Page:O Henry Prize Stories of 1924.djvu/201

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THE COURIER OF THE CZAR

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“You have nobody in the world but Tilly. You’re not rich. You have no husband and no children. Life has cheated you. Take what pleasure you can. Show some spirit. Don't make a fool of yourself.”

“I will make confession,” said Betsey in her soul. “Wait till after the hymn, anyhow,” advised the devil. “No,” said Betsey. “As William finished she rose slowly. “I have something to say,” she announced in a muffled tone. In the silence which followed Betsey looked at the floor. The Shindledeckers never spoke in meeting; they never spoke to any one who did not first speak to them; they almost never went from home and they never willingly admitted strangers to their house. There was, their friends believed, no one in the world so shy. And here was Betsey on her feet. All sorts of wild notions flew through their astonished minds. Was Tilly dead and had Betsey lost her reason?

“I must confess my sins,” declared Betsey in a stronger tone. “I’ve done wrong. I’ve done what is forbidden among us: I’ve read a worldly book. It’s a large book with pictures, called ‘The Courier of the Czar.’” “The Courier of the Czar” was only a secondary title; upon the real name, “Michael Strogoff,” Betsey did not dare to venture; as it was she pronounced Czar in two syllables, the first k. “It was called 'The Courier of the K-zar.’”

She was heard not with disapproval but with stupefaction; her audience did not understand what she meant. They knew the Bible and the hymnal and some of them knew the Martyr Book but they knew no other literature. They did not know the word “courier” nor the word “K-zar.” Betsey saw their stupefaction. “A courier is a messenger,” she explained. “He’s one that carries messages and goes on errands. A K-zar is a king.”

Still all the Hersheys and Erlenbaughs and Stauffers looked at her blankly.

“It’s a story,” she went on. “We have stories in the Bible and stories in the Martyr Book. But we know all the stories in the Bible and the Martyr Book by heart. This is a new story. This man is to carry a message for the K-zar to his brother who’s in a city with enemies all around it. He must go three thousand miles through enemies and forests