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   Chapter 24 A CHAPTER ON PUTTING TRUST IN PRINCES

My Friend the Chauffeur By A. M. Williamson Characters: 18519

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


When I had put on my hat and coat, which I'd taken off in the cabin, I went on deck with Airole tucked under my arm, expecting to find Aunt Kathryn, as I had not made haste. She was not there, but on shore close to the quay stood the automobile, which had been put off in a kind of sling; and on the front seat was the familiar, plump figure in its long, light brown coat, and the mushroom-like mask with the talc window.

I had not brought my mask, but evidently Aunt Kathryn must have had hers stuffed into one of the big pockets of her coat, as she often did. The Prince stood talking to her, and seeing that all was ready I crossed the gang-plank and walked quickly to the car.

Aunt Kathryn neither spoke to me nor turned her head, which scarcely surprised me, considering the bad terms we were upon, for the first time in all the months of our acquaintance.

The Prince "hoped that I wouldn't mind sitting in the tonneau," and explained a pile of rugs on the seat opposite mine by saying that it would grow chilly as we ascended into the mountains, and he did not wish his passengers to suffer.

"Where's Joseph?" I asked, addressing him for the first time since taking him to task on deck.

"I left him in Ragusa," replied the Prince. "He will not be needed." With this, the tonneau door was shut, the car started, and we bounded away. A few men and women, in very interesting, Eastern costumes, quite different from anything we had seen yet, watched our progress in silence and with imperturbable faces, dark and proud.

Angry as I still was with Prince Dalmar-Kalm for the trick he had so impudently played upon us, and the part forced upon me for Aunt Kathryn's sake, I could not be blind to the beauty of this strange world, or suppress all joy in it.

Cattaro seemed to lie plastered against a tremendous wall of sheer rock rising behind the ringed town and its fortress; and I saw, soon after starting, that we must be bound for the mountain with the silken skein of road, which I had gazed at in wonder from my porthole. We had not long left Cattaro, when our way began to mount in long zigzags, doubling back again and again upon itself. Presently we could look down upon the town, prone at the foot of its fortified hill on the very edge of the sea, which as we climbed, assumed the shape and colour of a great shimmering blue silk sleeve.

Mountains towered all around us, mountains in every direction as far as the eye could reach, many crowned by low, green forts, connected with the lower world by the lacings of thread-like roads.

Still we mounted, the car going well and the Prince driving in silence. Though the gradient was steep-sometimes so steep as to be terrible for horses-we seemed to travel so fast that it was surprising to find ourselves apparently no nearer the mountain-tops than when we started. Though we gazed down so far that all things on the sea level had shrunk into nothingness, and the big warship we had seen in coming was no larger than a beetle, we gazed still farther up to the line where sky and mountain met. And always, there were the grey-white, zigzag lines scored on the face of the sheer rock.

I longed for some one to talk with, some one sympathetic to exclaim to; in fact, I wished I were driving up this magnificent, this appalling road, beside the Chauffeulier instead of in Prince Dalmar-Kalm's tonneau. I wondered that Aunt Kathryn-usually so impulsive-could restrain herself here, and expected at any moment to have her turn to me, our differences forgotten. But no, she neither moved nor spoke, and I realized how angry she must be with me, to visit her vexation upon herself, and the Prince also.

I had thought the Col di Tenda wonderful, and the way down to Bellagio over the mountains still more thrilling; but here, they were dwarfed into utter insignificance. I could have imagined nothing like this feat of engineering, nothing so wild, so majestic as the ever-changing views from these incredible heights.

My respect for Schloss Hrvoya and its environment increased with every ascending mile; but the distance was proving itself so great that I did not see how it would be possible for the Prince to keep his promise, and get us back to Cattaro before eight. And we had left summer warmth as far behind as the level which it enriched with tropical flowers. The Prince suggested to Aunt Kathryn that she should wrap round her a shawl-like rug, and though I hated to follow his advice or take any favours from him, I decided that it would be foolish to make myself a martyr. So I, too, swaddled myself in woolly folds, and was thankful.

Now the windings of the Bocche di Cattaro revealed themselves completely. The bay was no longer a silk sleeve; but a vast star, seemingly cut out of a lapis lazuli, was set mosaic-like in the midst of green and blue-grey mountains that soared up from it-up, up, in shapes strange as a goblin's dream. Then, the azure star vanished, and rocky heights shut away the view of the distant sea. Vegetation grew sparse. At last we had reached the desolate and stony top of the mountain-range which a little while ago had touched the sky. Clouds like huge white swans swam in the blue air below us, where we could look down from some sheer precipice. But where was Schloss Hrvoya? And would Aunt Kathryn never speak to me?

Almost as if he read my thoughts, Prince Dalmar-Kalm turned his head, checking the speed of the motor. "Don't be discouraged," he said, cheerfully. "We shall be going down now, for a time, instead of up; and shortly we shall be at our journey's end."

"But soon it will be twilight," I answered. "Do you know, it is after six, and you said we would be back in Cattaro before eight. That's impossible now; and I'm afraid that there won't be much daylight for Aunt Kathryn to have a first look at her castle."

"It will be more imposing by twilight," replied the Prince; and though my words had been a bid for notice from Aunt Kathryn, she made no sign of having heard.

Once more Prince Dalmar-Kalm turned his attention to driving, and, as he had prophesied, we began to plunge down heights almost as tremendous as those we had climbed. The road, though splendidly engineered, was covered with loose, sharp stones; and the surging mountain-tops on every side were like the tossing waves of a desolate sea, turned to stone in some fierce spasm of nature. Then, in the midst of this petrified ocean, we flashed through a tiny village, and my hopes of reaching Schloss Hrvoya before nightfall brightened.

From the little group of low, stone buildings, men who must have sprung from a race of giants, rushed out in answer to the voice of our motor. I had never seen such wonderful men, unless, perhaps, Mr. Barrymore might be like them, if dressed as they were. Not one of the splendid band was under six feet in height, and many were much taller. On their handsome, close-cropped heads they wore gold-braided turbans over one ear. Their long coats, falling to the knee, were of green, or red, or white, open to show waistcoats crusted with gold embroidery. Round their slim waists were wound voluminous sashes stuck full of sheathed knives and huge pistols. Some had richly ornamented leather boots reaching half way up their long, straight legs, while others wore white leggings, with knitted stockings pulled up over them.

In a moment these gorgeous giants and their mean village were gone for us; but our road took us past persons walking towards the town; men, young and old, tall, beautiful boys, and white-clad women driving sheep, who knitted their husbands' stockings as they walked.

Here and there in a deep pit among the tumbled grey rocks would be a little vivid green dell, with a fairy ring of cultivated vegetation. This would be guarded, perhaps, by a hut of stone, almost savage in the crudeness of its construction. It was as if the proud people of this remote, mountain world, wishing to owe their all to their own country, nothing to outsiders, had preferred to make their houses with their own hands out of their own rocks, hewing the walls and roofing them with thatch from grass grown in their own pastures.

Impressed, almost terrified by the loneliness of this desolate land of giants, lit fiercely now by the lurid glow of sunset, I searched the distance for some towering hill crowned by a castle which might be Hrvoya. But there were no castles, even ruined castles, in this region of high rocks and lonely huts, and the red horizon was hemmed coldly in by a range of ghostly, snow-clad mountains.

"What mountains are those, far away?" I could not resist asking.

"They are the mountains of Albania," the Prince answered.

"Why, but that sounds as if we were at the end of the world!" I cried, startled.

He laughed over his shoulder. "And I am the last man in it! What did I say to you yesterday?"

This reminder brought back the anger I was forgetting in my need of human fellowship, and I did not speak again, but hugged little Airole the closer, nestled under the warm rug.

At the end of a long, straight road that stretched before us I could see a single, pale yellow light suddenly flash up in the twilight like a lonely primrose, and farther on

a little knot of other lights blossomed in the dusk.

"We shall be there now in a few minutes," I was saying to myself, when suddenly I was startled by a loud report like a pistol-shot. Aunt Kathryn gave a shriek which was quite hoarse and unlike her natural voice, but I was silent, holding Airole trembling and barking under my arm.

The car swerved sharply, and my side of the tonneau seemed to settle down. I was sure that an invisible person must have shot at us, and wished sincerely that the Prince would drive on instead of slacking pace. But he stopped the engine, exclaiming in an angry voice, "A tyre burst! Thousand furies, why couldn't it have waited twenty minutes more?"

"Is it serious?" I asked; for we had never had this experience before, on any of the rough roads we had travelled.

"No," he answered shortly, "not serious, but annoying. We can crawl on for a little way. I was a fool to stop the motor; did it without thinking. Now I shall have the trouble of starting again."

Grumbling thus, he got out; but the motor wouldn't start. The engine was as sullenly silent as Aunt Kathryn. For ten minutes, perhaps, the Prince tried this device and that-no doubt missing Joseph; but at last he gave up in despair. "It is no use," he groaned. "I am spending myself for nothing. If you will sit quietly here for a few moments, I will go ahead to that house where the light is, to see if I can get you ladies taken in, and the car hauled into a place where I can work at it."

"What language do they speak here?" I asked, a chill of desolation upon me.

"Slavic," he answered. "But I can talk it a little. I shall get on, and you will see me again almost at once."

So saying, he was off, and I was alone with the statue of Aunt Kathryn.

At first I thought that, whatever happened, I wouldn't be the one to begin a conversation, but the silence and deepening darkness were too much for my nerves. "Oh, Aunt Kathryn, don't let's be cross to each other any longer," I pleaded. "I'm tired of it, aren't you? And oh, what wouldn't I give to be back in sweet Ragusa with Beechy and-and the others!"

Still not a word. It seemed incredible that she could bear malice so; but there was no cure for it. If she would not be softened by that plea of mine, nothing I could say would melt her. I should have liked to cry, for it was so lonely here, and so dreadful to be estranged from one's only friend. But that would have been too childish, and I took what comfort I could from Airole's tiny presence.

A quarter of an hour passed, perhaps, and then the Prince came back accompanied by a man so huge that the tall Austrian seemed a boy beside him. They looked at the car, communicating by gestures, and then the Prince said, if we would walk to the house the woman there would receive us, while he and his companion pushed the automobile into a shed which the man had.

I made no further attempt to extract a relenting word from Aunt Kathryn, as we tramped side by side along the road. Reaching a two-storied stone box of a house, she dropped behind at the doorway, leaving me to confront a hard-faced woman in a white jacket, with a graceful head-dress half-hiding her black hair. In one hand she had a partly finished stocking with knitting-needles in it; in the other she held a candle in a quaintly made iron candlestick. Something she said to us in a strange, but rather soft-sounding language, of which I couldn't understand one syllable; but seeing my hopelessly blank expression she smiled, nodded, and motioned us to cross the threshold.

The room was bare, with a floor of pounded earth. There was a wooden table in it, a few shelves, and a long bench; but beyond was a more attractive interior, for in an inner apartment she had lighted a fire of sticks on a rude hearth.

I stood aside to let Aunt Kathryn pass in before me, which she did without a word. We both stood before the fire, holding out gloved hands to the meagre blaze, while little Airole ran about, whimpering and examining everything with unconcealed disapproval.

I had just time to notice how oddly shabby Aunt Kathryn's gloves were, and to wonder if she didn't intend to take off the "mushroom" (the talc window of which the firelight transformed into a pane of red glass), when Prince Dalmar-Kalm appeared. Without asking permission he walked in, and looking at Aunt Kathryn, said in French, "You may go, Victorine."

I stared, as bewildered as if the unfamiliar scene were turning to a dream; but as the cloaked and mushroomed figure reached the door, the spell broke.

I took a step after it, exclaiming, "Aunt Kathryn-Kittie!"

The door shut almost in my face. "That is not your Aunt Kathryn," said the Prince, in a voice which, though low, vibrated with excitement. "It is one of the Contessa Corramini's servants, chosen to play this part because her figure is enough like your aunt's to resemble it closely in a motor-coat. All that is of your aunt is that coat, the hat, the mask of silk. You must hear the truth now, for it is time, and know what you have to face."

"I don't understand you," I stammered weakly. It was more than ever as if I were in a dream. I actually told myself that I would wake up in bed at the Hotel Imperial in Ragusa. And oh, how I wished that I would wake soon!

"I will make you understand," went on the Prince. "You know-you've known for many days-how I love you. You have forced me to do this thing, because you were obstinate, and would not give me yourself, though I could not live without you. Because I could not, I have done this. It was planned as long ago as Venice. I confided all to Corramini, though not to his wife, and he promised to help me because he is in money difficulties, and I agreed to do something for him. But if you had been kind last night in Ragusa, when I gave you one more chance to repent, you might have been spared this. It was only to happen if all else failed."

"Still I don't understand," I said slowly.

"Then your brain is not as quick as usual, my dear one. I hoped Miss Beechy would be ill to-day, for she was the one I feared. There was a little medicine in that pink, Turkish stuff-not to hurt her much, but enough for my purpose. If I could, I would have got rid of the aunt, too; only she was needed as the cat's-paw. You would never have come without her. Contessa Corramini knows nothing of this, though she has a suspicion that something mysterious goes on. She was not on the 'Arethusa.' At this moment she is in Venice. Victorine was the one woman beside yourself and the aunt on the yacht, and Victorine has been well paid for the part she plays. She took the aunt's coat and hat and mask out of the cabin, when the lady was on deck with Corramini and me, wrapped in a becoming blue cloak with a hood, left on board by Contessa Corramini. While the aunt was looking everywhere for her missing things, you joined the masked lady in the car. Now, we are farther from Schloss Hrvoya than from Cattaro. You are in Montenegro, where I have brought you because the Austrian Consul is my friend, and he will marry us."

"He will not!" I cried, choking and breathless.

"He must. It is the only thing for you, now. Let me show you the situation, in case you do not yet understand all. Your aunt is far away. She will be enraged with you, and believe you to blame for the humiliating trick played on her. Never will she forgive you. If there is a scandal, she will do her best to spread it. I know women well. Don't you remember, 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned?' There will be others, too. Victorine will tell a dramatic tale to the Contessa Corramini, and Corramini will gossip at his clubs in Venice, Rome, Florence, Paris, where many of your rich compatriots are members. The rights of the story will never quite be known, but it will leak out that you came to Montenegro with me alone, and spent many hours. The only safeguard is to make it an elopement, and that safeguard I offer you, with my heart and all that is mine. You must leave this place as the Princess Dalmar-Kalm, or it would be better for your future that you should never leave it. See, I am the last man in your world now, and it is necessary that you take me."

"I didn't know," I answered in the dream, "that men like you existed out of novels or stage plays. That is why I failed to understand at first. I was giving you the benefit of the doubt. But I understand now. Let me go-"

He laughed. "No! And if I did, what good would it do you? It is night; you are many miles from anywhere, in the wildest mountains of Europe. You do not speak one word of the language, or any one in this land a word of yours. Practically, you are alone in the world with me. Even your wretched little dog is not here to snarl. His curiosity took him outside, and he cannot get back through the keyhole of the door, small as he is. Presently the Consul will be at this house. I had meant to go to his had it not been for the accident, but I will send for him. He is my very good friend. He will do what I ask."

"But if I do not consent?" I flung at him.

"You will have to consent," he said; "and soon you will see that for yourself."

PART V

TOLD BY TERENCE BARRYMORE

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