The Thrilling Adventures of Dick Anthony of Arran/Lancing The Whale
LANCING THE WHALE
AS he watched the stricken enemy slink off toward the skyline and knew there would be vengeance later on, Dick Anthony no more feared the future than he thought of flinching from his own half-drilled rabble.
He admitted to himself now that his two quick victories within a week meant little more than two spur-marks on Russia's hide. He had to stir if he was to save Persia from the Russian yoke! Action, and only action—swift, unexpected and well-planned—could help him in Persia.
Russian dead and wounded lay scattered over two square miles of plain, and the walled city of Astrabad lay helpless for the taking.
His ragged line stood still gazing in wonder at him in the flush of his new success, gaping belief, now, more than ever of Usbeg Ali Khan's wild story, that made him Alexander of Macedon reincarnated. But he cantered down among the spaced-out companies, letting the sunlight flash along the blade of his strange jeweled claymore, and his voice was like the cracking of great whips, as he made his will known, his seat in the saddle that of a man who is obeyed.
"Back!" he ordered, "back to your hills again!"
"Let them loot, bahadur!" Usbeg Ali Khan advised, riding up to Dick's side.
Dick wheeled on him, spinning his big horse in one of those swift movements that were as disconcerting as they were characteristic.
"I made you second-in-command! What are you doing here? Take the left wing and answer for your men's behavior! Join your command, sir!"
Without another word he spurred to the far end of the other wing where his seven hundred horsemen were drawn up and Andry MacDougal leaned, swearing soft, endearing oaths at the machine gun.
"Where awa', Mr. Dicky?"
Dick reined in and the huge man laid a hand on the charger's withers.
"Back to the hills, Andry. Are your men in hand?"
"Then lead the way! Lead off with your gun! Back along the way we came!"
"Man! Her that's waitin'-wumman on the princess yonder!"
Dick scowled at the horizon. A cloud of dark dust curled and eddied above a low hill and stampeding Cossacks; beyond the cloud, he knew, was the princess who had interfered and played with him until he was outlaw who had once been proud Scots gentleman. It was only human to connect the princess and her maid together in one comprehensive loathing, and to forget for the moment that the maid had fallen victim to Andry's gargoyle charms—that she loved the huge man—and that she had already given proof of her devotion.
"Did you hear my order?"
"Ay! Stan' by y'r traces, there! Take hold!"
Sixty tired men sprang from the ground to do his bidding instantly, and Dick rode on to where all the Russian reserve ammunition lay piled on commisariat wagons, horsed from the stables of Russian officers.
"Forward!" he ordered, pointing to the hills, and the cavalcade began to move.
At the far end of the other wing Usbeg Ali swallowed his own thoughts of plunder and forced Dick's will on men whose ideal might be Persia liberated, but whose immediate yearning, like his own, was for the loot in Astrabad bazaars.
"Bismillah!" he muttered in his beard. "The fellow strokes his stubborn chin, looks up once to heaven, and then knows what to do! I tell tales of him that I invented and the tales prove true ones! I prophecy about him, and the prophecies come true! Who am I that I should doubt the hand of Allah! Nay—I am a soldier and I have my orders!"
He rode like a thunderbolt, once up and once again down the line, shouting for close order; and since close order presaged movement of some kind they obeyed him readily enough.
Dick halted where the foothills rose abruptly from the level land, and the horses could no longer drag the heavy wagons fast enough to keep up with the climbing infantry.
He ordered the wounded taken from the wagons where they lay on the cartridge boxes. He ordered bough-litters made for them, and told off carriers. Next, out came the cartridge boxes, and he served out two hundred rounds a man. There were thousands on thousands of rounds left over, and he had them packed on the horses. Then he ordered:
"Haul the wagons by hand along the ridge! Draw them up in line!"
They obeyed him, wondering. In full view of the distant city they arranged a barricade of wagons, overturning them and locking each to each until the whole was like a wall.
"Now guard them for me until my return!" Dick ordered, riding down to where the rearguard watched inquisitively. Usbeg Ali stared wide-eyed, but Dick bade him lead the advance guard now straight up toward the mountains.
"Lead off with the horse!" he ordered. "Throw out a screen ahead and on either flank. Wait for me unless I have caught up before you reach the fifth mile."
Dick shut his lips tight in a way that Usbeg Ali was beginning to recognize for the abrupt, blunt end of argument. He saluted and rode away.
"Now! 'Tention! Listen!"
They had been leaning on their rifles, but the crack and resonance Dick gave his words brought them up standing like drilled men.
"Yonder in Astrabad there are not many Russians left, but those we have just worsted may rally and return. They are likely to. I am going on, a day's march from here. If you are attacked you may send a man to warn me. Meanwhile you—Yussuf Ali—command this rearguard. Stand here and defend this position and these wagons until I come back. Don't trouble to conceal yourselves. Light fires tonight; let the Russians know where you are; and the best way to avoid attack will be to make the Russians think you are more numerous than you are. To the wagons—forward—march!"
Five minutes later, he left them digging trenches with whatever tools they could improvise, and he rode away with no doubt in his mind that they would stay there.
"Forward!" ordered Dick, riding to the head of the remaining infantry. Up, up Dick led but said nothing and no answered questions. Not even when they came on the advance guard, waiting for them on the plateau, and Usbeg Ali Khan rode back to report the trail all clear, would Dick give any details of his plan.
He called a halt at last when he reached the brow of a cliff that overhung the plain, and pointed to a fringe of trees behind which they might lie and rest.
"No camp-fires now! No watch-fires tonight! No noise! Eat your rations cold and sleep where you lie!" he ordered.
"Bahadur, I am second-in-command; may I not know the secret?" asked Usbeg Ali. "Am I likely to betray a confidence?"
Dick smiled. He knew well the Afghan's loyalty. But he knew, too, who had told those utterly amazing tales about Iskander come to life again, and he judged that such poetical imagination would be better not too freely fed. Dick wanted his army quiet—incurious—at rest.
"There's no secret, Usbeg Ali. I've got suspicions; by dawn I'll know the truth. Help me pick watchmen now! Use all your wits—we need eyes, ears and silence!"
Then as Gideon once did in Bible story, Dick took steps to choose a handful from his host on whom he could depend. He and Usbeg Ali walked here and there, here and there, in and out among the companies, looking for men whose eyes were bright still, and who are not too tired to answer jest with jest.
It took them two hours to pick a hundred and fifty men; but at last they had three fifty-man platoons to take the strain in turn, and then they pushed a living fringe far forward, beyond the low foothills to the hot plain. Dick posted them, though Usbeg Ali went with him to see, and Usbeg Ali listened to the orders that he gave; but the Afghan learned little.
"Now for the closest watch that ever army kept!" commanded Dick. "The man caught nodding dies! The first man to get information wins promotion on the spot! I'm short of good sergeants!"
"We will watch as the night birds watch for mice!" they promised.
"Two hours!" said Dick. "Two hours, and then relief for four—then, two hour's watch again!"
When the last fixed post had been attended to, he and Usbeg Ali walked back through the gathering gloom to the foot of the overhanging cliff, where Dick had ordered a grass bed made for himself, raised on four cleft sticks.
"I'm going to sleep here," he said, "where they can find me quickly. Go up to where the men lie; sleep until dawn!"
"It is an order, Usbeg Ali!"
So the Afghan went, regretfully—almost resentfully—yet sore-eyed from long wakefulness, and soon his snores sang second to Andry MacDougal's rasping salutation to the sleep god. The whole host was sleeping almost before the sun went under, and none but the shadow-lurking outposts saw four horsemen, one by one, go racing along the plain at chance, uncertain intervals.
Dick's orders were for silence and no attempt was made to shoot the gallopers; three slipped by untouched. So the fourth man, riding within sound of the third's hoof thunder, gathered confidence. He rode full pelt into a trap. They tripped his horse with a pegged rope, and pounced on him to strip him, and whether he broke his neck in falling or they broke it for him they reported him to Dick as dead. When they had torn every strip of clothing from his body they discovered a letter tucked in his sock, and hurried to Dick with it, quarreling as they ran as to who had earned the reward. Dick—leaping from his bed before they were within ten yards of him—promoted all five instantly.
Then he struck match after match, and burned his fingers in his eagerness to read the message, chuckling to himself and thanking the god of good adventurers because he knew enough Russian to understand the fifty words scrawled on a piece of unofficial paper. No need of an interpreter! No one to share the news! Nobody, then, to warn the Russians! For the hundredth time his trick of keeping silent had served him well!
At dawn, when the drifting, greyish mists were rising to proclaim the hour of prayer, he found Usbeg Ali Khan—adventurer, idealist, true believer—rising from a prayer mat facing Mecca.
"Look!" said Dick, pointing through a rift in the mist to the plain below. Something moved, slowly, like a darker bank of mist amid the rest—half a thousand feet below, and ten miles distant—noiseless apparently, and yet there was a hint of something that suggested thunder.
"By the blood of Allah's prophet!" said the Afghan. "Guns!"
"In a few hours we will have guns!" answered Dick.
Never, probably, since in the dawn of ages Asia first began to writhe under the hates and loves, the devilish desires and passion-bred wars of individuals, had the hot plains outside Astrabad seen fury such as rent the Princess Olga Karageorgovich while Dick's little army wound its way towards the hills.
"Cowards!" she screamed. "Curs!"
She turned them, though it took two hours. She brought them to a halt at last—rallied them—faced them about—and lead them back; and how she did it, only she knew. There were men behind her when she came whose faces streamed blood where her whip-lash had descended; there was an officer whose blood ran in his eyes. They followed her like little beaten dogs, tramping in fours as if in leash, too dazed and frightened to remember anything, or to do anything but obey her dumbly and march numbly at her bidding back to Astrabad.
They were challenged—brought to a halt outside the gate.
"Open!" she ordered, and the gate swung.
So she rode in at the head of a little more than two half regiments, reckless of the dead and dying on the plain outside and thoughtful only of Russia's grip that must be reclenched on northern Persia. Gone was her passion for Dick Anthony—gone up in a blaze of anger and replaced by a hate for him that was inhuman in its devilish determination. Gone was the thought of serving Dick by playing the Okhrana false—gone any hope of seeing him king.
Not a minute did she waste. The wires were down and the Caspian cables cut; she had the field all clear, and none now would be likely to oppose her orders. She seized new buildings for the Cossacks, raided the bazaars and seized an ample supply of food, arrested twenty of the leading citizens and whipped them—set Astrabad a-thunder with the preparation for new, resolute beginnings. Then, looking out toward the foothills from a high muezzin's tower, she saw Dick's line of wagons and believed that he intended to entrench himself in that position.
"Idiot!" she laughed, gazing through the binoculars. "He waits for me! I must smash the wagon barricade with guns!"
But the guns had been sent to harry Dick in his former fastness up in the Elburz mountains.
"Gallopers!" she ordered. "Four! No six!"
She wrote a letter, and made six copies of it, ordering the guns to hurry back and not wait for their escort, explaining in fifty words that Dick Anthony was entrenched near the city, and that therefore the road below the foothills must be clear. She sent them one at a time at intervals, in case of accidents. Two got by unobserved. The following three were seen. It was the last man whose letter reached Dick Anthony.
Wreathed in the rising mist, Dick Anthony stood silent on the cliff's projecting lip and gazed through binoculars.
"Bahadur!" said Usbeg Ali, drawing nearer now respectfully, yet somehow with a hint of insolence. He was angry that he had not been consulted.
Dick closed his binoculars, snapped them in their sling-case, and faced Usbeg Ali at last with a good-humored smile that made the Afghan wish he had not spoken.
"I'll trouble you to get your men in hand Usbeg Ali. Get a thousand hidden along the ridge to our right—that ridge that reaches out across the plains. You'd better hurry—the gunners won't be long about breakfast. Wait! Play a waiting game! When they get well within range, open on them; they'll limber up and retire to look for their supports after they've answered with a round or two. Leave 'em to me then. Don't follow—pepper 'em at long range. But don't break cover!"
So, while the gunners ate their breakfast, there crept between them and Astrabad a long line of Persians who had a crow or two to pick with Russia.
A trumpet sounded. Leisurely the gunners seized their reins and mounted. They started at an easy walk—six guns, one following the other, with an extra ammunition wagon to each gun and a considerable convoy of provisions.
A second trumpet sounded for the trot, and for perhaps four hundred yards the column jogged and bumped along, with heavy wagons jolting in its wake, making the dull, rumbling thunder that rides ever with artillery. Then, an officer of the advance saw something on the ridge ahead that awakened his curiosity.
Instead of sending an alarm back and letting the guns halt until he had investigated, he galloped ahead alone; and as he spurred—timed to a nicety—Dick Anthony led his seven hundred horsemen at a walk behind the other ridge. Now, the Russians were between two hidden bodies of an enemy and absolutely unsuspicious of the fact.
The officer rode on and nothing happened. He reached the edge at a point where low bushes crowned it. He rode over it and disappeared. Nobody heard that yell for help as he was dragged from his horse and knifed; nobody saw his body again, for the jackals finished it that night.
The rest of the battery continued to advanced, sublimely ignorant of twitching fingers curled over triggers and of a machine-gun whose mechanism purred to the testing of a canny, careful Scot. The Cossacks loosed their tunics—lit their pipes—and some of them began to sing.
It was that other sense all savage people have—that wordless intuition of impending danger that brought the advance guard to a halt at last within a hundred yards of the ridge. They halted first, and then an officer called "Halt!" without exactly knowing why.
The order had but left his lips when a rifle shot made the word his last one; and then instantly the whole long ridge became a line of spurting flame and there was no advance guard any longer—only a row of horses that stood patiently and one loose horse that galloped back. Heads appeared above the ridge, and yells that made the blood run cold were raised in a sudden storm of sound.
The Russians unlimbered and got into action with a speed that did them credit, and there were enough men left to man each gun and send a withering dose or two of grapeshot shrieking on its way across the ridge.
But Andry's machine gun opened on them pip-p-p-p-ip-ip-ip-p-pip-pip! In a storm of bullets that seemed to slit the very universe in fragments, and that rattled off the barrels of the guns like hail on a window, the Cossacks hooked their teams up, turned and fled—back in the direction of the mountains—back to meet the infantry who should be hurrying hot-foot to catch up to them.
They rode straight towards Dick Anthony. He loosed but half his seven hundred, and rode straight at them! There was sword-work before the guns were taken. A major of Cossacks, maddened at losing the battery that represented all the pride he had, singled out Dick and met him half way, blade to blade. The odds were on Dick Anthony the minute they touched points.
But a Cossack rushed to his major's aid, and Dick's good charger groaned, hamstrung and helpless. A Persian shot the Cossack dead as Dick dismounted, but the Russian major's sword missed Dick by the breadth of a breath of air.
"Surrender!" he yelled; but he gave Dick no opportunity to yield. Instead he rode in with a rush, to make an end.
Dick sprang, if a man may be said to spring whose movement is too quick to see, crossed the horse in front, and seized the major's leg. He could have killed him then and there, for the horse raced on and Dick's grip was unbreakable.
The next thing that the Russian new was that Dick's foot was on him and a claymore's two-edged point was at his throat.
Dick called half a dozen men and ordered one of them to snatch the major's sword away.
"Now, bind him hand and foot!"
He looked once keenly at all six of them, memorizing faces; each knew he could pick all six again out of a thousand should he wish to.
"I hold you six answerable for him!"
He had time to look around him then, and in a second his calm humor left him. His eyes blazed again and his lips became a straight, hard line. His Persians were butchering their Cossack prisoners! Dozens lay dead among the gun-wheels and under the legs of the horses. Fifty more were lined up, ready to be shot, and he was just in time to fling himself in front of them, and stopped the folly that would have turned his battlefield to a shambles and his victory to a crime.
Midnight found the Princess Olga Karageorgovich chin on hand, staring at the distant Persian watch-fires that danced before a row of upset wagons.
She believed Dick Anthony behind that row of fires.
Reasoning, in her wild, swift-twisting way, ignoring facts and trusting only prejudice, she had deduced, that Dick was afraid to keep the city he had won. She believed him now to be waiting for reinforcements, and perhaps to be arguing with a swarm of discontented men. The only alternative suggestion she could make was that he meant to watch for the returning guns and then slip back to his mountain-top where he would think that he was safe.
She wrote another message and sent six more gallopers careering through the night, and this time each bore a little map that showed the line of Dick's probable retreat. The infantry were told, instead of following the guns, to climb into the foothills—hunt for Dick's trail—and lie on it in ambush.
Feverish hands, she knew, were laboring at the wires that had been cut. Within an hour from midnight she expected to be in touch again with Petersburg and the secret, swift pulsing heart of half the world's treachery. The Okhrana then would have to know what the outcome of the plan was to use Dick Anthony.
The thought was disquieting.
But that thought brought others, and it seemed to her she had won! From the first the plan had been to make Dick Anthony an outlaw, so that Russia—or rather the Okhrana that is Russia's bane—might have excuse for bringing down more troops to Persia. What more excuse was wanted for the invasion of Persia by an army corps?
She began to see now that her vengeance on Dick Anthony might be accomplished better while at the same time making her own position doubly strong with the Okhrana.
Through the dark, stifling streets she ran swiftly, though entirely unafraid, to a palace that had been assigned to her for quarters before she and the military came to loggerheads. There in a strong-box that was screwed to a heavy table, there were papers that contain the whole Russian dispositions as well as a chart of Persia's weaknesses.
She opened the box now and chuckled as she drew her finger over the map, sweeping every other minute at the moths that fluttered against the lamp or fell singed on her secret papers. Suddenly she slipped the map back in its envelope and called her maid.
The princess pointed to a chair at one end of her desk, and the maid sat on it, leaning both elbows in front of her.
With deft fingers, now, she took dictation, writing in longhand, but so swiftly that the princess scarcely had to pause. The princess spoke with her eyes on the wall in front—as if she were focusing the future—and she did not notice that Marie Mouqiin had inserted carbon-paper underneath the sheet she wrote on.
Sheet after sheet was filled. Sheet after sheet was laid on the blotter; but a carbon copy of each sheet fell into the maid's lap, and in a moment when the princess paused to think, shifting in her chair restlessly and glancing to a shuttered window, the sheets were rolled up and slipped into a stocking.
At dawn, they brought word that the wires had been repaired. By that time Olga Karageorgovich had a message ready, written in code, and hers was the first message that went through. It stated after asking that the army corps be started on its crawling way, that a letter giving fuller and important details followed; and the letter started, one hour later, in the pocket of a man whose orders were to kill as many horses as he could by galloping.
But before dawn, another messenger had gone off in a different direction; he bore a copy of the princess's letter, and the original of her secret map. Stowed with them in the envelope was a sheet on which the maid had poured her heart out in what she thought perfect English, and the whole was addressed in a rambling hand to Monsieur MacDoogle, chez monsieur Richard Anthony.
"Modern guns, bahadur!" exalted Usbeg Ali. "Nearly automatic! Non-recoiling—no need to re-aim after each shot! A little intricate, the mechanism, yes—but shooting with such guns is easier to teach! Maneuvering? Ah—that is different, but we have picked our best men; they can already ride, and the teams are good! We are an army, now, bahadur—we have guns!"
But Dick knew they were very far indeed from being an army yet. He knew that two regiments of infantry were hurrying to overtake these guns he had just captured and that he must deal with those regiments within a few hours.
The Russians had all that he had not. They had even aeroplanes and wireless. He might expect at any time, he thought, to see a dozen aeroplanes circling like kites to mark him down; and he had heard too much from the princess about an army corps all ready to cross over the border not to believe in its existence.
"Get those guns hidden along the ridge!" he ordered. "We'll wait here for those Cossack regiments."
But he was not destined to fight two battles in the same place. Dick had hidden his six canon in ambush; Usbeg Ali Khan and the other Afghans were busy teaching their beginners the A, B, C of gun-practice; a screen of scouts had been thrown out in four directions, and Dick was busy taking stock of the contents of the captured wagons when the man appeared over the brow of a gentle rise—halted in doubt—and was brought down at long range by a rifleman.
Within ten minutes the dead man had been stripped and his letter was on its way to Dick. In the princess' usual style the letter was unaddressed, though it bore her scrawled initials. Dick tore it open—read the message to the Cossack infantry, ordering them to take to the hills and lie in ambush there—frowned, folded it, tied it in a cleft stick in a way that is customary all through the east—and called a horseman.
"Take this letter. Ride until you find the Russian infantry. Give it to their officer commanding. Say you had it from the Princess Olga Karageorgovich!"
Within an hour Marie Mouquin's messenger rode into view and threw up his hands in the nick of time.
He gave Andry a big envelope, and Andry passed it to Dick without so much as looking at it.
"It's yours," said Dick. "Open it!"
One by one, with awkward fingers that were more used to heavy labor, Andry drew out a letter from the French maid to himself, a folded map and twelve sheets of closely written carbon copy. He passed everything to Dick except the letter.
Dick sat on an ant-hill, poring over the map and comparing it paragraph by paragraph and line by line with the carbon copy of a letter, his eyes glinted as he recognized the unmistakable genuineness of the map and letter, both; he recognized careful workmanship, and most ingenious pains in the provision for a constant succession of brigades on the march southward. And with an instant genius that is born in few men, and that cannot even be acquired by most, he laid his finger on the weak spot before he turned two pages.
"Look here, Andry!" Dick exclaimed. "Look here, Usbeg Ali! Where's Usbeg Ali? Send him here. Look at this, both of you. See? This is the track of the gunboats and other steam-craft that are to bring the first division by water. They're to deliver their loads in Astrabad bay and then return for more. See what it says here? Shallow water! See this footnote? 'Water growing shallower every year.' Note the provision for floats and native craft to be collected and kept in Astrabad bay to help the troops ashore?"
The Afghan was staring at the map over Dick's shoulder, running fingers through his beard and striving hard to make sense of what was altogether strange to him.
"Take it and look at it!" said Dick, pushing the map into his hands. "It's all planned for an advance, isn't it? Do you see the slightest preparation, anywhere in one particular, for a retreat? What would happen for instance, if it were attacked from this direction?"
"In the name of Allah the Compassionate, bahadur, this is the gift of God! The Russians are delivered into our hands!"
"Not yet quite, Usbeg Ali! But you see the idea? They've made a foil of us—they've used us as a good excuse for the advance; and once they get here—provided we stay still—they'll have us shut in at their mercy. But we needn't stand still. We can take the fight to Russia, and that, my friend, is what we are going to begin doing this afternoon!
"Usbeg Ali," continued Dick, "hurry, please, and pick me out the best four hundred men we have—four hundred diehards to lead on a forlorn hope!"
"You will invade Russia with four hundred?" laughed the Afghan.
"Surely," said Dick. "I want you and the rest to hold those two Cossack regiment's in check behind us."
There had been too many messages, too much ordering and counter-ordering, for the officer commanding the two Cossack regiments not now to be thoroughly on guard.
His scouts reported the approach of Dick Anthony's men long before half of his preparations for an ambush were complete.
Long-range firing began at once, but it served him to do little more than disclose to Dick the nature and extent of the defenses. The first inspection satisfied him that he might well take his four hundred horsemen away, for this was a clear case for infantry and guns.
"By the wagons, he's provisioned for a few weeks, Usbeg Ali! Lay siege to him!" ordered Dick. "If he surrenders, take him and his men up to our camp in the mountaintop and keep him there; otherwise, keep him hemmed in and busy. I shall be perfectly satisfied if I find him in the same place when I get back."
The four hundred rode off, and the only man who had the least idea of what their destination might be, or of the nature of the work ahead, was Dick, who rode in front of them.
He rode ahead for a mile or two; and then, since he did not know what new plans the princess might have made, nor what reinforcements she might have summoned, he sent twenty men along in front of him, under an Afghan officer who knew to an ounce, or a mile, the endurance of a horse and could guess within a reasonable fraction of the limit of a man.
What had been a cruel march from Astrabad was scarcely more than a pleasant gallop back again. In the cool of the night the horses were still fresh enough to quicken the pace, and it was long before midnight when the leading scout caught sight of a watch-fire burning before the barricade of wagons. He galloped back to report all well, and nothing less then Dick's authority could have suppressed the cheer which almost burst out from the column.
Dick went to the front row now and lead them along in silence, and it was he who answered the challenge of a sentry half a mile before he reached the barricade.
He rode on with scarcely a word to the sentry, and his men filed after him by two in silence.
"Salaam, bahadur!" said a deep voice when the barricade was near.
"You, Yussuf Ali?"
"All well, bahadur!"
"Good!" said Dick. "Leave fifty of your men here. Then take the rest and hurry to Usbeg Ali's aid. He needs you!"
"Back along the rode we came. Yes—now—tonight!"
Olga Karageorgovich took hold of the reins of government in Astrabad and held them with a grip that would have done credit to a practised ruler of another sex.
She had enough men there to hold the place now against any new attempt Dick was likely to make, but not enough men by a long way to let her dare assume the offensive until the guns should come.
She sent telegram after telegram to Russia along the mended wire, urging that the army corps be started on its way.
In proof of how careful the Russian plans had all been laid for invasion of Persia when occasion offered, gunboats with troops on board began to arrive and dropped anchor in the bay the day after her telegram was sent.
She was seized with the yearning to have it out with Dick—to capture him, and torture him and kill him with her own fingers before the army corps should come to rob her of her revenge. The sight of his dead body would not be enough for her. She, she—must kill him with her fingers!
Then she saw dust and a column on the skyline. She sent gallopers to tell the guns to hurry. Gazing from a tower through strong glasses, she knew nearly as soon as the gallopers that the gunners had left their guns behind and were trudging as another regiment had done, weaponless, ashamed! Now she knew that Dick had fooled her; that he wasn't behind that row of wagons after all!
And, peering from behind the wagons, Dick laughed, in that strange and musical infectious note of his, in about three keys and without a word of explanation.
He could see, bit by bit, the whole puzzle piecing itself together into the shape he wanted. He could guess what move the princess was likely to make next; and his laugh rang like a bell as he saw the smoke of a fair-sized gunboat lifting over the seaward skyline.
The commanding officers refused to march out of Astrabad until the men from the gunboats had marched in, and though she stormed at them and threaten them they stuck to their point. So there was a long delay while a little force of sailors, marines and nondescripts was got together on the shore and the boats were stripped of all except their engineers. Then, when the new force marched in, the old and far more numerous force marched out, hot-foot in an attempt to reach the two regiments before Dick Anthony could capture them or else utterly destroy them.
As they marched Dick watched them closely. He had seen the men brought from the gunboats by the shore. He saw the city gates closed and the few defenses manned by newcomers. Half-way, as he was, between the city on his right front and the bay on his left, he saw everything and read between the lines. Later, he saw the new, big gunboat drop her anchor in the mud and almost her whole crew landed to be marched into the city.
Russia was at her old game—advancing! No thought of a retreat or the need for covering one entered the head of anyone connected with the business.
At night, with steam hissing gently through the safety valves in proof of readiness for all contingencies and of oil fuel's superiority over coal, they all slept except for a man or two who watched the gauges in the engine rooms.
Dick's orders were given so silently that only the company officers gathered round him could hear them. The fifty men whom Yussuf Ali had been told to leave behind were left now in charge of the horses, and company by company the rest were led in silence to the shore, where they hid in deep shadows. Fifty men were sent to cut the wires again; for now it was Dick's turn to wish secrecy. Fifty more men lay down their arms and went in search of small boats. It was two hours after dark when the keel of the last small boat discoverable grounded between the reeds and a voice said:
"All ready now, bahadur!"
With a little splashing and oar-bumping, which made Dick and the company commanders curse, but did not disturb the drowsy gunboat crews, the five advance units of Russia's Caspian fleet were surrounded one by one. Dick blew a whistle, and at once the small boats all headed inward. An alarm was shouted, long too late. The bigger gunboat's siren screamed and her searchlight flickered and then flared, full-on. But by that time Dick was up the side of her—on deck with his sword drawn, and each of the other gunboats was in like predicament.
"Below with you! Get below!" commanded Dick, and the thinned-out crews obeyed. They showed less resentment and more curiosity than the military—more disposition to change masters without troubling themselves about it.
But even Dick, who knew what to expect, was surprised at the readiness with which he was obeyed. The engine room crews were utterly outnumbered, and in the bowels of the biggest of the gunboats—that on which Dick held the wheel—there was a grim, tremendous Andry with a rifle in his hand to see that the bridge signals were answered instantly; but there was no opposition anywhere. The men on the other for gunboats obeyed the orders of Dick's deputies as readily, and got up anchor without waiting for a taste of force. Threats were sufficient.
Dick led the way on the biggest of five gunboats through the winding shoal of Astrabad bay and out to open water while the city behind him stared at the row of watchfires he had left dancing before upturned wagons. Before midnight, he was out of sight of land, steering by compass, and very closely followed by the rest in single line ahead.
So he steamed with the wind behind him, ordering his men to study the bow machine guns and bring ammunition for them up on deck. To his amazement, a Russian gunner left on board as night watchman volunteered to show them how to use the seven-pounders, and Dick accepted his offer without comment; the knout with its stained lash hanging in the wheelhouse was sufficient comment on anything a Russian sailor did by way of treason.
Something of the same kind happened on the following ships, for when Dick led them in a long sweep around toward the lee of a big island his searchlight showed their guns housed, and scratch crews busy trying them. In a few minutes, he ordered the searchlight discontinued, for his heart leaped within him at the site of Russian riding lights. There were dozens of them! There was a regular fleet at anchor, ducking and tossing in a rising sea. There were enough ships there to be carrying ten thousand men—and he had five ships, with four hundred!
"Come on deck!" he ordered down the speaking tube, and Andry came.
"Now, Andry, choose your gun—take that seven-pounder if you care to. You can see the Russian ships? They think we are part of their fleet running to shelter behind them. The storm's rising every second. By the time we're abreast of them it ought to be a hurricane, and six shots ought to turn the trick for us!"
A-wash, a-reel, plunging like a deep-sea monster, Dick's ship headed straight for the Russian anchor-chains, followed dangerously close by four others that moved their helms as he moved his. Suddenly a spurt of flame leaped out from a machine gun, and a stream of lead went whistling—not at the front ships, but at those behind. Instantly the ships that were following Dick's opened up with all the guns they had—a score of rifles took up the refrain, turning the storm into hell's chorus.
Just as the Spanish Armada was defeated by the weather and not men, and only the courage of a faithful few played second to the weather, this steel armada of Russia's for the conquering of Persia was swept and washed into unrecognition by a Caspian southeaster. Dick took no credit to himself. He pursued the Russians till they were scattered all apart. And then, in that condition, Dick drew off and left them.
Is needed all his seamanship to lead his little string of ships back to the shelter of the island from which he had chased the Russians.
Before dawn, the storm died down a little—not enough for comfort, but enough for safety's sake. He ordered the anchors up at once and steamed away before the crews of the stranded Russian ships could recognize him or tell the direction he took. And before midday he steamed into sight of Astrabad Bay.
"Run the boats ashore outside the Bay!" he ordered. "Then blow them up. Let the engineers and crew bring their things ashore, but keep them prisoners—they'll be useful in an hour or two."
News of Dick's coming was reported in Astrabad by the roar of five explosions, and by that time Dick had, in all, nearly two hundred prisoners. He marched them to the row of wagons on the hillside and then sent a mounted man to the city with a flag of truce and a word that he was willing to exchange.
"Tell him I will treat with him direct!" the princess answered.
The man rode back with her message and Dick frowned.
"Ride back!" he ordered. Tell her I will come and meet her half way, with one man, provided she shows my forty-three alive outside the wall first."
So the princess made a virtue of necessity and rode out with her maid, followed at a distance by Dick's forty-three.
Dick did not dismount. He touched his forehead, since he wore no hat, and then met the princess eye to eye.
"Is this a decent note to send to a lady?" she asked in French holding out a piece of paper from Dick's memorandum book that he had given to the gunner major.
"'These men are murderers,'" she read, "'and this officer has done his best to kill me. I can imagine no worse fate for either than to leave them to your tender mercy. Do your best or worst. Dick Anthony.' Is that a decent letter, Dick?"
"What's the matter with it?" Dick asked. "How did you treat them? Look at them!"
He could have bitten his tongue off in the next instant, for she turned before he meant her to and—saw!
She saw Andry, and there was little else to see because the man was huge, and Marie Mouquin's inches were all smothered in his fast embrace.
"Have you a chaplain in Astrabad?" asked Dick.
The princess smiled sweetly as an angel; so Dick knew he might expect new deviltry.
"Andry!" he said, sternly.
The giant set the maid on her feet and stood upright. The girl sobbed as she drew her first long breath in minutes.
"Get to your place behind me!"
"Now," said Dick. "We are here to exchange prisoners. I offer all I hold of your men against my forty-three you have brought out with you."
"Take your forty-three!" she said, glancing back and motioning them forward with her arm.
The poor devils were so sore and famished they could scarcely begin to march, but they drag themselves forward and each touched the earth as he passed Dick.
"That ends the parley, then!" said the princess.
"Since you say so," answered Dick.
"Then, take that, sir!"
She plunged her hand into her breast and drew a knife. She poised it—aimed it for ten seconds while Dick sat and smiled at her—and hurled it at him. But he ducked and the knife went whizzing past Andry's head as the big man rushed forward to protect his master.
"So, the parley's over, is it?" laughed Dick.
He looked down at the flag of truce that she had flung to the earth. Her horse was standing on it. He tossed his own down and laughed. She screamed, for she knew a turn of events was coming that she was not strong enough to cope with. She wheeled her horse and spurred him, but Dick seized her rein, and she looked up into his eyes again, flashing her hate of him, but conscious of the fact that she was at his mercy.
"My man Andry wants your maid," smiled Dick, "and she seems to want him. So he is going to have her."
The princess stared up at Dick, but she did not answer.
"She needs a chaperon," said Dick.
"Dick. What d'you mean?"
Dick recognized the new note in her voice, and his own changed instantly.
"I mean exactly what I say! Take your girl, Andry!"
More amazed than ever the princess had been, Andry step forward and obeyed.
"Dick seized the princess's bridle rein and started back toward where his own men waited. She tried to throw herself from the saddle, but he seized her around the waist; and since Andry's girl would follow him without persuasion, the giant left her to stride beside the princess's horse.
"You vixen!" Dick called her; and that was the hardest thing he had ever called a woman to her face. "You gave all your trumps away when you threw that knife at me! You will come now to the mountains and protect your maid's good name!"
She did not answer. She was dumb with rage and fear. Dick rode with her at a walk until he reached the barricade.
"Now, burn those wagons!" he ordered. "Hurry!"
Within ten minutes the long line of wood and wheels was all ablaze, and the princess looked past it at the Caspian, beyond whose waves was Russia and the world of intrigue and luxury that she loved. Her eyes were wet, but Dick laid a hand on her arm and called her.
"Come!" he said simply. Then, turning to his men, he shouted at them "forward! Ride! Ride to the aid of Usbeg Ali Khan!"