The Hosts of the Air by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XII. The Hunting Lodge
John passed a troubled night. He could not yet see his way to follow Julie and Suzanne to the hunting lodge in the manner he wished, and the signs were multiplying that they would soon go. He had no doubt that the arrival of von Arnheim would hasten their departure. Auersperg at such a time could not tolerate the attitude of the young prince toward Julie and he would avail himself of what he considered his feudal rights to send her somewhere into the dark at the quickest possible moment.
But Providence was working for John. His courage and skill which tempted fate were winning new points in his great battle. Walther told him a little after noon that he was to take him into the presence of the august Prince Karl himself. In some manner he had fallen under the favorable eye of His Highness who was about to assign him to an important duty. It was an honor that seldom fell to one so young and ignorant and he hoped that he would conduct himself in a manner to reflect credit upon his superior and instructor, Walther.
John gave his faithful promise but he wondered what the prince could want with him personally and he did not look forward to the interview with confidence. Perhaps his identity and the nature of his errand had been discovered, and it was merely an easy method of making him walk into the lion's jaws, but he could not have refused nor did he wish to do so. His curiosity was aroused and he was willing to meet Auersperg face to face and talk with him.
Cap in hand he followed Walther, also cap in hand, into the interior of the castle. Auersperg sat in a great room overlooking the valley. His chair stood on a slightly raised portion of the floor, and he was enthroned like a sovereign. John, following Walther's example, bowed low before him.
"You may go, Walther," said Auersperg. "I wish to speak alone with this young man."
The master of the stables withdrew reluctantly, consumed by curiosity, and the young peasant in his rough brown dress stood alone before the prince. One seemed the very personification of power and pride, the other of obscurity and insignificance, and yet so strangely does fate play with the fortunes of men that the fickle goddess was inclined toward the peasant in the matter that was nearest to the hearts of both.
John, be it said once more, had not the smallest faith in the supernatural, but it often seemed to him afterward that some power greater than that of man moved the prince to do what he was about to do.
Prince Karl of Auersperg stroked his great brown beard and looked at him long and thoughtfully. John stood before him in the position of an inferior, even a menial, but his heart was far from holding any feeling of inferiority. He was awed neither by the man's rank nor his power nor his ancient blood. He knew that rank could not stop a bullet, nor turn aside a shell. He knew that inherited power could be overthrown by power acquired. There was nothing to make either sacred. He knew that old blood was usually bad blood, that in a thousand years it became a poisonous stream, for the want of fresh springs to purify it. But the head of the young peasant was lowered a little, and the last representative of ten centuries of decadence did not see the gleam of defiance, even of contempt in his eyes.
"You have not been at Zillenstein long," said the prince.
"But a week, Your Highness."
"Walther speaks well of you. The Walthers have served the Auerspergs for centuries and his judgment and loyalty are to be trusted."
John's heart, stanch republican that he was, rose in rebellion at the thought that one family should serve another for a thousand years, but of course he was silent.
"Walther tells me also," resumed the prince, "that you can handle an automobile with skill and that you understand them."
"Herr Walther is very kind to me, Your Highness."
"It was you also who rode the horse of Pappenheim. A great feat. It showed ability and courage. For these reasons I am selecting you to do a deed of trust, one of great importance to me. I am informed by Walther that you are from Lorraine and that your name is Castel."
"Yes, Your Highness, I'm Jean Castel and I was born near Metz, a subject of His Imperial Highness, the German Emperor, the Winner of Victories."
Auersperg smiled and continued to stroke his great brown beard. The young peasant pleased him. Though of humble station and ignorant of the higher world he was undoubtedly keen and intelligent. He was just the man for his task, and fortune had put this useful tool in his hand.
"Go back to the stables, Castel," he said, "and make ready for the high duty to which I am going to assign you. You are to ask no questions and to answer none. Walther will receive instructions to equip you. There is a small gate in the rear wall of the castle. Be there at nine o'clock tonight, and you will then know the work that you have to do. Now go and be silent and, if you fail to be at the gate at the appointed time, that which you like little may happen to you."
John bowed and left the illustrious presence. He was on fire with eagerness and curiosity, and there was apprehension too. Would his trust take him away from Julie at a time when he was needed most? It must not be so, and his faith was strong that it would not be so. Yet his heart was beating very hard and his impatience for the night to come was great. But he strove his utmost to preserve at least the appearance of calmness. He saw that Walther was full of curiosity and now and then asked indirect questions, but John remembering his instructions gave no answer.
Once he passed Ilse and Olga, those twin spirits of mischief and kindness, and they stopped him to speak of the great company that was coming.
"They say it's to be the mightiest array of princes and generals gathered at Zillenstein in a hundred years," said Ilse.
"So I hear," said John.
"And you may be called from the stable to serve in the castle. The man who rode the horse of Count Pappenheim may have to carry a plate and a napkin."
"One can but do his best."
"But it will be a great scene. Perhaps the Kaiser himself will be here, or the old Emperor."
"Aren't you eager to see them?" asked Ilse, piqued a little at his lack of curiosity.
"Oh yes," replied John, recalling that he must make believe, "but I've seen the Kaiser several times and once at Vienna I could almost have reached out my hand and touched the old Emperor, as he rode on his way to Schonbrunn."
He passed on and they looked after him. They liked the bearing of this young peasant who was respectful, but who certainly was never servile. But it was in John's mind that however brilliant the great council might be he would not see it. He was surely going from Zillenstein but it was for the future to say whether his absence would be short or long.
While John was at the stables young Kratzek sent for his horse, and John, after his custom, led the animal to him. He had long since ceased to fear discovery by the Austrian, and his immunity made him careless, or it may be that Kratzek's eyes were uncommonly keen that day. He stood beside John, as the young American fixed the stirrup, and some motion or gesture of the seeming peasant suddenly appeared familiar to Kratzek.
Before John had realized what he intended Kratzek suddenly seized him by both shoulders and turning him around, looked straight into his eyes.
"Scott, the American, and a spy!" he exclaimed.
John's heart missed several beats. He knew that it was useless to deny, but in a moment or two he had himself under full control.
"Yes, it's Scott, and I'm in disguise, but I'm not a spy," he said.
"The penalty anyhow is death."
"But you'll not betray me!"
"You saved my life at the great peril of your own."
John was silent. He felt that the time had come for Kratzek to repay, but he would not say so. Now his own look was straight and high, and it was Kratzek's that wavered.
"You pledge your word that you are not seeking to pry into our military secrets?" asked the Austrian at length.
"No such purpose is in my mind at all, and I leave here within twenty-four hours as ignorant of them as I was when I came."
"Then, sir, I do not know you. I never saw you before, and I believe you are the peasant you seem to be."
Kratzek gave him one look of intense curiosity, then sprang upon his horse, and rode away, never looking back.
"There goes a true man," thought John, as he returned to the stable.
Toward evening Walther gave him a heavier suit of clothes which he put on, a great overcoat like an ulster falling almost to his ankles, and an automobile cap and glasses. John could see that he longed to ask questions but he did not do so and John too was silent. A few minutes before nine o'clock Walther told him to go to the small gate in the rear wall.
"Reach it without being seen if you can," he said. "But if you are seen be sure to answer no questions. I would go with you myself, but it's forbidden. You're to be absolutely alone."
John, shrouded in the overcoat and cap and glasses, made his way in the dark to the designated gate.
As he approached the place he saw the black shadow of a heavy bulk against the dusk. No person was yet in sight and there was utter silence. The beat of his heart was so hard that it gave him actual physical pain. The shadow he knew was that of a large closed automobile, but no driver was in the seat, and he did not believe that anybody was inside. Both the silence and the loneliness became sinister.
John slipped forward boldly. It required no divination to know that he was expected to drive this machine. The gate was open and two figures hooded and cloaked came forth. But hooded and cloaked as they were John knew at once the first and slenderer one. The step disclosed the goddess. Julie and Suzanne were going somewhere and he was to take them and there was the prince himself coming through the open gate to give him his instructions.
John's first emotion was one of extraordinary wonder, qualified in a moment or two by humor. Suzanne opened the door of the machine and Julie stepped in. Then the maid followed into the darkness of the interior and closed the door. Truly that variable goddess, Fortune, had chosen to play one of her oddest tricks and for the time, at least, she had chosen him also as her favorite. But with a presence of mind bred in the terrible school of war, he stood waiting ready to receive all her gifts with a thankful heart. "These are two Frenchwomen, prisoners, whom I hold," said the prince in a whisper. "There are reasons of state why they should be taken from Zillenstein and be hidden at my hunting lodge in the mountains. Follow the road that you see there in the moonlight leading up the slope, and on the crest six leagues away you will come to the lodge. You cannot miss it because no other building is there. It lies off the road in a deep pine forest, and here is a letter to my forester Muller who lives there. You and he will hold the women at the lodge until I send for them, and let them speak with nobody, though there is little chance of such a thing on the mountain, where the winter has not yet gone. I hold you responsible for them. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Your Highness," replied John, and he meant it.
"And here is a purse of gold for you. See that you serve me well in this matter, and there is another purse at the end of it. Now go at once!"
John touched his cap, sprang into the seat and started the great automobile up the mountain road. He could not look back, but he knew instinctively that the prince had gone into the castle as silently as he had come from it. And he was alone at the wheel with Julie and Suzanne inside. In very truth chance or fortune had moved the pawns for him in a way that the most skillful player could not have equaled. For a moment, the whole world seemed to swim beneath his feet.
The night was dark and cold, and although the road up the slope showed for a long distance in the moonshine the top of the mountain was wrapped in mist. A wind began to blow and he felt raw and damp to his face. But there was nothing to check his exultation. Come wind or rain or snow they were all one to him. He was away from Zillenstein, out in the great free world and Julie was with him. Auersperg himself, unknowing, had provided the way and he was sending them not only in comfort but in luxury. John knew the big automobile. It was the prince's own and it was surely equipped in a princely way. The man who bad brought it to the gate had been forced to go away and he, John Scott, and Prince Karl of Auersperg alone knew where they were going. All the better! He laughed under his breath as he handled the wheel with hands now skilled and sent the great automobile along the smooth white road that stretched away and away up the mountain side.
At a curve a mile or more distant, he could look down almost directly upon Zillenstein. The vast castle was bathed in whitish mists floating up the valley in which it loomed gigantic and enlarged, a menacing creation that had survived far beyond its time. He shuddered at the thought that Julie and he might still be there, had not fortune been so kind, and then, pressing the accelerator, he sent the machine forward a little faster.
The road owing to the steepness of the ascent now wound a great deal, but it was smooth and safe, and the automobile, despite its size, had an organism as delicate as that of a watch. It obeyed the least pressure of his hand, and his exultation became all the greater when he fully realized that he had such a powerful mechanism at hand, subject to its lightest touch. The thought, in truth, had come to him that he might turn back into the valley, and seek escape from the mountains. But consideration showed that the idea was foolish. So large a machine by no possibility could escape from the valley. It was better to go on.
The cold increased sharply. He expected a fall in the mercury owing to the ascent, but it was greater than the height alone warranted. All the signs betokened foul weather. The castle was now wholly lost in great masses of vapor and the moon was withdrawing from the sky. The wind had an edge of ice. He knew that mountains were the breeding place of storms and he made another increase of speed in order that they might reach the hunting lodge before one broke.
He had not heard a sound from the interior of the automobile since he started. They were sitting only a few feet away, but the whistling of the wind and the crunch of the wheels on the sanded road would have drowned out all slight noises, and they did not speak, nor did he look back.
He knew that they could see only a broad back in front of them and the muffling coat and cap. He longed to say a word or two, but he deemed it wisest to wait yet a while. His full attention was concentrated upon the machine and the road and it was all the more necessary because the night was growing darker and the wind cut.
But his confidence was so high that he handled the automobile through all the dangers with a firm and sure hand. It sped on and on, climbing in a rapid series of circles up the side of the mountain. Behind him the gulf was filled with vapors and before him the clouds were growing darker on the crest, but he could yet trace the road, and it would not be long now until they reached the crest and the pine forest in which the hunting lodge stood.
He wondered what kind of man the forester Muller would prove to be. If he were suspicious, keenly alert, he might prevent their ultimate escape, but if he were merely a simple hunter John might make friends with him and use him for his purposes. Then his thoughts came quickly back to Julie. He believed that she had left the castle without resistance of any kind. She would be glad to escape from Zillenstein and Auersperg, no matter where that escape might take her.
Another half-hour and the crest was but a hundred yards or so away. How thankful he was now that he had put on extra speed despite the ascent and had driven the machine hard, because the road would soon be blotted from sight! Heavy flakes of snow had begun to fall and with the rising wind they were coming faster and faster.
He dimly made out a pine wood on his right, and, then, in the center of it the outline of a low building which he knew must be the hunting lodge. He slowed down the machine, took the last little curve, and stopped before the door of the lodge. But in that minute the snow had become a driving white storm.
He leaped out, knocked hard on the door of the lodge, and, no answer coming, threw himself heavily against it. It burst open, revealing only an interior of darkness, but he turned quickly back to the automobile, threw wide its door and beckoned with peremptory command to the two dark figures sitting within.
They stepped out, Julie first, and entered the lodge. John followed them, and there they stood, staring at one another until their eyes might grow used to the dusk and they could see their faces. It was evident that Muller was not anywhere in the building, or he would have come at the sound of the machine.
John glanced toward a window set deep in a heavy timbered wall and admitting enough light to disclose a lantern and a box of matches on a shelf. Still in his shrouding coat, cap and glasses he stepped forward, struck a match and lighted the lantern. Driven by a sudden impulse, he swept off the cap and glasses and held up the light.
He saw Julie's face turn deadly pale. Every particle of color was gone from it and her blue eyes stared at him as if he were one newly risen from the dead. Then the color flushed back in a rosy tide and such a tide of gladness as he had never seen before in human eyes came into hers.
"You! You! Is it really you?" she cried.
John was once more the knightly young crusader. No such moment had ever before come into his life. His heart was full. Triumph and joy were mingled there, and something over and beyond either. In that passing flash he had read the light in her eyes, a light that he knew was only for him, but in the instant of supreme revelation he would take no advantage. The manner as well as the spirit of the young crusader was upon him.
He knelt before her and taking one of her gloved hands in his kissed it.
"Yes, dearest Julie," he said, "by some singular fortune or chance, or rather, I should call it, the will of God, I was chosen to bring you here, and I glory because I have fulfilled the trust."
Suzanne, tall and dark, stood looking down at them. Her grim features which relaxed so rarely relaxed now and her eyes were soft. The young stranger from beyond the seas had proved after all that he was a man among men, and no Frenchwoman could resist a romance so strong and true in the face of all that war could do.
John felt Julie's hand trembling in his, but she did not draw it away. Her lashes were lowered a little now, but her gaze still rested upon him, soft yet confident and powerful. He had believed in her courage. He had believed that she would suffer no shock when she should see that he was the strange man who had been at the wheel, and his confidence was justified.
"And it was you who brought us up the mountain?" she said.
"The Prince of Auersperg himself chose me because I was a stranger and he did not wish anyone else in the castle to know where you were sent."
He released her hand and rose. The soft but strong gaze was still upon him, as if she were yet trying to persuade herself that it was reality.
"I felt all the time that some day we should leave the castle together," she said, "but I did not dream that it was you who sat before me as we came up the mountain."
"But it was," said John, joyfully. "I think Wharton himself would have complimented me on the way I drove the machine. I have a letter in my pocket for Muller, the prince's forester who lives here, but it seems that he is absent on other duty."
"And then," said the practical Suzanne, "it becomes us to take possession of the house at once. Look forth, sir! how the storm beats!"
Through the open door they saw the snow driven past in sheets that seemed almost solid. John handed the lantern to Suzanne and said:
"Wait here a moment."
"Where are you going, Mr. Scott?" exclaimed Julie. "You will not desert us?"
He was out of the door in a couple of strides, and then he sprang into the automobile. He had noticed a small garage back of the lodge and he meant to save the machine, feeling sure that they would have need of it later. In a few minutes it was safely inside with the door fastened so tightly behind him that no wind could blow it loose, and he was back at the lodge with the wind and snow driving so hard that he opened the door but little, and, slipping in, slammed it shut. Then he turned the heavy key in the lock, and stared in surprise and pleasure at the room.
It was a great apartment, the heavy log walls adorned with the horns and stuffed heads of wild animals. Several bear skins and other rugs lay upon the oaken floor. There were chairs and tables with books upon them, and, at one end, the dry wood that filled a great fireplace was crackling and flashing merrily. The practical Suzanne, noticing the heap, had set a match to it at once, and already the room, great as it was, was filled with warmth and light. Julie, having taken off her heavy furs, was sitting in a chair before the fire, the leaping flames deepening the light in her eyes and the new rose in her cheeks.
John's heart swelled with thankfulness and joy. He had not dreamed that so much could be achieved. A day before he would have said that it was impossible. As the whistling of the wind rose to a fierce roar and the snow drove by, he realized, with a shudder at the danger escaped so narrowly, that they had arrived just in time. The automobile itself would have been driven from the path by the fierce Alpine storm now raging.
The stern but gifted Suzanne had found lamps and had lighted them, and like a capable soldier she was already looking over her field of battle.
"Not so bad," she said. "His Highness, Prince Karl of Auersperg, builds a little palace and calls it his hunting lodge. But his heart would turn black within him if he knew who was one of the guests in it today."
John smiled, and meeting Julie's eyes, he smiled again. He saw a flame there to which his own soul responded, and he tingled from head to foot. The omens had not been in vain. The blessings of the righteous had availed. Again it may be said that he had no faith in the supernatural, at least here on earth, but all things must have worked for him in a world that seemed wholly against him. He believed that he read such a thought too in the glowing dark blue of her own eyes.
"You are wonderfully right, Suzanne," said John. "Probably the Prince of Auersperg had the lodge especially prepared for the coming of Mademoiselle Julie. Perhaps there is a telephone."
"Truly there is, Mr. Scott," said Suzanne. "Here it is, in the corner."
"Then," said John, "it's very likely that we'll hear very soon from Zillenstein, and since he has kept your journey secret it is sure to be Prince Karl himself who will call you up. I must be the one to answer. Now will you sit here by the fire, Miss Julie, and rest while your most capable Suzanne and I look further into our new residence. There is no possibility of any caller, save the worthy Muller, to whom I bear a letter from the prince, in which I have no doubt I am highly recommended."
"Very well, Mr. John, I obey you," said Julie, sitting down again in a large armchair before the flames, where the ruddy light once more deepened the gold of her hair and the rose of her cheeks. "It seems that you intend to be master here."
"I'm master already. My rule has become supreme, nor am I any usurper. Do I not hold a commission from Prince Karl of Auersperg, the owner of this lodge, and did he not intrust you to my care? I mean to do my duty. And now come, Suzanne, you and I will see what this wilderness castle of ours contains."
The hunting lodge was worthy of a prince. It was built of massive logs, but the interior was improved and finished in modern style. There were no electric lights, but it contained almost every other luxury or convenience. Besides the great room in which Julie was now sitting, they found on the ground floor a writing-room well supplied, a small parlor, a gunroom amply equipped with a variety of arms and ammunition, a dining-room containing much princely silver, a butler's pantry, a kitchen and a storeroom holding food enough to last them a year. Above stairs were six bedrooms, any one of which the capable Suzanne could put in order in half an hour. All the house had running water drawn from some reservoir in the mountains.
John had seen such luxurious camps as this in the Adirondacks in his own country, and there were many others scattered about the mountains of Europe, but he was very grateful now to find such a refuge for Julie. Again he realized how fortunate they had been to arrive so early. As he looked from an upper window he saw that the storm was driving with tremendous fury. Even behind the huge logs he heard the wind roaring and thundering, and now and then, through the thick glass of the windows, he caught a glimpse of a young pine torn up by its roots and whirled past.
Where was Muller, the forester, who had charge of the lodge and who lived there, and what kind of a man was he? It was the only question that was troubling him now. If he did not come soon he could not come that night, nor perhaps the next day. The snowfall was immense, with every sign of heavy continuance, and by morning it certainly would lie many feet deep on the mountain. Traveling would be impossible. He heard the distant sound of a bell, and knowing that the telephone was calling, he ran down the stairway to the great room. Julie had risen and was looking at the instrument with dilated eyes, as if it sounded a note of alarm, as if their happy escape was threatened by a new danger. John believed that she had fallen asleep before the heat of the fire, and that the ring of the telephone had struck upon her dreaming ear like a shell.
"It's he! It's the terrible prince himself!" she exclaimed, her faculties not yet fully released from cloudy sleep.
"Very likely," said John, "but have no fear. Zillenstein is only six leagues away at ordinary times, but it's six hundred tonight, with the greatest storm that I've ever seen sweeping in between us."
He took down the receiver and put it to his ear.
"Who is there?" asked a deep voice, which he knew to be that of Prince Karl.
"Castel, Your Highness."
"You arrived without accident?"
"Wholly without accident, Your Highness. We reached the lodge a few minutes before the storm broke."
"The lady, Mademoiselle Lannes, is safe and comfortable?"
"Entirely so. Your Highness. The maid, Suzanne, is preparing her room for her."
"You found Muller there waiting for you according to instructions?"
Some prudential motive prompted John to reply:
"Yes, Your Highness, he had everything ready and was waiting. I presented your letter at once."
"You have done well, Castel. Keep the lady within the house, but the storm will do that anyhow. Do not under any circumstances call me up, but I will call you again when I think fit. Bear in mind that the reward of both you and Muller shall be large, if you serve me well in this most important matter."
"Yes, Your Highness. I thank you now."
"Keep it in mind, always."
"Yes, Your Highness."
His Highness, Prince Karl of Auersperg, replaced the telephone stand upon the table in his bedroom at Zillenstein, and John Scott hung up the receiver in the hunting lodge on the mountain.
"It was Prince Karl," he said to Julie, who still stood motionless looking at him. "He wanted to know if you were safe and comfortable and I said yes. He said he would call us up again but he won't."
He lifted a chair and shattered the telephone to fragments.
"It might afford a peculiar pleasure to talk with him," he said, "but it's best that we have no further communication while we're here. An incautious word or two might arouse suspicion and that's what we want most to avoid. When he fails to get an answer to his call he'll think that this huge snow has broken down the wire. Most likely it will do so anyhow. And now, Miss Julie, Suzanne has your room ready for you. If you wish to withdraw to it for a little while you'll find dinner waiting you when you return."
"And the day of the abandoned hotel in Chastel has come back?"
"But a better and a longer day. We're prisoners here together on the mountain, you and I, and your chaperon, servant and sometime ruler, Suzanne Picard, who I find is not as grim as she looks."
There was a spark in his eyes as he looked at her, and an answering fire leaped up in her own. He was in very truth a perfect and gentle knight, who would gladly come so far and through so many dangers for her and for her alone. He was her very own champion, and as her dark blue eyes looked into the gray deeps of his her soul thrilled with the knowledge of it. Deep red flushed her from brow to chin, and then slowly ebbed away.
"John," she said, putting her hand in his, "no woman has ever owed more gratitude to a man."
"And I am finding repayment now for what I was happy to do," he said, kissing her hand again in that far-off knightly fashion.
Again the red tide in her cheeks and then she swiftly left the room, but John threw himself in a chair before the great fire and gazed into the coals. Wide awake, he was dreaming. He knew they would be days in the lodge. The storm was so great that no one could come from Zillenstein in a week. Providence or fortune had been so kind that he began to fear enough had been done for them. Such good luck could not go on forever, and there, too, was the man Muller who might make trouble when he came.
Nevertheless his feeling was but momentary. The extraordinary lightness of heart returned. The storm roared without and at times it volleyed down the chimney, making the flames leap and dance, but the sense of security and safety was strong within him. The war passed by, forgotten for the time. History, it was true, repeated itself, and this was the abandoned hotel at Chastel over again, but they were in a far better position now. No one could come against them, unless the man Muller should prove to be a foe. And he resolved, too, gazing into the flames, that they should not steal Julie from him here, as they had taken her at Chastel.
Darkness, save for the gleam of the snow, came over the mountain, but the flakes were driving so thick and fast that they formed a white blanket before the window, as impervious as black night itself. It reminded him of a great storm he had seen once on his uncle's ranch on the high table land of Montana, but to him it came that night as a friend and not as an enemy, cutting them off from Zillenstein and all the dangers it held.
He lighted candles and lamps in the great room and all the smaller rooms clustering about it. He would have everything cheerful for Julie when she returned.
He had seen Suzanne take several heavy packages from the automobile and he had no doubt that they had come amply provided with clothing, that for Julie, belonging doubtless to a young cousin or niece of the prince who stayed sometimes at Zillenstein.
As for himself, if they remained long he must depend upon the spare raiment of the forester, and, remembering suddenly that he might effect his own improvement, he hunted for Muller's room and discovered it on the second floor. Here he found shaving materials, and rapidly cleared his face of the young beard that he despised. Muller's clothing was scattered about, and he judged from it that the forester was a man of about his own size. After some hesitation, he took off his own coat and put on a brilliant Tyrolean jacket which he surmised the owner reserved for occasions of state.
"If you come, Mr. Muller, I'll try to explain to you why I do this," said John aloud. "I know you'll forgive me when I tell you it's in honor of a lady."
Then he laughed at himself in a glass. It was a gorgeous jacket, but one could wear more brilliant clothes in Europe than in America, and his appearance was certainly improved. He returned to the great room and someone sitting in the chair before the fire rose to receive him.
It was Julie all in white, a semi-evening dress that heightened in a wonderful fashion her glorious, blond beauty. He had often thought how this slender maid would bloom into a woman and now he beheld her here in the lodge, his prisoner and not Auersperg's. A swift smile passed over her face as she saw him, and bowing low before him she said:
"I see, Mr. John, that you have not wasted your time. You come arrayed in purple and gold."
"But it's borrowed plumage, Miss Julie."
"And so is mine."
"It can't be. I'm sure it was made for you."
"The real owner wouldn't say so."
"You will forgive me if I tell you something, won't you?"
"It depends upon what it is."
The red in her checks deepened a little. The gray eyes of John were speaking in very plain language to Julie.
"I must say it, stern necessity compels, if I don't I'll be very unhappy."
"I wouldn't have you miserable."
"I want to tell you, Julie, that you are overwhelmingly beautiful tonight."
"I've always heard that Americans were very bold, it's true."
"But remember the provocation, Julie."
"Ah, sir, I have no protection and you take advantage of it."
"But she's in the kitchen."
"Where I hope she'll stay until she's wanted."
She was silent and the red in her cheeks deepened again. But the blue eyes and the gray yet talked together.
"I worship you, your beauty and your great soul, but your great soul most of all," said the gray.
"Any woman would be proud to have a lover who has followed her through so many and such great dangers, and who has rescued her at last. She could not keep from loving him," said the blue.
Suzanne appeared that moment in the doorway and stood there unnoticed. She looked at them grimly and then came the rare smile that gave her face that wonderful softness.
"Come, Mademoiselle Julie and Mr. John," she said. "Dinner is ready and I tell you now that I've never prepared a better one. This prince has a taste in food and wine that I did not think to find in any German."
"And all that was his is ours now," said John. "Fortune of war."
Suzanne's promise was true to the last detail. The dinner was superb and they had an Austrian white wine that never finds its way into the channels of commerce.
"To you, Julie, and our happy return to Paris," said John, looking over the edge of his glass. Suzanne was in the kitchen then and he dared to drop the "Mademoiselle."
"To you, John," she said, as she touched the wine to her lips--she too dared to drop the "Mr."
And then gray depths looked into blue depths and blue into gray, speaking a language that each understood.
"We're the chosen of fortune," said John, "The hotel at Chastel presented itself to us when we needed it most, and again when we need it most this lodge gives us all hospitality."
"Fortune has been truly kind," said Julie.
After dinner they went back to the great room where the fire still blazed and Suzanne, when she had cleared everything away, joined them. She quietly took a chair next to the wall and went to work on some sewing that she had found in the lodge. But John saw that she had installed herself as a sort of guardian of them both, and she meant to watch over them as her children. Yet however often she might appear to him in her old grim guise he would always be able to see beneath it.
Now they talked but little. John saw after a while that Julie was growing sleepy, and truly a slender girl who had been through so much in one day had a right to rest. He caught Suzanne's eye and nodded. Rising, the Frenchwoman said in the tone of command which perhaps she had often used to Julie as a child:
"It's time we were off to bed, Mademoiselle. The storm will make us both sleep all the better."
"Good night, Mr. John," said Julie.
"Good night. Miss Julie."
Once more the stern face of Suzanne softened under a smile, but she and her charge marched briskly away, and left John alone before the fire. He had decided that he would not sleep upstairs, but would occupy the gunroom from which a window looked out upon the front of the house. There he made himself a bed with blankets and pillows that he brought from above and lay down amid arms.
The gunroom was certainly well stocked. It held repeating rifles and fowling-pieces, large and small, and revolvers. One big breech-loader had the weight of an elephant rifle, and there were also swords, bayonets and weapons of ancient type. But John looked longest at the big rifle. He felt that if need be he could hold the lodge against almost anything except cannon.
"It's the first time I ever had a whole armory to myself," he said, looking around proudly at the noble array.
But he was quite sure that no one could come for days except Muller, and the mystery of the forester's absence again troubled him, although not very long. Another look at the driving snow, and, wrapping himself in his blankets, he fell asleep to the music of the storm. John awoke once far in the night, and his sense of comfort, as he lay between the blankets on the sofa that he had dragged into the gunroom, was so great that he merely luxuriated there for a little while and listened to the roar of the storm, which he could yet hear, despite the thickness of the walls. But he rose at last, and went to the window.
The thick snowy blast was still driving past, and his eyes could not penetrate it more than a dozen feet. But he rejoiced. Their castle was growing stronger and stronger all the time, as nature steadily built her fortifications higher and higher around it. Mulier himself, carrying out his duties of huntsman, might have gone to some isolated point in the mountains, and would not be able to return for days. He wished no harm to Muller, but he hoped the possibility would become a fact.
He went back to his blanket and when he awoke in the morning the great Alpine storm was still raging. But he bathed and refreshed himself and found a store of clothing better than that of the forester. It did not fit him very well, nevertheless he was neatly arrayed in civilian attire and he went to the kitchen, meaning to put himself to use and cook the breakfast. But Suzanne was already there, and she saluted him with stern and rebuking words.
"I reign here," she said. "Go back and talk to Mademoiselle Julie. Since we're alone and are likely to be so, for God knows how long, it's your duty to see that she keeps up her spirits. I'd have kept you two apart if I could, but it has been willed otherwise, and maybe it's for the best."
"What has happened shows it's for the best, Suzanne. And, as you know, you've never had any real objection to me except that I'm not a Frenchman. And am I not becoming such as fast as possible?"
"You don't look very much like one, but you act like one and often you talk like one."
"Thanks, Suzanne. That's praise coming from you."
"Now be off with you. My mistress is surely in the great room, and if you care for her as much as you pretend, you will see that she is not lonely, and don't talk nonsense, either."
John, chuckling, withdrew. As Suzanne had predicted he found Julie in the large room, and she was quite composed, when she bade him good morning.
"I see that the storm goes on," she said.
"So much the better. It is raising higher the wall between us and our enemies. Our fire has burned out in the night, leaving only coals, but there is a huge store of wood in the back part of the lodge."
He brought in an armful of billets to find her fanning the coals into a blaze.
"You didn't think, sir," said she, "did you, that I mean to be a guest here, waited upon by you and Suzanne?"
"But Suzanne and I are strong and willing! Don't lean too near that blaze, Julie! You'll set your beautiful hair on fire!"
"And so you think my hair beautiful?"
"It's not proper for you to say so. We're not in America."
"Nor are we in France, where young girls are surrounded by triple rows of brass or steel. We're in a snowstorm on top of a high mountain in Austria. There are no conventions, and Suzanne, your guardian, is in the kitchen."
"But I can call her and she'll come."
"She'd come, I know, but you won't call her. There, our fire is blazing beautifully, and we don't have to nurse it any longer. You sit here in this chair, and I'll sit there in that chair at a respectful distance. Now you realize that we are going to be here a long time, don't you Julie?"
"Miss Julie or Mademoiselle Julie would be better and perhaps Mademoiselle Lannes would be most fitting."
"No, I've said Julie several times and as it always gives me a pleasant thrill I'm sure it's best. I intend to use it continually hereafter, except when Suzanne is present."
"You're taking a high stand, Mr. John."
"John is best also."
"I'm taking it for your good and my pleasure."
"I wonder if Suzanne is ready with the breakfast!"
"You needn't go to see. You know it's not, and you know, too, that Suzanne will call us when it is ready. A wonderfully capable woman, that Suzanne. She didn't look upon me with favor at first, but I believe she is really beginning to like me, to view me perhaps with approval as a sort of candidate."
"Look how the snow is coming down!"
"But that's an old story. Let's go back to Suzanne."
"Oh no. She's coming for us."
It was true. The incomparable Suzanne stood in the doorway and summoned them to breakfast.