- CHAPTER XII The Princess
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THIS was the tableau photographed on my retina as I sprang forward; but I drew the revolver which had occasioned Winston's mirth when Molly gave it to me at Brig, and in an instant the picture had dissolved. The man in brown dropped the rücksack, and ran as I have never seen man run before--ran as if he wore seven-leagued boots. My revolver was not loaded, and all the cartridges were among my shirts and collars, on Finois' back, therefore I could pursue him with nothing more dangerous than anathemas, unless I had deserted the boy, who seemed at first glance to be almost as near fainting as Innocentina.
Reluctantly letting the man go free, I bent over the little figure in blue, still on its knees. "Are you hurt?" I asked in real anxiety, such as I had not thought it possible to feel for the Brat.
"No--only my arm. He wrung it so. And perhaps I have twisted my knee. I don't know yet. He pushed me back, and I fell down."
I lifted him up and supported him for a moment, he leaning against me, the colour drained from cheeks and lips. But suddenly it streamed back, even to his forehead; and raising his head from my | | 134 shoulder where it had lain for a few seconds, he unwound himself gently from my arm. "I'm all right now, thank you awfully," he said. "I believe you have saved my life and Innocentina's. You see, we fought with the man for our things; and when he saw that he couldn't steal them without a struggle, he whipped out a knife and--and then you came. Oh, he was a coward to attack two--two people so much weaker than himself, and then to run away when a stronger one came!"
I kept Joseph's story to myself, and hoped that the boy had not heard it. Perhaps, after all, this lurking beast of prey had not been the murderer in hiding. The place was desolate, and evening was falling. Some tramp, or thievish peasant, taking advantage of the murder-scare, might easily have dared this attack; and when I glanced at the picnic array under a tree near by, I was even less surprised than before at the thing which had happened.
The mouse-coloured pack-donkey had been denuded of his load, and the most elaborate tea basket I had ever seen (finer even than Molly's) was open on the ground. If the cups, plates and saucers, the knives, spoons and forks, were not silver, they were masquerading hypocrites; and I now discovered that the large, dark object which I had seen Innocentina putting into the rücksack (at this moment half on, half off) was a very handsome travelling bag. It was gaping wide, the mouth fixed in position with patent catches, and it lay where the disappointed thief had flung it, tumbled on its side, with a quantity of gold and crystal fittings scattered round about. On the gold backs of the brushes, and the tops of the bottles, was an intricate monogram, traced in small turquoises.| | 135
"By Jove!" I exclaimed. "Do you travel with these things? What madness to spread them out in the woods by an unfrequented mountain road! That is to offer too much temptation even to the honest poor."
"I know," said the boy meekly. "It was stupid to picnic in such a place, but we had come fast" (with this he had the grace to look a little shame-faced, knowing that I knew why he had come fast) "and we were tired. It was so beautiful here, and seemed so peaceful that we never thought of danger, at this time of day. We had just begun to pack up our things to move on again, when there was a rustling behind us, the crackling of a branch under a foot, and that wretch sprang out. I was frightened, but--I hate being a coward, and I just made up my mind he shouldn't have our things. Innocentina screamed, and I struck at the man with the stick she uses to drive Fanny and Souris. Then he got out his knife, and Innocentina screamed a good deal more, and--I don't quite know what did happen after that, till you came."
"Well, I'm thankful I was near," I said. "And I must say that, though it was foolhardy to make such a display of valuables, you were a plucky little David to defend your belongings against such a Goliath. I admire you for it."
The boy flushed with pleasure. "Oh, do you really think I was plucky? " he asked. "Everything was so confused, I wasn't sure. I'd rather be plucky than anything. Thank you for saying that, almost as much as for saving our lives. And--and I'm dreadfully sorry I called you a--brute, last night."
"It was only because I called you a brat. I fully deserved it, and we'll cry quits, if you don't mind. | | 136 Now, I'd better see how the fainting lady is, and then I'll help you get your things together. How are the knee and arm?"
"Nothing much wrong with them after all, I think," said the boy, limping a little as he walked by my side back to the road, where I had left Innocentina with Joseph.
We had taken but a few steps, when they both appeared, the young woman white under her tan, her eyes big and frightened. She was herself again, very thankful for so good an end to the adventure, and volubly ashamed of the weakness to which she had given way. In the midst of her explanations and enquiries, however, I noticed that she took time now and then to throw a glance at my muleteer, not scornful and defiant, as on the day before, but grateful and mildly feminine. In conclave we agreed to say nothing in Aosta of the grim encounter, lest our lives should be made miserable by gendarmes and much red tape. But Joseph, less diplomatic than I, had not scrupled to seize the moment of Innocentina's recovery to pour into her ears the story of the escaped criminal, and the excitement in which he had plunged the neighbouring country. She was anxious to hurry on as quickly as possible, lest night should overtake her party on the way, and, still pale and tremulous, she sprang eagerly to the work of gathering up the scattered belongings. While she and Joseph put the tea-basket to rights, the boy and I rearranged the gorgeous fittings of the bag, and discovered that not even a single bottle-top was missing.
"What a burden to carry on a donkey's back!" I laughed. "You are a regular Beau Brummeel."| | 137
"Why not?" pleaded the boy. "I like pretty things, and this is very convenient. It is no trouble for Souris. When the bag is in the rücksack, no one would suspect that it is valuable. I have carried all this luggage so, ever since Lucerne, and never had any bother before."
"What, you too started from Lucerne?"
"Yes. I had Innocentina and the donkeys come up from the Riviera, to meet me there. We have been a long time on the way--weeks: for we have stopped wherever we liked, and as long as we liked. Until to-day we haven't had a single real adventure. I was wishing for one, but now--well, I suppose most adventures are disagreeable when they are happening, and only turn nice afterwards, in memory."
"Like caterpillars when they become butterflies. But look here, my young friend David, lest you meet another Goliath, I really think you'd better put up with the proximity (I don't say society) of that hateful animal, Man, as far as Aosta. Joseph and I will either keep a few yards in advance, or a few yards in the rear, not to annoy you with our detestable company, but--"
"Please don't be revengeful," entreated the ex-Brat. "You have been so good to us, don't be ungood now. I suppose one may hate men, yet be grateful to one man--anyhow, till one finds him out? I can't very well find you out between here and Aosta, can I?--so we may be friends, if you'll walk beside me, neither behind nor in front. I am excited, and feel as if I must have someone to talk to, but I am a little tired of conversation with Innocentina. I know all she has ever thought about since she was born."| | 138
"It's a bargain then," said I. "We're friends and comrades--until Aosta. After that--"
"Each goes his own way," he finished my broken sentence; "as ships pass in the night. But this little sailing boat won't forget that the big bark came to its help, in a storm which it couldn't have weathered alone."
"Do you know," said I, as we walked on together, the muleteer and the donkey girl behind us, with the animals, "you are a very odd boy. I suppose it is being American. Are all American boys like you ?"
"Yes," said he, twinkling, "all. I am cut on exactly the same pattern as the rest," and he smiled a charming smile, of which I could not resist the curious fascination. "Did you never meet any American boys, till you met me?"
"I can't remember having any real conversation with one, except once. His mother had asked me in his presence (it was in New York) how I liked America, and I had answered that it dazzled me; that the only yearning I felt was for something dark and quiet, and small and uncomfortable. She was rather pleased, but the boy put a string across the drawing-room door when I went out, and tripped me up. Then we had a little conversation--quite a short one--but full of repartee. That's my solitary experience."
"I should have wanted to trip you up for that speech, too; so you see the likeness is proved. It is a funny thing, I know very few Englishmen. I've met several, but, as you say, I never had any real conversation with them."
"Maybe, if you had, you wouldn't be so down on your sex when it has reached adolescence."
"I'm afraid there isn't much difference in men, whatever their country. But it's--their attitude towards women which I hate."
I laughed. "What do you know about that?"
"I have a sister," said he, after a minute's pause. And he did not laugh. "She and I have been--tremendous chums all our lives. There isn't a thing she has done, or a thought she has had, that I don't know, and the other way round, of course."
"Twins?" I asked.
"She is twenty-one."
"Oh, four or five years older than you."
The boy evidently did not take this as a question.
"She is unfortunately an heiress," he said.
"Money has brought misery upon her, and through her, on me; for if she suffers, I suffer too. She used to believe in everybody. She thought men were even more sincere and upright than women, because their outlook on life was larger, and so it was easy for her to be deceived. When she came out she wasn't quite eighteen (you see we have no father or mother, only a lazy old guardian-uncle), and she thought everyone was wonderfully kind to her, so she was very happy. I suppose there never was a happier girl--for a while. But by-and-bye she began to find out things. She discovered that the men who seemed the nicest only cared for her money, not for her at all."
"How could she be sure of that?"
"It was proved, over and over again, in lots of ways."
"But if she is a pretty and charming girl--"
"I think she is only odd--like me. People don't understand her, especially men. They find her strange, and men don't like girls to be strange."| | 140
"Don't they? I thought they did."
"Think for yourself. Have you ever been at all in love? And if you have, wasn't the girl quite, quite conventional; just a nice sweet girl, who was pretty, and who flirted, and who was too properly brought up ever to do or to say anything to surprise you?"
"Well," I admitted, my mind reviewing this portrait of Helen, which was really a well-sketched likeness, "now you put it in that way, I confess the girl I've cared for most was of the type you describe. I can see that now, though I didn't think of it then."
"No, you wouldn't; men don't. My sister soon learned that she wasn't really the sort of girl to be popular, though she had dozens of proposals, heaps of flowers every day, had to split up each dance several times at a ball, and all that kind of thing. It was a shock to find out why. To her face, they called her 'Princess,' and she was pleased with the nickname at first, poor thing. She took it for a compliment to herself. But she came to know that behind her back it was different; she was the 'Manitou Princess.' You see, the money, or most of it, came because father owned the biggest silver mines in Colorado, and he named the principal one 'Manitou,' after the Indian spirit. I shan't forget the day when a man she'd just refused, told her the vulgar nickname--and a few other things that hurt. But I don't know why I'm talking to you like this. I wanted to get away from you yesterday, because I--don't care to meet people. Everything seems different though, now. I suppose it's because you saved our lives. I feel as if you weren't exactly a new person, but as if--I'd known you a long time."| | 141
"I have the same sort of feeling about you, for some queer reason," said I. "Are we also to know each other's names?"
"No," he answered quickly. "That would spoil the charm: for there is a charm, isn't there? But we won't call each other Brat and Brute any more. That's ancient history. I'll be for you--just Boy. I think I will call you Man."
"But you hate Man."
"I don't hate you. If I were a girl I might, but as it is, I don't. I like you--Man."
"And I like you, Boy. We are pals now. Shall we shake hands ?"
We did. I could have crushed his little brown paw, if I had not manipulated it carefully.
After that, we did not talk much. By-and-bye, he was tired, and remounted his donkey, but we still kept side by side, Innocentina sending at intervals a perfunctory cry of "Fanny-anny," from a distance, by way of keeping the small brown âne to her work.
So we reached the beautiful valley of Aosta, as the transparent azure veil of the Italian dusk was drawn, and out of that dusk glimmered now and then, as if born of the shadows, strange, stunted, and misshapen forms, gnome-like creatures, who stood aside to let us pass along the road. It was as if the Brownie Club were out for a night excursion; and I remembered my muleteer's lecture about the crétins of this happy valley. These were some of them, going back to town from their day's work in the fields. I had set my mind upon stopping at a hotel of which Joseph had told me, extolling its situation at a distance from Aosta ville, the wonderful mountain-pictures its windows framed, and | | 142 a certain pastoral primitiveness, not derogatory to comfort, which I should find in the ménage. But when my late enemy and new chum remarked that, he was going to the Mont Blanc, I hesitated.
"And you?" he asked.
"Oh, I--well, I had thought--but it doesn't matter."
"I see what you mean. Would it be disagreeable for you if I were in the same hotel?"
"On the contrary. But you--"
"I know now that we shall never rub each other up the wrong way--again. Besides, we shan't have the chance. I suppose you go on somewhere else to-morrow?"
"No, I want to stop a day or two. Some friends have asked me to tell them about the sights of the neighbourhood, and what sort of motoring roads there are near by."
"I'm stopping, too. So, after all, the little sailing boat and the big bark aren't going to pass each other this night? They are to anchor in the same harbour for a while."
"And here's the harbour," said I, for we had come down from the hills into a marvellous old town of ancient towers and arches, with a background of white mountains. Molly should have, been satisfied. I had obeyed her instructions to the letter, and I was in Aosta at last.
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