Jaikie was not conscious of most of that evening’s ride. Thirty-six hours of short commons and the gentle swaying of Aurunculeia made him feel slightly sea-sick and then very drowsy. He found a strap in the trappings through which he crooked his arm, and the next he knew he was being lifted down a step-ladder by Randal Glynde in a place which smelt of horses and trodden herbage.
Mr Glynde was a stern host. He gave him a bowl of soup with bread broken into it, but nothing more. “You must sleep before you eat properly,” he said, “or you’ll be as sick as a dog.” Jaikie, who was still a little light-headed, would have gladly followed this advice, when something in Randal’s face compelled his attention. It was very grave, and he remembered it only as merry. The sight brought back to him his immediate past, and the recollection of the stifling room in the ill-omened house effectively dispelled his drowsiness. He had left Alison behind him.
“I can’t stay here,” he croaked. “I must get the others out. . . . That man’s a devil. He’ll stick at nothing. . . . What about Count Casimir? He’s a big swell here, isn’t he? and he has other Monarchists with him. . . . Where are we now? I should get to him at once, for every hour is important.” Then, as Randal remained silent, with the same anxious eyes, he said, “Oh, for God’s sake, do something. Make a plan. You know this accursed country and I don’t.”
“You have just escaped from the most dangerous place in Europe,” said Randal solemnly. “I think you are safe now, but it was a narrower thing than you imagine. The wild beast is in his lair, and a pretty well-defended lair it is. You may smoke him out, but it may be a bad thing for those he has got in the lair beside him.”
Jaikie’s wits were still muddled, but one feeling was clear and strong, a horror of that slum barrack in the mean street.
“Are there no police in Krovolin?” he demanded.
“The ordinary police would not be much use in what has been a secret rendezvous for years. The place is a honeycomb. You might plant an army round it, and Mastrovin would slip out — and leave ugly things behind him.”
“Then I’m going back. You don’t understand. . . . I can’t go off and leave the others behind. You see, I brought your cousin here . . . Alison —” He ended his sentence with something like a moan.
Randal for the first time smiled. “I expected something like that from you. It may be the only way — but not yet. Alison and the Roylances are not in immediate danger. At present to Mastrovin they are important means of knowledge. When that fails they may become hostages. Only in the last resort will they be victims.”
“Give me a cigarette, please,” said Jaikie. He suddenly felt the clouds of nausea and weariness roll away from him. He had got his second wind. “Now tell me what is happening.”
Randal nodded to a sheaf of newspapers on the floor of the caravan.
“The popular press, at least the Monarchist brand of it, announces that the Archduke Hadrian has crossed the Evallonian frontier. One or two papers say that he is now in Krovolin. They all publish his portrait — the right portrait. Prince Odalchini’s staff-work is rather good.”
Jaikie found himself confronted with a large-size photograph of Dickson McCunn. It must have been recently taken, for Mr McCunn was wearing the clothes which he had worn at Tarta.
“I have other news,” Randal continued, “which is not yet in the press. The Archduke, being an old man, is at present resting from the fatigue of his journey. To-morrow afternoon, accompanied by his chief supporters, he will move to Melina through a rejoicing country. It has all been carefully stage-managed. His escort, two troops of the National Guard, arrive here in the morning. The distance is only fifteen miles, and part of the road will be lined with His Royal Highness’s soldiers. Melina is already occupied on his behalf, and the Palace is being prepared for his reception.”
“Gosh!” said Jaikie. “How are people taking that?”
“Sedately. The Evallonians are not a politically-minded nation. They are satisfied that the hated Republic is no more, and will accept any Government that promises stability. As for His Royal Highness, they have forgotten all about him, but they have a tenderness for the old line, and they believe him to be respectable.”
“He is certainly that. How about Juventus?”
“Juventus is excited, desperately excited, but not about the Archduke. They regard him as a piece of antiquated lumber, the last card of a discredited faction. But the rumour has gone abroad that Prince John has joined them, and that has given them what they have been longing for, a picturesque figure-head. I have my own ways of getting news, and the same report has come in from all the Wings. The young men are huzzaing for the Prince, who like themselves is young. Their presses are scattering his photograph broadcast. Their senior officers, many of whom are of the old families, are enthusiastic. Now at last the wheel has come full circle for them — they have a revolution of youth which is also a restoration, and youth will lead it. They are organised to the last decimal, remember, and they have the bulk of the national feeling behind them, except here in Krovolin and in the capital. They are sitting round the periphery of Evallonia waiting for the word to close in. Incidentally they have shut the frontier, and are puzzled to understand how the Archduke managed to cross it without their knowledge. When the word is given there will be a march on Melina, just like Mussolini’s march on Rome. There is only one trouble — the Countess Araminta.”
“Yes. What about her?” was Jaikie’s gloomy question.
“That young woman,” said Randal, “must be at present in a difficult temper and not free from confusion of mind. She has not been consulted about Prince John; therefore she will be angry. All Juventus believes that the Prince is now with her Wing, but she knows that to be untrue. She has not seen His Royal Highness since she was a little girl. . . . Besides, there’s another complication. I said that Juventus was waiting. But not the Countess. Some days ago she took the bit between her teeth, and started to march on Krovolin. My information is that to-night she is encamped less than ten miles from this city. To-morrow should see her at its gates.”
“Then she’ll pinch Mr McCunn before he starts.”
“Precisely. At any rate there will be fighting, and for the sake of the future it is very necessary that there should be no fighting. At the first rifle-shot the game will get out of hand.”
“Can’t you get him off sooner?”
“Apparently no. Some time is needed for the arrangements in Melina, and already the programme has had to be telescoped.”
“What a hideous mess! What’s to be done? She must be stopped.”
“She must. That is the job to which I invite your attention.”
“Me!” The ejaculation was wrung from Jaikie by a sudden realisation of the state of his garments. His flannel bags were shrunken and to the last degree grimy, his tweed jacket was a mere antique, his shoes gaped, his hands and presumably his face were black with dust. Once again he felt, sharp as a toothache, his extreme insignificance.
Randal followed his glance. “You are certainly rather a scarecrow, but I think I can make you more presentable. You must go. You see, you are the last hope.”
“Couldn’t you —?” Jaikie began.
“No,” was the decided answer. “I have my own work to do, which is as vital as yours. There is one task before you. You must get her to halt in her tracks.”
“She won’t listen to me.”
“No doubt she won’t — at first. She’ll probably have you sent to whatever sort of dungeon a field force provides. But you have one master-card.”
“Prince John. She must produce him or she will be put to public shame, and she hasn’t a notion where to look for him. She is a strong-headed young woman, but she can’t defy the public opinion of the whole of Juventus. You alone know where the Prince is.”
“You will be told . . . So you can make your terms. From what I remember of her you will have a rough passage, but you are not afraid of the tantrums of a minx.”
“I am. Horribly.”
Randal smiled. “I don’t believe you are really afraid of anything.”
“I’m in a desperate funk of one thing, and that is, what is going to happen to Alison.”
“So am I. You are fond, I think, of Cousin Alison. Perhaps you are lovers?”
Jaikie blushed furiously.
“I have been in love with her for two years.”
“I don’t know. I hope . . . some day.”
“You are a chilly Northern pair of children. Well, she is my most beloved and adored kinswoman, and for her sake I would commit most crimes. We are agreed about that. It is for the sake of Alison and the sweet Lady Roylance that you and I are going into action. I wait in Krovolin and keep an eye on Mastrovin. He is a master of ugly subterranean things, but I also have certain moles at my command. There will be a watch kept on the Street of the White Peacock — that is the name of the dirty alley — a watch of which our gentleman will know nothing. When the Cirque Doré mobilises itself it has many eyes and ears. For you the task is to immobilise the Countess. Your price is the revelation of Prince John. Your reason, which she will assuredly ask, is not that the Archduke should get safely off to Melina — for remember your sympathies are with Juventus. It is not even that the coming revolution must not be spoiled by bloodshed, and thereby get an ill name in Europe. She would not listen to you on that matter. It is solely that your friends are in the power of Mastrovin, whom she venomously hates. If she enters Krovolin Mastrovin will be forced into action, and she knows what that will mean.”
Jaikie saw suddenly a ray of hope.
“What sort of woman is she?” he asked. “Couldn’t I put it to her that she has not merely to sit tight, but has to help to get my friends out of Mastrovin’s clutches? I can’t do anything myself, for I don’t know the place or the language. But she is sure to have some hefty fellows with her to make up a rescue party. She can’t refuse that if she’s anything of a sportsman. It’s a fair deal. She’ll have the Prince if she gives me my friends. By the way, I suppose you can produce the man when I call for him?”
“I can. What’s more, I can give you something if she asks for proof. It’s the mourning ring prepared for his late Majesty, which only the royal family possess. She’ll recognise it.”
Randal’s gravity had slightly melted. “I think you could do with a drink now,” he said. “Brandy and soda. I prescribe it, for it’s precisely what you need. Do you know, I think you have hit upon the right idea. Get her keen on doing down Mastrovin, and she won’t bother about the price. She’s an artist for art’s sake. Make it a fight between her and the Devil for the fate of three innocents and she’ll go raging into battle. I believe she has a heart, too. Most brave people have.”
As he handed Jaikie his glass, he laughed.
“There’s a good old English word that exactly describes your appearance. You look ‘varminty’— like a terrier that has been down a badger’s earth, and got its nose bitten, and is burning to go down again.”
The car, a dilapidated Ford, fetched a wide circuit in its southward journey, keeping well to the west of Krovolin, and cutting at right angles the road from the forest of St Sylvester. The morning was hazy and close, but after the last two days it seemed to Jaikie to be as fresh as April. They crossed the Silf, and saw it winding to its junction with the Rave, with the city smoking in the crook of the two streams. Beyond the Rave a rich plain stretched east towards the capital, and through that plain Dickson that afternoon must make his triumphant procession. Even now his escort would be jingling Krovolin-wards along its white roads.
Jaikie had recovered his bodily vigour, but never in his life had he felt so nervous. The thought of Alison shut up in Mastrovin’s den gnawed like a physical pain. The desperate seriousness of his mission made his heart like lead. It was the kind of thing he had not been trained to cope with; he would do his best, but he had only the slenderest hope. The figure of the Countess Araminta grew more formidable the more he thought about her. Alison at Tarta had called her the Blood-red Rook — that had been Lady Roylance’s name for her — and had drawn her in colours which suggested a cross between a vampire and a were-wolf. Wild, exotic, melodramatic and reckless — that had been the impression left on his mind. And women were good judges of each other. He could deal with a male foreigner like Ashie whom Cambridge had partially tamed, but what could he do with the unbroken female of the species? He knew less about women than he knew about the physics of hyperspace.
His forebodings made him go over again his slender assets. He knew the line he must take, provided she listened to him. But how to get an audience? The letters which Ashie had given him, being written on official flimsies, had been reduced to a degraded pulp by the rain, and he had flung them away. He had nothing except Randal’s ring, and that seemed to him an outside chance. His one hope was to get hold of Dr Jagon. Jagon would remember him from the Canonry — or on the other hand he might not. Still, it was his best chance. If he were once in Jagon’s presence he might be able to recall himself to him, and Jagon was the Countess’s civilian adviser. But his outfit might never get near Jagon; it might be stopped and sent packing by the first sentry.
It was not a very respectable outfit. The car was a disgrace. He himself had been rigged up by Randal in better clothes than his own duds, but he realised that they were not quite right, for the Cirque Doré was scarcely abreast of the fashions. He had a pair of riding breeches of an odd tubular shape, rather like what people at Cambridge wore for beagling, and they were slightly too large for him. His coat was one of those absurd Norfolk jacket things that continentals wear, made of smooth green cloth with a leather belt, and it had been designed for someone of greater girth than himself. He had, however, a respectable pair of puttees, and his boots, though too roomy, were all right, being a pair of Randal’s own. He must look, he thought, like a shop-boy on a holiday, decent but not impressive.
Then for the first time he took notice of the chauffeur. He was one of the circus people, whom Randal had vouched for as a careful driver who knew the country. The chief point about the man’s appearance was that he wore a very ancient trench burberry, which gave him an oddly English air. He was apparently middle-aged, for he had greying side whiskers. His cheeks had the pallor which comes from the use of much grease-paint. There was nothing horsy about him, so Jaikie set him down as an assistant clown. He looked solemn enough for that. He wondered what language he spoke, so he tried him in French, telling him that their first business was to ask for Professor Jagon.
“I know,” was the answer. “The boss told me that this morning.”
“Where did you learn English?” Jaikie asked, for the man spoke without the trace of an accent.
“I am English,” he said. “And I picked up a bit of French in the war.”
“Do you know Evallonia?”
“I’ve been here off and on for twenty years.”
The man had the intonations of a Londoner. It appeared that his name was Newsom, and that he had first come to Evallonia as an under-chauffeur in a family which had been bankrupted by the war. He had gone home and fought on the British side in a Royal Fusilier battalion, but after the Armistice he had again tried his fortune in Evallonia. His luck had been bad, and Mr Glynde had found him on his uppers, and given him a job in the circus. Transport was his principal business, but he rather fancied himself as a singer, and just lately had been giving Meleager a hand. “We’re a happy family in the old Cirque,” he said, “and don’t stick by trade-union ways. I can turn my hand to most anything, and I like a bit of clowning now and then. The trouble is that the paint makes my skin tender. You were maybe noticing that I’m not very clean shaved this morning.” And he turned a solemn mottled face for Jaikie’s inspection.
In less than an hour they came out of the woods into a country of meadows which rose gently to a line of hills. They also came into an area apparently under military occupation. A couple of Greenshirts barred the road. Jaikie tried them in English, but they shook their heads, so he left it to Newsom, who began to explain in Evallonian slowly, as if he were hunting for words, and with an accent which to Jaikie’s ears sounded insular. There was a short discussion, and then the Greenshirts nodded and stood aside. “They say,” said Newsom, “that Dr Jagon’s quarters are at the farm a kilometre on, but they believe that he is now with the Wing–Commander. But they don’t mind our calling on him. I said you were an old friend of his, and brought important news from Krovolin.”
The next turn of the road revealed a very respectable army on the march. The night’s bivouac had been in a broad cup formed by the confluence of two streams. There was a multitude of little tents, extensive horse-lines, and a car park, and already there were signs that movement was beginning. Men were stamping out the breakfast fires, and saddling horses, and putting mule teams to transport wagons, and filling the tanks of cars. “I must hurry,” thought Jaikie, “or that confounded woman will be in Krovolin this afternoon.” His eye caught a building a little to the rear of the encampment which had the look of a small hunting-lodge. The green and white flag of Juventus was being lowered from its flagstaff.
There was no Jagon at the farm, but there was a medical officer who understood English. To him Jaikie made the appeal which he thought most likely to convince. He said he was a friend of the Professor — had known him in England — and brought a message to him of extreme importance.
The officer rubbed his chin. “You are behind the fair,” he said. “You come from Krovolin? Well, we shall be in Krovolin ourselves in three hours.”
“That is my point,” said Jaikie. “There’s something about Krovolin which you should hear. It concerns Mastrovin.”
The name produced an effect.
“Mastrovin! You come from him?” was the brusque question.
“Only in the sense that I escaped last night from his clutches. I’ve something to tell the Professor about Mastrovin which may alter all your plans.”
The officer looked puzzled.
“You are English?” he demanded. “And he?” He nodded towards Newsom.
“Both English, and both friends of Juventus. I came here as a tourist and stumbled by accident on some important news which I thought it my duty to get to Professor Jagon. He is the only one of you I know. I tell you, it’s desperately important.”
The officer pondered.
“You look an honest little man. I have my orders, but we of the special services are encouraged to think for ourselves. The Professor is at this moment in conference with the Praefectus, and cannot be interrupted. But I will myself take you to headquarters, and when he is finished I will present you. Let us hurry, for we are about to march.”
He stood on the footboard of the car, and directed Newsom along a very bumpy track, which skirted the horse-lines, and led to the courtyard of the hunting-lodge. Here was a scene of extreme busyness. Greenshirts with every variety of rank-badges were going in and out of the building, a wagon was being loaded with kit, and before what seemed to be the main entrance an orderly was leading up and down a good-looking chestnut mare. Out of this door merged the burly figure of a man, with a black beard and spectacles, who was dressed rather absurdly in khaki shorts and a green shirt, the open neck of which displayed a hairy chest.
“The Professor,” said the medical officer. He saluted. “Here is an Englishman, sir, who says he knows you and has an urgent message.”
“I have no time for Englishmen,” said Jagon crossly. His morning conference seemed to have perturbed him.
“But you will have time for me,” said Jaikie. “You remember me, sir?”
The spectacled eyes regarded Jaikie sourly. “I do not.”
“I think you do. Two years ago I came to breakfast with you at Knockraw in Scotland. I helped you then, and I can help you now.”
“Tchut! That is a long-closed chapter.” But the man’s face was no longer hostile. He honoured Jaikie with a searching stare. “You are that little Scotsman. I recall you. But if you come from my companions of that time it is useless. I have broken with them.”
“I don’t come from them. I come from the man you beat two years ago — I escaped from him twelve hours ago. I want to help you to beat him again.”
Jagon looked at the medical officer and the medical officer looked at Jagon. The lips of both seemed to shape, but not to utter, the same word. “I think the Englishman is honest, sir,” said the officer.
“What do you want?” Jagon turned to Jaikie.
“Five minutes’ private talk with you.”
“Come in here. Keep an eye on that chauffeur”— this to the officer. “We know nothing about him.”
“I’m an Englishman, too,” said Newsom, touching his cap.
“What the devil has mobilised the British Empire this morning?” Jagon led Jaikie into a little stone hall hung with sporting trophies and then into a cubby-hole where an orderly was packing up papers. He dismissed the latter, and shut the door.
“Now let’s have your errand. And be short, for we move in fifteen minutes.”
Jaikie felt no nervousness with this hustled professor. In half a dozen sentences he explained how he had got mixed up in Evallonia’s business, but he did not mention Prince Odalchini, though he made much of Ashie. “I want to see the Countess Araminta. And you, who know something about me, must arrange it.”
“You can’t. The Praefectus sees no strangers.”
“I must. If I don’t she’ll make a godless mess of the whole business.”
“You would tell her that?” said Jagon grimly. “The Praefectus is not so busy that she cannot find time to punish insolence.”
“It isn’t insolence — it’s a fact. I didn’t talk nonsense to you at Knockraw, and it was because you believed me that things went right. You must believe me now. For Heaven’s sake take me to the Countess and let’s waste no more time.”
“You are a bold youth,” said the Professor. “Bold with the valour of ignorance. But the Praefectus will see no one. Perhaps this evening when we have entered Krovolin —”
“That will be too late. It must be now.”
“It cannot be. I have my orders. The Praefectus is not one to be disobeyed.” The eyes behind the spectacles were troubled, and the black beard did not hide the twitching of the lips. He reminded Jaikie of a don of his acquaintance in whom a bonfire in the quad induced a nervous crisis. His heart sank, for he knew the stubbornness of the weak.
“Then I am going direct to the Countess.”
A clear voice rang outside in the hall, an imperative voice, and a woman’s. Jaikie’s mind was suddenly made up. Before Jagon could prevent him, he was through the door. At the foot of the stairs were two Greenshirts at attention, and on the last step stood a tall girl.
Indignation with the Professor and a growing desperation had banished Jaikie’s uneasiness. He saluted in the Greenshirt fashion and looked her boldly in the face. His first thought was that she was extraordinarily pretty. What had Alison meant by drawing the picture of a harpy? She was dressed like Ashie in green riding breeches and a green tunic, and the only sign of the Blood-red Rook was her scarlet collar and the scarlet brassard on her right arm. Her colouring was a delicate amber, her eyes were like pools in a peaty stream, and her green forester’s hat did not conceal her wonderful dead-black hair. Her poise was the most arrogant that he had ever seen, for she held her little head so high that the world seemed at an infinite distance beneath her. As her eyes fell on him they changed from liquid topaz to a hard agate.
She spoke a sharp imperious word and her voice had the chill of water on a frosty morning.
Audacity was his only hope.
“Madam,” said Jaikie. “I have forced myself upon you. I am an Englishman, and I believe that you have English blood. I implore your help, and I think that in turn I can be of use to you.”
She looked over his head, at the trembling Jagon and the stupefied Greenshirts. She seemed to be asking who had dared to disobey her.
“I take all the blame on myself,” said Jaikie, trying to keep his voice level. “I have broken your orders. Punish me if you like, but listen to me first. You are leading a revolution, and in a revolution breaches of etiquette are forgiven.”
At last she condescended to lower her eyes to him. Something in his face or his figure seemed to rouse a flicker of interest.
“Who is this cock-sparrow?” she asked, and looked at Jagon.
“Madam,” came the trembling answer, “he is a Scotsman who once in Scotland did me a service. He is without manners, but I believe he means honestly.”
“I see. A revenant from your faulty past. But this is no time for repaying favours. You will take charge of him, Professor, and be responsible for him till my further orders.” And she passed between the sentries towards the door.
Jaikie managed to plant himself in her way. He played his last card.
“You must listen to me. Please!” He held out his hand.
It was his face that did it. There was something about Jaikie’s small, wedge-shaped countenance, its air of innocence with just a hint of devilry flickering in the background, its extreme and rather forlorn youth, which most people found hard to resist. The Countess Araminta looked at him and her eyes softened ever so little. She looked at the outstretched hand in which lay a ring. It was a kind of ring she had seen before, and the momentary softness left her face.
“Where did you get that?” she demanded in a voice in which imperiousness could not altogether conceal excitement.
“It was given me to show to you as a proof of my good faith.”
She said something in Evallonian to the guards and the Professor, and marched into the cubby-hole which Jaikie had lately left. “Follow,” said the Professor hoarsely. “The Praefectus will see you — but only for one minute.”
Jaikie found himself in a space perhaps six yards square, confronting the formidable personage the thought of whom had hitherto made his spine cold. Rather to his surprise he felt more at his ease. He found that he could look at her steadily, and what he saw in her face made him suddenly change all his prearranged tactics. She was a young woman, but she was not in the least a young woman like Alison or Janet Roylance. He was no judge of femininity, but there was not much femininity here as he understood it. . . . But there was something else which he did understand. Her eyes, the way she held her head, the tones of her voice had just that slightly insecure arrogance, that sullen but puzzled self-confidence, which belonged to a certain kind of public-school boy. He had studied the type, for it was not his own, and he had had a good deal to do with the handling of it. One had to be cautious with it, for it was easy to rouse obstinate, half-comprehended scruples, but it was sound stuff if you managed it wisely. His plan had been to propose a bargain with one whom he believed to be the slave of picturesque ambitions. In a flash he realised that he had been mistaken. If he suggested a deal it would be taken as insolence, and he would find himself pitched neck-and-crop into the yard. He must try other methods.
“Countess,” he said humbly, “I have come to you with a desperate appeal. You alone can help me.”
He was scrupulously candid. He told how he had come to Evallonia, of his meeting with Ashie, of his visit to Prince Odalchini. He told how he had brought Alison and the Roylances to the House of the Four Winds. “It was none of my business,” he admitted. “I was an interfering fool, but I thought it was going to be fun, and now it’s liker tragedy.”
“The Roylances,” she repeated. “They were at Geneva. I saw them there. The man is the ordinary English squire, and the woman is pleasant. Miss Westwater too I know — I have met her in England. Pretty and blonde — rather fluffy.”
“Not fluffy,” said Jaikie hotly.
She almost smiled.
“Perhaps not fluffy. Go on.”
He told of Mastrovin, sketching hurriedly his doings in the Canonry two years before. He described the meeting in the Forest of St Sylvester, when he himself had been on the way to the Countess with letters from Ashie. “I can’t give you them,” he said, “for the rain pulped them.” He described the house in the Street of the White Peacock and he did not mince his words. But he skated lightly over his escape, for he felt that it would be bad tactics to bring Randal Glynde into the story at that stage.
There could be no question of her interest. At the mention of Mastrovin her delicate brows descended and she cross-examined him sharply. The Street of the White Peacock, where was it? Who was with Mastrovin? She frowned at the name of Dedekind. Then her face set.
“That rabble is caught,” she said. “Trapped. To-night it will be in my hands.”
“But the rabble is desperate. You have an army, Countess, and you can surround it, but it will die fighting with teeth and claws. And if it perishes my friends will perish with it.”
“That I cannot help. If fools rush in where they are not wanted they must take the consequences.”
“You don’t wish to begin with a tragedy. You have the chance of a bloodless revolution which for its decency will be unlike all other revolutions. You mustn’t spoil it. If it starts off with the murder of three English its reputation will be tarnished.”
“The murders will have been done by our enemies, and we shall avenge them.”
“Of course. But still you will have taken the gloss off Juventus in the eyes of England — and of Europe.”
“We care nothing for foreign opinion.”
Jaikie looked her boldly in the eyes.
“But you do. You must. You are responsible people, who don’t want merely to upset a Government, but to establish a new and better one. Public opinion outside Evallonia will mean a lot to you.”
Her face had again its arrogance.
“That is dictation,” she said, “and who are you to dictate?”
“I am nobody, but I must plead for my friends. And I am hot on your side. I want you to begin your crusade with an act of chivalry.”
“You would show me how to behave?”
“Not I. I want you to show me and the world how to behave, and prove that Juventus stands for great things. You are strong enough to be merciful.”
He had touched the right note, for her sternness patently unbent.
“What do you want me to do?” Her tone was almost as if she spoke to an equal.
“I want you to halt where you are. I want you to let me have half a dozen of your best men to help me to get my friends out of Mastrovin’s hands. If we fail, then that’s that. If we succeed, then you occupy Krovolin and do what you like with Mastrovin. After that you march on Melina with a good conscience and God prosper you!”
She looked at him fixedly and her mouth drew into a slow smile.
“You are a very bold young man. Are you perhaps in love with Miss Westwater?”
“I am,” said Jaikie, “but that has nothing to do with the point. I brought her to this country, and I can’t let her down. You know you could never do that yourself.”
Her smile broadened.
“I am to stop short in a great work of liberation to rescue the lady-love of a preposterous Englishman.”
“Yes,” said Jaikie, “because you know that you would be miserable if you didn’t.”
“You think you can bring it off?”
“Only with your help.”
“I am to put my men under your direction?”
“We’ll make a plan together. I’ll follow any leader.”
“If I consent, you shall lead. If I am to trust you in one thing I must trust you in all.”
Jaikie bowed. “I am at your orders,” he said.
She continued to regard him curiously.
“Miss Westwater is noble,” she said. “Are you?”
Jaikie puzzled at the word. Then he understood.
“No, I’m nobody, as I told you. But we don’t bother about these things so much in England.”
“I see. The Princess and the goose-boy. I do not quarrel with you for that. You are like our Juventus, the pioneer of a new world.”
Jaikie knew that he had won, for the agate gleam had gone out of her eyes. He had something more to say and he picked his words, for he realised that he was dealing with a potential volcano.
“You march on Melina,” he said, “you and the other wings of Juventus. But when you march you must have your leader.”
Her eyes hardened. “What do you know of that?” she snapped.
“I have seen the newspapers and I have heard people talking.” Jaikie walked with desperate circumspection. “The Republic has fallen. The Monarchists with their old man cannot last long. Juventus must restore the ancient ways, but with youth to lead.”
“You mean?” Her eyes were stony.
“I mean Prince John,” he blurted out, with his heart sinking. She was once more the Valkyrie, poised like a falcon for a swoop. He saw the appropriateness of Alison’s name for her.
“You mean Prince John?” she repeated, and her tone was polar ice.
“You know you can’t put a king on the throne unless you have got him with you. Juventus is wild for Prince John, but nobody knows where he is. I know. I promise to hand him over to you safe and sound.”
There were many things in her face — interest, excitement, relief, but there was also a rising anger.
“You would make a bargain with me?” she cried. “A huckster’s bargain — with ME!”
Strangely enough, the surprise and fury in her voice made Jaikie cool. He knew this kind of tantrum, but not in the Countess’s sex.
“You mustn’t talk nonsense, please,” he said. “I wouldn’t dare to make a bargain with you. I appealed to you, and out of your chivalry you are going to do what I ask. I only offer to show my gratitude by doing what I can for you. Besides, as I told you, I’m on your side. I mean what I say. You can go back on me and refuse what I ask, and I’ll still put you in the way of getting hold of Prince John, if you’ll give me a couple of days. I can’t say fairer than that. A mouse may help a lion.”
For a second or two she said nothing. Then her eyes fell.
“You are the first man,” she said, “who has dared to tell me that I was a fool.”
“I didn’t,” Jaikie protested, with a comfortable sense that things were going better.
“You did, and I respect you for it. I see that there was no insult. What I do for you — if I do it — I do because I am a Christian and a good citizen. . . . For the other thing, what proof have you that you can keep your word?”
Jaikie held out the ring. The Countess took it, studied the carving on the carnelian, and returned it. She was smiling.
“It is a token and no more. If you fail —”
“Oh, have me flayed and boiled in oil,” he said cheerfully. “Anything you like as long as you get busy about Mastrovin.”
She blew a silver whistle, and spoke a word to the orderly who entered. Then Jagon appeared, and to him she gave what sounded like a string of orders, which she enumerated on her slim gloved fingers. When he had gone she turned to Jaikie.
“I have countermanded the march for today. Now we go to choose your forlorn hope. You will lunch with me, for I have some things to say to you and many to ask you. What is your name, for I know nothing of you except that you are in love with Miss Westwater and are a friend of my cousin Paul?”
“Galt,” she repeated. “It is not dignified, but it smells of the honest earth. You will wait here, Galt, till I send for you.”
Jaikie, left alone, mopped his brow, and, there being no chairs in the place, sat down on the floor, for he felt exhausted. He was not accustomed to this kind of thing.
“Public-school,” he reflected. “Best six-cylinder model. Lord, how I love the product and dislike the type! But fortunately the type is pretty rare.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50