"Did you see that!" The Rat exclaimed. "Then we're sure! We're safe!"
"We're not safe till we've found the right man," Marco said. "Where is he? Where is he? Where is he?"
He said the words dreamily and quietly, as if he were lost in thought—but also rather as if he expected an answer. And he still looked at the far-off peaks. The Rat, after watching him a moment or so, began to look at them also. They were like a loadstone to him too. There was something stilling about them, and when your eyes had rested upon them a few moments they did not want to move away.
"There must be a ledge up there somewhere," he said at last.
"Let's go up and look for it and sit there and think and think—about finding the right man."
There seemed nothing fantastic in this to Marco. To go into some quiet place and sit and think about the thing he wanted to remember or to find out was an old way of his. To be quiet was always the best thing, his father had taught him. It was like listening to something which could speak without words.
"There is a little train which goes up the Gaisberg," he said. "When you are at the top, a world of mountains spreads around you. Lazarus went once and told me. And we can lie out on the grass all night. Let us go, Aide-de-camp."
So they went, each one thinking the same thought, and each boy-mind holding its own vision. Marco was the calmer of the two, because his belief that there was always help to be found was an accustomed one and had ceased to seem to partake of the supernatural. He believed quite simply that it was the working of a law, not the breaking of one, which gave answer and led him in his quests. The Rat, who had known nothing of laws other than those administered by police-courts, was at once awed and fascinated by the suggestion of crossing some borderland of the Unknown. The law of the One had baffled and overthrown him, with its sweeping away of the enmities of passions which created wars and called for armies. But the Law of Earthly Living seemed to offer practical benefits if you could hold on to yourself enough to work it.
"You wouldn't get everything for nothing, as far as I can make out," he had said to Marco. "You'd have to sweep all the rubbish out of your mind—sweep it as if you did it with a broom—and then keep on thinking straight and believing you were going to get things—and working for them—and they'd come."
Then he had laughed a short ugly laugh because he recalled something.
"There was something in the Bible that my father used to jeer about—something about a man getting what he prayed for if he believed it," he said.
"Oh, yes, it's there," said Marco. "That if a man pray believing he shall receive what he asks it shall be given him. All the books say something like it. It's been said so often it makes you believe it."
"He didn't believe it, and I didn't," said The Rat.
"Nobody does—really," answered Marco, as he had done once before. "It's because we don't know."
They went up the Gaisberg in the little train, which pushed and dragged and panted slowly upward with them. It took them with it stubbornly and gradually higher and higher until it had left Salzburg and the Citadel below and had reached the world of mountains which rose and spread and lifted great heads behind each other and beside each other and beyond each other until there seemed no other land on earth but that on mountain sides and backs and shoulders and crowns. And also one felt the absurdity of living upon flat ground, where life must be an insignificant thing.
There were only a few sight-seers in the small carriages, and they were going to look at the view from the summit. They were not in search of a ledge.
The Rat and Marco were. When the little train stopped at the top, they got out with the rest. They wandered about with them over the short grass on the treeless summit and looked out from this viewpoint and the other. The Rat grew more and more silent, and his silence was not merely a matter of speechlessness but of expression. He LOOKED silent and as if he were no longer aware of the earth. They left the sight-seers at last and wandered away by themselves. They found a ledge where they could sit or lie and where even the world of mountains seemed below them. They had brought some simple food with them, and they laid it behind a jutting bit of rock. When the sight-seers boarded the laboring little train again and were dragged back down the mountain, their night of vigil would begin.
That was what it was to be. A night of stillness on the heights, where they could wait and watch and hold themselves ready to hear any thought which spoke to them.
The Rat was so thrilled that he would not have been surprised if he had heard a voice from the place of the stars. But Marco only believed that in this great stillness and beauty, if he held his boy-soul quiet enough, he should find himself at last thinking of something that would lead him to the place which held what it was best that he should find. The people returned to the train and it set out upon its way down the steepness.
They heard it laboring on its way, as though it was forced to make as much effort to hold itself back as it had made to drag itself upward.
Then they were alone, and it was a loneness such as an eagle might feel when it held itself poised high in the curve of blue. And they sat and watched. They saw the sun go down and, shade by shade, deepen and make radiant and then draw away with it the last touches of color—rose-gold, rose-purple, and rose-gray.
One mountain-top after another held its blush a few moments and lost it. It took long to gather them all but at length they were gone and the marvel of night fell.
The breath of the forests below was sweet about them, and soundlessness enclosed them which was of unearthly peace. The stars began to show themselves, and presently the two who waited found their faces turned upward to the sky and they both were speaking in whispers.
"The stars look large here," The Rat said.
"Yes," answered Marco. "We are not as high as the Buddhist was, but it seems like the top of the world."
"There is a light on the side of the mountain yonder which is not a star," The Rat whispered.
"It is a light in a hut where the guides take the climbers to rest and to spend the night," answered Marco.
"It is so still," The Rat whispered again after a silence, and Marco whispered back:
"It is so still."
They had eaten their meal of black bread and cheese after the setting of the sun, and now they lay down on their backs and looked up until the first few stars had multiplied themselves into myriads. They began a little low talk, but the soundlessness was stronger than themselves.
"How am I going to hold on to that second law?" The Rat said restlessly. "'Let pass through thy mind only the image thou wouldst see become a truth.' The things that are passing through my mind are not the things I want to come true. What if we don't find him—don't find the right one, I mean!"
"Lie still—still—and look up at the stars," whispered Marco. "They give you a SURE feeling."
There was something in the curious serenity of him which calmed even his aide-de-camp. The Rat lay still and looked—and looked—and thought. And what he thought of was the desire of his heart. The soundlessness enwrapped him and there was no world left. That there was a spark of light in the mountain-climbers' rest-hut was a thing forgotten.
They were only two boys, and they had begun their journey on the earliest train and had been walking about all day and thinking of great and anxious things.
"It is so still," The Rat whispered again at last.
"It is so still," whispered Marco.
And the mountains rising behind each other and beside each other and beyond each other in the night, and also the myriads of stars which had so multiplied themselves, looking down knew that they were asleep—as sleep the human things which do not watch forever.
"Some one is smoking," Marco found himself saying in a dream. After which he awakened and found that the smoke was not part of a dream at all. It came from the pipe of a young man who had an alpenstock and who looked as if he had climbed to see the sun rise. He wore the clothes of a climber and a green hat with a tuft at the back. He looked down at the two boys, surprised.
"Good day," he said. "Did you sleep here so that you could see the sun get up?"
"Yes," answered Marco.
"Were you cold?"
"We slept too soundly to know. And we brought our thick coats."
"I slept half-way down the mountains," said the smoker. "I am a guide in these days, but I have not been one long enough to miss a sunrise it is no work to reach. My father and brother think I am mad about such things. They would rather stay in their beds. Oh! he is awake, is he?" turning toward The Rat, who had risen on one elbow and was staring at him. "What is the matter? You look as if you were afraid of me."
Marco did not wait for The Rat to recover his breath and speak.
"I know why he looks at you so," he answered for him. "He is startled. Yesterday we went to a hair-dresser's shop down below there, and we saw a man who was almost exactly like you—only—" he added, looking up, "his eyes were gray and yours are brown."
"He was my twin brother," said the guide, puffing at his pipe cheerfully. "My father thought he could make hair-dressers of us both, and I tried it for four years. But I always wanted to be climbing the mountains and there were not holidays enough. So I cut my hair, and washed the pomade out of it, and broke away. I don't look like a hair-dresser now, do I?"
He did not. Not at all. But Marco knew him. He was the man. There was no one on the mountain-top but themselves, and the sun was just showing a rim of gold above the farthest and highest giant's shoulders. One need not be afraid to do anything, since there was no one to see or hear. Marco slipped the sketch out of the slit in his sleeve. He looked at it and he looked at the guide, and then he showed it to him.
"That is not your brother. It is you!" he said.
The man's face changed a little—more than any other face had changed when its owner had been spoken to. On a mountain-top as the sun rises one is not afraid.
"The Lamp is lighted," said Marco. "The Lamp is lighted."
"God be thanked!" burst forth the man. And he took off his hat and bared his head. Then the rim behind the mountain's shoulder leaped forth into a golden torrent of splendor.
And The Rat stood up, resting his weight on his crutches in utter silence, and stared and stared.
"That is three!" said Marco.
THE SILVER HORN
During the next week, which they spent in journeying towards Vienna, they gave the Sign to three different persons at places which were on the way. In a village across the frontier in Bavaria they found a giant of an old man sitting on a bench under a tree before his mountain "Gasthaus" or inn; and when the four words were uttered, he stood up and bared his head as the guide had done. When Marco gave the Sign in some quiet place to a man who was alone, he noticed that they all did this and said their "God be thanked" devoutly, as if it were part of some religious ceremony. In a small town a few miles away he had to search some hours before he found a stalwart young shoemaker with bright red hair and a horseshoe-shaped scar on his forehead. He was not in his workshop when the boys first passed it, because, as they found out later, he had been climbing a mountain the day before, and had been detained in the descent because his companion had hurt himself.
When Marco went in and asked him to measure him for a pair of shoes, he was quite friendly and told them all about it.
"There are some good fellows who should not climb," he said. "When they find themselves standing on a bit of rock jutting out over emptiness, their heads begin to whirl round—and then, if they don't turn head over heels a few thousand feet, it is because some comrade is near enough to drag them back. There can be no ceremony then and they sometimes get hurt—as my friend did yesterday."
"Did you never get hurt yourself?" The Rat asked.
"When I was eight years old I did that," said the young shoemaker, touching the scar on his forehead. "But it was not much. My father was a guide and took me with him. He wanted me to begin early. There is nothing like it—climbing. I shall be at it again. This won't do for me. I tried shoemaking because I was in love with a girl who wanted me to stay at home. She married another man. I am glad of it. Once a guide, always a guide." He knelt down to measure Marco's foot, and Marco bent a little forward.
"The Lamp is lighted," he said.
There was no one in the shop, but the door was open and people were passing in the narrow street; so the shoemaker did not lift his red head. He went on measuring.
"God be thanked!" he said, in a low voice. "Do you want these shoes really, or did you only want me to take your measure?"
"I cannot wait until they are made," Marco answered. "I must go on."
"Yes, you must go on," answered the shoemaker. "But I'll tell you what I'll do—I'll make them and keep them. Some great day might come when I shall show them to people and swagger about them." He glanced round cautiously, and then ended, still bending over his measuring. "They will be called the shoes of the Bearer of the Sign. And I shall say, 'He was only a lad. This was the size of his foot.'" Then he stood up with a great smile.
"There'll be climbing enough to be done now," he said, "and I look to see you again somewhere."
When the boys went away, they talked it over.
"The hair-dresser didn't want to be a hair-dresser, and the shoemaker didn't want to make shoes," said The Rat. "They both wanted to be mountain-climbers. There are mountains in Samavia and mountains on the way to it. You showed them to me on the map.
"Yes; and secret messengers who can climb anywhere, and cross dangerous places, and reconnoiter from points no one else can reach, can find out things and give signals other men cannot," said Marco.
"That's what I thought out," The Rat answered. "That was what he meant when he said, 'There will be climbing enough to be done now.'"
Strange were the places they went to and curiously unlike each other were the people to whom they carried their message. The most singular of all was an old woman who lived in so remote a place that the road which wound round and round the mountain, wound round it for miles and miles. It was not a bad road and it was an amazing one to travel, dragged in a small cart by a mule, when one could be dragged, and clambering slowly with rests between when one could not: the tree-covered precipices one looked down, the tossing whiteness of waterfalls, or the green foaming of rushing streams, and the immensity of farm- and village-scattered plains spreading themselves to the feet of other mountains shutting them in were breath-taking beauties to look down on, as the road mounted and wound round and round and higher and higher.
"How can any one live higher than this?" said The Rat as they sat on the thick moss by the wayside after the mule and cart had left them. "Look at the bare crags looming up above there. Let us look at her again. Her picture looked as if she were a hundred years old."
Marco took out his hidden sketch. It seemed surely one of the strangest things in the world that a creature as old as this one seemed could reach such a place, or, having reached it, could ever descend to the world again to give aid to any person or thing.
Her old face was crossed and recrossed with a thousand wrinkles. Her profile was splendid yet and she had been a beauty in her day. Her eyes were like an eagle's—and not an old eagle's. And she had a long neck which held her old head high.
"How could she get here?" exclaimed The Rat.
"Those who sent us know, though we don't," said Marco. "Will you sit here and rest while I go on further?"
"No!" The Rat answered stubbornly. "I didn't train myself to stay behind. But we shall come to bare-rock climbing soon and then I shall be obliged to stop," and he said the last bitterly. He knew that, if Marco had come alone, he would have ridden in no cart but would have trudged upward and onward sturdily to the end of his journey.
But they did not reach the crags, as they had thought must be inevitable. Suddenly half-way to the sky, as it seemed, they came to a bend in the road and found themselves mounting into a new green world—an astonishing marvel of a world, with green velvet slopes and soft meadows and thick woodland, and cows feeding in velvet pastures, and—as if it had been snowed down from the huge bare mountain crags which still soared above into heaven—a mysterious, ancient, huddled village which, being thus snowed down, might have caught among the rocks and rested there through all time.
There it stood. There it huddled itself. And the monsters in the blue above it themselves looked down upon it as if it were an incredible thing—this ancient, steep-roofed, hanging-balconied, crumbling cluster of human nests, which seemed a thousand miles from the world. Marco and The Rat stood and stared at it. Then they sat down and stared at it.
"How did it get here?" The Rat cried.
Marco shook his head. He certainly could see no explanation of its being there. Perhaps some of the oldest villages could tell stories of how its first chalets had gathered themselves together.
An old peasant driving a cow came down a steep path. He looked with a dull curiosity at The Rat and his crutches; but when Marco advanced and spoke to him in German, he did not seem to understand, but shook his head saying something in a sort of dialect Marco did not know.
"If they all speak like that, we shall have to make signs when we want to ask anything," The Rat said. "What will she speak?"
"She will know the German for the Sign or we should not have been sent here," answered Marco. "Come on."
They made their way to the village, which huddled itself together evidently with the object of keeping itself warm when through the winter months the snows strove to bury it and the winds roared down from the huge mountain crags and tried to tear it from among its rocks. The doors and windows were few and small, and glimpses of the inside of the houses showed earthen floors and dark rooms. It was plain that it was counted a more comfortable thing to live without light than to let in the cold.
It was easy enough to reconnoiter. The few people they saw were evidently not surprised that strangers who discovered their unexpected existence should be curious and want to look at them and their houses.
The boys wandered about as if they were casual explorers, who having reached the place by chance were interested in all they saw. They went into the little Gasthaus and got some black bread and sausage and some milk. The mountaineer owner was a brawny fellow who understood some German. He told them that few strangers knew of the village but that bold hunters and climbers came for sport. In the forests on the mountain sides were bears and, in the high places, chamois. Now and again, some great gentlemen came with parties of the daring kind—very great gentlemen indeed, he said, shaking his head with pride. There was one who had castles in other mountains, but he liked best to come here. Marco began to wonder if several strange things might not be true if great gentlemen sometimes climbed to the mysterious place. But he had not been sent to give the Sign to a great gentleman. He had been sent to give it to an old woman with eyes like an eagle which was young.
He had a sketch in his sleeve, with that of her face, of her steep-roofed, black-beamed, balconied house. If they walked about a little, they would be sure to come upon it in this tiny place. Then he could go in and ask her for a drink of water.
They roamed about for an hour after they left the Gasthaus. They went into the little church and looked at the graveyard and wondered if it was not buried out of all sight in the winter. After they had done this, they sauntered out and walked through the huddled clusters of houses, examining each one as they drew near it and passed.
"I see it!" The Rat exclaimed at last. "It is that very old-looking one standing a little way from the rest. It is not as tumbled down as most of them. And there are some red flowers on the balcony."
"Yes! That's it!" said Marco.
They walked up to the low black door and, as he stopped on the threshold, Marco took off his cap. He did this because, sitting in the doorway on a low wooden chair, the old, old woman with the eagle eyes was sitting knitting.
There was no one else in the room and no one anywhere within sight. When the old, old woman looked up at him with her young eagle's eyes, holding her head high on her long neck, Marco knew he need not ask for water or for anything else.
"The Lamp is lighted," he said, in his low but strong and clear young voice.
She dropped her knitting upon her knees and gazed at him a moment in silence. She knew German it was clear, for it was in German she answered him.
"God be thanked!" she said. "Come in, young Bearer of the Sign, and bring your friend in with you. I live alone and not a soul is within hearing."
She was a wonderful old woman. Neither Marco nor The Rat would live long enough to forget the hours they spent in her strange dark house. She kept them and made them spend the night with her.
"It is quite safe," she said. "I live alone since my man fell into the crevasse and was killed because his rope broke when he was trying to save his comrade. So I have two rooms to spare and sometimes climbers are glad to sleep in them. Mine is a good warm house and I am well known in the village. You are very young," she added shaking her head. "You are very young. You must have good blood in your veins to be trusted with this."
"I have my father's blood," answered Marco.
"You are like some one I once saw," the old woman said, and her eagle eyes set themselves hard upon him. "Tell me your name."
There was no reason why he should not tell it to her.
"It is Marco Loristan," he said.
"What! It is that!" she cried out, not loud but low.
To Marco's amazement she got up from her chair and stood before him, showing what a tall old woman she really was. There was a startled, even an agitated, look in her face. And suddenly she actually made a sort of curtsey to him—bending her knee as peasants do when they pass a shrine.
"It is that!" she said again. "And yet they dare let you go on a journey like this! That speaks for your courage and for theirs."
But Marco did not know what she meant. Her strange obeisance made him feel awkward. He stood up because his training had told him that when a woman stands a man also rises.
"The name speaks for the courage," he said, "because it is my father's."
She watched him almost anxiously.
"You do not even know!" she breathed—and it was an exclamation and not a question.
"I know what I have been told to do," he answered. "I do not ask anything else."
"Who is that?" she asked, pointing to The Rat.
"He is the friend my father sent with me," said Marco smiling. "He called him my aide-de-camp. It was a sort of joke because we had played soldiers together."
It seemed as if she were obliged to collect her thoughts. She stood with her hand at her mouth, looking down at the earth floor.
"God guard you!" she said at last. "You are very—very young!"
"But all his years," The Rat broke in, "he has been in training for just this thing. He did not know it was training, but it was. A soldier who had been trained for thirteen years would know his work."
He was so eager that he forgot she could not understand English. Marco translated what he said into German and added: "What he says is true."
She nodded her head, still with questioning and anxious eyes.
"Yes. Yes," she muttered. "But you are very young." Then she asked in a hesitating way:
"Will you not sit down until I do?"
"No," answered Marco. "I would not sit while my mother or grandmother stood."
"Then I must sit—and forget," she said.
She passed her hand over her face as though she were sweeping away the sudden puzzled trouble in her expression. Then she sat down, as if she had obliged herself to become again the old peasant she had been when they entered.
"All the way up the mountain you wondered why an old woman should be given the Sign," she said. "You asked each other how she could be of use."
Neither Marco nor The Rat said anything.
"When I was young and fresh," she went on. "I went to a castle over the frontier to be foster-mother to a child who was born a great noble—one who was near the throne. He loved me and I loved him. He was a strong child and he grew up a great hunter and climber. When he was not ten years old, my man taught him to climb. He always loved these mountains better than his own. He comes to see me as if he were only a young mountaineer. He sleeps in the room there," with a gesture over her shoulder into the darkness. "He has great power and, if he chooses to do a thing, he will do it—just as he will attack the biggest bear or climb the most dangerous peak. He is one who can bring things about. It is very safe to talk in this room."
Then all was quite clear. Marco and The Rat understood.
No more was said about the Sign. It had been given and that was enough. The old woman told them that they must sleep in one of her bedrooms. The next morning one of her neighbors was going down to the valley with a cart and he would help them on their way. The Rat knew that she was thinking of his crutches and he became restless.
"Tell her," he said to Marco, "how I have trained myself until I can do what any one else can. And tell her I am growing stronger every day. Tell her I'll show her what I can do. Your father wouldn't have let me come as your aide if I hadn't proved to him that I wasn't a cripple. Tell her. She thinks I'm no use."
Marco explained and the old woman listened attentively. When The Rat got up and swung himself about up and down the steep path near her house she seemed relieved. His extraordinary dexterity and firm swiftness evidently amazed her and gave her a confidence she had not felt at first.
"If he has taught himself to be like that just for love of your father, he will go to the end," she said. "It is more than one could believe, that a pair of crutches could do such things."
The Rat was pacified and could afterwards give himself up to watching her as closely as he wished to. He was soon "working out" certain things in his mind. What he watched was her way of watching Marco. It was as if she were fascinated and could not keep her eyes from him. She told them stories about the mountains and the strangers who came to climb with guides or to hunt. She told them about the storms, which sometimes seemed about to put an end to the little world among the crags. She described the winter when the snow buried them and the strong ones were forced to dig out the weak and some lived for days under the masses of soft whiteness, glad to keep their cows or goats in their rooms that they might share the warmth of their bodies. The villages were forced to be good neighbors to each other, for the man who was not ready to dig out a hidden chimney or buried door to-day might be left to freeze and starve in his snow tomb next week. Through the worst part of the winter no creature from the world below could make way to them to find out whether they were all dead or alive.
While she talked, she watched Marco as if she were always asking herself some question about him. The Rat was sure that she liked him and greatly admired his strong body and good looks. It was not necessary for him to carry himself slouchingly in her presence and he looked glowing and noble. There was a sort of reverence in her manner when she spoke to him. She reminded him of Lazarus more than once. When she gave them their evening meal, she insisted on waiting on him with a certain respectful ceremony. She would not sit at table with him, and The Rat began to realize that she felt that he himself should be standing to serve him.
"She thinks I ought to stand behind your chair as Lazarus stands behind your father's," he said to Marco. "Perhaps an aide ought to do it. Shall I? I believe it would please her."
"A Bearer of the Sign is not a royal person," answered Marco. "My father would not like it—and I should not. We are only two boys."
It was very wonderful when, after their supper was over, they all three sat together before the fire.
The red glow of the bed of wood-coal and the orange yellow of the flame from the big logs filled the room with warm light, which made a mellow background for the figure of the old woman as she sat in her low chair and told them more and more enthralling stories.
Her eagle eyes glowed and her long neck held her head splendidly high as she described great feats of courage and endurance or almost superhuman daring in aiding those in awesome peril, and, when she glowed most in the telling, they always knew that the hero of the adventure had been her foster-child who was the baby born a great noble and near the throne. To her, he was the most splendid and adorable of human beings. Almost an emperor, but so warm and tender of heart that he never forgot the long-past days when she had held him on her knee and told him tales of chamois- and bear-hunting, and of the mountain-tops in mid-winter. He was her sun-god.
"Yes! Yes!" she said. "'Good Mother,' he calls me. And I bake him a cake on the hearth, as I did when he was ten years old and my man was teaching him to climb. And when he chooses that a thing shall be done—done it is! He is a great lord."
The flames had died down and only the big bed of red coal made the room glow, and they were thinking of going to bed when the old woman started very suddenly, turning her head as if to listen.
Marco and The Rat heard nothing, but they saw that she did and they sat so still that each held his breath. So there was utter stillness for a few moments. Utter stillness.
Then they did hear something—a clear silver sound, piercing the pure mountain air.
The old woman sprang upright with the fire of delight in her eyes.
"It is his silver horn!" she cried out striking her hands together. "It is his own call to me when he is coming. He has been hunting somewhere and wants to sleep in his good bed here. Help me to put on more faggots," to The Rat, "so that he will see the flame of them through the open door as he comes."
"Shall we be in the way?" said Marco. "We can go at once."
She was going towards the door to open it and she stopped a moment and turned.
"No, no!" she said. "He must see your face. He will want to see it. I want him to see—how young you are."
She threw the door wide open and they heard the silver horn send out its gay call again. The brushwood and faggots The Rat had thrown on the coals crackled and sparkled and roared into fine flames, which cast their light into the road and threw out in fine relief the old figure which stood on the threshold and looked so tall.
And in but a few minutes her great lord came to her. And in his green hunting-suit with its green hat and eagle's feather he was as splendid as she had said he was. He was big and royal-looking and laughing and he bent and kissed her as if he had been her own son.
"Yes, good Mother," they heard him say. "I want my warm bed and one of your good suppers. I sent the others to the Gasthaus."
He came into the redly glowing room and his head almost touched the blackened rafters. Then he saw the two boys.
"Who are these, good Mother?" he asked.
She lifted his hand and kissed it.
"They are the Bearers of the Sign," she said rather softly. "'The Lamp is lighted.'"
Then his whole look changed. His laughing face became quite grave and for a moment looked even anxious. Marco knew it was because he was startled to find them only boys. He made a step forward to look at them more closely.
"The Lamp is lighted! And you two bear the Sign!" he exclaimed. Marco stood out in the fire glow that he might see him well. He saluted with respect.
"My name is Marco Loristan, Highness," he said. "And my father sent me."
The change which came upon his face then was even greater than at first. For a second, Marco even felt that there was a flash of alarm in it. But almost at once that passed.
"Loristan is a great man and a great patriot," he said. "If he sent you, it is because he knows you are the one safe messenger. He has worked too long for Samavia not to know what he does."
Marco saluted again. He knew what it was right to say next.
"If we have your Highness's permission to retire," he said, "we will leave you and go to bed. We go down the mountain at sunrise."
"Where next?" asked the hunter, looking at him with curious intentness.
"To Vienna, Highness," Marco answered.
His questioner held out his hand, still with the intent interest in his eyes.
"Good night, fine lad," he said. "Samavia has need to vaunt itself on its Sign-bearer. God go with you."
He stood and watched him as he went toward the room in which he and his aide-de-camp were to sleep. The Rat followed him closely. At the little back door the old, old woman stood, having opened it for them. As Marco passed and bade her good night, he saw that she again made the strange obeisance, bending the knee as he went by.
"HOW SHALL WE FIND HIM?"
In Vienna they came upon a pageant. In celebration of a century-past victory the Emperor drove in state and ceremony to attend at the great cathedral and to do honor to the ancient banners and laurel-wreathed statue of a long-dead soldier-prince. The broad pavements of the huge chief thoroughfare were crowded with a cheering populace watching the martial pomp and splendor as it passed by with marching feet, prancing horses, and glitter of scabbard and chain, which all seemed somehow part of music in triumphant bursts.
The Rat was enormously thrilled by the magnificence of the imperial place. Its immense spaces, the squares and gardens, reigned over by statues of emperors, and warriors, and queens made him feel that all things on earth were possible. The palaces and stately piles of architecture, whose surmounting equestrian bronzes ramped high in the air clear cut and beautiful against the sky, seemed to sweep out of his world all atmosphere but that of splendid cities down whose broad avenues emperors rode with waving banners, tramping, jangling soldiery before and behind, and golden trumpets blaring forth. It seemed as if it must always be like this—that lances and cavalry and emperors would never cease to ride by. "I should like to stay here a long time," he said almost as if he were in a dream. "I should like to see it all."
He leaned on his crutches in the crowd and watched the glitter of the passing pageant. Now and then he glanced at Marco, who watched also with a steady eye which, The Rat saw, nothing would escape: How absorbed he always was in the Game! How impossible it was for him to forget it or to remember it only as a boy would! Often it seemed that he was not a boy at all. And the Game, The Rat knew in these days, was a game no more but a thing of deep and deadly earnest—a thing which touched kings and thrones, and concerned the ruling and swaying of great countries. And they—two lads pushed about by the crowd as they stood and stared at the soldiers—carried with them that which was even now lighting the Lamp. The blood in The Rat's veins ran quickly and made him feel hot as he remembered certain thoughts which had forced themselves into his mind during the past weeks. As his brain had the trick of "working things out," it had, during the last fortnight at least, been following a wonderful even if rather fantastic and feverish fancy. A mere trifle had set it at work, but, its labor once begun, things which might have once seemed to be trifles appeared so no longer. When Marco was asleep, The Rat lay awake through thrilled and sometimes almost breathless midnight hours, looking backward and recalling every detail of their lives since they had known each other. Sometimes it seemed to him that almost everything he remembered—the Game from first to last above all—had pointed to but one thing. And then again he would all at once feel that he was a fool and had better keep his head steady. Marco, he knew, had no wild fancies. He had learned too much and his mind was too well balanced. He did not try to "work out things." He only thought of what he was under orders to do.
"But," said The Rat more than once in these midnight hours, "if it ever comes to a draw whether he is to be saved or I am, he is the one that must come to no harm. Killing can't take long—and his father sent me with him."
This thought passed through his mind as the tramping feet went by. As a sudden splendid burst of approaching music broke upon his ear, a queer look twisted his face. He realized the contrast between this day and that first morning behind the churchyard, when he had sat on his platform among the Squad and looked up and saw Marco in the arch at the end of the passage. And because he had been good-looking and had held himself so well, he had thrown a stone at him. Yes—blind gutter-bred fool that he'd been:—his first greeting to Marco had been a stone, just because he was what he was. As they stood here in the crowd in this far-off foreign city, it did not seem as if it could be true that it was he who had done it.
He managed to work himself closer to Marco's side. "Isn't it splendid?" he said, "I wish I was an emperor myself. I'd have these fellows out like this every day." He said it only because he wanted to say something, to speak, as a reason for getting closer to him. He wanted to be near enough to touch him and feel that they were really together and that the whole thing was not a sort of magnificent dream from which he might awaken to find himself lying on his heap of rags in his corner of the room in Bone Court.
The crowd swayed forward in its eagerness to see the principal feature of the pageant—the Emperor in his carriage. The Rat swayed forward with the rest to look as it passed.
A handsome white-haired and mustached personage in splendid uniform decorated with jeweled orders and with a cascade of emerald-green plumes nodding in his military hat gravely saluted the shouting people on either side. By him sat a man uniformed, decorated, and emerald-plumed also, but many years younger.
Marco's arm touched The Rat's almost at the same moment that his own touched Marco. Under the nodding plumes each saw the rather tired and cynical pale face, a sketch of which was hidden in the slit in Marco's sleeve.
"Is the one who sits with the Emperor an Archduke?" Marco asked the man nearest to him in the crowd. The man answered amiably enough. No, he was not, but he was a certain Prince, a descendant of the one who was the hero of the day. He was a great favorite of the Emperor's and was also a great personage, whose palace contained pictures celebrated throughout Europe.
"He pretends it is only pictures he cares for," he went on, shrugging his shoulders and speaking to his wife, who had begun to listen, "but he is a clever one, who amuses himself with things he professes not to concern himself about—big things. It's his way to look bored, and interested in nothing, but it's said he's a wizard for knowing dangerous secrets."
"Does he live at the Hofburg with the Emperor?" asked the woman, craning her neck to look after the imperial carriage.
"No, but he's often there. The Emperor is lonely and bored too, no doubt, and this one has ways of making him forget his troubles. It's been told me that now and then the two dress themselves roughly, like common men, and go out into the city to see what it's like to rub shoulders with the rest of the world. I daresay it's true. I should like to try it myself once in a while, if I had to sit on a throne and wear a crown."
The two boys followed the celebration to its end. They managed to get near enough to see the entrance to the church where the service was held and to get a view of the ceremonies at the banner-draped and laurel-wreathed statue. They saw the man with the pale face several times, but he was always so enclosed that it was not possible to get within yards of him. It happened once, however, that he looked through a temporary break in the crowding people and saw a dark strong-featured and remarkably intent boy's face, whose vivid scrutiny of him caught his eye. There was something in the fixedness of its attention which caused him to look at it curiously for a few seconds, and Marco met his gaze squarely.
"Look at me! Look at me!" the boy was saying to him mentally. "I have a message for you. A message!"
The tired eyes in the pale face rested on him with a certain growing light of interest and curiosity, but the crowding people moved and the temporary break closed up, so that the two could see each other no more. Marco and The Rat were pushed backward by those taller and stronger than themselves until they were on the outskirts of the crowd.
"Let us go to the Hofburg," said Marco. "They will come back there, and we shall see him again even if we can't get near."
To the Hofburg they made their way through the less crowded streets, and there they waited as near to the great palace as they could get. They were there when, the ceremonies at an end, the imperial carriages returned, but, though they saw their man again, they were at some distance from him and he did not see them.
Then followed four singular days. They were singular days because they were full of tantalizing incidents. Nothing seemed easier than to hear talk of, and see the Emperor's favorite, but nothing was more impossible than to get near to him. He seemed rather a favorite with the populace, and the common people of the shopkeeping or laboring classes were given to talking freely of him—of where he was going and what he was doing. To-night he would be sure to be at this great house or that, at this ball or that banquet. There was no difficulty in discovering that he would be sure to go to the opera, or the theatre, or to drive to Schonbrunn with his imperial master. Marco and The Rat heard casual speech of him again and again, and from one part of the city to the other they followed and waited for him. But it was like chasing a will-o'-the-wisp. He was evidently too brilliant and important a person to be allowed to move about alone. There were always people with him who seemed absorbed in his languid cynical talk. Marco thought that he never seemed to care much for his companions, though they on their part always seemed highly entertained by what he was saying. It was noticeable that they laughed a great deal, though he himself scarcely even smiled.
"He's one of those chaps with the trick of saying witty things as if he didn't see the fun in them himself," The Rat summed him up. "Chaps like that are always cleverer than the other kind."
"He's too high in favor and too rich not to be followed about," they heard a man in a shop say one day, "but he gets tired of it. Sometimes, when he's too bored to stand it any longer, he gives it out that he's gone into the mountains somewhere, and all the time he's shut up alone with his pictures in his own palace."
That very night The Rat came in to their attic looking pale and disappointed. He had been out to buy some food after a long and arduous day in which they had covered much ground, had seen their man three times, and each time under circumstances which made him more inaccessible than ever. They had come back to their poor quarters both tired and ravenously hungry.
The Rat threw his purchase on to the table and himself into a chair.
"He's gone to Budapest," he said. "NOW how shall we find him?"
Marco was rather pale also, and for a moment he looked paler. The day had been a hard one, and in their haste to reach places at a long distance from each other they had forgotten their need of food.
They sat silent for a few moments because there seemed to be nothing to say. "We are too tired and hungry to be able to think well," Marco said at last. "Let us eat our supper and then go to sleep. Until we've had a rest, we must 'let go.'"
"Yes. There's no good in talking when you're tired," The Rat answered a trifle gloomily. "You don't reason straight. We must 'let go.'"
Their meal was simple but they ate well and without words.
Even when they had finished and undressed for the night, they said very little.
"Where do our thoughts go when we are asleep," The Rat inquired casually after he was stretched out in the darkness. "They must go somewhere. Let's send them to find out what to do next."
"It's not as still as it was on the Gaisberg. You can hear the city roaring," said Marco drowsily from his dark corner. "We must make a ledge—for ourselves."
Sleep made it for them—deep, restful, healthy sleep. If they had been more resentful of their ill luck and lost labor, it would have come less easily and have been less natural. In their talks of strange things they had learned that one great secret of strength and unflagging courage is to know how to "let go"—to cease thinking over an anxiety until the right moment comes. It was their habit to "let go" for hours sometimes, and wander about looking at places and things—galleries, museums, palaces, giving themselves up with boyish pleasure and eagerness to all they saw. Marco was too intimate with the things worth seeing, and The Rat too curious and feverishly wide-awake to allow of their missing much.
The Rat's image of the world had grown until it seemed to know no boundaries which could hold its wealth of wonders. He wanted to go on and on and see them all.
When Marco opened his eyes in the morning, he found The Rat lying looking at him. Then they both sat up in bed at the same time.
"I believe we are both thinking the same thing," Marco said.
They frequently discovered that they were thinking the same things.
"So do I," answered The Rat. "It shows how tired we were that we didn't think of it last night."
"Yes, we are thinking the same thing," said Marco. "We have both remembered what we heard about his shutting himself up alone with his pictures and making people believe he had gone away."
"He's in his palace now," The Rat announced.
"Do you feel sure of that, too?" asked Marco. "Did you wake up and feel sure of it the first thing?"
"Yes," answered The Rat. "As sure as if I'd heard him say it himself."
"So did I," said Marco.
"That's what our thoughts brought back to us," said The Rat, "when we 'let go' and sent them off last night." He sat up hugging his knees and looking straight before him for some time after this, and Marco did not interrupt his meditations.
The day was a brilliant one, and, though their attic had only one window, the sun shone in through it as they ate their breakfast. After it, they leaned on the window's ledge and talked about the Prince's garden. They talked about it because it was a place open to the public and they had walked round it more than once. The palace, which was not a large one, stood in the midst of it. The Prince was good-natured enough to allow quiet and well-behaved people to saunter through. It was not a fashionable promenade but a pleasant retreat for people who sometimes took their work or books and sat on the seats placed here and there among the shrubs and flowers.
"When we were there the first time, I noticed two things," Marco said. "There is a stone balcony which juts out from the side of the palace which looks on the Fountain Garden. That day there were chairs on it as if the Prince and his visitors sometimes sat there. Near it, there was a very large evergreen shrub and I saw that there was a hollow place inside it. If some one wanted to stay in the gardens all night to watch the windows when they were lighted and see if any one came out alone upon the balcony, he could hide himself in the hollow place and stay there until the morning."
"Is there room for two inside the shrub?" The Rat asked.
"No. I must go alone," said Marco.
A VOICE IN THE NIGHT
Late that afternoon there wandered about the gardens two quiet, inconspicuous, rather poorly dressed boys. They looked at the palace, the shrubs, and the flower-beds, as strangers usually did, and they sat on the seats and talked as people were accustomed to seeing boys talk together. It was a sunny day and exceptionally warm, and there were more saunterers and sitters than usual, which was perhaps the reason why the portier at the entrance gates gave such slight notice to the pair that he did not observe that, though two boys came in, only one went out. He did not, in fact, remember, when he saw The Rat swing by on his crutches at closing-time, that he had entered in company with a dark-haired lad who walked without any aid. It happened that, when The Rat passed out, the portier at the entrance was much interested in the aspect of the sky, which was curiously threatening. There had been heavy clouds hanging about all day and now and then blotting out the sunshine entirely, but the sun had refused to retire altogether. Just now, however, the clouds had piled themselves in thunderous, purplish mountains, and the sun had been forced to set behind them.
"It's been a sort of battle since morning," the portier said. "There will be some crashes and cataracts to-night." That was what The Rat had thought when they had sat in the Fountain Garden on a seat which gave them a good view of the balcony and the big evergreen shrub, which they knew had the hollow in the middle, though its circumference was so imposing. "If there should be a big storm, the evergreen will not save you much, though it may keep off the worst," The Rat said. "I wish there was room for two."
He would have wished there was room for two if he had seen Marco marching to the stake. As the gardens emptied, the boys rose and walked round once more, as if on their way out. By the time they had sauntered toward the big evergreen, nobody was in the Fountain Garden, and the last loiterers were moving toward the arched stone entrance to the streets.
When they drew near one side of the evergreen, the two were together. When The Rat swung out on the other side of it, he was alone! No one noticed that anything had happened; no one looked back. So The Rat swung down the walks and round the flower-beds and passed into the street. And the portier looked at the sky and made his remark about the "crashes" and "cataracts."
As the darkness came on, the hollow in the shrub seemed a very safe place. It was not in the least likely that any one would enter the closed gardens; and if by rare chance some servant passed through, he would not be in search of people who wished to watch all night in the middle of an evergreen instead of going to bed and to sleep. The hollow was well inclosed with greenery, and there was room to sit down when one was tired of standing.
Marco stood for a long time because, by doing so, he could see plainly the windows opening on the balcony if he gently pushed aside some flexible young boughs. He had managed to discover in his first visit to the gardens that the windows overlooking the Fountain Garden were those which belonged to the Prince's own suite of rooms. Those which opened on to the balcony lighted his favorite apartment, which contained his best-loved books and pictures and in which he spent most of his secluded leisure hours.
Marco watched these windows anxiously. If the Prince had not gone to Budapest,—if he were really only in retreat, and hiding from his gay world among his treasures,—he would be living in his favorite rooms and lights would show themselves. And if there were lights, he might pass before a window because, since he was inclosed in his garden, he need not fear being seen. The twilight deepened into darkness and, because of the heavy clouds, it was very dense. Faint gleams showed themselves in the lower part of the palace, but none was lighted in the windows Marco watched. He waited so long that it became evident that none was to be lighted at all. At last he loosed his hold on the young boughs and, after standing a few moments in thought, sat down upon the earth in the midst of his embowered tent. The Prince was not in his retreat; he was probably not in Vienna, and the rumor of his journey to Budapest had no doubt been true. So much time lost through making a mistake—but it was best to have made the venture. Not to have made it would have been to lose a chance. The entrance was closed for the night and there was no getting out of the gardens until they were opened for the next day. He must stay in his hiding-place until the time when people began to come and bring their books and knitting and sit on the seats. Then he could stroll out without attracting attention. But he had the night before him to spend as best he could. That would not matter at all. He could tuck his cap under his head and go to sleep on the ground. He could command himself to waken once every half-hour and look for the lights. He would not go to sleep until it was long past midnight—so long past that there would not be one chance in a hundred that anything could happen. But the clouds which made the night so dark were giving forth low rumbling growls. At intervals a threatening gleam of light shot across them and a sudden swish of wind rushed through the trees in the garden. This happened several times, and then Marco began to hear the patter of raindrops. They were heavy and big drops, but few at first, and then there was a new and more powerful rush of wind, a jagged dart of light in the sky, and a tremendous crash. After that the clouds tore themselves open and poured forth their contents in floods. After the protracted struggle of the day it all seemed to happen at once, as if a horde of huge lions had at one moment been let loose: flame after flame of lightning, roar and crash and sharp reports of thunder, shrieks of hurricane wind, torrents of rain, as if some tidal-wave of the skies had gathered and rushed and burst upon the earth. It was such a storm as people remember for a lifetime and which in few lifetimes is seen at all.
Marco stood still in the midst of the rage and flooding, blinding roar of it. After the first few minutes he knew he could do nothing to shield himself. Down the garden paths he heard cataracts rushing. He held his cap pressed against his eyes because he seemed to stand in the midst of darting flames. The crashes, cannon reports and thunderings, and the jagged streams of light came so close to one another that he seemed deafened as well as blinded. He wondered if he should ever be able to hear human voices again when it was over. That he was drenched to the skin and that the water poured from his clothes as if he were himself a cataract was so small a detail that he was scarcely aware of it. He stood still, bracing his body, and waited. If he had been a Samavian soldier in the trenches and such a storm had broken upon him and his comrades, they could only have braced themselves and waited. This was what he found himself thinking when the tumult and downpour were at their worst. There were men who had waited in the midst of a rain of bullets.
It was not long after this thought had come to him that there occurred the first temporary lull in the storm. Its fury perhaps reached its height and broke at that moment. A yellow flame had torn its jagged way across the heavens, and an earth-rending crash had thundered itself into rumblings which actually died away before breaking forth again. Marco took his cap from his eyes and drew a long breath. He drew two long breaths. It was as he began drawing a third and realizing the strange feeling of the almost stillness about him that he heard a new kind of sound at the side of the garden nearest his hiding-place. It sounded like the creak of a door opening somewhere in the wall behind the laurel hedge. Some one was coming into the garden by a private entrance. He pushed aside the young boughs again and tried to see, but the darkness was too dense. Yet he could hear if the thunder would not break again. There was the sound of feet on the wet gravel, the footsteps of more than one person coming toward where he stood, but not as if afraid of being heard; merely as if they were at liberty to come in by what entrance they chose. Marco remained very still. A sudden hope gave him a shock of joy. If the man with the tired face chose to hide himself from his acquaintances, he might choose to go in and out by a private entrance. The footsteps drew near, crushing the wet gravel, passed by, and seemed to pause somewhere near the balcony; and them flame lit up the sky again and the thunder burst forth once more.
But this was its last great peal. The storm was at an end. Only fainter and fainter rumblings and mutterings and paler and paler darts followed. Even they were soon over, and the cataracts in the paths had rushed themselves silent. But the darkness was still deep.
It was deep to blackness in the hollow of the evergreen. Marco stood in it, streaming with rain, but feeling nothing because he was full of thought. He pushed aside his greenery and kept his eyes on the place in the blackness where the windows must be, though he could not see them. It seemed that he waited a long time, but he knew it only seemed so really. He began to breathe quickly because he was waiting for something.
Suddenly he saw exactly where the windows were—because they were all lighted!
His feeling of relief was great, but it did not last very long. It was true that something had been gained in the certainty that his man had not left Vienna. But what next? It would not be so easy to follow him if he chose only to go out secretly at night. What next? To spend the rest of the night watching a lighted window was not enough. To-morrow night it might not be lighted. But he kept his gaze fixed upon it. He tried to fix all his will and thought-power on the person inside the room. Perhaps he could reach him and make him listen, even though he would not know that any one was speaking to him. He knew that thoughts were strong things. If angry thoughts in one man's mind will create anger in the mind of another, why should not sane messages cross the line?
"I must speak to you. I must speak to you!" he found himself saying in a low intense voice. "I am outside here waiting. Listen! I must speak to you!"
He said it many times and kept his eyes fixed upon the window which opened on to the balcony. Once he saw a man's figure cross the room, but he could not be sure who it was. The last distant rumblings of thunder had died away and the clouds were breaking. It was not long before the dark mountainous billows broke apart, and a brilliant full moon showed herself sailing in the rift, suddenly flooding everything with light. Parts of the garden were silver white, and the tree shadows were like black velvet. A silvery lance pierced even into the hollow of Marco's evergreen and struck across his face.
Perhaps it was this sudden change which attracted the attention of those inside the balconied room. A man's figure appeared at the long windows. Marco saw now that it was the Prince. He opened the windows and stepped out on to the balcony.
"It is all over," he said quietly. And he stood with his face lifted, looking at the great white sailing moon.
He stood very still and seemed for the moment to forget the world and himself. It was a wonderful, triumphant queen of a moon. But something brought him back to earth. A low, but strong and clear, boy-voice came up to him from the garden path below.
"The Lamp is lighted. The Lamp is lighted," it said, and the words sounded almost as if some one were uttering a prayer. They seemed to call to him, to arrest him, to draw him.
He stood still a few seconds in dead silence. Then he bent over the balustrade. The moonlight had not broken the darkness below.
"That is a boy's voice," he said in a low tone, "but I cannot see who is speaking."
"Yes, it is a boy's voice," it answered, in a way which somehow moved him, because it was so ardent. "It is the son of Stefan Loristan. The Lamp is lighted."
"Wait. I am coming down to you," the Prince said.
In a few minutes Marco heard a door open gently not far from where he stood. Then the man he had been following so many days appeared at his side.
"How long have you been here?" he asked.
"Before the gates closed. I hid myself in the hollow of the big shrub there, Highness," Marco answered.
"Then you were out in the storm?"
The Prince put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "I cannot see you—but it is best to stand in the shadow. You are drenched to the skin."
"I have been able to give your Highness—the Sign," Marco whispered. "A storm is nothing."
There was a silence. Marco knew that his companion was pausing to turn something over in his mind.
"So-o?" he said slowly, at length. "The Lamp is lighted, And YOU are sent to bear the Sign." Something in his voice made Marco feel that he was smiling.
"What a race you are! What a race—you Samavian Loristans!"
He paused as if to think the thing over again.
"I want to see your face," he said next. "Here is a tree with a shaft of moonlight striking through the branches. Let us step aside and stand under it."
Marco did as he was told. The shaft of moonlight fell upon his uplifted face and showed its young strength and darkness, quite splendid for the moment in a triumphant glow of joy in obstacles overcome. Raindrops hung on his hair, but he did not look draggled, only very wet and picturesque. He had reached his man. He had given the Sign.
The Prince looked him over with interested curiosity.
"Yes," he said in his cool, rather dragging voice. "You are the son of Stefan Loristan. Also you must be taken care of. You must come with me. I have trained my household to remain in its own quarters until I require its service. I have attached to my own apartments a good safe little room where I sometimes keep people. You can dry your clothes and sleep there. When the gardens are opened again, the rest will be easy."
But though he stepped out from under the trees and began to move towards the palace in the shadow, Marco noticed that he moved hesitatingly, as if he had not quite decided what he should do. He stopped rather suddenly and turned again to Marco, who was following him.
"There is some one in the room I just now left," he said, "an old man—whom it might interest to see you. It might also be a good thing for him to feel interest in you. I choose that he shall see you—as you are."
"I am at your command, Highness," Marco answered. He knew his companion was smiling again.
"You have been in training for more centuries than you know," he said; "and your father has prepared you to encounter the unexpected without surprise."
They passed under the balcony and paused at a low stone doorway hidden behind shrubs. The door was a beautiful one, Marco saw when it was opened, and the corridor disclosed was beautiful also, though it had an air of quiet and aloofness which was not so much secret as private. A perfect though narrow staircase mounted from it to the next floor. After ascending it, the Prince led the way through a short corridor and stopped at the door at the end of it. "We are going in here," he said.
It was a wonderful room—the one which opened on to the balcony. Each piece of furniture in it, the hangings, the tapestries, and pictures on the wall were all such as might well have found themselves adorning a museum. Marco remembered the common report of his escort's favorite amusement of collecting wonders and furnishing his house with the things others exhibited only as marvels of art and handicraft. The place was rich and mellow with exquisitely chosen beauties.
In a massive chair upon the heart sat a figure with bent head. It was a tall old man with white hair and moustache. His elbows rested upon the arm of his chair and he leaned his forehead on his hand as if he were weary.
Marco's companion crossed the room and stood beside him, speaking in a lowered voice. Marco could not at first hear what he said. He himself stood quite still, waiting. The white-haired man lifted his head and listened. It seemed as though almost at once he was singularly interested. The lowered voice was slightly raised at last and Marco heard the last two sentences:
"The only son of Stefan Loristan. Look at him."
The old man in the chair turned slowly and looked, steadily, and with questioning curiosity touched with grave surprise. He had keen and clear blue eyes.
Then Marco, still erect and silent, waited again. The Prince had merely said to him, "an old man whom it might interest to see you." He had plainly intended that, whatsoever happened, he must make no outward sign of seeing more than he had been told he would see—"an old man." It was for him to show no astonishment or recognition. He had been brought here not to see but to be seen. The power of remaining still under scrutiny, which The Rat had often envied him, stood now in good stead because he had seen the white head and tall form not many days before, surmounted by brilliant emerald plumes, hung with jeweled decorations, in the royal carriage, escorted by banners, and helmets, and following troops whose tramping feet kept time to bursts of military music while the populace bared their heads and cheered.
"He is like his father," this personage said to the Prince. "But if any one but Loristan had sent him—His looks please me." Then suddenly to Marco, "You were waiting outside while the storm was going on?"
"Yes, sir," Marco answered.
Then the two exchanged some words still in the lowered voice.
"You read the news as you made your journey?" he was asked. "You know how Samavia stands?"
"She does not stand," said Marco. "The Iarovitch and the Maranovitch have fought as hyenas fight, until each has torn the other into fragments—and neither has blood or strength left."
The two glanced at each other.
"A good simile," said the older person. "You are right. If a strong party rose—and a greater power chose not to interfere—the country might see better days." He looked at him a few moments longer and then waved his hand kindly.
"You are a fine Samavian," he said. "I am glad of that. You may go. Good night."
Marco bowed respectfully and the man with the tired face led him out of the room.
It was just before he left him in the small quiet chamber in which he was to sleep that the Prince gave him a final curious glance. "I remember now," he said. "In the room, when you answered the question about Samavia, I was sure that I had seen you before. It was the day of the celebration. There was a break in the crowd and I saw a boy looking at me. It was you."
"Yes," said Marco, "I have followed you each time you have gone out since then, but I could never get near enough to speak. To-night seemed only one chance in a thousand."
"You are doing your work more like a man than a boy," was the next speech, and it was made reflectively. "No man could have behaved more perfectly than you did just now, when discretion and composure were necessary." Then, after a moment's pause, "He was deeply interested and deeply pleased. Good night."
When the gardens had been thrown open the next morning and people were passing in and out again, Marco passed out also. He was obliged to tell himself two or three times that he had not wakened from an amazing dream. He quickened his pace after he had crossed the street, because he wanted to get home to the attic and talk to The Rat. There was a narrow side-street it was necessary for him to pass through if he wished to make a short cut. As he turned into it, he saw a curious figure leaning on crutches against a wall. It looked damp and forlorn, and he wondered if it could be a beggar. It was not. It was The Rat, who suddenly saw who was approaching and swung forward. His face was pale and haggard and he looked worn and frightened. He dragged off his cap and spoke in a voice which was hoarse as a crow's.
"God be thanked!" he said. "God be thanked!" as people always said it when they received the Sign, alone. But there was a kind of anguish in his voice as well as relief.
"Aide-de-camp!" Marco cried out—The Rat had begged him to call him so. "What have you been doing? How long have you been here?"
"Ever since I left you last night," said The Rat clutching tremblingly at his arm as if to make sure he was real. "If there was not room for two in the hollow, there was room for one in the street. Was it my place to go off duty and leave you alone—was it?"
"You were out in the storm?"
"Weren't you?" said The Rat fiercely. "I huddled against the wall as well as I could. What did I care? Crutches don't prevent a fellow waiting. I wouldn't have left you if you'd given me orders. And that would have been mutiny. When you did not come out as soon as the gates opened, I felt as if my head got on fire. How could I know what had happened? I've not the nerve and backbone you have. I go half mad." For a second or so Marco did not answer. But when he put his hand on the damp sleeve, The Rat actually started, because it seemed as though he were looking into the eyes of Stefan Loristan.
"You look just like your father!" he exclaimed, in spite of himself. "How tall you are!"
"When you are near me," Marco said, in Loristan's own voice, "when you are near me, I feel—I feel as if I were a royal prince attended by an army. You ARE my army." And he pulled off his cap with quick boyishness and added, "God be thanked!"
The sun was warm in the attic window when they reached their lodging, and the two leaned on the rough sill as Marco told his story. It took some time to relate; and when he ended, he took an envelope from his pocket and showed it to The Rat. It contained a flat package of money.
"He gave it to me just before he opened the private door," Marco explained. "And he said to me, 'It will not be long now. After Samavia, go back to London as quickly as you can—AS QUICKLY AS YOU CAN!'"
"I wonder—what he meant?" The Rat said, slowly. A tremendous thought had shot through his mind. But it was not a thought he could speak of to Marco.
"I cannot tell. I thought that it was for some reason he did not expect me to know," Marco said. "We will do as he told us. As quickly as we can." They looked over the newspapers, as they did every day. All that could be gathered from any of them was that the opposing armies of Samavia seemed each to have reached the culmination of disaster and exhaustion. Which party had the power left to take any final step which could call itself a victory, it was impossible to say. Never had a country been in a more desperate case.
"It is the time!" said The Rat, glowering over his map. "If the Secret Party rises suddenly now, it can take Melzarr almost without a blow. It can sweep through the country and disarm both armies. They're weakened—they're half starved—they're bleeding to death; they WANT to be disarmed. Only the Iarovitch and the Maranovitch keep on with the struggle because each is fighting for the power to tax the people and make slaves of them. If the Secret Party does not rise, the people will, and they'll rush on the palaces and kill every Maranovitch and Iarovitch they find. And serve them right!"
"Let us spend the rest of the day in studying the road-map again," said Marco. "To-night we must be on the way to Samavia!"
ACROSS THE FRONTIER
That one day, a week later, two tired and travel-worn boy-mendicants should drag themselves with slow and weary feet across the frontier line between Jiardasia and Samavia, was not an incident to awaken suspicion or even to attract attention. War and hunger and anguish had left the country stunned and broken. Since the worst had happened, no one was curious as to what would befall them next. If Jiardasia herself had become a foe, instead of a friendly neighbor, and had sent across the border galloping hordes of soldiery, there would only have been more shrieks, and home-burnings, and slaughter which no one dare resist. But, so far, Jiardasia had remained peaceful. The two boys—one of them on crutches—had evidently traveled far on foot. Their poor clothes were dusty and travel-stained, and they stopped and asked for water at the first hut across the line. The one who walked without crutches had some coarse bread in a bag slung over his shoulder, and they sat on the roadside and ate it as if they were hungry. The old grandmother who lived alone in the hut sat and stared at them without any curiosity. She may have vaguely wondered why any one crossed into Samavia in these days. But she did not care to know their reason. Her big son had lived in a village which belonged to the Maranovitch and he had been called out to fight for his lords. He had not wanted to fight and had not known what the quarrel was about, but he was forced to obey. He had kissed his handsome wife and four sturdy children, blubbering aloud when he left them. His village and his good crops and his house must be left behind. Then the Iarovitch swept through the pretty little cluster of homesteads which belonged to their enemy. They were mad with rage because they had met with great losses in a battle not far away, and, as they swooped through, they burned and killed, and trampled down fields and vineyards. The old woman's son never saw either the burned walls of his house or the bodies of his wife and children, because he had been killed himself in the battle for which the Iarovitch were revenging themselves. Only the old grandmother who lived in the hut near the frontier line and stared vacantly at the passers-by remained alive. She wearily gazed at people and wondered why she did not hear news from her son and her grandchildren. But that was all.
When the boys were over the frontier and well on their way along the roads, it was not difficult to keep out of sight if it seemed necessary. The country was mountainous and there were deep and thick forests by the way—forests so far-reaching and with such thick undergrowth that full-grown men could easily have hidden themselves. It was because of this, perhaps, that this part of the country had seen little fighting. There was too great opportunity for secure ambush for a foe. As the two travelers went on, they heard of burned villages and towns destroyed, but they were towns and villages nearer Melzarr and other fortress-defended cities, or they were in the country surrounding the castles and estates of powerful nobles and leaders. It was true, as Marco had said to the white-haired personage, that the Maranovitch and Iarovitch had fought with the savageness of hyenas until at last the forces of each side lay torn and bleeding, their strength, their resources, their supplies exhausted.
Each day left them weaker and more desperate. Europe looked on with small interest in either party but with growing desire that the disorder should end and cease to interfere with commerce. All this and much more Marco and The Rat knew, but, as they made their cautious way through byways of the maimed and tortured little country, they learned other things. They learned that the stories of its beauty and fertility were not romances. Its heaven-reaching mountains, its immense plains of rich verdure on which flocks and herds might have fed by thousands, its splendor of deep forest and broad clear rushing rivers had a primeval majesty such as the first human creatures might have found on earth in the days of the Garden of Eden. The two boys traveled through forest and woodland when it was possible to leave the road. It was safe to thread a way among huge trees and tall ferns and young saplings. It was not always easy but it was safe. Sometimes they saw a charcoal-burner's hut or a shelter where a shepherd was hiding with the few sheep left to him. Each man they met wore the same look of stony suffering in his face; but, when the boys begged for bread and water, as was their habit, no one refused to share the little he had. It soon became plain to them that they were thought to be two young fugitives whose homes had probably been destroyed and who were wandering about with no thought but that of finding safety until the worst was over. That one of them traveled on crutches added to their apparent helplessness, and that he could not speak the language of the country made him more an object of pity. The peasants did not know what language he spoke. Sometimes a foreigner came to find work in this small town or that. The poor lad might have come to the country with his father and mother and then have been caught in the whirlpool of war and tossed out on the world parent-less. But no one asked questions. Even in their desolation they were silent and noble people who were too courteous for curiosity.
"In the old days they were simple and stately and kind. All doors were open to travelers. The master of the poorest hut uttered a blessing and a welcome when a stranger crossed his threshold. It was the custom of the country," Marco said. "I read about it in a book of my father's. About most of the doors the welcome was carved in stone. It was this—'The Blessing of the Son of God, and Rest within these Walls.'"
"They are big and strong," said The Rat. "And they have good faces. They carry themselves as if they had been drilled—both men and women."
It was not through the blood-drenched part of the unhappy land their way led them, but they saw hunger and dread in the villages they passed. Crops which should have fed the people had been taken from them for the use of the army; flocks and herds had been driven away, and faces were gaunt and gray. Those who had as yet only lost crops and herds knew that homes and lives might be torn from them at any moment. Only old men and women and children were left to wait for any fate which the chances of war might deal out to them.
When they were given food from some poor store, Marco would offer a little money in return. He dare not excite suspicion by offering much. He was obliged to let it be imagined that in his flight from his ruined home he had been able to snatch at and secrete some poor hoard which might save him from starvation. Often the women would not take what he offered. Their journey was a hard and hungry one. They must make it all on foot and there was little food to be found. But each of them knew how to live on scant fare. They traveled mostly by night and slept among the ferns and undergrowth through the day. They drank from running brooks and bathed in them. Moss and ferns made soft and sweet-smelling beds, and trees roofed them. Sometimes they lay long and talked while they rested. And at length a day came when they knew they were nearing their journey's end.
"It is nearly over now," Marco said, after they had thrown themselves down in the forest in the early hours of one dewy morning. "He said 'After Samavia, go back to London as quickly as you can—AS QUICKLY AS YOU CAN.' He said it twice. As if—something were going to happen."
"Perhaps it will happen more suddenly than we think—the thing he meant," answered The Rat.
Suddenly he sat up on his elbow and leaned towards Marco.
"We are in Samavia!" he said "We two are in Samavia! And we are near the end!"
Marco rose on his elbow also. He was very thin as a result of hard travel and scant feeding. His thinness made his eyes look immense and black as pits. But they burned and were beautiful with their own fire.
"Yes," he said, breathing quickly. "And though we do not know what the end will be, we have obeyed orders. The Prince was next to the last one. There is only one more. The old priest."
"I have wanted to see him more than I have wanted to see any of the others," The Rat said.
"So have I," Marco answered. "His church is built on the side of this mountain. I wonder what he will say to us."
Both had the same reason for wanting to see him. In his youth he had served in the monastery over the frontier—the one which, till it was destroyed in a revolt, had treasured the five-hundred-year-old story of the beautiful royal lad brought to be hidden among the brotherhood by the ancient shepherd. In the monastery the memory of the Lost Prince was as the memory of a saint. It had been told that one of the early brothers, who was a decorator and a painter, had made a picture of him with a faint halo shining about his head. The young acolyte who had served there must have heard wonderful legends. But the monastery had been burned, and the young acolyte had in later years crossed the frontier and become the priest of a few mountaineers whose little church clung to the mountain side. He had worked hard and faithfully and was worshipped by his people. Only the secret Forgers of the Sword knew that his most ardent worshippers were those with whom he prayed and to whom he gave blessings in dark caverns under the earth, where arms piled themselves and men with dark strong faces sat together in the dim light and laid plans and wrought schemes.
This Marco and The Rat did not know as they talked of their desire to see him.
"He may not choose to tell us anything," said Marco. "When we have given him the Sign, he may turn away and say nothing as some of the others did. He may have nothing to say which we should hear. Silence may be the order for him, too."
It would not be a long or dangerous climb to the little church on the rock. They could sleep or rest all day and begin it at twilight. So after they had talked of the old priest and had eaten their black bread, they settled themselves to sleep under cover of the thick tall ferns.
It was a long and deep sleep which nothing disturbed. So few human beings ever climbed the hill, except by the narrow rough path leading to the church, that the little wild creatures had not learned to be afraid of them. Once, during the afternoon, a hare hopping along under the ferns to make a visit stopped by Marco's head, and, after looking at him a few seconds with his lustrous eyes, began to nibble the ends of his hair. He only did it from curiosity and because he wondered if it might be a new kind of grass, but he did not like it and stopped nibbling almost at once, after which he looked at it again, moving the soft sensitive end of his nose rapidly for a second or so, and then hopped away to attend to his own affairs. A very large and handsome green stag-beetle crawled from one end of The Rat's crutches to the other, but, having done it, he went away also. Two or three times a bird, searching for his dinner under the ferns, was surprised to find the two sleeping figures, but, as they lay so quietly, there seemed nothing to be frightened about. A beautiful little field mouse running past discovered that there were crumbs lying about and ate all she could find on the moss. After that she crept into Marco's pocket and found some excellent ones and had quite a feast. But she disturbed nobody and the boys slept on.