The Lost Prince

Chapter 21. "Help!"

"Did it take you so long to find it?" asked the little old lady with the wry smile. "Of course I knew you would find it in the end. But we had to give ourselves time. How long did it take?" Marco removed himself from beneath the touch of her hand. It was quietly done, but there was a disdain in his young face which made her wince though she pretended to shrug her shoulders amusedly.

"You refuse to answer?" she laughed.

"I refuse."

At that very moment he saw at the curve of the corridor the Chancellor and his daughter approaching slowly. They were on their way back to their box. Was he going to lose them? Was he? The old hand was laid on his shoulder again, but this time he felt that it grasped him firmly.

"Naughty boy!" the cracked voice said. "I am going to take you home with me. If you struggle I shall tell these people that you are my bad grandson who is here without permission. What will you answer? My son is coming down the staircase and will help me. Do you see?" And in fact there appeared in the crowd at the head of the staircase the figure of the man he remembered.

He did see. A dampness broke out on the palms of his hands. If she did this bold thing, what could he say to those she told her lie to? How could he bring proof or explain who he was—and how much of the truth dare he tell? His protesting and struggling would merely amuse the onlookers, who would see in them only the useless temper of an unsubmissive youngster.

He made no sound, and the woman who held him saw only a flame leap under his dense black lashes.

The Chancellor was drawing nearer. Perhaps! Should he—? "You are too proud to kick and shout," the voice went on. "And people would only laugh. Do you see?"

The stairs were crowded and the man who was at the head of them could only move slowly. But he had seen the boy.

Marco turned so that he could face his captor squarely as if he were going to say something in answer to her. But he was not.

Even as he made the movement of turning, he knew what he should do. And he could do two things at once—save himself and give his Sign—because, the Sign once given, the Chancellor would understand.

"He will be here in a moment. He has recognized you," the woman said.

As he glanced up the stairs, the delicate grip of her hand unconsciously slackened. Marco whirled away from her. The bell rang which was to warn the audience that they must return to their seats and he saw the Chancellor hasten his pace.

A moment later, the old aristocrat found himself amazedly looking down at the pale face of a breathless lad who spoke to him in German and in such a manner that he could not but pause and listen.

"Sir," he was saying, "the woman in violet at the foot of the stairs is a spy. She trapped me once and she threatens to do it again. Sir, may I beg you to protect me?"

He said it low and fast. No one else could hear his words.

"What! What!" the Chancellor exclaimed.

And then, drawing a step nearer and quite as low and rapidly but with perfect distinctness, Marco uttered four words: "The Lamp is lighted."

His cry for help had been answered instantly. Marco saw it at once in the old man's eyes, in spite of the fact that he turned to look at the woman at the foot of the staircase as if she only concerned him.

"What! What!" he said again, and made a movement toward her, pulling his large moustache with a fierce hand.

Then Marco recognized that a curious thing happened. The elderly lady saw the movement and the gray moustache, and that instant her smile died away and she turned quite white—so white, that under the brilliant electric light she was almost green and scarcely looked alive at all. She made a sign to her son on the staircase and slipped through the crowd like an eel. She was a wiry, flexible woman and never was a disappearance more wonderful in its rapidity. Between stout matrons and their thin or stout escorts and families she made her way and lost herself—but always making toward the exit. In two minutes there was no sight of her violet draperies to be seen. She was gone and so, evidently, was her son.

It was plain to Marco that to follow the profession of a spy was not by any means a safe thing. The Chancellor had recognized her—she had recognized the Chancellor who turned looking ferociously angry and spoke to one of the young officers.

"She and her son are Russian—two of the most dangerous spies in Europe. What they wanted of this innocent lad I don't pretend to know. What did she threaten?" to Marco.

Marco was feeling rather cold and sick and had lost his healthy color for the moment.

"She said she meant to take me home with her and would pretend I was her grandson who had come here without permission," he answered. "She believes I know something I do not." He made a hesitating but grateful bow. "The third act, sir—I must not keep you. Thank you! Thank you!"

The Chancellor moved toward the entrance door of the balcony seats, but he did it with his hand on Marco's shoulder.

"See that he gets home safely," he said to a young officer who often accompanied him. "Send a messenger with him. He's young to be attacked by creatures of that kind."

The officer was a quiet young Bavarian peasant and seemed to have no curiosity or even any interest in the reason for the command given him. He scarcely gave a glance to the young boy he was to escort. He neither knew nor wondered why.

The Rat had fallen asleep over his papers and lay with his head on his folded arms on the table. But he was awakened by Marco's coming into the room and sat up blinking his eyes in the effort to get them open.

"Did you see him? Did you get near enough?" he drowsed.

"Yes," Marco answered. "I got near enough."

The Rat sat upright suddenly. "It's not been easy," he exclaimed. "I'm sure something happened—something went wrong."

"Something nearly went wrong—VERY nearly," answered Marco. But as he spoke he took the sketch of the Chancellor out of the slit in his sleeve and tore it and burned it with a match. "But I did get near enough. And that's TWO."

They talked long, before they went to sleep that night. The Rat grew pale as he listened to the story of the woman in violet.

"I ought to have gone with you!" he said. "I see now. An aide-de-camp must always be in attendance. It would have been harder for her to manage two than one. I must always be near to watch, even if I am not close by you. If you had not come back—if you had not come back!" He struck his clenched hands together fiercely. "What would I have done!"

When Marco turned toward him from the table near which he was standing, he looked like his father.

"You would have gone on with the Game just as far as you could," he said. "You could not leave it. You remember the places, and the faces, and the Sign. There is some money; and when it was all gone, you could have begged, as we used to pretend we would. We have not had to do it yet; and it was best to save it for country places and villages. But you could have done it if you were obliged to. The Game would have to go on."

The Rat caught at his thin chest as if he had been struck breathless.

"Without you?" he gasped. "Without you?"

"Yes," said Marco. "And we must think of it, and plan in case anything like that should happen."

They heard a clumping step upon the staircase, and, when it reached the landing, it stopped at their door. Then there was a solid knock.

When Marco opened the door, the young soldier who had escorted him from the Hof-Theater was standing outside. He looked as uninterested and stolid as before, as he handed in a small pack.

"You must have dropped it near your seat at the Opera," he said. "I was to give it into your own hands. It is your backpack."

After he had clumped down the staircase again, Marco and The Rat drew a quick breath at one and the same time.

"I had no seat and I had no backpack," Marco said. "Let us open it."

There was a flat limp leather note-holder inside. In it was a paper, at the head of which were photographs of the elderly lady and her son. Beneath were a few lines which stated that they were the long-time spies, Paul and Eugenia Karovna, and that the bearer must be protected against them. It was signed by the Chief of the Police. On a separate sheet was written the command: "Carry this with you as protection."

"That is help," The Rat said. "It would protect us, even in another country!"

There was no street lamp to shine into their windows when they went at last to bed. When the blind was drawn up, they were nearer the sky than they had been in the Marylebone Road. The last thing each of them saw, as he went to sleep, was the stars.
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