn't like the common lot o' them." He put out his hand and pushed Marco excitedly. "Let's work out plots for him!" he said. "That'd be a splendid game! Let's pretend we're the Secret Party!"
He was tremendously excited. Out of the ragged pocket he fished a piece of chalk. Then he leaned forward and began to draw something quickly on the flagstones closest to his platform. The Squad leaned forward also, quite breathlessly, and Marco leaned forward. The chalk was sketching a roughly outlined map, and he knew what map it was, before The Rat spoke.
"That's a map of Samavia," he said. "It was in that piece of magazine I told you about—the one where I read about Prince Ivor. I studied it until it fell to pieces. But I could draw it myself by that time, so it didn't matter. I could draw it with my eyes shut. That's the capital city," pointing to a spot. "It's called Melzarr. The palace is there. It's the place where the first of the Maranovitch killed the last of the Fedorovitch—the bad chap that was Ivor's father. It's the palace Ivor wandered out of singing the shepherds' song that early morning. It's where the throne is that his descendant would sit upon to be crowned—that he's GOING to sit upon. I believe he is! Let's swear he shall!" He flung down his piece of chalk and sat up. "Give me two sticks. Help me to get up."
Two of the Squad sprang to their feet and came to him. Each snatched one of the sticks from the stacked rifles, evidently knowing what he wanted. Marco rose too, and watched with sudden, keen curiosity. He had thought that The Rat could not stand up, but it seemed that he could, in a fashion of his own, and he was going to do it. The boys lifted him by his arms, set him against the stone coping of the iron railings of the churchyard, and put a stick in each of his hands. They stood at his side, but he supported himself.
"'E could get about if 'e 'ad the money to buy crutches!" said one whose name was Cad, and he said it quite proudly. The queer thing that Marco had noticed was that the ragamuffins were proud of The Rat, and regarded him as their lord and master. "—'E could get about an' stand as well as any one," added the other, and he said it in the tone of one who boasts. His name was Ben.
"I'm going to stand now, and so are the rest of you," said The Rat. "Squad! 'Tention! You at the head of the line," to Marco. They were in line in a moment—straight, shoulders back, chins up. And Marco stood at the head.
"We're going to take an oath," said The Rat. "It's an oath of allegiance. Allegiance means faithfulness to a thing—a king or a country. Ours means allegiance to the King of Samavia. We don't know where he is, but we swear to be faithful to him, to fight for him, to plot for him, to DIE for him, and to bring him back to his throne!" The way in which he flung up his head when he said the word "die" was very fine indeed. "We are the Secret Party. We will work in the dark and find out things—and run risks—and collect an army no one will know anything about until it is strong enough to suddenly rise at a secret signal, and overwhelm the Maranovitch and Iarovitch, and seize their forts and citadels. No one even knows we are alive. We are a silent, secret thing that never speaks aloud!"
Silent and secret as they were, however, they spoke aloud at this juncture. It was such a grand idea for a game, and so full of possible larks, that the Squad broke into a howl of an exultant cheer.
"Hooray!" they yelled. "Hooray for the oath of 'legiance! 'Ray! 'ray! 'ray!"
"Shut up, you swine!" shouted The Rat. "Is that the way you keep yourself secret? You'll call the police in, you fools! Look at HIM!" pointing to Marco. "He's got some sense."
Marco, in fact, had not made any sound.
"Come here, you Cad and Ben, and put me back on my wheels," raged the Squad's commander. "I'll not make up the game at all. It's no use with a lot of fat-head, raw recruits like you."
The line broke and surrounded him in a moment, pleading and urging.
"Aw, Rat! We forgot. It's the primest game you've ever thought out! Rat! Rat! Don't get a grouch on! We'll keep still, Rat! Primest lark of all 'll be the sneakin' about an' keepin' quiet. Aw, Rat! Keep it up!"
"Keep it up yourselves!" snarled The Rat.
"Not another cove of us could do it but you! Not one! There's no other cove could think it out. You're the only chap that can think out things. You thought out the Squad! That's why you're captain!"
This was true. He was the one who could invent entertainment for them, these street lads who had nothing. Out of that nothing he could create what excited them, and give them something to fill empty, useless, often cold or wet or foggy, hours. That made him their captain and their pride.
The Rat began to yield, though grudgingly. He pointed again to Marco, who had not moved, but stood still at attention.
"Look at HIM!" he said. "He knows enough to stand where he's put until he's ordered to break line. He's a soldier, he is—not a raw recruit that don't know the goose-step. He's been in barracks before."
But after this outburst, he deigned to go on.
"Here's the oath," he said. "We swear to stand any torture and submit in silence to any death rather than betray our secret and our king. We will obey in silence and in secret. We will swim through seas of blood and fight our way through lakes of fire, if we are ordered. Nothing shall bar our way. All we do and say and think is for our country and our king. If any of you have anything to say, speak out before you take the oath."
He saw Marco move a little, and he made a sign to him.
"You," he said. "Have you something to say?"
Marco turned to him and saluted.
"Here stand ten men for Samavia. God be thanked!" he said. He dared say that much, and he felt as if his father himself would have told him that they were the right words.
The Rat thought they were. Somehow he felt that they struck home. He reddened with a sudden emotion.
"Squad!" he said. "I'll let you give three cheers on that. It's for the last time. We'll begin to be quiet afterward."
And to the Squad's exultant relief he led the cheer, and they were allowed to make as much uproar as they liked. They liked to make a great deal, and when it was at an end, it had done them good and made them ready for business.
The Rat opened the drama at once. Never surely had there ever before been heard a conspirator's whisper as hollow as his.
"Secret Ones," he said, "it is midnight. We meet in the depths of darkness. We dare not meet by day. When we meet in the daytime, we pretend not to know each other. We are meeting now in a Samavian city where there is a fortress. We shall have to take it when the secret sign is given and we make our rising. We are getting everything ready, so that, when we find the king, the secret sign can be given."
"What is the name of the city we are in?" whispered Cad.
"It is called Larrina. It is an important seaport. We must take it as soon as we rise. The next time we meet I will bring a dark lantern and draw a map and show it to you."
It would have been a great advantage to the game if Marco could have drawn for them the map he could have made, a map which would have shown every fortress—every stronghold and every weak place. Being a boy, he knew what excitement would have thrilled each breast, how they would lean forward and pile question on question, pointing to this place and to that. He had learned to draw the map before he was ten, and he had drawn it again and again because there had been times when his father had told him that changes had taken place. Oh, yes! he could have drawn a map which would have moved them to a frenzy of joy. But he sat silent and listened, only speaking when he asked a question, as if he knew nothing more about Samavia than The Rat did. What a Secret Party they were! They drew themselves together in the closest of circles; they spoke in unearthly whispers.
"A sentinel ought to be posted at the end of the passage," Marco whispered.
"Ben, take your gun!" commanded The Rat.
Ben rose stealthily, and, shouldering his weapon, crept on tiptoe to the opening. There he stood on guard.
"My father says there's been a Secret Party in Samavia for a hundred years," The Rat whispered.
"Who told him?" asked Marco.
"A man who has been in Samavia," answered The Rat. "He said it was the most wonderful Secret Party in the world, because it has worked and waited so long, and never given up, though it has had no reason for hoping. It began among some shepherds and charcoal-burners who bound themselves by an oath to find the Lost Prince and bring him back to the throne. There were too few of them to do anything against the Maranovitch, and when the first lot found they were growing old, they made their sons take the same oath. It has been passed on from generation to generation, and in each generation the band has grown. No one really knows how large it is now, but they say that there are people in nearly all the countries in Europe who belong to it in dead secret, and are sworn to help it when they are called. They are only waiting. Some are rich people who will give money, and some are poor ones who will slip across the frontier to fight or to help to smuggle in arms. They even say that for all these years there have been arms made in caves in the mountains, and hidden there year after year. There are men who are called Forgers of the Sword, and they, and their fathers, and grandfathers, and great-grandfathers have always made swords and stored them in caverns no one knows of, hidden caverns underground."
Marco spoke aloud the thought which had come into his mind as he listened, a thought which brought fear to him. "If the people in the streets talk about it, they won't be hidden long."
"It isn't common talk, my father says. Only very few have guessed, and most of them think it is part of the Lost Prince legend," said The Rat. "The Maranovitch and Iarovitch laugh at it. They have always been great fools. They're too full of their own swagger to think anything can interfere with them."
"Do you talk much to your father?" Marco asked him.
The Rat showed his sharp white teeth in a grin.
"I know what you're thinking of," he said. "You're remembering that I said he was always drunk. So he is, except when he's only HALF drunk. And when he's HALF drunk, he's the most splendid talker in London. He remembers everything he has ever learned or read or heard since he was born. I get him going and listen. He wants to talk and I want to hear. I found out almost everything I know in that way. He didn't know he was teaching me, but he was. He goes back into being a gentleman when he's half drunk."
"If—if you care about the Samavians, you'd better ask him not to tell people about the Secret Party and the Forgers of the Sword," suggested Marco.
The Rat started a little.
"That's true!" he said. "You're sharper than I am. It oughtn't to be blabbed about, or the Maranovitch might hear enough to make them stop and listen. I'll get him to promise. There's one queer thing about him," he added very slowly, as if he were thinking it over, "I suppose it's part of the gentleman that's left in him. If he makes a promise, he never breaks it, drunk or sober."
"Ask him to make one," said Marco. The next moment he changed the subject because it seemed the best thing to do. "Go on and tell us what our own Secret Party is to do. We're forgetting," he whispered.
The Rat took up his game with renewed keenness. It was a game which attracted him immensely because it called upon his imagination and held his audience spellbound, besides plunging him into war and strategy.
"We're preparing for the rising," he said. "It must come soon. We've waited so long. The caverns are stacked with arms. The Maranovitch and the Iarovitch are fighting and using all their soldiers, and now is our time." He stopped and thought, his elbows on his knees. He began to bite his nails again.
"The Secret Signal must be given," he said. Then he stopped again, and the Squad held its breath and pressed nearer with a softly shuffling sound. "Two of the Secret Ones must be chosen by lot and sent forth," he went on; and the Squad almost brought ruin and disgrace upon itself by wanting to cheer again, and only just stopping itself in time. "Must be chosen BY LOT," The Rat repeated, looking from one face to another. "Each one will take his life in his hand when he goes forth. He may have to die a thousand deaths, but he must go. He must steal in silence and disguise from one country to another. Wherever there is one of the Secret Party, whether he is in a hovel or on a throne, the messengers must go to him in darkness and stealth and give him the sign. It will mean, 'The hour has come. God save Samavia!'"
"God save Samavia!" whispered the Squad, excitedly. And, because they saw Marco raise his hand to his forehead, every one of them saluted.
They all began to whisper at once.
"Let's draw lots now. Let's draw lots, Rat. Don't let's 'ave no waitin'."
The Rat began to look about him with dread anxiety. He seemed to be examining the sky.
"The darkness is not as thick as it was," he whispered. "Midnight has passed. The dawn of day will be upon us. If any one has a piece of paper or a string, we will draw the lots before we part."
Cad had a piece of string, and Marco had a knife which could be used to cut it into lengths. This The Rat did himself. Then, after shutting his eyes and mixing them, he held them in his hand ready for the drawing.
"The Secret One who draws the longest lot is chosen. The Secret One who draws the shortest is chosen," he said solemnly.
The drawing was as solemn as his tone. Each boy wanted to draw either the shortest lot or the longest one. The heart of each thumped somewhat as he drew his piece of string.
When the drawing was at an end, each showed his lot. The Rat had drawn the shortest piece of string, and Marco had drawn the longest one.
"Comrade!" said The Rat, taking his hand. "We will face death and danger together!"
"God save Samavia!" answered Marco.
And the game was at an end for the day. The primest thing, the Squad said, The Rat had ever made up for them. "'E wos a wonder, he wos!"
"THE LAMP IS LIGHTED!"
On his way home, Marco thought of nothing but the story he must tell his father, the story the stranger who had been to Samavia had told The Rat's father. He felt that it must be a true story and not merely an invention. The Forgers of the Sword must be real men, and the hidden subterranean caverns stacked through the centuries with arms must be real, too. And if they were real, surely his father was one of those who knew the secret. His thoughts ran very fast. The Rat's boyish invention of the rising was only part of a game, but how natural it would be that sometime—perhaps before long—there would be a real rising! Surely there would be one if the Secret Party had grown so strong, and if many weapons and secret friends in other countries were ready and waiting. During all these years, hidden work and preparation would have been going on continually, even though it was preparation for an unknown day. A party which had lasted so long—which passed its oath on from generation to generation—must be of a deadly determination.
What might it not have made ready in its caverns and secret meeting-places! He longed to reach home and tell his father, at once, all he had heard. He recalled to mind, word for word, all that The Rat had been told, and even all he had added in his game, because—well, because that seemed so real too, so real that it actually might be useful.
But when he reached No. 7 Philibert Place, he found Loristan and Lazarus very much absorbed in work. The door of the back sitting-room was locked when he first knocked on it, and locked again as soon as he had entered. There were many papers on the table, and they were evidently studying them. Several of them were maps. Some were road maps, some maps of towns and cities, and some of fortifications; but they were all maps of places in Samavia. They were usually kept in a strong box, and when they were taken out to be studied, the door was always kept locked.
Before they had their evening meal, these were all returned to the strong box, which was pushed into a corner and had newspapers piled upon it.
"When he arrives," Marco heard Loristan say to Lazarus, "we can show him clearly what has been planned. He can see for himself."
His father spoke scarcely at all during the meal, and, though it was not the habit of Lazarus to speak at such times unless spoken to, this evening it seemed to Marco that he LOOKED more silent than he had ever seen him look before. They were plainly both thinking anxiously of deeply serious things. The story of the stranger who had been to Samavia must not be told yet. But it was one which would keep.
Loristan did not say anything until Lazarus had removed the things from the table and made the room as neat as possible. While that was being done, he sat with his forehead resting on his hand, as if absorbed in thought. Then he made a gesture to Marco.
"Come here, Comrade," he said.
Marco went to him.
"To-night some one may come to talk with me about grave things," he said. "I think he will come, but I cannot be quite sure. It is important that he should know that, when he comes, he will find me quite alone. He will come at a late hour, and Lazarus will open the door quietly that no one may hear. It is important that no one should see him. Some one must go and walk on the opposite side of the street until he appears. Then the one who goes to give warning must cross the pavement before him and say in a low voice, 'The Lamp is lighted!' and at once turn quietly away."
What boy's heart would not have leaped with joy at the mystery of it! Even a common and dull boy who knew nothing of Samavia would have felt jerky. Marco's voice almost shook with the thrill of his feeling.
"How shall I know him?" he said at once. Without asking at all, he knew he was the "some one" who was to go.
"You have seen him before," Loristan answered. "He is the man who drove in the carriage with the King."
"I shall know him," said Marco. "When shall I go?"
"Not until it is half-past one o'clock. Go to bed and sleep until Lazarus calls you." Then he added, "Look well at his face before you speak. He will probably not be dressed as well as he was when you saw him first."
Marco went up-stairs to his room and went to bed as he was told, but it was hard to go to sleep. The rattle and roaring of the road did not usually keep him awake, because he had lived in the poorer quarter of too many big capital cities not to be accustomed to noise. But to-night it seemed to him that, as he lay and looked out at the lamplight, he heard every bus and cab which went past. He could not help thinking of the people who were in them, and on top of them, and of the people who were hurrying along on the pavement outside the broken iron railings. He was wondering what they would think if they knew that things connected with the battles they read of in the daily papers were going on in one of the shabby houses they scarcely gave a glance to as they went by them. It must be something connected with the war, if a man who was a great diplomat and the companion of kings came in secret to talk alone with a patriot who was a Samavian. Whatever his father was doing was for the good of Samavia, and perhaps the Secret Party knew he was doing it. His heart almost beat aloud under his shirt as he lay on the lumpy mattress thinking it over. He must indeed look well at the stranger before he even moved toward him. He must be sure he was the right man. The game he had amused himself with so long—the game of trying to remember pictures and people and places clearly and in detail—had been a wonderful training. If he could draw, he knew he could have made a sketch of the keen-eyed, clever, aquiline face with the well-cut and delicately close mouth, which looked as if it had been shut upon secrets always—always. If he could draw, he found himself saying again. He COULD draw, though perhaps only roughly. He had often amused himself by making sketches of things he wanted to ask questions about. He had even drawn people's faces in his untrained way, and his father had said that he had a crude gift for catching a likeness. Perhaps he could make a sketch of this face which would show his father that he knew and would recognize it.
He jumped out of bed and went to a table near the window. There was paper and a pencil lying on it. A street lamp exactly opposite threw into the room quite light enough for him to see by. He half knelt by the table and began to draw. He worked for about twenty minutes steadily, and he tore up two or three unsatisfactory sketches. The poor drawing would not matter if he could catch that subtle look which was not slyness but something more dignified and important. It was not difficult to get the marked, aristocratic outline of the features. A common-looking man with less pronounced profile would have been less easy to draw in one sense. He gave his mind wholly to the recalling of every detail which had photographed itself on his memory through its trained habit. Gradually he saw that the likeness was becoming clearer. It was not long before it was clear enough to be a striking one. Any one who knew the man would recognize it. He got up, drawing a long and joyful breath.
He did not put on his shoes, but crossed his room as noiselessly as possible, and as noiselessly opened the door. He made no ghost of a sound when he went down the stairs. The woman who kept the lodging-house had gone to bed, and so had the other lodgers and the maid of all work. All the lights were out except the one he saw a glimmer of under the door of his father's room. When he had been a mere baby, he had been taught to make a special sign on the door when he wished to speak to Loristan. He stood still outside the back sitting-room and made it now. It was a low scratching sound—two scratches and a soft tap. Lazarus opened the door and looked troubled.
"It is not yet time, sir," he said very low.
"I know," Marco answered. "But I must show something to my father." Lazarus let him in, and Loristan turned round from his writing-table questioningly.
Marco went forward and laid the sketch down before him.
"Look at it," he said. "I remember him well enough to draw that. I thought of it all at once—that I could make a sort of picture. Do you think it is like him?" Loristan examined it closely.
"It is very like him," he answered. "You have made me feel entirely safe. Thanks, Comrade. It was a good idea."
There was relief in the grip he gave the boy's hand, and Marco turned away with an exultant feeling. Just as he reached the door, Loristan said to him:
"Make the most of this gift. It is a gift. And it is true your mind has had good training. The more you draw, the better. Draw everything you can."
Neither the street lamps, nor the noises, nor his thoughts kept Marco awake when he went back to bed. But before he settled himself upon his pillow he gave himself certain orders. He had both read, and heard Loristan say, that the mind can control the body when people once find out that it can do so. He had tried experiments himself, and had found out some curious things. One was that if he told himself to remember a certain thing at a certain time, he usually found that he DID remember it. Something in his brain seemed to remind him. He had often tried the experiment of telling himself to awaken at a particular hour, and had awakened almost exactly at the moment by the clock.
"I will sleep until one o'clock," he said as he shut his eyes. "Then I will awaken and feel quite fresh. I shall not be sleepy at all."
He slept as soundly as a boy can sleep. And at one o'clock exactly he awakened, and found the street lamp still throwing its light through the window. He knew it was one o'clock, because there was a cheap little round clock on the table, and he could see the time. He was quite fresh and not at all sleepy. His experiment had succeeded again.
He got up and dressed. Then he went down-stairs as noiselessly as before. He carried his shoes in his hands, as he meant to put them on only when he reached the street. He made his sign at his father's door, and it was Loristan who opened it.
"Shall I go now?" Marco asked.
"Yes. Walk slowly to the other side of the street. Look in every direction. We do not know where he will come from. After you have given him the sign, then come in and go to bed again."
Marco saluted as a soldier would have done on receiving an order.
Then, without a second's delay, he passed noiselessly out of the house.
Loristan turned back into the room and stood silently in the center of it. The long lines of his handsome body looked particularly erect and stately, and his eyes were glowing as if something deeply moved him.
"There grows a man for Samavia," he said to Lazarus, who watched him. "God be thanked!"
Lazarus's voice was low and hoarse, and he saluted quite reverently.
"Your—sir!" he said. "God save the Prince!"
"Yes," Loristan answered, after a moment's hesitation,—"when he is found." And he went back to his table smiling his beautiful smile.
The wonder of silence in the deserted streets of a great city, after midnight has hushed all the roar and tumult to rest, is an almost unbelievable thing. The stillness in the depths of a forest or on a mountain top is not so strange. A few hours ago, the tumult was rushing past; in a few hours more, it will be rushing past again.
But now the street is a naked thing; a distant policeman's tramp on the bare pavement has a hollow and almost fearsome sound. It seemed especially so to Marco as he crossed the road. Had it ever been so empty and deadly silent before? Was it so every night? Perhaps it was, when he was fast asleep on his lumpy mattress with the light from a street lamp streaming into the room. He listened for the step of the policeman on night-watch, because he did not wish to be seen. There was a jutting wall where he could stand in the shadow while the man passed. A policeman would stop to look questioningly at a boy who walked up and down the pavement at half-past one in the morning. Marco could wait until he had gone by, and then come out into the light and look up and down the road and the cross streets.
He heard his approaching footsteps in a few minutes, and was safely in the shadows before he could be seen. When the policeman passed, he came out and walked slowly down the road, looking on each side, and now and then looking back. At first no one was in sight. Then a late hansom-cab came tinkling along. But the people in it were returning from some festivity, and were laughing and talking, and noticed nothing but their own joking. Then there was silence again, and for a long time, as it seemed to Marco, no one was to be seen. It was not really so long as it appeared, because he was anxious. Then a very early vegetable-wagon on the way from the country to Covent Garden Market came slowly lumbering by with its driver almost asleep on his piles of potatoes and cabbages. After it had passed, there was stillness and emptiness once more, until the policeman showed himself again on his beat, and Marco slipped into the shadow of the wall as he had done before.
When he came out into the light, he had begun to hope that the time would not seem long to his father. It had not really been long, he told himself, it had only seemed so. But his father's anxiousness would be greater than his own could be. Loristan knew all that depended on the coming of this great man who sat side by side with a king in his carriage and talked to him as if he knew him well.
"It might be something which all Samavia is waiting to know—at least all the Secret Party," Marco thought. "The Secret Party is Samavia,"—he started at the sound of footsteps. "Some one is coming!" he said. "It is a man."
It was a man who was walking up the road on the same side of the pavement as his own. Marco began to walk toward him quietly but rather rapidly. He thought it might be best to appear as if he were some boy sent on a midnight errand—perhaps to call a doctor. Then, if it was a stranger he passed, no suspicion would be aroused. Was this man as tall as the one who had driven with the King? Yes, he was about the same height, but he was too far away to be recognizable otherwise. He drew nearer, and Marco noticed that he also seemed slightly to hasten his footsteps. Marco went on. A little nearer, and he would be able to make sure. Yes, now he was near enough. Yes, this man was the same height and not unlike in figure, but he was much younger. He was not the one who had been in the carriage with His Majesty. He was not more than thirty years old. He began swinging his cane and whistling a music-hall song softly as Marco passed him without changing his pace.
It was after the policeman had walked round his beat and disappeared for the third time, that Marco heard footsteps echoing at some distance down a cross street. After listening to make sure that they were approaching instead of receding in another direction, he placed himself at a point where he could watch the length of the thoroughfare. Yes, some one was coming. It was a man's figure again. He was able to place himself rather in the shadow so that the person approaching would not see that he was being watched. The solitary walker reached a recognizable distance in about two minutes' time. He was dressed in an ordinary shop-made suit of clothes which was rather shabby and quite unnoticeable in its appearance. His common hat was worn so that it rather shaded his face. But even before he had crossed to Marco's side of the road, the boy had clearly recognized him. It was the man who had driven with the King!
Chance was with Marco. The man crossed at exactly the place which made it easy for the boy to step lightly from behind him, walk a few paces by his side, and then pass directly before him across the pavement, glancing quietly up into his face as he said in a low voice but distinctly, the words "The Lamp is lighted," and without pausing a second walk on his way down the road. He did not slacken his pace or look back until he was some distance away. Then he glanced over his shoulder, and saw that the figure had crossed the street and was inside the railings. It was all right. His father would not be disappointed. The great man had come.
He walked for about ten minutes, and then went home and to bed. But he was obliged to tell himself to go to sleep several times before his eyes closed for the rest of the night.
AN EXCITING GAME
Loristan referred only once during the next day to what had happened.
"You did your errand well. You were not hurried or nervous," he said. "The Prince was pleased with your calmness."
No more was said. Marco knew that the quiet mention of the stranger's title had been made merely as a designation. If it was necessary to mention him again in the future, he could be referred to as "the Prince." In various Continental countries there were many princes who were not royal or even serene highnesses—who were merely princes as other nobles were dukes or barons. Nothing special was revealed when a man was spoken of as a prince. But though nothing was said on the subject of the incident, it was plain that much work was being done by Loristan and Lazarus. The sitting-room door was locked, and the maps and documents, usually kept in the iron box, were being used.
Marco went to the Tower of London and spent part of the day in living again the stories which, centuries past, had been inclosed within its massive and ancient stone walls. In this way, he had throughout boyhood become intimate with people who to most boys seemed only the unreal creatures who professed to be alive in school-books of history. He had learned to know them as men and women because he had stood in the palaces they had been born in and had played in as children, had died in at the end. He had seen the dungeons they had been imprisoned in, the blocks on which they had laid their heads, the battlements on which they had fought to defend their fortressed towers, the thrones they had sat upon, the crowns they had worn, and the jeweled scepters they had held. He had stood before their portraits and had gazed curiously at their "Robes of Investiture," sewn with tens of thousands of seed-pearls. To look at a man's face and feel his pictured eyes follow you as you move away from him, to see the strangely splendid garments he once warmed with his living flesh, is to realize that history is not a mere lesson in a school-book, but is a relation of the life stories of men and women who saw strange and splendid days, and sometimes suffered strange and terrible things.
There were only a few people who were being led about sight-seeing. The man in the ancient Beef-eaters' costume, who was their guide, was good-natured, and evidently fond of talking. He was a big and stout man, with a large face and a small, merry eye. He was rather like pictures of Henry the Eighth, himself, which Marco remembered having seen. He was specially talkative when he stood by the tablet that marks the spot where stood the block on which Lady Jane Grey had laid her young head. One of the sightseers who knew little of English history had asked some questions about the reasons for her execution.
"If her father-in-law, the Duke of Northumberland, had left that young couple alone—her and her husband, Lord Guildford Dudley—they'd have kept their heads on. He was bound to make her a queen, and Mary Tudor was bound to be queen herself. The duke wasn't clever enough to manage a conspiracy and work up the people. These Samavians we're reading about in the papers would have done it better. And they're half-savages."
"They had a big battle outside Melzarr yesterday," the sight-seer standing next to Marco said to the young woman who was his companion. "Thousands of 'em killed. I saw it in big letters on the boards as I rode on the top of the bus. They're just slaughtering each other, that's what they're doing."
The talkative Beef-eater heard him.
"They can't even bury their dead fast enough," he said. "There'll be some sort of plague breaking out and sweeping into the countries nearest them. It'll end by spreading all over Europe as it did in the Middle Ages. What the civilized countries have got to do is to make them choose a decent king and begin to behave themselves."
"I'll tell my father that too," Marco thought. "It shows that everybody is thinking and talking of Samavia, and that even the common people know it must have a real king. This must be THE TIME!" And what he meant was that this must be the time for which the Secret Party had waited and worked so long—the time for the Rising. But his father was out when he went back to Philibert Place, and Lazarus looked more silent than ever as he stood behind his chair and waited on him through his insignificant meal. However plain and scant the food they had to eat, it was always served with as much care and ceremony as if it had been a banquet.
"A man can eat dry bread and drink cold water as if he were a gentleman," his father had said long ago. "And it is easy to form careless habits. Even if one is hungry enough to feel ravenous, a man who has been well bred will not allow himself to look so. A dog may, a man may not. Just as a dog may howl when he is angry or in pain and a man may not."
It was only one of the small parts of the training which had quietly made the boy, even as a child, self-controlled and courteous, had taught him ease and grace of boyish carriage, the habit of holding his body well and his head erect, and had given him a certain look of young distinction which, though it assumed nothing, set him apart from boys of carelessly awkward bearing.
"Is there a newspaper here which tells of the battle, Lazarus?" he asked, after he had left the table.
"Yes, sir," was the answer. "Your father said that you might read it. It is a black tale!" he added, as he handed him the paper.
It was a black tale. As he read, Marco felt as if he could scarcely bear it. It was as if Samavia swam in blood, and as if the other countries must stand aghast before such furious cruelties.
"Lazarus," he said, springing to his feet at last, his eyes burning, "something must stop it! There must be something strong enough. The time has come. The time has come." And he walked up and down the room because he was too excited to stand still.
How Lazarus watched him! What a strong and glowing feeling there was in his own restrained face!
"Yes, sir. Surely the time has come," he answered. But that was all he said, and he turned and went out of the shabby back sitting-room at once. It was as if he felt it were wiser to go before he lost power over himself and said more.
Marco made his way to the meeting-place of the Squad, to which The Rat had in the past given the name of the Barracks. The Rat was sitting among his followers, and he had been reading the morning paper to them, the one which contained the account of the battle of Melzarr. The Squad had become the Secret Party, and each member of it was thrilled with the spirit of dark plot and adventure. They all whispered when they spoke.
"This is not the Barracks now," The Rat said. "It is a subterranean cavern. Under the floor of it thousands of swords and guns are buried, and it is piled to the roof with them. There is only a small place left for us to sit and plot in. We crawl in through a hole, and the hole is hidden by bushes."
To the rest of the boys this was only an exciting game, but Marco knew that to The Rat it was more. Though The Rat knew none of the things he knew, he saw that the whole story seemed to him a real thing. The struggles of Samavia, as he had heard and read of them in the newspapers, had taken possession of him. His passion for soldiering and warfare and his curiously mature brain had led him into following every detail he could lay hold of. He had listened to all he had heard with remarkable results. He remembered things older people forgot after they had mentioned them. He forgot nothing. He had drawn on the flagstones a map of Samavia which Marco saw was actually correct, and he had made a rough sketch of Melzarr and the battle which had had such disastrous results.
"The Maranovitch had possession of Melzarr," he explained with feverish eagerness. "And the Iarovitch attacked them from here," pointing with his finger. "That was a mistake. I should have attacked them from a place where they would not have been expecting it. They expected attack on their fortifications, and they were ready to defend them. I believe the enemy could have stolen up in the night and rushed in here," pointing again. Marco thought he was right. The Rat had argued it all out, and had studied Melzarr as he might have studied a puzzle or an arithmetical problem. He was very clever, and as sharp as his queer face looked.
"I believe you would make a good general if you were grown up," said Marco. "I'd like to show your maps to my father and ask him if he doesn't think your stratagem would have been a good one."
"Does he know much about Samavia?" asked The Rat.
"He has to read the newspapers because he writes things," Marco answered. "And every one is thinking about the war. No one can help it."
The Rat drew a dingy, folded paper out of his pocket and looked it over with an air of reflection.
"I'll make a clean one," he said. "I'd like a grown-up man to look at it and see if it's all right. My father was more than half-drunk when I was drawing this, so I couldn't ask him questions. He'll kill himself before long. He had a sort of fit last night."
"Tell us, Rat, wot you an' Marco'll 'ave ter do. Let's 'ear wot you've made up," suggested Cad. He drew closer, and so did the rest of the circle, hugging their knees with their arms.
"This is what we shall have to do," began The Rat, in the hollow whisper of a Secret Party. "THE HOUR HAS COME. To all the Secret Ones in Samavia, and to the friends of the Secret Party in every country, the sign must be carried. It must be carried by some one who could not be suspected. Who would suspect two boys—and one of them a cripple? The best thing of all for us is that I am a cripple. Who would suspect a cripple? When my father is drunk and beats me, he does it because I won't go out and beg in the streets and bring him the money I get. He says that people will nearly always give money to a cripple. I won't be a beggar for him—the swine—but I will be one for Samavia and the Lost Prince. Marco shall pretend to be my brother and take care of me. I say," speaking to Marco with a sudden change of voice, "can you sing anything? It doesn't matter how you do it."
"Yes, I can sing," Marco replied.
"Then Marco will pretend he is singing to make people give him money. I'll get a pair of crutches somewhere, and part of the time I will go on crutches and part of the time on my platform. We'll live like beggars and go wherever we want to. I can whiz past a man and give the sign and no one will know. Some times Marco can give it when people are dropping money into his cap. We can pass from one country to another and rouse everybody who is of the Secret Party. We'll work our way into Samavia, and we'll be only two boys—and one a cripple—and nobody will think we could be doing anything. We'll beg in great cities and on the highroad."
"Where'll you get the money to travel?" said Cad.
"The Secret Party will give it to us, and we sha'n't need much. We could beg enough, for that matter. We'll sleep under the stars, or under bridges, or archways, or in dark corners of streets. I've done it myself many a time when my father drove me out of doors. If it's cold weather, it's bad enough but if it's fine weather, it's better than sleeping in the kind of place I'm used to. Comrade," to Marco, "are you ready?"
He said "Comrade" as Loristan did, and somehow Marco did not resent it, because he was ready to labor for Samavia. It was only a game, but it made them comrades—and was it really only a game, after all? His excited voice and his strange, lined face made it singularly unlike one.
"Yes, Comrade, I am ready," Marco answered him.
"We shall be in Samavia when the fighting for the Lost Prince begins." The Rat carried on his story with fire. "We may see a battle. We might do something to help. We might carry messages under a rain of bullets—a rain of bullets!" The thought so elated him that he forgot his whisper and his voice rang out fiercely. "Boys have been in battles before. We might find the Lost King—no, the Found King—and ask him to let us be his servants. He could send us where he couldn't send bigger people. I could say to him, 'Your Majesty, I am called "The Rat," because I can creep through holes and into corners and dart about. Order me into any danger and I will obey you. Let me die like a soldier if I can't live like one.'"
Suddenly he threw his ragged coat sleeve up across his eyes. He had wrought himself up tremendously with the picture of the rain of bullets. And he felt as if he saw the King who had at last been found. The next moment he uncovered his face.
"That's what we've got to do," he said. "Just that, if you want to know. And a lot more. There's no end to it!"
Marco's thoughts were in a whirl. It ought not to be nothing but a game. He grew quite hot all over. If the Secret Party wanted to send messengers no one would think of suspecting, who could be more harmless-looking than two vagabond boys wandering about picking up their living as best they could, not seeming to belong to any one? And one a cripple. It was true—yes, it was true, as The Rat said, that his being a cripple made him look safer than any one else. Marco actually put his forehead in his hands and pressed his temples.
"What's the matter?" exclaimed The Rat. "What are you thinking about?"
"I'm thinking what a general you would make. I'm thinking that it might all be real—every word of it. It mightn't be a game at all," said Marco.
"No, it mightn't," The Rat answered. "If I knew where the Secret Party was, I'd like to go and tell them about it. What's that!" he said, suddenly turning his head toward the street. "What are they calling out?"
Some newsboy with a particularly shrill voice was shouting out something at the topmost of his lungs.
Tense and excited, no member of the circle stirred or spoke for a few seconds. The Rat listened, Marco listened, the whole Squad listened, pricking up their ears.
"Startling news from Samavia," the newsboy was shrilling out. "Amazing story! Descendant of the Lost Prince found! Descendant of the Lost Prince found!"
"Any chap got a penny?" snapped The Rat, beginning to shuffle toward the arched passage.
"I have!" answered Marco, following him.
"Come on!" The Rat yelled. "Let's go and get a paper!" And he whizzed down the passage with his swiftest rat-like dart, while the Squad followed him, shouting and tumbling over each other.
"IT IS NOT A GAME"
Loristan walked slowly up and down the back sitting-room and listened to Marco, who sat by the small fire and talked.
"Go on," he said, whenever the boy stopped. "I want to hear it all. He's a strange lad, and it's a splendid game."
Marco was telling him the story of his second and third visits to the inclosure behind the deserted church-yard. He had begun at the beginning, and his father had listened with a deep interest.
A year later, Marco recalled this evening as a thrilling memory, and as one which would never pass away from him throughout his life. He would always be able to call it all back. The small and dingy back room, the dimness of the one poor gas-burner, which was all they could afford to light, the iron box pushed into the corner with its maps and plans locked safely in it, the erect bearing and actual beauty of the tall form, which the shabbiness of worn and mended clothes could not hide or dim. Not even rags and tatters could have made Loristan seem insignificant or undistinguished. He was always the same. His eyes seemed darker and more wonderful than ever in their remote thoughtfulness and interest as he spoke.
"Go on," he said. "It is a splendid game. And it is curious. He has thought it out well. The lad is a born soldier."
"It is not a game to him," Marco said. "And it is not a game to me. The Squad is only playing, but with him it's quite different. He knows he'll never really get what he wants, but he feels as if this was something near it. He said I might show you the map he made. Father, look at it."
He gave Loristan the clean copy of The Rat's map of Samavia. The city of Melzarr was marked with certain signs. They were to show at what points The Rat—if he had been a Samavian general—would have attacked the capital. As Marco pointed them out, he explained The Rat's reasons for his planning.
Loristan held the paper for some minutes. He fixed his eyes on it curiously, and his black brows drew themselves together.
"This is very wonderful!" he said at last. "He is quite right. They might have got in there, and for the very reasons he hit on. How did he learn all this?"
"He thinks of nothing else now," answered Marco. "He has always thought of wars and made plans for battles. He's not like the rest of the Squad. His father is nearly always drunk, but he is very well educated, and, when he is only half drunk, he likes to talk."
The Rat asks him questions then, and leads him on until he finds out a great deal. Then he begs old newspapers, and he hides himself in corners and listens to what people are saying. He says he lies awake at night thinking it out, and he thinks about it all the day. That was why he got up the Squad.
Loristan had continued examining the paper.
"Tell him," he said, when he refolded and handed it back, "that I studied his map, and he may be proud of it. You may also tell him—" and he smiled quietly as he spoke—"that in my opinion he is right. The Iarovitch would have held Melzarr to-day if he had led them."
Marco was full of exultation.
"I thought you would say he was right. I felt sure you would. That is what makes me want to tell you the rest," he hurried on.
"If you think he is right about the rest too—" He stopped awkwardly because of a sudden wild thought which rushed upon him. "I don't know what you will think," he stammered. "Perhaps it will seem to you as if the game—as if that part of it could—could only be a game."
He was so fervent in spite of his hesitation that Loristan began to watch him with sympathetic respect, as he always did when the boy was trying to express something he was not sure of. One of the great bonds between them was that Loristan was always interested in his boyish mental processes—in the way in which his thoughts led him to any conclusion.
"Go on," he said again. "I am like The Rat and I am like you. It has not seemed quite like a game to me, so far."
He sat down at the writing-table and Marco, in his eagerness, drew nearer and leaned against it, resting on his arms and lowering his voice, though it was always their habit to speak at such a pitch that no one outside the room they were in could distinguish what they said.
"It is The Rat's plan for giving the signal for a Rising," he said.
Loristan made a slight movement.
"Does he think there will be a Rising?" he asked.
"He says that must be what the Secret Party has been preparing for all these years. And it must come soon. The other nations see that the fighting must be put an end to even if they have to stop it themselves. And if the real King is found—but when The Rat bought the newspaper there was nothing in it about where he was. It was only a sort of rumor. Nobody seemed to know anything." He stopped a few seconds, but he did not utter the words which were in his mind. He did not say: "But YOU know."
"And The Rat has a plan for giving the signal?" Loristan said.
Marco forgot his first feeling of hesitation. He began to see the plan again as he had seen it when The Rat talked. He began to speak as The Rat had spoken, forgetting that it was a game. He made even a clearer picture than The Rat had made of the two vagabond boys—one of them a cripple—making their way from one place to another, quite free to carry messages or warnings where they chose, because they were so insignificant and poor-looking that no one could think of them as anything but waifs and strays, belonging to nobody and blown about by the wind of poverty and chance. He felt as if he wanted to convince his father that the plan was a possible one. He did not quite know why he felt so anxious to win his approval of the scheme—as if it were real—as if it could actually be done. But this feeling was what inspired him to enter into new details and suggest possibilities.
"A boy who was a cripple and one who was only a street singer and a sort of beggar could get almost anywhere," he said. "Soldiers would listen to a singer if he sang good songs—and they might not be afraid to talk before him. A strolling singer and a cripple would perhaps hear a great many things it might be useful for the Secret Party to know. They might even hear important things. Don't you think so?"
Before he had gone far with his story, the faraway look had fallen upon Loristan's face—the look Marco had known so well all his life. He sat turned a little sidewise from the boy, his elbow resting on the table and his forehead on his hand. He looked down at the worn carpet at his feet, and so he looked as he listened to the end. It was as if some new thought were slowly growing in his mind as Marco went on talking and enlarging on The Rat's plan. He did not even look up or change his position as he answered, "Yes. I think so."
But, because of the deep and growing thought in his face, Marco's courage increased. His first fear that this part of the planning might seem so bold and reckless that it would only appear to belong to a boyish game, gradually faded away for some strange reason. His father had said that the first part of The Rat's imaginings had not seemed quite like a game to him, and now—even now—he was not listening as if he were listening to the details of mere exaggerated fancies. It was as if the thing he was hearing was not wildly impossible. Marco's knowledge of Continental countries and of methods of journeying helped him to enter into much detail and give realism to his plans.
"Sometimes we could pretend we knew nothing but English," he said. "Then, though The Rat could not understand, I could. I should always understand in each country. I know the cities and the places we should want to go to. I know how boys like us live, and so we should not do anything which would make the police angry or make people notice us. If any one asked questions, I would let them believe that I had met The Rat by chance, and we had made up our minds to travel together because people gave more money to a boy who sang if he was with a cripple. There was a boy who used to play the guitar in the streets of Rome, and he always had a lame girl with him, and every one knew it was for that reason. When he played, people looked at the girl and were sorry for her and gave her soldi. You remember."
"Yes, I remember. And what you say is true," Loristan answered.
Marco leaned forward across the table so that he came closer to him. The tone in which the words were said made his courage leap like a flame. To be allowed to go on with this boldness was to feel that he was being treated almost as if he were a man. If his father had wished to stop him, he could have done it with one quiet glance, without uttering a word. For some wonderful reason he did not wish him to cease talking. He was willing to hear what he had to say—he was even interested.
"You are growing older," he had said the night he had revealed the marvelous secret. "Silence is still the order, but you are man enough to be told more."
Was he man enough to be thought worthy to help Samavia in any small way—even with boyish fancies which might contain a germ of some thought which older and wiser minds might make useful? Was he being listened to because the plan, made as part of a game, was not an impossible one—if two boys who could be trusted could be found? He caught a deep breath as he went on, drawing still nearer and speaking so low that his tone was almost a whisper.
"If the men of the Secret Party have been working and thinking for so many years—they have prepared everything. They know by this time exactly what must be done by the messengers who are to give the signal. They can tell them where to go and how to know the secret friends who must be warned. If the orders could be written and given to—to some one who has—who has learned to remember things!" He had begun to breathe so quickly that he stopped for a moment.
Loristan looked up. He looked directly into his eyes.
"Some one who has been TRAINED to remember things?" he said.
"Some one who has been trained," Marco went on, catching his breath again. "Some one who does not forget—who would never forget—never! That one, even if he were only twelve—even if he were only ten—could go and do as he was told." Loristan put his hand on his shoulder.
"Comrade," he said, "you are speaking as if you were ready to go yourself."
Marco's eyes looked bravely straight into his, but he said not one word.
"Do you know what it would mean, Comrade?" his father went on. "You are right. It is not a game. And you are not thinking of it as one. But have you thought how it would be if something betrayed you—and you were set up against a wall to be SHOT?"
Marco stood up quite straight. He tried to believe he felt the wall against his back.
"If I were shot, I should be shot for Samavia," he said. "And for YOU, Father."
Even as he was speaking, the front door-bell rang and Lazarus evidently opened it. He spoke to some one, and then they heard his footsteps approaching the back sitting-room.
"Open the door," said Loristan, and Marco opened it.
"There is a boy who is a cripple here, sir," the old soldier said. "He asked to see Master Marco."
"If it is The Rat," said Loristan, "bring him in here. I wish to see him."
Marco went down the passage to the front door. The Rat was there, but he was not upon his platform. He was leaning upon an old pair of crutches, and Marco thought he looked wild and strange. He was white, and somehow the lines of his face seemed twisted in a new way. Marco wondered if something had frightened him, or if he felt ill.
"Rat," he began, "my father—"
"I've come to tell you about MY father," The Rat broke in without waiting to hear the rest, and his voice was as strange as his pale face. "I don't know why I've come, but I—I just wanted to. He's dead!"
"Your father?" Marco stammered. "He's—"
"He's dead," The Rat answered shakily. "I told you he'd kill himself. He had another fit and he died in it. I knew he would, one of these days. I told him so. He knew he would himself. I stayed with him till he was dead—and then I got a bursting headache and I felt sick—and I thought about you."
Marco made a jump at him because he saw he was suddenly shaking as if he were going to fall. He was just in time, and Lazarus, who had been looking on from the back of the passage, came forward. Together they held him up.
"I'm not going to faint," he said weakly, "but I felt as if I was. It was a bad fit, and I had to try and hold him. I was all by myself. The people in the other attic thought he was only drunk, and they wouldn't come in. He's lying on the floor there, dead."
"Come and see my father," Marco said. "He'll tell us what do do. Lazarus, help him."
"I can get on by myself," said The Rat. "Do you see my crutches? I did something for a pawnbroker last night, and he gave them to me for pay."
But though he tried to speak carelessly, he had plainly been horribly shaken and overwrought. His queer face was yellowish white still, and he was trembling a little.
Marco led the way into the back sitting-room. In the midst of its shabby gloom and under the dim light Loristan was standing in one of his still, attentive attitudes. He was waiting for them.
"Father, this is The Rat," the boy began. The Rat stopped short and rested on his crutches, staring at the tall, reposeful figure with widened eyes.
"Is that your father?" he said to Marco. And then added, with a jerky half-laugh, "He's not much like mine, is he?"
THE RAT—AND SAMAVIA
What The Rat thought when Loristan began to speak to him, Marco wondered. Suddenly he stood in an unknown world, and it was Loristan who made it so because its poverty and shabbiness had no power to touch him. He looked at the boy with calm and clear eyes, he asked him practical questions gently, and it was plain that he understood many things without asking questions at all. Marco thought that perhaps he had, at some time, seen drunken men die, in his life in strange places. He seemed to know the terribleness of the night through which The Rat had passed. He made him sit down, and he ordered Lazarus to bring him some hot coffee and simple food.
"Haven't had a bite since yesterday," The Rat said, still staring at him. "How did you know I hadn't?"
"You have not had time," Loristan answered.
Afterward he made him lie down on the sofa.
"Look at my clothes," said The Rat.
"Lie down and sleep," Loristan replied, putting his hand on his shoulder and gently forcing him toward the sofa. "You will sleep a long time. You must tell me how to find the place where your father died, and I will see that the proper authorities are notified."
"What are you doing it for?" The Rat asked, and then he added, "sir."
"Because I am a man and you are a boy. And this is a terrible thing," Loristan answered him.
He went away without saying more, and The Rat lay on the sofa staring at the wall and thinking about it until he fell asleep. But, before this happened, Marco had quietly left him alone. So, as Loristan had told him he would, he slept deeply and long; in fact, he slept through all the night.
When he awakened it was morning, and Lazarus was standing by the side of the sofa looking down at him.
"You will want to make yourself clean," he said. "It must be done."
"Clean!" said The Rat, with his squeaky laugh. "I couldn't keep clean when I had a room to live in, and now where am I to wash myself?" He sat up and looked about him.
"Give me my crutches," he said. "I've got to go. They've let me sleep here all night. They didn't turn me into the street. I don't know why they didn't. Marco's father—he's the right sort. He looks like a swell."
"The Master," said Lazarus, with a rigid manner, "the Master is a great gentleman. He would turn no tired creature into the street. He and his son are poor, but they are of those who give. He desires to see and talk to you again. You are to have bread and coffee with him and the young Master. But it is I who tell you that you cannot sit at table with them until you are clean. Come with me," and he handed him his crutches. His manner was authoritative, but it was the manner of a soldier; his somewhat stiff and erect movements were those of a soldier, also, and The Rat liked them because they made him feel as if he were in barracks. He did not know what was going to happen, but he got up and followed him on his crutches.
Lazarus took him to a closet under the stairs where a battered tin bath was already full of hot water, which the old soldier himself had brought in pails. There were soap and coarse, clean towels on a wooden chair, and also there was a much worn but cleanly suit of clothes.
"Put these on when you have bathed," Lazarus ordered, pointing to them. "They belong to the young Master and will be large for you, but they will be better than your own." And then he went out of the closet and shut the door.
It was a new experience for The Rat. So long as he remembered, he had washed his face and hands—when he had washed them at all—at an iron tap set in the wall of a back street or court in some slum. His father and himself had long ago sunk into the world where to wash one's self is not a part of every-day life. They had lived amid dirt and foulness, and when his father had been in a maudlin state, he had sometimes cried and talked of the long-past days when he had shaved every morning and put on a clean shirt.
To stand even in the most battered of tin baths full of clean hot water and to splash and scrub with a big piece of flannel and plenty of soap was a marvelous thing. The Rat's tired body responded to the novelty with a curious feeling of freshness and comfort.
"I dare say swells do this every day," he muttered. "I'd do it myself if I was a swell. Soldiers have to keep themselves so clean they shine."
When, after making the most of his soap and water, he came out of the closet under the stairs, he was as fresh as Marco himself; and, though his clothes had been built for a more stalwart body, his recognition of their cleanliness filled him with pleasure. He wondered if by any effort he could keep himself clean when he went out into the world again and had to sleep in any hole the police did not order him out of.
He wanted to see Marco again, but he wanted more to see the tall man with the soft dark eyes and that queer look of being a swell in spite of his shabby clothes and the dingy place he lived in. There was something about him which made you keep on looking at him, and wanting to know what he was thinking of, and why you felt as if you'd take orders from him as you'd take orders from your general, if you were a soldier. He looked, somehow, like a soldier, but as if he were something more—as if people had taken orders from him all his life, and always would take orders from him. And yet he had that quiet voice and those fine, easy movements, and he was not a soldier at all, but only a poor man who wrote things for papers which did not pay him well enough to give him and his son a comfortable living. Through all the time of his seclusion with the battered bath and the soap and water, The Rat thought of him, and longed to have another look at him and hear him speak again. He did not see any reason why he should have let him sleep on his sofa or why he should give him a breakfast before he turned him out to face the world. It was first-rate of him to do it. The Rat felt that when he was turned out, after he had had the coffee, he should want to hang about the neighborhood just on the chance of seeing him pass by sometimes. He did not know what he was going to do. The parish officials would by this time have taken his dead father, and he would not see him again. He did not want to see him again. He had never seemed like a father. They had never cared anything for each other. He had only been a wretched outcast whose best hours had been when he had drunk too much to be violent and brutal. Perhaps, The Rat thought, he would be driven to going about on his platform on the pavements and begging, as his father had tried to force him to do. Could he sell newspapers? What could a crippled lad do unless he begged or sold papers?
Lazarus was waiting for him in the passage. The Rat held back a little.
"Perhaps they'd rather not eat their breakfast with me," he hesitated. "I'm not—I'm not the kind they are. I could swallow the coffee out here and carry the bread away with me. And you could thank him for me. I'd want him to know I thanked him."
Lazarus also had a steady eye. The Rat realized that he was looking him over as if he were summing him up.
"You may not be the kind they are, but you may be of a kind the Master sees good in. If he did not see something, he would not ask you to sit at his table. You are to come with me."
The Squad had seen good in The Rat, but no one else had. Policemen had moved him on whenever they set eyes on him, the wretched women of the slums had regarded him as they regarded his darting, thieving namesake; loafing or busy men had seen in him a young nuisance to be kicked or pushed out of the way. The Squad had not called "good" what they saw in him. They would have yelled with laughter if they had heard any one else call it so. "Goodness" was not considered an attraction in their world.
The Rat grinned a little and wondered what was meant, as he followed Lazarus into the back sitting-room.
It was as dingy and gloomy as it had looked the night before, but by the daylight The Rat saw how rigidly neat it was, how well swept and free from any speck of dust, how the poor windows had been cleaned and polished, and how everything was set in order. The coarse linen cloth on the table was fresh and spotless, so was the cheap crockery, the spoons shone with brightness.
Loristan was standing on the hearth and Marco was near him. They were waiting for their vagabond guest as if he had been a gentleman.
The Rat hesitated and shuffled at the door for a moment, and then it suddenly occurred to him to stand as straight as he could and salute. When he found himself in the presence of Loristan, he felt as if he ought to do something, but he did not know what.
Loristan's recognition of his gesture and his expression as he moved forward lifted from The Rat's shoulders a load which he himself had not known lay there. Somehow he felt as if something new had happened to him, as if he were not mere "vermin," after all, as if he need not be on the defensive—even as if he need not feel so much in the dark, and like a thing there was no place in the world for. The mere straight and far-seeing look of this man's eyes seemed to make a place somewhere for what he looked at. And yet what he said was quite simple.
"This is well," he said. "You have rested. We will have some food, and then we will talk together." He made a slight gesture in the direction of the chair at the right hand of his own place.
The Rat hesitated again. What a swell he was! With that wave of the hand he made you feel as if you were a fellow like himself, and he was doing you some honor.
"I'm not—" The Rat broke off and jerked his head toward Marco. "He knows—" he ended, "I've never sat at a table like this before."
"There is not much on it." Loristan made the slight gesture toward the right-hand seat again and smiled. "Let us sit down."
The Rat obeyed him and the meal began. There were only bread and coffee and a little butter before them. But Lazarus presented the cups and plates on a small japanned tray as if it were a golden salver. When he was not serving, he stood upright behind his master's chair, as though he wore royal livery of scarlet and gold. To the boy who had gnawed a bone or munched a crust wheresoever he found them, and with no thought but of the appeasing of his own wolfish hunger, to watch the two with whom he sat eat their simple food was a new thing. He knew nothing of the every-day decencies of civilized people. The Rat liked to look at them, and he found himself trying to hold his cup as Loristan did, and to sit and move as Marco was sitting and moving—taking his bread or butter, when it was held at his side by Lazarus, as if it were a simple thing to be waited upon. Marco had had things handed to him all his life, and it did not make him feel awkward. The Rat knew that his own father had once lived like this. He himself would have been at ease if chance had treated him fairly. It made him scowl to think of it. But in a few minutes Loristan began to talk about the copy of the map of Samavia. Then The Rat forgot everything else and was ill at ease no more. He did not know that Loristan was leading him on to explain his theories about the country and the people and the war. He found himself telling all that he had read, or overheard, or THOUGHT as he lay awake in his garret. He had thought out a great many things in a way not at all like a boy's. His strangely concentrated and over-mature mind had been full of military schemes which Loristan listened to with curiosity and also with amazement. He had become extraordinarily clever in one direction because he had fixed all his mental powers on one thing. It seemed scarcely natural that an untaught vagabond lad should know so much and reason so clearly. It was at least extraordinarily interesting. There had been no skirmish, no attack, no battle which he had not led and fought in his own imagination, and he had made scores of rough queer plans of all that had been or should have been done. Lazarus listened as attentively as his master, and once Marco saw him exchange a startled, rapid glance with Loristan. It was at a moment when The Rat was sketching with his finger on the cloth an attack which OUGHT to have been made but was not. And Marco knew at once that the quickly exchanged look meant "He is right! If it had been done, there would have been victory instead of disaster!"
It was a wonderful meal, though it was only of bread and coffee. The Rat knew he should never be able to forget it.
Afterward, Loristan told him of what he had done the night before. He had seen the parish authorities and all had been done which a city government provides in the case of a pauper's death.
His father would be buried in the usual manner. "We will follow him," Loristan said in the end. "You and I and Marco and Lazarus."
The Rat's mouth fell open.
"You—and Marco—and Lazarus!" he exclaimed, staring. "And me! Why should any of us go? I don't want to. He wouldn't have followed me if I'd been the one."
Loristan remained silent for a few moments.
"When a life has counted for nothing, the end of it is a lonely thing," he said at last. "If it has forgotten all respect for itself, pity is all that one has left to give. One would like to give SOMETHING to anything so lonely." He said the last brief sentence after a pause.
"Let us go," Marco said suddenly; and he caught The Rat's hand.
The Rat's own movement was sudden. He slipped from his crutches to a chair, and sat and gazed at the worn carpet as if he were not looking at it at all, but at something a long way off. After a while he looked up at Loristan.
"Do you know what I thought of, all at once?" he said in a shaky voice. "I thought of that 'Lost Prince' one. He only lived once. Perhaps he didn't live a long time. Nobody knows. But it's five hundred years ago, and, just because he was the kind he was, every one that remembers him thinks of something fine. It's queer, but it does you good just to hear his name. And if he has been training kings for Samavia all these centuries—they may have been poor and nobody may have known about them, but they've been KINGS. That's what HE did—just by being alive a few years. When I think of him and then think of—the other—there's such an awful difference that—yes—I'm sorry. For the first time. I'm his son and I can't care about him; but he's too lonely—I want to go."
So it was that when the forlorn derelict was carried to the graveyard where nameless burdens on the city were given to the earth, a curious funeral procession followed him. There were two tall and soldierly looking men and two boys, one of whom walked on crutches, and behind them were ten other boys who walked two by two. These ten were a queer, ragged lot; but they had respectfully sober faces, held their heads and their shoulders well, and walked with a remarkably regular marching step.
It was the Squad; but they had left their "rifles" at home.
"COME WITH ME"
When they came back from the graveyard, The Rat was silent all the way. He was thinking of what had happened and of what lay before him. He was, in fact, thinking chiefly that nothing lay before him—nothing. The certainty of that gave his sharp, lined face new lines and sharpness which made it look pinched and hard.
He had nothing before but a corner in a bare garret in which he could find little more than a leaking roof over his head—when he was not turned out into the street. But, if policemen asked him where he lived, he could say he lived in Bone Court with his father. Now he couldn't say it.
He got along very well on his crutches, but he was rather tired when they reached the turn in the street which led in the direction of his old haunts. At any rate, they were haunts he knew, and he belonged to them more than he belonged elsewhere. The Squad stopped at this particular corner because it led to such homes as they possessed. They stopped in a body and looked at The Rat, and The Rat stopped also. He swung himself to Loristan's side, touching his hand to his forehead.
"Thank you, sir," he said. "Line and salute, you chaps!" And the Squad stood in line and raised their hands also. "Thank you, sir. Thank you, Marco. Good-by."
"Where are you going?" Loristan asked.
"I don't know yet," The Rat answered, biting his lips.
He and Loristan looked at each other a few moments in silence. Both of them were thinking very hard. In The Rat's eyes there was a kind of desperate adoration. He did not know what he should do when this man turned and walked away from him. It would be as if the sun itself had dropped out of the heavens—and The Rat had not thought of what the sun meant before.
But Loristan did not turn and walk away. He looked deep into the lad's eyes as if he were searching to find some certainty. Then he said in a low voice, "You know how poor I am."
"I—I don't care!" said The Rat. "You—you're like a king to me. I'd stand up and be shot to bits if you told me to do it."
"I am so poor that I am not sure I can give you enough dry bread to eat—always. Marco and Lazarus and I are often hungry. Sometimes you might have nothing to sleep on but the floor. But I can find a PLACE for you if I take you with me," said Loristan. "Do you know what I mean by a PLACE?"
"Yes, I do," answered The Rat. "It's what I've never had before—sir."
What he knew was that it meant some bit of space, out of all the world, where he would have a sort of right to stand, howsoever poor and bare it might be.
"I'm not used to beds or to food enough," he said. But he did not dare to insist too much on that "place." It seemed too great a thing to be true.
Loristan took his arm.
"Come with me," he said. "We won't part. I believe you are to be trusted."
The Rat turned quite white in a sort of anguish of joy. He had never cared for any one in his life. He had been a sort of young Cain, his hand against every man and every man's hand against him. And during the last twelve hours he had plunged into a tumultuous ocean of boyish hero-worship. This man seemed like a sort of god to him. What he had said and done the day before, in what had been really The Rat's hours of extremity, after that appalling night—the way he had looked into his face and understood it all, the talk at the table when he had listened to him seriously, comprehending and actually respecting his plans and rough maps; his silent companionship as they followed the pauper hearse together—these things were enough to make the lad longingly ready to be any sort of servant or slave to him if he might see and be spoken to by him even once or twice a day.
The Squad wore a look of dismay for a moment, and Loristan saw it.
"I am going to take your captain with me," he said. "But he will come back to Barracks. So will Marco."
"Will yer go on with the game?" asked Cad, as eager spokesman. "We want to go on being the 'Secret Party.'"
"Yes, I'll go on," The Rat answered. "I won't give it up. There's a lot in the papers to-day."
So they were pacified and went on their way, and Loristan and Lazarus and Marco and The Rat went on theirs also.
"Queer thing is," The Rat thought as they walked together, "I'm a bit afraid to speak to him unless he speaks to me first. Never felt that way before with any one."
He had jeered at policemen and had impudently chaffed "swells," but he felt a sort of secret awe of this man, and actually liked the feeling.
"It's as if I was a private and he was commander-in-chief," he thought. "That's it."
Loristan talked to him as they went. He was simple enough in his statements of the situation. There was an old sofa in Marco's bedroom. It was narrow and hard, as Marco's bed itself was, but The Rat could sleep upon it. They would share what food they had. There were newspapers and magazines to be read. There were papers and pencils to draw new maps and plans of battles. There was even an old map of Samavia of Marco's which the two boys could study together as an aid to their game. The Rat's eyes began to have points of fire in them.
"If I could see the papers every morning, I could fight the battles on paper by night," he said, quite panting at the incredible vision of splendor. Were all the kingdoms of the earth going to be given to him? Was he going to sleep without a drunken father near him?
Was he going to have a chance to wash himself and to sit at a table and hear people say "Thank you," and "I beg pardon," as if they were using the most ordinary fashion of speech? His own father, before he had sunk into the depths, had lived and spoken in this way.
"When I have time, we will see who can draw up the best plans," Loristan said.
"Do you mean that you'll look at mine then—when you have time?" asked The Rat, hesitatingly. "I wasn't expecting that."
"Yes," answered Loristan, "I'll look at them, and we'll talk them over."
As they went on, he told him that he and Marco could do many things together. They could go to museums and galleries, and Marco could show him what he himself was familiar with.
"My father said you wouldn't let him come back to Barracks when you found out about it," The Rat said, hesitating again and growing hot because he remembered so many ugly past days. "But—but I swear I won't do him any harm, sir. I won't!"
"When I said I believed you could be trusted, I meant several things," Loristan answered him. "That was one of them. You're a new recruit. You and Marco are both under a commanding officer." He said the words because he knew they would elate him and stir his blood.