Miss Alison Westwater dropped with a happy sigh beside a bed of wild strawberries still wet with dew, and proceeded to make a second breakfast. It was still early morning — not quite seven o’clock — but she had been walking ever since half-past five, when she had broken her fast on a cup of coffee and a last-night’s roll provided by a friendly chambermaid. She had left the highway, which, switch-backing from valley to valley, took the traveller to Italy, and had taken a forest track which after a mile or two among pines came out on an upland meadow, and led to a ridge, the spur of a high mountain, from which the kingdoms of the earth could be surveyed. The sky was not the pale turquoise bowl which in her own country heralded a perfect summer day, but an intense sapphire; the shadows were also blue, and the sunshine where it fell was a blinding essential light without colour, so that the grass looked like snowdrifts. The air had an aromatic freshness which stung the senses, and Alison drew great breaths of it till her throat was as cold as if she had been drinking spring water.
This was her one satisfactory time in the day. The rest of her waking hours were devoted to a routine which seemed void alike of mirth or reason. Her father’s neuritis had almost gone, but so had his good humour, and it was a very peevish old gentleman that she accompanied in pottering walks by the lake-side or in aimless motor drives on blinding hot highways. Lord Rhynns was particular about his food, and the hotel cuisine did not please him, so he was in the habit of sampling, without much success, whatever Unnutz produced in the way of café and konditorei. He was also particular about his clothes, and since he dressed always in the elder fashion of tight trousers, coloured waistcoat, stiff collar and four-inhand tie, he was generally warm and correspondingly irascible. Her mother did not appear till after midday, and required a good deal of coddling, for, having been driven out of her accustomed beat, she found herself short of acquaintances and quite unable to plan out her days. One curious consequence was that both, who had habituated themselves to a life of Continental vagrancy, suddenly began to long passionately for home. His lordship remembered that the shooting season would soon begin in the Canonry, and was full of sad reminiscences of the exploits of his youth, while to her ladyship came visions of the cool chambers and the smooth and comforting ritual of Castle Gay.
“I am a marionette,” Alison had written to Jaikie. “I move at the jerk of a string, and it isn’t my parents that pull it. It’s this ghastly place, which has invented a régime for the idle middle-classes of six nations. I defy even you to break loose from it. I do the same things and make the same remarks and wear the same clothes every day at the proper hour. I’m a marionette and so are the other people — quite nice they are, and well-mannered, and friendly, but as dead as salted herrings. A good old-fashioned bounder would be a welcome change. Or a criminal.”
As she sat on the moss she remembered this sentence — and something else. Unnutz was mainly villas and hotels, but there was an old village as a nucleus — wooden houses built on piles on the lake shore, and one or two narrow twisting streets with pumpkins drying on the shingle roofs. There was a bathing-place there very different from the modish thing on the main promenade, a place where you dived in a hut under a canvas curtain into deep green water, and could swim out to some fantastic little rock islets. She had managed once or twice to bathe there, and yesterday afternoon she had slipped off for an hour and had had a long swim by herself. Coming back she had recognised in a corner of the old village the first face of an acquaintance she had met since she came to Unnutz. Not an acquaintance exactly, for he had never seen her. But she remembered well the shaggy leonine head, the heavy brows and the forward thrust of the jaw. She had watched those features two years ago during some agonised minutes in the library of Castle Gay, till Mr Dickson McCunn had adroitly turned melodrama into farce, and she was not likely to forget them. She remembered the name too — Mastrovin, the power behind the Republican Government of Evallonia. Had not Jaikie told her that he was the most dangerous underground force in Europe?
What was this dynamic personage doing in a dull little Tirolese health resort? Was her wish to be granted, and their drab society enlivened by a criminal?
The thought only flitted across her mind, for she had other things to think about. She must make the most of her holiday, for by half-past ten she must be back to join her father in his petit déjeuner on the hotel verandah. Usually she had the whole hillside to herself, but this morning she had seen a car on the road which led to the high pastures. It had been empty, standing at the foot of one of the tracks which climbed upward through the pines. Someone else had her taste for early mornings in the hills. It had annoyed her to think that her sanctuary was not inviolable. She hoped that the intruder, whoever he or she was, was short in the wind and would not get higher than the wood.
She got up from her lair among the strawberries and wandered across the meadow, where every now and then outcrops of rock stuck grey noses through the flowers. She had a drink out of an ice-cold runnel. She saw a crested tit, a bird which she had never met before, and screwed her single field-glass into her eye to watch its movements. Also she saw a kite high up in the blue, and, having only once in her life met that type of hawk, regarded him with a lively interest. Then she came to a little valley the top of which was a ravine in the high rocks, and the bottom of which was muffled in the woods. There was a woodcutter’s cottage here, wonderfully hidden in a cleft, with the pines on three sides and one side open to the hill. Where Alison stood she looked down upon it directly from above, and could observe the beginning if its daily life. She had been here before, and had seen an old woman, who might have come out of Grimm, carrying pails of water from a pool in the stream.
Now instead of the old woman there was a young man, presumably her son. He came slowly from the cottage and moved to the fringe of the trees, where a path began its downhill course. He possessed a watch, for he twice consulted it, as if he were keeping an appointment. His clothes were the ordinary forester’s — baggy trousers of homespun, heavy iron-shod boots, and an aged velveteen jacket with silver buttons. He carried himself well, Alison thought, better than most woodmen, who were apt to be round-shouldered and slouching.
A second man came out of the wood — also a tall man, but dressed very differently from the woodcutter, for he wore flannels and a green Homburg hat. “My motorist,” thought Alison. “He must know something about the woods, for the way through them to this cottage isn’t easy to find.”
The newcomer behaved oddly. He took off his hat. The woodcutter gave him his hand and he bowed over it with extreme respect. Then the woodcutter slipped his arm in his and led him towards the cottage.
Alison in her perch far above put the glass to her eye and got a good view of the stranger. There could be no mistake. Two years ago she had sat opposite him at dinner at Castle Gay and at breakfast at Knockraw. She recognised the fine shape of his head, and the face which would have been classically perfect but for the snub nose. One did not easily forget Count Casimir Muresco.
But who was the other? Noblemen with nine centuries of pedigree behind them do not usually bow over the hands of foresters and uncover their heads. She could not see his face, for it was turned away from her, but before the two entered the cottage she had no doubt about his identity. She was being given the back view of the lawful monarch of Evallonia.
From that moment Alison’s boredom vanished like dew in the sun. She realised that she had stumbled upon the fringe of great affairs. What was it that Prince John had said to her at the dinner at Maurice’s? That Unnutz was not a very good place for a holiday that summer, that it might be unpleasant, but that, being English, she would always be free to get away. That could only mean that something momentous was going to happen at Unnutz. What was Prince John doing disguised as a woodcutter in this remote and secret hut? . . . What was Count Casimir, architect of revolutions, doing there so early in the morning? Plots were being hatched, thought the girl in a delicious tremor of excitement. The curtain was about to rise on the play, and, unknown to the actors, she had a seat in a box.
And then suddenly she remembered the face she had seen the afternoon before in the lakeside alley. Mastrovin! He was the deadly enemy of Count Casimir and the Prince. He must know, or suspect, that the Prince was in the neighbourhood. Casimir probably knew nothing of Mastrovin’s presence. But she, Alison, knew. The thought solemnised her, for such knowledge is as much a burden as a delight.
Her first impulse was to scramble down the hillside to the cottage, break in on the conspirators, and tell them what she knew. But she did not move, for it occurred to her that she might be more useful, and get more fun out of the business, if she remained silent. She waited for ten minutes till the two men appeared again. This time she had a good view of the woodcutter through her glass, and she recognised the comely and rather heavy countenance of Prince John. Casmir took a ceremonious leave and started down the track through the forest. Alison, who knew all the paths, followed him at a higher level. She wanted to discover whether or not his steps had been dogged.
Alison had taught Jaikie many things, and he had repaid her by instructing her in some of his own lore. He had made her almost as artful and silent a tracker as himself, and under his tuition she had brought to a high pitch her own fine natural sense of direction. Like a swift shadow she flitted through the pines, now on bare needle-strewn ground, now among tangles of rock and whortleberry. The route she took was almost parallel to Casimir’s, but now and then she had to make a circuit to avoid some rocky dingle, and there were times when she had to cast back or cast ahead to trace him. It was rough going in parts, and since Casimir showed a remarkable turn of speed she had sometimes to slither down steeps and sometimes to run. By and by came glimpses of the valley below, and at last through a thinning of the pines she saw the last twisting of the hill-path before it debouched on the highway. Presently she saw the waiting car, and the tracker, being a little ahead of the tracked, sank down among the whortleberries to await events.
Casimir appeared, going warily, with an eye on the white strip of high road. It was still empty, for the Firnthal does not rise early. He reached the car, and examined it carefully, as if he feared that someone might have tampered with it in his absence. Satisfied, he took the driver’s seat, backed on to the high road, and set out in the direction of Italy.
Alison observed his doings with only half an eye, for between her and the car she had seen something which demanded attention. She was now some two hundred yards above the road, and the ground immediately below her was occupied by a little rock-fall much overgrown with fern and scrub. There was something among the bushes which had not been put there by nature. Her glass showed her that that something was the head of a man. It was a bare head, with grizzled hair and one bald patch at the back, and she knew to whom it belonged. Mastrovin was not in Unnutz for the sake of the excellent sulphur baths or the mountain air.
Alison slipped out of her lair and as noiselessly as she could crawled to her right along the slope of the hill. She struck the path by which Casimir had descended, a path which was, so to speak, the grand trunk road from the hills, and which a little higher forked in several directions. Waiting a moment to get her breath, she made a hasty bouquet of some blue campanulas and sprigs of whortleberry and then sauntered down the path, a little flushed, a little untidy about the hair and wet about the shoes, but on the whole a creditable specimen of early-rising vigorous maidenhood.
Mastrovin, when she came in sight of him, was descending the hill and had already reached the high road. He had covered his head with a green hat, and wore a dark green suit of breeches and Norfolk jacket, just like any other tourist in a mountain country. Alison’s whistling caught his ear, and at the foot of the track he stopped to wait for her.
“Grüss Gott!” he said, forcing his harsh features into amiability. “I have been looking for a friend. Have you seen anyone — any man — up in the woods? My friend is tall and walks fast, and his clothes are grey.”
One of Alison’s accomplishments was that she understood German perfectly, and spoke it with fluency and a reasonable correctness. But it occurred to her that it would not be wise to reveal this talent; so she pretended to follow Mastrovin with difficulty and to puzzle over one word, and she began to answer in the purest Ollendorff.
“You are English?” he asked. “Speak English, please. I understand it.”
Alison obeyed. She explained that she had indeed met a man in the high woods, though she had not specially remarked his clothes. She had passed him, and thought that he must have returned soon after, for she had not seen him on her way down. She described minutely the place of meeting — on the right-hand road at the main fork, near the brow of the hill, and not far from the rock called the Wolf Crag which looked down on Unnutz — precisely the opposite direction from the woodcutter’s hut.
Mastrovin thanked her with a flourish of his hat. “I must now to breakfast,” he said. “There is a gasthaus by the roadside where I will await my friend, if he is not already there.”
Usually the two miles to Unnutz were the one black spot in the morning’s walk, for they were flat and dusty and meant a return to the house of bondage. But today Alison was scarcely conscious of them, for she was thinking hard, with a flutter at her heart which was half-painful and half-pleasant. Prince John was here in retreat for some purpose, and Count Casimir was in touch with him; that must mean that things were coming to a head in Evallonia. Mastrovin, his bitterest enemy, was on the trail of Casimir, and must know that Prince John was in the neighbourhood. That meant trouble. Her false witness that morning might send Mastrovin on a wild-goose chase to the wrong part of the forest, but it was very certain that he must presently discover the Prince’s hermitage. The Prince and Casimir might suspect that their enemies were looking for them, but they did not know that Mastrovin was in Unnutz. She alone knew that, and she must make use of her knowledge. Casimir had gone off in the direction of Italy; therefore she must warn the Prince, and that must be done secretly when she could be certain that she was not followed. She had begun to plan a midnight journey, for happily she had a room giving on a balcony, from which it would be easy to reach the ground. To her surprise she found that she looked forward with no relish to the prospect; if she had had company it would have been immense fun, but, being alone, she felt only the weight of a heavy duty. She longed passionately for Jaikie.
Entering the hotel by a side door, she changed into something more like the regulation toilet of Unnutz, and sought her father on the verandah. For once Lord Rhynns was in a good humour.
“A little late, my dear,” he complained mildly. “Yes, I have had a better night. I am beginning to hope that I have got even with my accursed affliction.” Then, regarding his daughter with complacent eyes, he became complimentary. “You are really a very pretty girl, Alison, though your clothes are not such as gentlewomen wore in my young days.” With a surprising touch of sentiment he added, “You are becoming very like my mother.”
Taking advantage of her father’s urbanity, Alison broached the question of going home.
“Presently, my dear. Another week, I think, should set me right. Your mother is anxious to leave — a sudden craving for Scotland. We shall go for a little to Harriet at Castle Gay — she has been more than kind about it, and Craw has behaved admirably. I am told he has the place very comfortable, and I have always found him conduct himself like a gentleman. Money, my dear. Ample means are not only the passport to the name of gentility, but they create the thing itself. In these days it is not easy for a pauper to preserve his breeding.
“By the way,” he continued, “some friends of ours arrived here this morning. They are breakfasting more elaborately than we are in the salle-à-manger. The Roylances. Janet Roylance, you remember, was old Cousin Alastair Raden’s second girl.”
“What!” Alison almost shrieked. It was the best news she could have got, for now she could share her burden of responsibility. In the regrettable absence of Jaikie the Roylances were easily the next best.
“Yes,” her father went on. “They have been at Geneva, and have come on here for a holiday. Sir Archibald, they tell me, is making a considerable name for himself in politics. For a young man in these days he certainly has creditable manners.”
His lordship finished his coffee, and announced that he proposed to go to his sitting-room till luncheon to write letters. Alison dutifully accompanied him thither, paid her respects to her mother, who was also in a more cheerful mood, and then hastened downstairs. In the big dining-room she found the pair she sought at a table in one of the windows. Alison flung herself upon Janet Roylance’s neck.
“You’ve finished breakfast? Then come outdoors and smoke. I know a quiet corner beside the lake. I must talk to you at once. You blessed angels have been sent by Heaven just at the right moment.”
When they were seated where a little half-moon of shrubbery made an enclave above the blue waters of the Waldersee, Sir Archie offered Alison a cigarette.
“No, thank you. I don’t smoke. If I did it would be a pipe, I’m so sick of the cigarette-puffing hussy. First of all, what brought you two here?”
Sir Archie grinned. “The Conference has adjourned till Bolivia settles some nice point with Uruguay.”
“We came,” said Janet, “because we are free people with no plans and we knew that you were here. We thought we should find you moribund with boredom, Allie, but you are radiant. What has happened? Have the parents turned over a new leaf?”
“Papa is quite good and nearly well. Mamma has actually begun to crave for Scotland. There’s no trouble at present on the home front. But the foreign situation is ticklish. This place is going to be the scene of dark doings, and I can’t cope with them alone. That’s why I hugged you like a bear. Have you ever heard of Evallonia?”
“I have,” said Janet, “for I sometimes read the Craw Press.”
“We’ve expected a revolution there,” said Sir Archie, “any time these last two years. But something seems to have gone wrong with the timing.”
“Well, that has been seen to. The blow-up must be nearly ready, and it’s going to start in this very place. Listen to me very carefully. The story begins two years ago in Castle Gay.”
Briefly but vigorously Alison told the tale of the raid on the Canonry and the discomfiture by Jaikie and Dickson McCunn of Mastrovin and his gang. (“Jaikie?” said Sir Archie. “That’s the little chap we saw with you at Maurice’s? I was in a scrap alongside him years ago. Janet knows the story. Good stamp of lad.”) She sketched the personalities of the three Royalists and the six Republicans, and she touched lightly upon Prince John. She described the face seen the afternoon before in the old village, and her sight that morning of the Prince and Casimir at the woodcutter’s hut. The drama culminated in Mastrovin squatted like a partridge in the scrub above Casimir’s car.
“Mastrovin!” Sir Archie brooded. “He was at Geneva as an Evallonian delegate. Wonderful face of its kind, but it would make any English jury bring him in guilty of any crime without leaving the box. He was very civil to me. I thought him a miscreant but a sportsman, though I wouldn’t like to meet him alone on a dark night. He looked the kind of chap who wasn’t afraid of anything — except the other Evallonian female. You remember her, Janet?”
His wife laughed. “Shall I ever forget her? You never saw such a girl, Allie. A skin like clear amber, and eyes like topazes, and the most wonderful dark hair. She dressed always in bright scarlet and somehow carried it off. Archie, who as you know is a bit of a falconer, remembered that in the seventeenth century there was a hawk called the Blood-red Rook of Turkey, so we always called her that. She was a Countess Araminta Some-thing-or-other.”
Alison’s eyes opened. “I know her — at least, I have met her. She was in London the season before last. Her mother was English, I think, and hence her name. She rather scared me. She wasn’t a delegate, was she?”
“No,” said Archie. “She held a watching brief for something. I can tell you she scared old Mastrovin. He didn’t like to be in the same room with her, and he changed his hotel when she turned up at it.”
“Never mind the Blood-red Rook,” said Alison. “Mastrovin is our problem. I don’t care a hoot for Evallonian politics, but having once been on the Monarchist side I’m going to stick to it. Evallonia is apparently at boiling-point. The Monarchist cause depends upon Prince John. Mastrovin is for the Republic or something still shadier, and therefore he is against Prince John. That innocent doesn’t know his enemy is about, and Casimir has gone off in the direction of Italy. Therefore we have got to do something about it.”
“What puzzles me,” said Archie, “is what your Prince is doing in Unnutz, which isn’t exactly next door to Evallonia, and why he should want to get himself up as a peasant?”
“It puzzles me, too, but that isn’t the point. It all shows that things are getting warm in Evallonia. What we have got to do is to dig Prince John out of that hut before Mastrovin murders or kidnaps him, and stow him away in some safer place. I considered it rather a heavy job for me alone, but is should be child’s play for the three of us. Don’t tell me you decline to play.”
During the last few minutes of the conversation Archie’s face had been steadily brightening.
“Of course we’ll play,” he said. “You can count us in, Alison, but I’m getting very discreet in my old age, and I must think it over pretty carefully. It’s a chancy business purloining princes, however good your intentions may be. The thing’s easy enough, but it’s the follow-up that matters. . . . Wait a second. I’ve always believed that the best hiding-place was just under the light. What about bringing him to this hotel to join our party?”
“As Prince John or as a woodcutter?” Janet asked.
“As neither,” said Archie. “My servant got ‘flu in Geneva, and I had to leave him behind. How would the Prince fancy taking on the job? I can lend him some of my clothes. Is he the merry class of lad that likes a jape?”
The luncheon-gong boomed. “We can talk about that later,” said Alison. “Meanwhile, it’s agreed that we three slip out of this place after dark. We’ll take your car part of the way, and there’s a moon, and I can guide you the rest. We daren’t delay, for I’m positive that this very night Mastrovin will get busy.”
Sir Archie arose with mirth in his eye, patted his hair and squared his shoulders. A boy approached and handed him a telegram.
“It’s from Bobby Despenser,” he announced. “The Conference has resumed and he wants me back at once. Well, he can whistle for me.”
He tore the flimsy into small pieces.
“Take notice, you two,” he said, “that most unfortunately I have not received Bobby’s wire.”
On the following morning three people sat down to a late breakfast in a private sitting-room of the Hotel Kaiserin Augusta. All three were a little heavy about the eyes, as if their night’s rest had been broken, but in the air of each was a certain subdued excitement and satisfaction.
“My new fellow is settling down nicely,” said Sir Archie, helping himself to his third cup of coffee. “Answers smartly to the name of McTavish. Lucky I brought the real McTavish’s passport with me. Curious thing, but the passport photograph isn’t unlike him, and he has almost the same measurements. I’ve put some sticking-plaster above his left eye to correspond to the scar that McTavish got in Mespot, and I’ve had a go at his hair with scissors — he objected pretty strongly to that, by the way. I’ve put him into my striped blue flannel suit, which you could tell for English a mile away, and given him a pair of my old brown shoes. Thank God, he’s just about my size. I’m going to buy him a black Homburg — the shops here are full of them — and then he’ll look the very model of a gentleman’s gentleman, who has had to supplement his London wardrobe locally.”
“But, Archie, he has the kind of face that you can’t camouflage,” said Janet. “Anyone who knows him is bound to recognise him.”
Her husband waved his hand. “N’ayez pas peur, je m’en charge, as old Perriot used to say at Geneva. He won’t be recognised, because no one will expect him here. He’s in the wrong environment — under the light, so to speak, which is the best sort of hiding-place. He won’t go much out of doors, and I’ve got him a cubby-hole of a bedroom up in the attics. Not too comfortable, but Pretenders to thrones must expect to rough it a bit. He’ll mess with the servants, who are of every nationality on earth, and I’ve told him to keep his mouth shut. Like all royalties, he’s a dab at languages, and speaks English without an accent, but I’m teaching him to give his words a Scotch twist. He tumbled to it straight off, and says ‘Sirr’ just like my old batman. If anyone makes trouble I’ve advised him to dot him one on the jaw in the best British style. He looks as if he could swing a good punch.”
The small hours of the morning had been a stirring time for the party. They had left the hotel by Alison’s verandah a little before midnight, and in Archie’s car had reached the foot of the forest path, meeting no one on the road. Then their way had become difficult, for it was very dark among the pines, and Alison had once or twice been at fault in her guiding. The moon rose when they were near the crest of the hill, and after that it had been easy to find the road to the hut through the dew-drenched pastures. There things marched fast. There was pandemonium with two dogs, quieted with difficulty by Alison, who had a genius for animals. The old woman, who appeared with a stable-lantern, denied fiercely that there was any occupant of the hut except herself, her husband being dead these ten years and her only son gone over the mountains to a wedding. She was persuaded in the end by Alison’s mention of Count Casimir, and the three were admitted.
Then Prince John had appeared fully dressed, with what was obviously a revolver in his pocket. He recognised Alison and had heard of Sir Archie, and things went more smoothly. The news that Mastrovin was on his trail obviously alarmed him, but he took a long time to be convinced about the need for shifting his residence. Clearly he was a docile instrument in the hands of the Monarchists, and hesitated to disobey their orders for fear of spoiling their plan. Things, it appeared, were all in train for a revolution in Evallonia, at any moment he might be required to act, and Unnutz had been selected as the council-chamber of the conspirators. On this point it took the united forces of the party to persuade him, but in the end he saw reason. Alison clinched the matter. “If Mastrovin and his friends get you, it’s all up. If you come with us it may put a little grit in the wheels, but it won’t smash the machine. Remember, sir, that these men are desperate, and won’t stick at trifles. They were desperate two years ago at Castle Gay, but now it is pretty well your life or theirs, and it had better be theirs.”
When he allowed himself to be convinced his spirits rose. He was a young man of humour, and approved of Sir Archie’s proposal that he should go to their hotel. He liked the idea of taking the place of the absent McTavish, and thought that he could fill the part. There only remained to give instructions to the old woman. If anyone came inquiring, she was not to deny the existence of her late guest, though she was to profess ignorance of who or what he was. Her story was to be that he had left the preceding afternoon with his belongings on his back. She did not know where he had gone, but believed that it was over the mountains to the Vossthal, since he had taken the path for the Vossjoch.
The journey back had been simple, though Alison had thought it wise to make a considerable detour. It had been slightly complicated by the good manners of the Prince, since he persisted in offering assistance to Janet and Alison, who needed it as little as a chamois. They had reached the hotel just before daybreak, and had entered, they believed, without being observed. That morning Sir Archie had explained to the manager about the delayed arrival of his servant, and the name of Angus McTavish had been duly entered in the hotel books with the Roylances’ party.
“And now,” said Archie, “he’s busy attending to my dress-clothes. What says the Scriptures? ‘Kings shall be thy ministers and queens thy nursing mothers.’ We’re getting up in the world, Janet. I’m going to raise a chauffeur’s cap for him, and I want him to take your parents, Alison, out in the car this afternoon to accustom the neighbourhood to the sight of a new menial. As for me, I propose to pay another visit to the hut. There’s bound to have been developments up that way, and we ought to keep in touch with them. I’ll be an innocent tourist out for a walk to observe birds.”
“What worries me,” said Janet, “is how we are going to keep the Monarchists quiet. We may have Count Casimir here any moment, and that will give the show away.”
“No, it won’t. I mean, he won’t. I left a letter for him which will give him plenty to think about.”
Janet set down her coffee-cup. “What did you say in the letter?” she demanded severely.
“McTavish wrote it — I only dictated the terms. He quite saw the sense of it. It was by way of being a piteous cry for help. It said he had been pinched by Mastrovin and his gang, and appealed to his friends to fly to his rescue. Quite affecting it was. You see the scheme? We’ve got to keep McTavish cool and quiet on the ice till things develop. If Casimir and his lot are looking for him in Mastrovin’s hands they won’t trouble us. If Mastrovin is being hunted by Casimir he won’t be able to hunt McTavish. What you might call a cancelling out of snags.”
His wife frowned. “I wonder if you’ve not been a little too clever.”
“Not a bit of it,” was the cheerful answer. “Ordinary horse sense. As old Perriot said, ‘N’ayez pas peur —’”
“Archie,” said Janet, “if you quote that stuff again I shall fling the coffee-pot at you.”
Sir Archie did not return till nine o’clock that evening, for he had walked every step of the road and had several times lost his way. He refreshed himself in the sitting-room with sandwiches and beer, while Janet and Alison had their after-dinner coffee.
“How did McTavish behave?” he asked Alison.
“Admirably. He drives beautifully and both Papa and Mamma thought he was Scotch. The only mistake was that he treated us like grandees, and held the door open with his cap in his hand. How about you? You look as if you had been seeing life?”
“I’ve had a trying time,” said Sir Archie, passing a hand through his hair. “There has been a bit of a row up at the hut. No actual violence, but a good deal of unpleasantness.”
“Have you been fighting?” Janet asked, observing a long scratch on her husband’s sunburnt forehead.
“Oh, that scratch is nothing, only the flick of a branch. But I’ve been through considerable physical tribulation. Wait till I get my pipe lit and you’ll have the whole story. . . .
“I reached the hut between four and five o’clock in what John Bunyan calls a pelting heat. Ye gods, but it was stuffy in the pinewoods, and blistering hot on the open hillside! I made pretty good time, and arrived rather out of condition, for my right leg — my game leg as was — wasn’t quite functioning as it should. Well, there was the old woman, and in none too good a temper. Poor soul, she had been considerably chivvied since we last saw her. It seemed that we were just in time this morning, for Mastrovin and his merry men turned up about an hour after we left. It was a mercy we didn’t blunder into them in the wood, and a mercy that we had the sense to hide the car a goodish distance from where the track starts. Mastrovin must have spent yesterday in sleuthing, for he had the ground taped, and knew that McTavish had been in the hut at supper. He had three fellows with him, and they gave the old lady a stiff time. They didn’t believe her yarn about McTavish having started out for the Vossthal. They ransacked every corner of the place, and put in some fine detective work examining beds and cupboards and dirty dishes, besides raking the outhouses and beating the adjacent coverts. In the end they decided that their bird had flown and tried to terrorise the old lady into a confession. But she’s a tough ancient, and by her account returned them as good as they gave. She wanted to know what concern her great-nephew Franz was of theirs, poor Franz that had lost his health working in Innsbruck and had come up into the hills to recruit. All their bullying couldn’t shake her about great-nephew Franz, and in the end they took themselves off, leaving her with a very healthy dislike of the whole push.
“Then, very early this morning, Count Casimir turned up and got his letter. It put him in a great taking. She said he grew as white as a napkin, and he started to cross-examine her about the hour and the manner of the pinching of McTavish. That was where I had fallen down, for I had forgotten to tell her what was in the letter. So she gave a very confused tale, for she described him as going off with us, mentioning the women in the party, and she also described Mastrovin’s coming, and from what she said I gathered that he got the two visits mixed up. What specially worried him was that Mastrovin should have had women with him, and he was very keen to know what they were like. I don’t know how the old dame described you two — I should have liked to hear her — but anyway, it didn’t do much to satisfy the Count. She said that he kept walking about biting his lips, and repeating a word that sounded like ‘Mintha.’ After that he was in a hurry to be off, but before leaving he gave her an address — I’ve written it down — with which she was to communicate if she got any news.
“I was just straightening out the story for her — I thought it right to get her mind clear — and explaining that we had got McTavish safe and sound, but that it was imperative in his own interests that Count Casimir should believe there had been dirty work, when what do you think happened? Mastrovin turned up, accompanied by a fellow who looked like a Jew barber out of a job. He didn’t recognise me and looked at me very old-fashioned. I was sitting in a low chair, and got up politely to greet him, when I had an infernal piece of bad luck. I sprang every blessed muscle in my darned leg. You see, it hadn’t been accustomed to so much exercise for a long time, and the muscles were all flabby. Gad, I never knew such pain! It was the worst go of cramp I ever heard of. My toes stuck out like agonising claws — my calf was a solid lump of torment — the riding muscle above the knee was stiff as a poker and as hard as iron. I must have gone white with pain, and I was all in a cold sweat, and I’m dashed if I could do anything except wallow in the chair and howl.
“Well, Mastrovin wasn’t having any of that. He gave me some rough-tonguing in German, and demanded of the old woman what kind of mountebank I was. But she had taken her cue — pretty quick in the uptake she is — or else she thought I was having a paralytic stroke. I was all dithered with the pain and couldn’t notice much, but I saw that she had got off my shoes and stockings and had fetched hot water to bathe my feet. Then the barber-fellow took a hand, for he saw I wasn’t playing a game. I daresay he was some kind of medico and he knew his business. He started out to massage me, beginning with the lower thigh, and I recognised the professional touch. In a few minutes he had me easier, and you know the way the thing goes — suddenly all the corded muscles dropped back into their proper places, and I was out of pain, but limp as chewing-gum.
“Then Mastrovin began to ask me questions, first in German, and then in rather better English than my own. I gave him my name, and his face cleared a little, for he remembered me from Geneva. He was quite polite, but I preferred his rough-tonguing to his civility. A nasty piece of work that lad — his eyes are as cold as a fish’s, but they go through you like a gimlet. I was determined to outstay him, for I didn’t want him to be giving the old lady the third degree, which was pretty obviously what he had come for. So I pretended to be down and out, and lay back in her chair gasping, and drank water in a sad invalidish way. I would have stuck it out till midnight, but friend Mastrovin must have been pressed for time, for after about half an hour he got up to go. He offered to give me a hand down the hill, but I explained that I wasn’t yet ready to move, but should be all right in an hour or so. I consider I brought off rather a creditable piece of acting, for he believed me. I also told him that I had just popped in to Unnutz for a night and was hurrying back to Geneva. He knew that the Conference had been resumed, but said that he himself might be a little late. . . . That’s about all. I gave him twenty minutes’ law and then started home. D’you mind ringing the bell, Janet? I think I’ll have an omelet and some more beer. Where’s McTavish?”
“At his supper, I expect. What I want to know, Archie, is our next step. We can’t go on hiding royal princes in the butler’s pantry. McTavish will revolt out of sheer boredom.”
“I don’t think so.” Archie shook a sapient head. “McTavish is a patient fellow, and has had a pretty strict training these last years. Besides, life is gayer for him here than up at that hut, and the food must be miles better. We’ve got to play a waiting game, for the situation is obscure. I had a talk with him this morning, and by all accounts Evallonian politics are a considerable mix-up.”
“What did he tell you?” Alison asked sharply. She felt that to Archie and Janet it was all a game, but that she herself had some responsibility.
“Well, it seems that the revolution is ready to the last decimal — the press prepared, the National Guard won over, the people waiting, and the Ministers packing their portmanteaux. The Republican Government will go down like ninepins. But while the odds are all on the monarchy being restored, they are all against its lasting very long. It appears that in the last two years there has been a great movement in Evallonia of all the younger lot. They’re tired of having the old ‘uns call the tune and want to play a sprig themselves. I don’t blame ’em, for the old ‘uns have made a pretty mess of it.”
“Is that the thing they call Juventus?” Alison asked. “I read about it in The Times.”
“Some name like that. Anyhow, McTavish tells me it’s the most formidable thing Evallonia has seen for many a day. They hate the Republicans, and still more Mastrovin and his Communists. But they won’t have anything to do with Prince John, for they distrust Count Casimir and all that lot. Call them the ‘old gang,’ the same bouquets as we hand to our elder statesmen, and want a fresh deal with new measures and new men. They’re said to be more than half a million strong, all likely lads in hard condition and jolly well trained — they’ve specialised in marksmanship, for which Evallonia was always famous. They have the arms and the money, and, being all bound together by a blood oath, their discipline is the stiffest thing on earth. Oh, and I forgot to tell you — they wear green shirts — foresters’ green. They have a marching song about the green of their woodlands, and the green of their mountain lakes, and the green shirts of Evallonia’s liberators. It’s funny what a big part fancy haberdashery plays in the world today.”
“Have they a leader?” Alison asked.
“That’s what I can’t make out. There doesn’t seem to be any particular roi de chemises — that’s what Charles Lamancha used to call me in my dressy days. But apparently the thing leads itself. The fact we’ve got to face is that if Casimir puts McTavish on the throne, which apparently he can do with his left hand, Juventus will kick him out in a week, and McTavish naturally doesn’t want that booting. That’s why he has been so docile. He sees that the right policy for him is to lie low till things develop.”
“Then our next step must be to get in touch with Juventus,” said Alison.
Janet opened her eyes. “You’re taking this very seriously, Allie,” she said.
“I am,” was the answer. “You see, I was in it two years ago.”
“But how is it to be done?” Archie asked. “McTavish doesn’t know. He doesn’t know who the real leaders are — nor Casimir, and certainly not Mastrovin. You see, the thing is by way of being a secret society, sort of jumble-up of Boy Scouts, Freemasons and the Red Hand. They have their secret pass-words, and the brightest journalist never sticks his head into one of their conclaves. They can spot a Monarchist or Republican spy a mile off, and don’t stand on ceremony with ’em. They have a badge like Hitler’s swastika — an open eye — but, apart from their songs and their green shirts, that’s their only public symbol.”
“My advice,” said Janet, “is that we keep out of it, and restore the Prince to the sorrowing Count Casimir as soon as we can get in touch with him. You go back to Scotland with your family, Allie, and Archie and I will pop down into Italy.”
There was a knock at the door and a waiter brought in the evening post. One letter was for Alison, which she tore open eagerly as soon as she saw the handwriting. She read it three times and then raised a flushed face.
“It’s from Jaikie,” she said, and there was that in her voice which made Archie and Janet look up from their own correspondence. “Jaikie, you know — my friend — Mr Galt that I told you about. He is somewhere in Evallonia.”
“My aunt!” exclaimed Archie. “Then there will be trouble for somebody.”
“There’s trouble for him. He seems to have got into deep waters. Listen to what he says.”
She read the following:
“I am in a queer business which I am bound to see through. But I can’t do it without your help. Can you manage to get away from your parents for a few days, and come to Tarta, just inside the Evallonian frontier? You take the train to a place called Zutpha, where you will be met. If you can come wire Odalchini, Tarta, the time of your arrival. I wouldn’t bother you if the thing wasn’t rather important, and, besides, I think you would like to be in it.”
“Short and to the point,” commented the girl. “Jaikie never wastes words. He has a genius for understatement, so if he says it is rather important it must be tremendously important. . . . Wait a minute. Odalchini! Prince Odalchini was one of the three at Knockraw two years ago. Jaikie has got mixed up with the Monarchists.”
Archie was hunting through his notebook. “What did you say was the name of the place? Tarta? That’s the address Casimir gave the old woman to write to if she had any news. Schloss Thingumybob — the second word has about eight consonants and no vowels — Tarta, by Zutpha. Your friend Jaikie has certainly got among the Monarchists.”
“Hold on!” Alison cried. “What’s this?” She passed round the letter for inspection. It was a sheet of very common note-paper with no address on it, but in the top left-hand corner there was stamped in green a neat little open eye with some hieroglyphic initials under it.
“Do you see what that means?” In her excitement her voice sank to a whisper. “Jaikie is in touch with the Juventus people. This letter was sent with their consent — or the consent of one of them, and franked by him.”
“Well, Allie?” Janet asked.
“Of course I’m going. I must go. But I can’t go alone, for Papa wouldn’t allow it. He and Mamma have decided to return to Scotland this week to Aunt Harriet at Castle Gay. You and Archie must go to Tarta and take me with you.”
“Isn’t that a large order? What about McTavish?”
“We must take him with us, for then we’ll have all the cards in our hands. It’s going to be terribly exciting, but I can promise you that Jaikie won’t fail us. You won’t fail me either?”
Janet turned smilingly to her husband. “What about it, Archie?”
“I’m on,” was the answer. “I’ve been in a mix-up with Master Jaikie before. Bobby Despenser can whistle for me. The difficulty will be McTavish, who’s a compromising piece of goods, but we’ll manage somehow. Lord, this is like old times, and I feel about ten years younger. ‘It little profits that an idle king, matched with an aged wife. . . . ’ Don’t beat me, Janet. We’re both ageing. . . . I always thought that the Almighty didn’t get old Christoph to mend my leg for nothing.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47