Anthony Hope.

Sophy of Kravonia: A Novel



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"Who knows? Who can know?" said Dunstanbury, softly.

His attempted consolation, his invoking of the old persistent hope, the saving doubt, did not reach her heart. In her great love of life, the best she could ask of the tomb was a little memory there. So she had told Monseigneur; such was the thought in her heart to-night. She was jealous and forlorn because of the silent darkness which had wrapt her lover from her sight and so enveloped him. He could not even ride with her in the spirit on the night when she went forth to avenge the death she mourned!

The night broke towards dawn, the horizon grew gray. Lukovitch drew in his rein, and the party fell to a gentle trot. Their journey was almost done. Presently they halted for a few minutes, while Lukovitch and Peter Vassip held a consultation. Then they jogged on again in the same order, save that now Sophy and Dunstanbury rode with Lukovitch at the head of the party. In another half-hour, the heavens lightening yet more, they could discern the double row of low trees which marked, at irregular intervals, the course of the river across the plain. At the same moment a row of squat buildings rose in murky white between them and the river-bank. Lukovitch pointed to it with his hand.

"There we are, madame," he said. "That's the farm-house at the right end, and the barn at the left – within a hundred yards of the lock. There's our shelter till the Colonel comes."

"What of the farmer?" asked Dunstanbury.

"We shall catch him in his bed – him and his wife," said Lukovitch. "There's only the pair of them. They keep the lock, and have a few acres of pastureland to eke out their living. They'll give us no trouble. If they do, we can lock them in and turn the key. Then we can lie quiet in the barn; with a bit of close packing, it'll take us all. Peter Vassip and I will be lock-keepers if anything comes by; we know the work – eh, Peter?"

"Ay, Captain; and the man – Peter's his name too, by-the-way – must give us something to hide our sheepskins."

Sophy turned to Dunstanbury. She was smiling now.

"It sounds very simple, doesn't it?" she asked.

"Then we watch our chance for a dash – when the Colonel's off his guard," Lukovitch went on.

"But if he won't oblige us in that way?" asked Dunstanbury, with a laugh.

"Then he shall have the reward of his virtue in a better fight for the guns," said Lukovitch. "Now, lads, ready! Listen! I'm going forward with Peter Vassip here and four more. We'll secure the man and his wife; there might be a servant-girl on the premises too, perhaps. When you hear my whistle, the rest of you will follow. You'll take command, my lord?" He turned to Sophy. "Madame, will you come with me or stay here?"

"I'll follow with Lord Dunstanbury," she said. "We ought all to be in the barn before it's light?"

"Surely! A barge might come up or down the river, you see, and it wouldn't do for the men on board to see anybody but Vassip and me, who are to be the lock-keepers."

He and Peter Vassip rode off with their party of four, and the rest waited in a field a couple of hundred yards from the barn – a dip in the ground afforded fair cover.

Some of the men began to dismount, but Dunstanbury stopped them. "It's just that one never knows," he said; "and it's better to be on your horse than off it in case any trouble does come, you know."

"There oughtn't to be much trouble with the lock-keeper and his wife – or even with the servant-girl," said Basil Williamson.

"Girls can make a difference sometimes," Sophy said, with a smile. "I did once, in the Street of the Fountain over in Slavna there!"

Dunstanbury's precaution was amply justified, for, to their astonishment, the next instant a shot rang through the air, and, the moment after, a loud cry. A riderless horse galloped wildly past them; the sheepskin rug across the saddle marked it as belonging to a Volsenian.

"By Heaven, have they got there before us?" whispered Dunstanbury.

"I hope so; we sha'n't have to wait," said Sophy.

But they did wait there a moment. Then came a confused noise from the long, low barn. Then a clatter of hoofs, and Lukovitch was with them again; but his comrades were four men now, not five.

"Hush! Silence! Keep cover!" he panted breathlessly. "Stafnitz is here already; at least, there are men in the barn, and horses tethered outside, and the barges are on the river, just above the lock. The sentry saw us. He challenged and fired, and one of us dropped. It must be Stafnitz!"

Stafnitz it was. General Stenovics had failed to allow for the respect which his colleague entertained for his abilities. If Stenovics expected him back at Slavna with his guns on the Sunday, Stafnitz was quite clear that he had better arrive on Saturday. To this end he had strained every nerve. The stream was with him, flowing strong, but the wind was contrary; his barges had not made very good progress. He had pressed the horses of his company into service on the towing-path. Stenovics had not thought of that. His rest at Rapska had been only long enough to give his men and beasts an hour's rest and food and drink. To his pride and exultation, he had reached the lock at Miklevni at nightfall on Friday, almost exactly at the hour when Sophy's expedition set out on its ride to intercept him. Men and horses might be weary now; Stafnitz could afford to be indifferent to that. He could give them a good rest, and yet, starting at seven the next morning, be in Slavna with them and the guns in the course of the afternoon. There might be nothing wrong, of course – but it was no harm to forestall any close and clever calculation of the General's.

"The sentry?" whispered Dunstanbury.

"I had to cut him down. Shall we be at them, my lord?"

"No, not yet. They're in the barn, aren't they?"

"Yes. Don't you hear them? Listen! That's the door opened. Shall we charge?"

"No, no, not yet. They'd retreat inside, and it would be the devil then. They'd have the pull of us. Wait for them to come out. They must send to look for the sentry. Tell the men to lean right down in their saddles – close down – close! Then the ground covers us. And now – silence till I give the word!"

Silence fell again for a few moments. They were waiting for a movement from Stafnitz's men in the barn. Only Dunstanbury, bareheaded, risked a look over the hillock which protected them from view.

A single man had come out of the barn, and was looking about him for the sentry who had fired. He seemed to suspect no other presence. Stafnitz must have been caught in a sound nap this time.

The searcher found his man and dropped on his knees by him for a moment. Then he rose and ran hurriedly towards the barn, crying: "Colonel! Colonel!"

"Now!" whispered impetuous Lukovitch.

But Dunstanbury pressed him down again, saying: "Not yet. Not yet."

Sophy laid her hand on his arm. "Half of us to the barges," she said.

In their eagerness for the fight, Lukovitch and Dunstanbury had forgotten the main object of it. But the guns were what Monseigneur would have thought of first – what Stafnitz must first think of too – the centre of contest and the guerdon of victory.

XXIII
A WOMAN AND A GHOST

For the history of this night from the enemy's side, thanks are due to the memory, and to the unabashed courtesy, of Lieutenant Rastatz, who came alive, if not with a whole skin, out of the encounter, and lived to reach middle age under a new r?gime so unappreciative of his services that it cashiered him for getting drunk within a year from this date. He ended his days as a billiard-marker at the Golden Lion – a fact agreeable to poetic justice, but not otherwise material. While occupying that capacity, he was always ready to open his mouth to talk, provided he were afforded also a better reason for opening it.

Stafnitz and his men felt that their hard work was done; they were within touch of Slavna, and they had no reason, as they supposed, to fear any attack. The Colonel had indulged them in something approaching to a carouse. Songs had been sung, and speeches made; congratulations were freely offered to the Colonel; allusions were thrown out, not too carefully veiled, to the predicament in which Stenovics found himself. Hard work, a good supper, and plentiful wine had their effect. Save the sentries, all were asleep at ten o'clock, and game to sleep till the reveille sounded at six.

Their presence was a surprise to their assailants, who had, perhaps, approached in too rash a confidence that they were first on the ground; but the greater surprise befell those who had now to defend the barges and the guns. When the man who had found the dead sentry ran back and told his tale, all of them, from Stafnitz downward, conceived that the attack must come from Stenovics; none thought of Sophy and her Volsenians. There they were, packed in the barn, separated from their horses, and with their carbines laid aside. The carbines were easily caught up; the horses not so easily reached, supposing an active, skilful enemy at hand outside.

For themselves, their position was good to stand a siege. But Stafnitz could not afford that. His mind flew where Sophy's had. Throughout, and on both sides, the guns were the factor which dominated the tactics of the fight. It was no use for Stafnitz to stay snug in the barn while the enemy overpowered the bargees (supposing they tried to fight), disposed of the sentry stationed on each deck, and captured the guns. Let the assailant carry them off, and the Colonel's game was up! Whoever the foe was, the fight was for the guns – and for one other thing, no doubt – for the Colonel's life.

"We felt in the deuce of a mess," Rastatz related, "for we didn't know how many they were, and we couldn't see one of them. The Colonel walked out of the barn, cool as a cucumber, and looked and listened. He called to me to go with him, and so I did, keeping as much behind his back as possible. Nothing was to be seen, nothing to be heard. He pointed to the rising ground opposite. 'That must hide them,' he said. Back he went and called the first half-company. 'You'll follow me in single file out of the barn and round to the back of it; let there be a foot between each of you – room enough to miss. When once you get in rear of the barn, make for the barges. Never mind the horses. The second half-company will cover the horses with their fire. Rastatz, see my detachment round, and then follow. We'll leave the sergeant-major in command here. Now, quick, follow me!'

"Out he went, and the men began to follow in their order. I had to stand in the doorway and regulate the distance between man and man. I hadn't been there two seconds before a dozen heads came over the hill, and a dozen rifles cracked. Luckily the Colonel was just round the corner. Down went the heads again, but they'd bagged two of our fellows. I shouted to more to come out, and at the same time ordered the sergeant-major to send a file forward to answer the fire. Up came the heads again, and they bagged three more. Our fellows blazed away in reply, but they'd dropped too quickly – I don't think we got one.

"Well, we didn't mind so much about keeping our exact distances after that – and I wouldn't swear that the whole fifty of us faced the fire; it was devilish disconcerting, you know; but in a few minutes thirty or five-and-thirty of us got round the side of the barn somehow, and for the moment out of harm's way. We heard the fire going on still in front, but only in a desultory way. They weren't trying to rush us – and I don't think we had any idea of rushing them. For all we knew, they might be two hundred – or they might be a dozen. At any rate, with the advantage of position, they were enough to bottle our men up in the barn, for the moment at all events."

This account makes what had happened pretty plain. Half of Sophy's force had been left to hold the enemy, or as many of them as possible, in the barn. They had dismounted, and, well covered by the hill, could make good practice without much danger to themselves. Lukovitch was in command of this section of the little troop. Sophy, Dunstanbury, and Peter Vassip, also on foot (the horses' hoofs would have betrayed them), were stealing round, intent on getting between the barges and any men whom Stafnitz tried to place in position for their defence. After leaving men for the containing party, and three to look after the horses, this detachment was no more than a dozen strong. But they had started before Stafnitz's men had got out of the barn, and, despite the smaller distance the latter had to traverse, could make a good race of it for the barges. They had all kept together, too, while the enemy straggled round to the rear of the barn in single file. And they had one great, perhaps decisive, advantage, of whose existence Peter Vassip, their guide, was well aware.

Forty yards beyond the farm a small ditch ran down to the Krath; on the side near the farm it had a high, overhanging bank, the other side being nearly level with the adjoining meadow. Thus it formed a natural trench and led straight down to where the first of the barges lay. It would have been open to an enfilade from the river, but Stafnitz had only one sentry on each barge, and these men were occupied in staring at their advancing companions and calling out to know what was the matter. As for the bargees, they had wisely declared neutrality, deeming the matter no business of theirs; shots were not within the terms of a contract for transport. Stafnitz, not dreaming of an attack, had not reconnoitred his ground. But Lukovitch knew every inch of it (had not General Stenovics remembered that?), and so did Peter Vassip. The surprise of Praslok was to be avenged.

Rastatz takes up the tale again; his narrative has one or two touches vivid with a local color.

"When I got round to the rear of the barn, I found our fellows scattered about on their bellies. The Colonel was in front on his belly, with his head just raised from the ground, looking about him. I lay down, too, getting my head behind a stone which chanced to be near me. I looked about me too, when it seemed safe. And it did seem safe at first, for we could hear nothing, and deuce a man could we see! But it wasn't very pleasant, because we knew that, sure enough, they must be pretty near us somewhere. Presently the Colonel came crawling back to me. 'What do you make of it, Rastatz?' he whispered. Before I could answer, we heard a brisk exchange of fire in front of the barn. 'I don't like it,' I said. 'I can't see them, and I've a notion they can see me, Colonel, and that's not the pleasantest way to fight, is it?' 'Gad, you're right!' said he, 'but they won't see me any the better for a cigarette' – and then and there he lit one.

"Well, he'd just thrown away his match when a young fellow – quite a lad he was – a couple of yards from us, suddenly jumped from his belly on to his knees and called out quite loud – it seemed to me he'd got a sort of panic – quite loud, he called out: 'Sheepskins! Sheepskins!' I jumped myself, and I saw the Colonel start. But, by Jove, it was true! When you took a sniff, you could smell them. Of course I don't mean what the better class wear – you couldn't have smelt the tunic our lamented Prince wore, nor the one the witch decked herself out in – but you could smell a common fellow's sheepskin twenty yards off – ay, against the wind, unless the wind was mighty strong.

"'Sheepskins it is!' said the Colonel with a sniff. 'Volsenians, by gad! It's Mistress Sophia, Rastatz, or some of her friends, anyhow.' Then he swore worthily: 'Stenovics must have put them up to this! And where the devil are they, Rastatz?' He raised his head as he spoke, and got his answer. A bullet came singing along and went right through his shako; it came from the line of the ditch. He lay down again, laughed a little, and took a puff at his cigarette before he threw it away. Just then one of our sentries bellowed from the first barge: 'In the ditch! In the ditch!' 'I wish you'd spoken a bit sooner,' says the Colonel, laughing again."

While this was passing on Stafnitz's side, Sophy and her party were working quietly and cautiously down the course of the ditch. Under the shelter of its bank they had been able to hold a brief and hurried consultation. What they feared was that Stafnitz would make a dash for the barges. Their fire might drop half his men, but the survivors, when once on board – and the barges were drawn up to the edge of the stream – would still be as numerous as themselves, and would command the course of the ditch, which was at present their great resource and protection. But if they could get on board before the enemy, they believed they could hold their own; the decks were covered with impedimenta of one sort or another which would afford them cover, while any party which tried to board must expose itself to fire to a serious and probably fatal extent.

So they worked down the ditch – except two of them. Little as they could spare even two, it was judged well to leave these; their instructions were to fire at short intervals, whether there was much chance of hitting anybody or not. Dunstanbury hoped by this trick to make Stafnitz believe that the whole detachment was stationary in the ditch thirty yards or more from the point where it joined the river. Only ten strong now – and one of them a woman – they made their way towards the mouth of the ditch and towards the barges which held the prize they sought.

But a diversion, and a very effective one, was soon to come from the front of the barn. Fearing that the party under Sophy and Dunstanbury might be overpowered, Lukovitch determined on a bold step – that of enticing the holders of the barn from their shelter. He directed his men to keep up a brisk fire at the door; he himself and another man – one Ossip Yensko – disregarding the risk, made a rapid dash across the line of fire from the barn, for the spot where the horses were. The fire directed at the door successfully covered their daring movement; they were among the horses in a moment, and hard at work cutting the bands with which they were tethered; the animals were half mad with fright, and the task was one of great danger.

But the man?uvre was eminently successful. A cry of "The horses! The horses!" went up from the barn. Men appeared in the doorway; the sergeant-major in command himself ran out. Half the horses were loose, and stampeded along the towing-path down the river. "The horses! The horses!" The defenders surged out of the barn, in deadly fear of being caught there in a trap. They preferred the chances of the fire, and streamed out in a disorderly throng. Lukovitch and Yensko cut loose as many more horses as they dared wait to release; then, as the defenders rushed forward, retreated, flying for their lives. Lukovitch came off with a ball in his arm; Yensko dropped, shot through the heart. The men behind the hill riddled the defenders with their fire. But now they were by their horses – such as were left of them – nearer twenty than ten dotted the grass outside the barn-door. And the survivors were demoralized; their leader, the sergeant-major, lay dead. They released the remaining horses, mounted, and with one parting volley fled down the river. With a cry of triumph, Lukovitch collected the remainder of his men and dashed round the side of the barn. The next moment Colonel Stafnitz found himself attacked in his rear as well as held in check from the ditch in his front.

"For a moment we thought it was our own men," said Rastatz, continuing his account, "and the Colonel shouted: 'Don't fire, you fools!' But then they cheered, and we knew the Volsenian accent – curse them! 'Sheepskins again!' said the Colonel, with a wry kind of smile. He didn't hesitate then; he jumped up, crying: 'To the barges! To the barges! Follow me!'

"We all followed: it was just as safe to go with him as to stay where you were! We made a dash for it and got to the bank of the river. Then they rose out of the ditch in front of us – and they were at us behind, too – with steel now; they daren't shoot, for fear of hitting their own people in our front. But the idea of a knife in your back isn't pleasant, and in the end more of our men turned to meet them than went on with the Colonel. I went on with him, though. I'm always for the safest place, if there's one safer than another. But here there wasn't, so I thought I might as well do the proper thing. We met them right by the water's-edge, and the first I made out was the witch herself, in sheepskins like the rest of them, white as a sheet, but with that infernal mark absolutely blazing. She was between Peter Vassip and a tall man I didn't know – I found out afterwards that he was the Englishman Dunstanbury – and the three came straight at us. She cried: 'The King! the King!' and behind us we heard Lukovitch and his lot crying: 'The King! the King!'

"Our fellows didn't like it, that's the truth. They were uneasy in their minds about that job of poor old Mistitch's, and they feared the witch like the devil. The heart was out of them; one lad near me burst out crying. A witch and a ghost didn't seem pleasant things to fight. Oh, it was all nonsense, but you know what fellows like that are. Their cry of 'The King!' and the sight of the woman caused a moment's hesitation. It was enough to give them the drop on us. But the Colonel never hesitated; he flung himself straight at her, and fired as he sprang. I just saw what happened before I got a crack on the crown of the head from the butt-end of a rifle, which knocked me out of time. As the Colonel fired, Peter Vassip flung himself in front of her, and took the bullet in his own body. Dunstanbury jumped right on the Colonel, cut him on the arm so that he dropped his revolver, and grappled with him. Dunstanbury dropped his sword, and the Colonel's wasn't drawn. It was just a tussle. They were tussling when the blood came flowing down into my eyes from the wound on my head; I couldn't see anything more; I fainted. Just as I went off I heard somebody cry: 'Hands up!' and I imagined the fighting was pretty well over."



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