“I hope Boris will be there,” said Alexander.
“Peter can get word to him quickly enough if he is not,” replied the bandit. “If he is not there he will be in my camp—if the gendarmes haven’t got him.”
Nicholas laughed. “Gad!” he exclaimed, “what a joke on Boris, if they should.”
“And on us, too,” growled Alexander. “It would cost us our commissions should His Majesty ever learn our part in this affair. Say! what have we here?” as the car turned to one side and came to a stop beside another machine which blocked the road at a bad turn.
The royal chauffeur was excitedly berating the driver of the other car for stopping in such a place.
“Get out of there!” he cried. “Make way for His Royal Highness, Prince Boris of Karlova.”
“Gwan, you Dago,” growled the man addressed “Talk American. Wotinel do you tink I am?”
If her chauffeur had failed to understand the speech of the Karlovian, Mrs. Abner J. Bass had not. ‘His Royal Highness, Prince Boris of Karlova!’ Mrs. Bass was out in the dust of the Roman road in a second.
“McDougall” she cried sharply. “Have a care! Prince Boris of Karlova is in that car.”
“I don’t givadam whose in dat car,” grumbled the exasperated American who had been tinkering with a refractory magneto. “If he tinks I can pack a touring car off on me back he’s got annuder tink comin’.”
The three men had now descended from the royal limousine, the two officers having seen that a woman was in distress, and the bandit following their example from force of habit.
“I am so sorry, your highness,” apologized Mrs. Bass, looking questioningly from one of the men to another; but none of them seemed desirous of acknowledging himself crown prince of Karlova. It was at this moment that Gwendolyn stepped from the car to her mother’s side.
At sight of her face The Rider raised his military cap and bowed low.
“Permit me,” he said, “to offer my services. I am Prince Boris of Karlova.”
Mrs. Bass and her daughter curtsied. Alexander and Nicholas raised their helmets, bowing low from the hips.
“I am Mrs. Abner J. Bass of America,” said the wife of the multi-millionaire, “and this is my daughter.”
The Rider licked his lips. He had heard of the millions of the famous Abner J. Bass. What a haul!
“If you will permit me to offer you the use of my car,” he said, “I will gladly take you to Sovgrad. My aides will remain with your chauffeur and see that he gets in safely after he has made the necessary repairs.”
Alexander and Nicholas bit their lips and scowled. The effrontery of the man! Nicholas looked at Alexander. What were they to do? They had given their promises to respect the exchange which their prince had made with the highwayman, and to treat the latter as their lord and master until the true Boris claimed his rightful position. Alexander shrugged, and bowed in acquiescence. The Rider held open the door of the royal car, and assisted the two ladies to enter. Then he followed them.
“Good evening, my friends!” he called through the window to the two officers as the car started once more upon its interrupted journey.
As the car bowled along the road. The Rider thought rapidly. It never would do to enter Sovgrad in the royal car, nor could he hope to hold his precious prizes within the boundaries of the capitol city. Picking up the speaking tube he signaled the driver.
“To the hunting lodge,,” he said; “but stop first at Peter’s Inn.” And then to Mrs. Bass: “It is a long way to Sovgrad—we will stop for a moment at my hunting lodge for refreshments.”
Mrs. Abner J. Bass, quite overcome by this close communion with royalty would have agreed to anything.
“How thoughtful of your highness,” she murmured.
In the dim light The Rider could see that the younger of his victims was extremely beautiful. To her he addressed most of his remarks. He told her of the attempt to marry him to the Margothian princess, and during the narration an inspiration came to the unscrupulous scoundrel, which almost caused him to laugh aloud.
“You see,” he said, “I must marry at once, someone whom I could love, or I shall be forced to marry this hideous woman. Of course if I marry another I cannot marry the princess.”
“It would seem that it should be easy to find many desirable princesses who would be honored by such an alliance,” suggested Mrs. Bass.
“But she need not be a princess,” The Rider hastened to assure her. “In fact I should much prefer marrying one who is not a princess,” and he looked directly and pointedly at Miss Gwendolyn Bass.
Mrs. Abner J. Bass gasped and almost choked. For once in her life she was at a loss as to what to say. A real Prince—a crown prince! and he had as much as said that he would like to marry Gwendolyn. ‘Her Royal Highness, the Crown Princess Gwendolyn!’ My! how wonderful it sounded! And later, Queen Gwendolyn! Mrs. Bass was thankful that she had chosen a really distinguished name for her daughter.
Miss Bass, who had seen quite all she desired to of the royal features, shrank far back into her corner of the car, a little shiver of horror playing up and down her spine. What had become of Hemmy? She was sure that she had caught a glimpse of him in Bucharest, and that her mother had seen him there, for immediately Mrs. Bass had altered her plans and turned back toward the west. She needed him now, if ever she had needed anyone, for she was not so blind but that she could read all too plainly the trend of the thoughts of the man at her side, and she knew her mother quite well enough to be sure that that ambitious lady would jump at the chance to become the mother-in-law of a prince of the blood-royal. But Hemmy might have been dead and buried, thought the girl, for all the good he could do her now. She hadn’t the faintest idea as to where she might reach him.
The man at her side had been talking earnestly with her mother, now he had turned and was speaking to her. At first she only half comprehended the words which fell so easily from his lips and which, although she had been expecting them sooner or later, came now with all the effect of an unlooked for nervous shock.
“Your mother approves,” he was saying, “and I hope, Miss Bass, that you will approve. It would be a very advantageous marriage.” He neglected to specify to whose advantage it would redound. “The ceremony may be performed at my hunting lodge tonight—should we delay the king might get wind of the matter, and that would be the end of it, for I assure you that he would prevent our marriage and immediately place me under arrest.”
“But I scarcely know you,” objected the girl, “and anyway I do not wish to marry.”
“Gwendolyn!” admonished Mrs. Bass. “His highness has honored you highly by asking your hand in marriage—of course you will accept him,” and, turning to The Rider, “She is so young, and this has come to her so suddenly, you cannot wonder, your highness, that she is quite taken off her feet; but of course she will do as I say—Gwendolyn always does, she is a very good and dutiful daughter.”
It was well for the peace of mind of Mrs. Abner Bass that she could not read what was at that moment passing through the mind of her dutiful daughter.
During the remainder of the ride the bandit regaled his mother-in-law-to-be with vivid word pictures of the wonders of his royal palaces, the power and glory of his house, and the riches of the domain over which he and the daughter of the house of Bass would one day rule.
Mrs. Bass became quite excited in anticipation; but Gwendolyn, inclined to cautiousness in all that pertained to her royal fiancée, saw only the crudeness of his grammar, the coarseness of his voice, and the boorishness of his manners.
Presently the car turned from the Roman road into a dark wood, and shortly after drew up before a squalid inn. The Rider excused himself and entered the place on the pretext of arranging for a messenger to fetch a priest from a near-by monastery.
Inside he sought and found Peter to whom he transmitted his instructions. “I shall be at the royal hunting lodge,” he said, “and when the priest comes here, have him brought there to me at once; but do not let him know where he is being taken. Lose no time about it either. If I have any other instructions for you I will send them in writing by a messenger,” and with that he turned and hurried back to the waiting car.