The Hosts of the Air by Joseph A. Altsheler
Chapter XIII. The Dangerous Flight
It snowed all that day and all the next night. The lateness of the season seemed to add to the violence of the storm, as if it would make one supreme effort on these heights before yielding to the coming spring. Many of the pines were blown down, and the snow lay several feet deep everywhere. Now and then they heard thunderous sounds from the gorges telling them that great slides were taking place, and it was absolutely certain now that no one from the valley below could reach the lodge for days.
The sight from the windows of the house, when the driving snow thinned enough to permit a view, was magnificent. They saw far away peak on peak and ridge on ridge, clothed in white, and sometimes they beheld the valley filled with vast clouds of mists and vapors. Once John thought he caught a glimpse of Zillenstein, a menacing gray shadow far below, but the clouds in an instant floated between and he was not sure.
Yet it was a period of enchantment in the life of John Scott. Their very isolation on the mountain, with Suzanne there in the double role of servant and guardian, seemed to draw Julie and him more closely together. The world had practically melted away beneath their feet. The great war was gone for them. He was only twenty-two, but his experience had made him mentally much older, and she, too, had gained in knowledge and command of herself by all through which she had passed.
She showed to John a spirit and courage which he had never seen surpassed in any woman, and mingled with it all was a lightness and wit that filled the whole house with sunshine, despite the great storm that raged continually without. In the music-room was a piano, and she played upon it the beautiful French "little songs" that John loved. There were books and magazines in plenty, and now he read to her and then she read to him. Sometimes they sat in silence and through the thick glass of the windows watched the snow driving by.
The hours were too few for John. He served her as the crusader served his chosen lady. The spirit of the old knights of chivalry that had descended upon him still held him in a spell that he did not wish to break. Often she mocked at him and laughed at him, and then he liked her all the better. No placid, submissive woman, shrinking before the dangers, would have pleased him. In her light laughter and her banter, even at his expense, he read a noble courage and a lofty soul, and in their singular isolation it was given to him to see her spirit, so strong and yet so rarely sweet in a manner that the circumstances of ordinary life could never have brought forth. And the faithful Suzanne, still in her double role of servant and guardian, served and guarded them both.
John at this time began to feel a more forgiving spirit toward Auersperg. It might well be that this man of middle years, so thoroughly surrounded by old, dead things that he had never seen the world as it really was, had been bewitched. A sort of moon madness had made him commit his extraordinary deed, and John could view it with increasing tolerance because he had been bewitched himself.
He made another and more extended survey of their stores and confirmed his first opinion that the lodge was furnished in full princely style. They need not lack for any of the comforts, nor for many luxuries, no matter how long they remained.
On the morning of the third day the storm ceased and they looked out upon a white, shining world of snow, lofty and impressive, peaks and ridges outlined sharply against a steel-blue sky. John had found a pair of powerful glasses in the lodge and with them he was now able to make out Zillenstein quite clearly. Clothed in snow, a castle all in white, it was nevertheless more menacing than ever.
John believed that Muller would surely come, and many and many a time he thought over the problem how to deal with him. But the new, windless day passed and there was no sign of the forester. John himself went forth, breaking paths here and there through the snow, but he discovered nothing. He began to believe that Muller had been forced to take shelter at the start of the storm and could not now return. His hope that it was so strong that his mind turned it into a fact, and Muller disappeared from his thoughts.
The garage, besides the great automobile, contained a smaller one, but John kept the limousine in mind. He intended when the time came to escape in it with the two women, if possible. There might be a road leading down the other side of the mountain, and toward Italy. If so, he would surely try to get through when the melting of the snow permitted.
Meanwhile he devoted himself with uncommon zest to household duties. He cleared new paths about the lodge, moved in much of the wood where it would be more convenient for Suzanne, cleaned and polished the guns and revolvers in the little armory, inspected the limousine and put it in perfect order, and did everything else that he could think of to make their mountain castle luxurious and defensible.
Julie often joined him in these tasks, and John did not remonstrate, knowing that work and occupation kept a mind healthy. Wrapped in her great red cloak and wearing the smallest pair of high boots that he could find in the lodge, she often shoveled snow with him, as he increased the number of runways to the small outlying buildings, or to other parts of their domain. Thus they filled up the hours and prevented the suspense which otherwise would have been acute, despite their comfortable house.
She continually revealed herself to him now. The shell that encloses a young French girl had been broken by the hammer of war and she had stepped forth, a woman with a thinking and reasoning mind of uncommon power. It seemed often to John that the soul of the great Lannes had descended upon this slender maid who was of his own blood. Like many another American, he had thought often of those marshals of Napoleon who had risen from obscurity to such heights, and of them all, the republican and steadfast Lannes had been his favorite. Her spirit was the same. He found in it a like simplicity and courage. They seldom talked of the war, but when they did she expressed unbounded faith in the final triumph of her nation and of those allied with it.
"I have read what the world was saying of France," she said one day when they stood together on the snowy slope. "We hear, we girls, although we are mostly behind the walls. They have told us that we were declining as a nation, and many of our own people believed it."
"The charge will never be made again against the French Republic," said John. "The French, by their patience and courage in the face of preliminary defeat and their dauntless resolution, have won the admiration of all the world."
"And many Americans are fighting for us. Tell me, John, why did you join our armies?"
"An accident first, as you know. There was that meeting with your brother at the Austrian border, and my appearance in the apparent role of a spy, and then my great sympathy with the French, who I thought and still think were attacked by a powerful and prepared enemy bent upon their destruction. Then I thought and still think that France and England represent democracy against absolutism, and then, although every one of these reasons is powerful enough alone, yet another has influenced me strongly."
"And what is that other, John?"
"It's intangible, Julie. It has been weighed and measured by nearly all the great philosophers, but I don't think any two of them have ever agreed about the result."
"You are a philosopher, sir, too, are you not? How do you define it?"
"I don't know that I've arrived at any conclusion."
"And yet, John, I thought that you were a man of decision."
"That's irony, Julie. But men of decision perhaps are puzzled by it more than anybody else."
"Then you can neither describe it nor give it a name?"
"It has names, several--but most of them are misleading," said John, thoughtfully.
"So you leave it to me to discover what this mysterious influence may be, or to remain forever in ignorance of it."
In her dark red cloak with tendrils of the deep golden hair showing at the edge of her hood, she seemed to John a very sprite of the snows, and the blue eyes said clearly to the gray:
And the gray answered back in the same language:
Nevertheless John would not let words betray him. He thought that the mountain and their isolation gave him an unfair advantage, and the young crusader upon whom the mantle of chivalry had descended had too knightly a soul to use it, at least in speech.
"And so, sir," she said, "you will not venture upon such an abstruse subject?"
"No, I think not. I don't believe you could call it an evasion, but perhaps it's fear."
"Fear of what, John?"
"I'm not sure about that, either. Perhaps elsewhere and under more suitable circumstances I may be able to put my thought into words, precise and understandable. It will take time, but that I shall do so some day I have no doubt."
She looked away, and then the two, the snow shovels in their hands, walked back gravely to the lodge. Suzanne stood in the doorway watching them. She knew that they were wholly oblivious of her presence, that they had not even seen her, yet the heart of the stern peasant woman was warm within her, although she felt that she now had two children instead of one under her care.
Neither was Suzanne given up wholly to the present. She spent many anxious hours thinking of the future. The deep snow could not last forever. Already there was a warmer breath in the air. When it began to melt it would go fast, and then Auersperg--if he were still at Zillenstein--eaten up with impatience and anger because he could hear nothing from the lodge, would act, and he would show no mercy to the young man with the brown hair and the gray eyes, who was now walking by the side of her beloved Julie.
John himself took notice the next day of the signs. Spring, which already held sway in the lowlands, was creeping up the slope of the highlands. The sun was distinctly warmer and tiny rivulets of water flowed along the edges of the runways. In a few more days retainers of Auersperg or troops would come up the mountain. The prince himself might have been compelled to return to the war, but he would certainly leave orders in capable hands. John never deluded himself for a moment upon that subject. His shoveling in the snow made him quite sure now that a road led over the mountain and southward, and he had made up his mind to take the automobile and the two women and try it, as soon as the snow melted enough to permit of such an attempt. One might get through, and he had proved for himself that fortune favors the daring.
In his explorations on the southern slope he came to a deep gulch in which the tops of scrub pines showed above the snow. Following its edge for some distance his eye at length was caught by a dark shape on the rocks. He climbed slowly and painfully down to it and saw the body of a man, clothed like a German forester. His neck and many of his bones were broken, and his body was bruised frightfully.
John had no doubt that it was the missing Muller, and it was altogether likely that in the storm he had made a misstep, and had fallen into the ravine to instant death.
"What are you going to do?" asked Julie, who saw him going out, spade on shoulder.
"I've found Muller at last," he replied soberly.
"Oh! I am sorry!" she said, shuddering as she looked at the spade.
"It's all I can do for him now."
"I'm glad you thought to do as much."
When John returned he had carefully wiped all the earth from the snow shovel. The subject of Muller was never again mentioned by either of them, and while he experienced sorrow for a man whom he had never seen and who was an official enemy, he felt that a shadow was lifted from them.
The sun grew much warmer the next day, and the snow began to melt fast. The rivulets in the runways swelled rapidly. The snow sank inch by inch, and warm winds blew on the slopes. The pines were now clear and little rivers were running down every ravine and gulch. The thunder of great masses of snow, loosened by the thaw and gathering weight as they rolled down the mountain side, came to their ears. The sky was a brilliant blue, pouring down continuous warm beams, and it was obvious that it would not be long before the automobile road was clear. Then the blue eyes turned a questioning gaze upon the gray.
"Yes, I'm preparing for us to go soon," said John.
"Which way?" asked Julie.
"Toward Italy, I think."
"Is it possible for us to get through?"
"I don't know. The hardships and the dangers undoubtedly will be great."
"But one can endure them."
"You have little to fear. Prince Karl of Auersperg offers you morganatic marriage, and he thinks that he is honoring you."
"But do you, John, think that he is honoring me?"
"Although you would probably be a mere countess and not a princess, your position nevertheless would be great in most continental eyes, far grander than if you were to marry some obscure republican."
"You haven't answered me. Do you think the Prince of Auersperg would be honoring me?"
"I'm not a judge to make decisions. I'm merely stating the facts on either side."
"But suppose I should meet this simple and obscure republican and, through some singular chance, should happen to love him, would it not be better for my pride and more promising for my happiness to marry him on terms of full equality rather than to marry Prince Karl of Auersperg, a man old enough to be my father, and yet remain all my life his inferior? As we understand it in France and as you understand it in America, republicanism means equality, does it not, sir?"
"If it doesn't mean that it means nothing."
"Then, sir, being what I am, you may be sure that I shall not stay here to await Prince Karl of Auersperg, and his unsought honors."
"You are the judge, Julie, after all, and I believed it was the decision you would make. Yet, it was only fair to lay the full facts before you."
John knew that the attempt to escape southward through the mountains would be attended by great danger, not only from the Austrians, but from the risks of the road itself, when the great automobile, slipping on melting snow and ice, might go crashing at any moment into a gorge. Yet it must be done. Another day brought home the extreme necessity of it. All the mountains thundered with the sliding snow, and the prince's men would certainly come soon.
The garage contained an ample supply of gasoline and extra tires, and John saw that the machine was in perfect order. He also stored in it clothing, food for many days, two rifles and many cartridges. It was thus at once a carriage, a home and a fortress. Then he told Julie that they must start the next morning. Enough snow was gone to disclose the road leading southward, and he believed that he could drive the limousine down the mountain.
"Are you willing to trust yourself to me, Julie?" he asked.
"Through everything," she replied.
Suzanne also was eager to go, and, in her character now as a full member of the little company, she did not hesitate to say so.
"Our comfort here may cause us to linger too long, sir," she said to John, when Julie was not present. "My mistress has been twice in the hands of the Prince of Auersperg and twice through you she has escaped him. There is certain death for you if he finds you and I know not what for my mistress if she should be taken by him once more. Hardened by his years and her resistance he would seek to break her. It has seemed to me sometimes, sir, that you were sent by God to save us."
The woman's faith, which had so completely replaced her original distrust and hostility, moved John.
"Suzanne," he said, "she shall never again be in the power of that man. I don't know what the future holds for us, but I think I can promise her escape from Auersperg."
"And others will come to help us," said Suzanne, with all the intensity of a prophetess. "You left word, you have said, which way you were going, and it will reach Monsieur Philip. It will not be so hard to trace us to Zillenstein, and he will surely follow. He flies in the air like the eagle, and we will see him some day black against the sky."
The two by the same impulse looked up. But there was nothing showing in the blue vault, save feathery white clouds. Nevertheless the faith of neither was dimmed.
"I feel the certainty of it, too," said John. "Philip and the Arrow will answer to our call."
"And my father," said Suzanne in the same tones of unshakable faith. "He was left a prisoner in Munich, but few prisons can hold Antoine Picard. He will surely seek us through all the mountains."
John's faith was already strong, but Suzanne's made it stronger. A high nature always tries to deserve the trust it receives. Early the following morning the automobile was ready, and Julie and Suzanne, wrapped in their cloaks, took their places inside. John stood beside it, in chauffeur's garb with cap and glasses.
"It's the last look at the lodge, Julie," he said. "When the Prince of Auersperg built it he never dreamed that it would serve as a refuge for those who were escaping from him. But it hasn't been such a bad home, has it?"
"No," she replied. "It will always have a place among my pleasant memories."
"And among mine."
He sprang into his seat and grasped the wheel. The automobile began a slow and cautious descent of the mountain's southward slope. However reluctant one is to prepare for a start there is invariably a certain elation after the start is made, and John felt the uplift now. He could not yet see his way out of Austria, but he felt that he would find it. He did not even know where their present road led, except that it disappeared in a valley, filled with mists and vapors from the melting snows.
John had preserved the pass given to him by the German officer, and thinking he might be able to make use of it again, he dropped the name of John Scott once more and returned to that of Jean Castel, asking Julie and Suzanne to remember the change, whenever they should meet anyone. But it was a long before they saw a human being.
They came at last to the bottom of a narrow valley, and the strain of driving under such dangerous circumstances had been so great that John felt compelled to take a rest of a half-hour. Julie descended from the machine and walked back and forth in the road. They saw that they were in a narrow valley down which flowed a stream, much swollen by the melting snow. But the grass and foliage were heavy here and the air was warm.
"I have resolved, Julie," said John, "to say, if we are pressed closely, that you are a lady of the household of the Prince of Auersperg, accompanied by your maid, and that, wishing to get out of the war zone, I'm deputed to carry you to the port of Trieste. I can't think of anything else that seems likely to serve us better."
"We're in your hands."
"Aye, so we are, sir," said the bold Suzanne, "but we also have hands of our own and can help."
"I know it, Suzanne, and I know that you will not fail when the time comes."
Julie returned to the machine and John put his hand on the wheel again, finding it a great relief to drive on a fairly level road. Throughout the descent of the slope he had been in fear of skidding and a fatal smash. Although much snow was left on the crests and sides of the mountains, none was visible in the valley, and the great mass of green foliage was restful to the eye.
"The first inhabitant to greet us," said John.
A man driving a flock of sheep was coming toward them. He was a sturdy fellow, with a red feather in his cap, which was cocked a bit saucily on one side of his head. It was evident that he was a shepherd, whose sheep had been driven into the lowlands by the storm. John, both from prudence and natural consideration, brought his machine down to a slow pace, and spoke pleasantly to the man, who was looking at them with much curiosity.
"We're from the family of the Prince of Auersperg," said John, "and we're making our way toward the coast. The prince wishes a lady whom he esteems very highly to reach Trieste as soon as possible. Where can we find the best inn for the night?"
"The village of Tellnitz, which you should reach about dark, has a famous inn, and there is no finer landlord than Herr Leinfelder."
John thanked him, and drove on, increasing his speed, after he had passed the sheep. He looked back once, and saw the shepherd placidly driving his flock before him. He was singing, too, and the musical notes came to them, telling them very clearly that one Austrian, at least, did not suspect them.
"Our first test has been passed successfully," said John, "and I look upon it as a good omen. But don't forget that I'm Jean Castel of Lorraine, French by descent, but a devoted German subject, in the service of the Prince of Auersperg. I intend that we shall pass the night in the inn of the good Herr Leinfelder at Tellnitz, and I believe that we will go on the next day still unsuspected. I've seen no telephone wires in the valley, and doubtless there is no connection between Zillenstein and Tellnitz."
They passed more peasants, none of whom asked them any questions, but they saw no soldiers.
Toward night they beheld the usual lofty church spire, and then the huddled houses of a small village. One rather larger than the others and with a red-tiled roof John thought must be the inn of the good Herr Leinfelder, and his surmise proved to be correct.
"It's fortunate that you are blond," said John to Julie, "as most people think the French are dark. Still, both you and Suzanne look French, and I recommend that you do not take off your wraps until you go to your room, and that you also have your dinner served there. It's best for you, Mademoiselle Julie, to be seen as little as possible, and your role as a great lady of the semi-royal house of Auersperg permits it. Now, may I lay the injunction upon both you and Suzanne that you permit me to do all the talking?"
"I obey," said Julie, "but I'm not so sure of Suzanne."
"I never talk unless it's needful for me to speak," said Suzanne with dignity.
Many eyes watched the great limousine as it rolled into Tellnitz, and stopped before the excellent inn of Herr Johann Ignatz Leinfelder. Herr Leinfelder himself appeared upon the gravel, his round red face beaming at the sight of guests, evidently of importance, at a time when so few guests of any kind at all came. John in his role of chauffeur said to him with an air of importance:
"A lady of the family of Prince Karl of Auersperg, on her way to Trieste. She wishes a room, the very best room you have, to which she can retire with her maid and seek the rest she so badly needs after her long journey over bad roads."
The good Herr Leinfelder bowed low. John's manner impressed him. It was a perfect reproduction of the style affected by the flunkies of the great.
"We have a splendid chamber for the princess and a smaller one adjoining for her maid," said the host. "It's an honor to Tellnitz and to me that a lady of the house of Auersperg should stop at my inn. The prince himself, we hear, has returned to the great war."
"Ah!" said John, but there was immense satisfaction under the subdued "ah" over the important information coming to him by mere chance. He opened the door for Julie and Suzanne to alight, and still heavily muffled they were bowed into the house by Herr Leinfelder.
"I shall be on guard tonight," whispered John to Julie, as she passed. "Did you hear him say that the Prince of Auersperg had gone back to the war?"
She nodded as she disappeared into the interior of the inn, and he knew that a weight had been lifted from her heart also. The pursuit surely could not be so fierce and lasting when the one who gave it impulse was gone.
There was a small garage behind the inn, and the great automobile almost filled it, but John, clinging to his role of chauffeur, which was expedient in every sense, would not trust it to any of the servants of the hotel. He inspected it carefully himself, saw that everything was in proper order, and not until then did he enter the inn in search of food and fire.
"My mistress?" he asked of August, the head waiter. "Has she been properly served? His Highness, Prince Karl of Auersperg, will not forget it if a lady of his family does not receive the deference due to her."
"Dinner has just been served to the princess," said August, deferentially, as the chauffeur's tone had been peremptory. "I return in a moment myself to see that every detail is attended to properly."
"Then look to it," said John, as he slipped a five-kronen piece into his hand, "and see also that she is not disturbed afterward. Her Highness wishes a good night's rest."
August bowed low with gratitude and hurried away to do his commission. John himself, as a man who carried gold, was treated with deference, and he had an excellent dinner in a dining-room that contained but three or four other guests. Here in accordance with his plan he talked rather freely with Herr Leinfelder, and the few servants that the war had left him.
He enlarged upon the greatness of Prince Karl of Auersperg and the ancient grandeur of his Castle of Zillenstein. He referred vaguely to the young princess whom he escorted as a cousin or a niece, and spoke complacently because he had been assigned to the important duty of taking her to Trieste. There was need of haste, too. He knew his orders, and he would start in the morning at the very first breath of dawn. He was also empowered, if necessary, to fight for her safety. The rifles and pistols in the automobile were sufficient proof of it, and he had been trained to shoot by the Prince's head forester, Muller.
Herr Johann Ignatz Leinfelder was much impressed. This young chauffeur who spoke with such assurance was a fine, upstanding fellow, obviously strong and brave, the very kind of a man whom a prince like Auersperg would employ on a duty of such great importance. Hence, Herr Leinfelder bowed lower than ever, when he spoke to John.
After dinner, the waiter, August, came with word that the princess was much refreshed and bade her chauffeur come to her apartments for orders. He found her standing by a window with the watchful Suzanne hovering near, but he did not speak until the waiter withdrew and closed the door.
The paleness begat by the long weariness of the ride was gone from her face, the beautiful color flowing back in a full tide, and she stood up straight and strong. The room was lighted by two tall candles, and the glow in John's eyes was met by an answering glow in hers.
"You think it wise to spend the night here?" she asked.
"It seems to me that we should risk it. In the darkness the roads will be dangerous from the melting snows. Nor should we exhaust ourselves in the first stage of our flight. It's scarcely possible that any word from Zillenstein can reach Tellnitz tonight and tomorrow we'll be far away. What say you, Suzanne?"
"I agree, sir, with you, who are our master here," replied Suzanne with uncommon deference. "A start at dawn, and we can leave pursuit behind for the present at least."
Julie smiled a little at this proof that young Scott's conquest of her stern maid was complete.
"I'll bid Herr Leinfelder have breakfast for us at the earliest possible moment," he said, "and now, I think it would be better for you two to sleep, because tomorrow we may need all our strength. You know as well as I the dangers that lie before us."
Outside the door he was the haughty chauffeur again, the subservient servant of Auersperg, and the arrogant patron of the innkeeper and waiters. He secured a good room for himself, in which he slept until he was called by his order at the first light of dawn, and he was assured by the manner of Herr Leinfelder that no word of the fugitives had come in the night.
"Breakfast is ready for the princess," said the innkeeper, bowing.
John knocked at her door, and she came forth at once, followed by Suzanne, both fully dressed for the journey.
"No alarm has yet come to Tellnitz," whispered John, as she passed. "Remember that they think you a princess of the house of Auersperg, and that we must start in a half-hour."
He ate his own breakfast at another table, and within the appointed time the great limousine was at the door. Herr Leinfelder and his staff had no reason to change their belief that the lady of such manifest youth and beauty was a princess, as their chauffeur gave gratuities in truly royal style, and then whirled them away in a manner that was obviously ducal.
The morning was fresh and beautiful, silver as yet, since only an edge of the sun was showing over the hills, but it was fragrant with the odor of foliage and of wild flowers, blossoming in the nooks and crannies under the slopes. John felt a great surge of the spirits and he sent the machine forward at a rate that made the air rush in a swift current behind them.
"The first stage of our flight has been passed in safety," he said to Julie.
"It's an omen that we'll be as fortunate with the second."
"And with the third."
"And with all the others."
She flashed him a brilliant smile, and John felt that he could drive over any obstacle. He sent the machine forward faster than ever, and the road stretched before them, long and white.