For a moment or two he stood looking dumbly at the blank panels of the door. Knowing the Princess Mary as he did he was quite positive that his imprisonment was not a matter of chance; but what would the king say! At the thought M. Klein went white, and commenced to beat violently upon the door, shouting in the mean while at the top of his voice. There was no response.
The afternoon waned, and darkness came. M. Klein was exhausted by his vain efforts at attracting attention. The little, grated window had proved too high for him to reach and had only served to admonish him of the flight of time as the afternoon light which it shed within his tiny prison waned and faded into the blackness of night.
The secretary became frantic. His calls for help rose finally to wild shrieks. He pounded upon the door. He kicked it, and continually he cursed himself for a silly ass in thus permitting a slip of a girl to put him in so ridiculous and dangerous a position. The king would never forgive him—he would be lucky if Alexis did not throw him into prison.
For the twentieth time he leaped for the grating of the window above him. His fingers caught and held. He drew himself up until his face was at the opening, and then he opened his mouth and gave vent to a piercing scream for help.
Below in the courtyard a sentry pacing to and fro heard the wild cry. Instantly his own voice rose in a sharp summons for the non-commissioned officer of the guard. The scream from above was repeated as a sergeant came upon a run from the guard house.
“Who calls?” cried the sentry.
M. Klein’s fingers were relaxing their hold upon the grating. He had only time to cry: “Princess Mary’s apartments!” before they slipped and let him drop back to the floor of his prison.
But the sergeant had heard, and so had the sentry; and a moment later an officer of the guard followed by a score of armed men were dashing through the corridors of the palace, up stairs, and along passage-ways until they came to the suite of the Princess Mary.
And here they permitted no courtly etiquette to detain them, but throwing open the doors bolted into the forbidden precincts of the royal apartments. A moment later M. Klein was released and, bundled into an automobile, was speeding toward Klovia, his heart in his mouth and his brain a-whirl with the stupendous fact that the Princess Mary had fled the royal palace.
At about the same time Stefan, mounted upon the abandoned horse of the highwayman, was spurring along the Roman road into Demia. Through the streets of the ancient capitol he raced, regardless of gendarmes and speed laws, upon his way to Klovia and his king.
Alexis III, relieved of the embarrassment of his royal guest, was giving himself over to the pleasures of the society of his own nobility, when a very much excited and disheveled young man dashed unannounced into the banquet hall, throwing aside and upsetting a couple of guardsmen who had thought to interrupt his impetuous progress. To the king’s side the young man made his way, while the guardsmen, picking themselves from the floor, pursued him.
“Klein!” exclaimed the king. “What is the meaning of this?”
“O pardon, Sire!” cried the excited secretary, falling upon his knees. “It is awful!”
“What is awful?’ demanded the king, rising.
The guests too rose from their seats. The guardsmen, seeing now who their quarry was, halted beside the kneeling Klein. The king extended his hand and lifted the trembling secretary to his feet.
“Quick, man!” he cried. “What brings you here? What has happened?”
“The Princess Mary!” sobbed the overwrought secretary, “She has run away. She locked me in a closet, and then she ran away.”
A poorly suppressed titter ran around the banquet board. Even the king smiled.
“I cannot say that I blame her, Klein,” he said, “can you?”
The secretary rose, dumbfounded. He had expected the wrath of his sovereign to be poured upon his head, and instead he found anything but anger in the aspect and the tones of the king.
“She would have been no Margothian princess had she willingly consented to mate with that Karlovian swineherd,” said Prince Stroebel, who sat at the king’s right. “Even I would rather have war with Constans of Karlova than see our beloved princess wed to the impossible boor whom we had among us this morning.”
“I am glad that you have come to your senses, Stroebel,” said the king, and then, turning to his secretary; “Come, Klein, don’t look so downhearted. We forgive you. Her Highness has doubtless, gone to Vitza—she always goes to Vitza when she is angry with me. Inform Captain Polnik that it is our wish that he ride at once to Vitza and see that her highness has arrived safely.”
The king was still speaking when an officer of the guard entered the room hastily and approached the ruler.
“And now what, Polnik?” asked Alexis, looking up at the white face and startled eyes of the officer.
“My God, your majesty,” blurted the guardsman, “it is awful. Stefan has just ridden in with the most frightful news of the Princess Mary—”
Alexis leaped to his feet. His face went as white as that of the soldier before him.
“What has happened?” he cried in a hoarse voice. “Quick, man! Tell me,” and then, his eyes chancing to glance in the direction of the doorway, he espied Stefan leaning, wide eyed, against the frame. “Here, Stefan!” he called. “Come here, man, and tell us your story.”
Hatless, dust covered, and trembling, Stefan staggered across the room where he would have fallen to one knee before the king had not the latter deterred him with an impatient snap of his fingers.
“Your story, Stefan!” demanded Alexis. “What has happened to the Princess Mary?”
“The Rider, Sire,” cried Stefan. “The Rider held us up upon the highway, and at the point of a pistol drove me away. Then he entered the machine and taking the wheel himself rode off with her highness and Mademoiselle Carlotta. It happened just before we turned from the Roman road into the Vitza way. I mounted his horse, Sire, and rode here as fast as the beast could go. That is all, Sire!”
“God knows it is enough,” cried Alexis. “Captain Polnik, turn out the guard, impress into your service as many of the private machines as you may need, in addition to the military and royal cars at your disposal here, to transport your men in pursuit. Lose no time. At the border scatter your forces in both directions, unless you strike the trail before, and search the mountains thoroughly—The Rider lairs somewhere not far from the Roman road. We will go at once to Demia where you will keep us advised of the progress of your search. Do not cross into Karlova except under the most pressing necessity, though I do not need tell you that I shall expect you to cross even into Hell, if necessary, to rescue Her Highness from the clutches of that Devil’s spawn.”
“No, Sire,” replied Polnik, “we of The Guard need not be told that.”
“Good! Now go. In the meantime we will wire Sovgrad to co-operate with us from their side of the border.”
Captain Polnik saluted and left the hall. The guests who had risen when the king rose, were now talking excitedly among themselves. Those who were officers of The Guard were hastening from the palace to join their men. All was bustle and excitement. The courtly form and ceremony of a royal function were forgotten or ignored. In the mind of each Margothian there but a single thought loomed, large and ominous—their beloved princess was in the hands of that notorious cutthroat and scoundrel, The Rider. In fifteen minutes from the time that Captain Polnik left the banquet hall twenty automobiles carrying a hundred and fifty officers and soldiers of The Guard were racing toward the Roman road on their way to the western frontier.