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Title: The Grey Bat
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1100241h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Aug 2014
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The Grey Bat

by

Fred M. White

Published in The Western Mail, Perth, Australia, 14 Jul 1916

This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014


The door opening into Oldaker's sitting room opened and a figure crept in. Then the door closed, and a woman stood with her back to it, swaying slightly with her hand to her side as if she were short of breath. Visions of Charlotte Corday crossed Oldaker's mind. He looked for the quick gleam of a revolver, but none came. The woman moved a step forward with a quick movement, and threw off her long wrap. There was something dramatic about it.

"Princess," Oldaker exclaimed, "Princess Elizabeth of— What in the name—?"

"Betty," the Princess corrected eagerly. "Know that I am in the deepest trouble, my dear—Dick."

Something warm and rapturous played about Oldaker's heart. He was young and romantic; he was an Oldaker of Barons court, and the princess was beautiful. She must have known that herself, for Dick had told her so several times lately. They had seen a good deal of each other at Monte Carlo, and Dick had begun to dream dreams. And when one of the most daring and successful of aviators begins to dream dreams, he is in a bad way.

He knew he had no business to be in the Asturian capital at all. To suggest that the aviation ground there was better than a score of others was ridiculous. Besides, there was trouble brewing in Marenna. The Progressives looked like getting the upper hand, and King George had gone to Merum at a most critical time. Even his own followers were muttering of cowardice under their breath. There were many more delectable spots in Europe than Marenna just now. Still, Princess Elizabeth was there.

She came close to him, and laid her hands on his shoulders. It was a sweet, dainty pleading face, and there was something in the expression of it that set Dick's heart beating madly. And the glint in that golden hair!

"Dick," she said softly. "You love me, don't you?"

Princess or no princess, there was only one thing to do after that. Dick had the slender, palpitating figure cuddled up in his arms, his lips were pressed to hers. There was something intoxicating in the fragrance of the spungold hair.

"I've done it!" Dick smiled presently. "Good Lord! my cheek! I shall have to go away, Betty. King George—"

"I knew I should have to ask you," Betty smiled demurely. "My dear boy, the situation is not quite so original as you suppose. Besides, there were Oldakers in Baronscourt long before the Asoffs came to Asturia. And on your mother's side you are related to the wealthiest financiers in Europe. Even if only on that score—"

"Yes," said Dick, thoughtfully. "I've got a tidy chunk of bullion. And ever since we first met—"

"Yes, I know, dear; you loved me. And I loved you, Dicky. And I always get my own way—always."

"And so you came here this afternoon—"

"I came because my sister, the queen, is in great distress. They say that George has fled to Merum. He had to go there."

"Never heard that King George had been accused of want of pluck before, Betty."'

"My dear, the poor man is as brave as you are. They are an artful lot, those conspirators. They have stirred up a nest of trouble both here and at Merum. When George is at Merum Marenna thinks he has gone away into hiding, and when he is here, Merum thinks he has deserted her."

"But no man can be in two places at the same time, Betty."

"There, my dear Dick," she said demurely, "is where I fail to agree with you. If the king could be here at midnight the situation would be saved. He wants to come here secretly and quietly at a moment when the conspirators are absolutely certain that he is at Merum. Then news must come from Merum that George is on his way here. In the ordinary way it would be a matter of hours. And then within an hour or two of striking hard here he must be at Merum again. Consider the paralysing effect of the whole thing; look at the dramatic possibilities of the situation."

"But, my dear Betty, it is a physical impossibility. It can't be done!"

"Really, Dick? Can't you see the way? I have sent a message to the king. He will expect you. And you will get him here before midnight, and back to Merum before daybreak. And you, above all men, tell me it can't be done."

"It is fearfully risky," he said. "In the daytime I should think nothing of it. But as you point out, daylight for our purpose is useless. It's the striking moral effect you're after. You deal a staggering blow in two places at once. And to leave the foe marvelling how it is done is the way to final victory. But it's dangerous, Betty."

The Princess looked grave and troubled. There was a suggestion of tears in her eyes.

"I know it," she said. "Ever since the idea came to me I have struggled against my own feelings. I am pulled this way and that. If—if anything happened to you, Dick—"

"Don't think of that for the moment, dear," Dick said tenderly. "Go on."

"Well, I felt bound to ask. And you are ready to go. I hoped you'd say no and yet I'm awfully proud and glad to find you so willing. George's whole heart is in his work and my sister, the Queen, loves her people. It would break her heart if anything happened. George must be here tonight. I don't say he is being actually kept a prisoner at Merum, but there are obstacles placed in his way—trouble on the line, a sudden breakdown in the garage. You understand."

"You can communicate with the King?"

"My dear, I have already done so. By secret code. George knows exactly what I am proposing to you. He will be all ready. The great light in the castle at Merum will be your guide. Between the Tower and St. Simon's church, where there is an illuminated clock, are gardens, great gardens laid out in the Italian fashion ages ago. If you make no noise—"

"Oh, I shall make no noise. You should see my new engines. I suppose King George has a few people he can rely upon to keep silence."

"Oh, there are plenty of them, Dick. Then you'll do it?"

"Of course I'll do it, darling."

The Princess kissed him tenderly.

"You're a hero," she whispered. "My hero, and I'll marry you though all the armies in Europe try to stop me. There never was any man but you, Dick, from the day we met. And you are going to save Asturia. If you can do this thing there will be no more trouble here. And you will come back to the castle with him. He may need your services. And I would like to know that you are safe."

She slipped her wrap over her head again and vanished. The happiest man in Europe lighted a cigarette. He had promised to enter upon a mad enterprise. And he was not in the least afraid. When the gods throw a beautiful Princess into the arms of a mere mortal man it is clearly up to them to see the business through.


* * * * *

It was pitch dark and the hour near ten when Dick Oldaker picked his way through the Italian garden on the west front of the castle at Merum and fumbled in the direction of a lighted window on the ground floor. The window was open and Oldaker slipped through without hesitation. He dropped the blind back in its place and looked around him. From an American desk a man in uniform arose and approached the intruder with outstretched hand.

"You are the bravest man I ever met, Mr. Oldaker," the King said. "I congratulate you and I congratulate—the Princess Elizabeth. Oh, yes, she has told me everything. I shall not interfere. An Oldaker of Baronscourt is a fit mate for an Azoff any day. You had a safe journey?"

"Absolutely, your majesty," Dick replied, "My monoplane got here in an hour. There was no mishap at all. Your men appear to be discreet and silent. They did exactly as I told them."

The King, paced thoughtfully up and down the room.

"It is wonderful," he said. "Wonderful! With ordinary good fortune I shall strike two blows before daybreak that will end the trouble once and for all. When can we start back?"

"I am ready to start at this moment, your Majesty," Dick replied. "I have brought with me everything that is necessary for you in the way of clothing. The sooner we start the better."

"Then I will join you in the garden in ten minutes," the King replied. "I am supposed to be leaving for my capital at once by coach. The trains are broken down, there is no motor to be had. I shall merely go in my coach as far as the gates and then slip out, leaving the vehicle to proceed. I have a few faithful followers in the secret. Directly I am on my way the traitors in Marenna will be advised that I shall reach my capital some time tomorrow. Long before daybreak I shall be back here to deliver the second blow. I shall have the rascals yet."

Dick murmured his approval of these suggestions. Ten minutes later the King joined him in the garden. As the clocks at Marenna were on the stroke of midnight an astonished lackey staggered backwards as he saw the King come softly along the corridor of the Palace. The miracle had happened.

"Not a word," the King commanded. "Not a word to a soul as you value your liberty. Where is Nikolof and the rest of them. Tell me?"

The menial stammered something about the council Chamber, and the King strode on. A door at the end of the corridor opened, and a white face looked out. The face smiled dazzlingly and the blue eyes filled with happy tears as they fell on Dick.

There was a wave of the hand and the door closed again. Dick staggered along with his head erect and his heart swelling.

"Where shall I wait for your Majesty?" he asked.

"You shall come with me," the King said. "You shall see what you shall see. At any rate you'll see that your part has not been in vain."

The stream of the adventure was running bankful. Oldaker plunged into it with wholehearted joy. There was the uplifting sense that he was helping to make history. A little knot of men for the most part in uniform were gathered round a table illuminated by one shaded bunch of electrics.

The rest of the big gloomy apartment was in darkness. The King strode forward and grasped the neck of the man who sat with his back to the door, and dragged him from his seat.

"Who sits in my chair?" he cried. "Who but the twice-pardoned Lipski? So this is how my faithful ministers labour in my absence? What is the document you are considering? Oh, coquetting with Teutonia, are we? Rise, all of you. Mr. Oldaker, would you be so good as to pull back those curtains and open the window?"

A clock ticked heavily in the painful silence, the metallic jingle of the curtain rings as they clicked back sounded like pistol shots. A ring of pale-faced men stood round the table, silent, disconcerted, incredulity in their downcast eyes. Oldaker turned to the great quadrangle below the open window. In the velvet violet night electric lights gleamed everywhere, the streets were full of people, the theatres and halls were emptying. Suddenly the council chamber blazed with light, the brilliant uniforms were picked out from the street like striking stage pictures. The King, with his hand still on Lipski's neck, impelled him towards the window.

"You traitor," he cried. "Traitors every one of you. And so you tell my people I am deserting them while all the time I am at Merum fighting the rest of your gang. You thought that I was there still, that I could not possibly get away. But there are ways, there are ways."

The King's voice was pitched high, every word he said was carried to the street below. The roadway was blocked now by a breathless, hustling crowd. King George pushed the flaccid Lipski into the window recess and held him there. A ripple of cheers broke from the crowd below, it swelled into a deafening roar, it stopped as suddenly as if it had been cut with a knife. The star was on the stage and the audience eager to hear him.

"Behold a traitor," the King cried. "Lipski, whose life I saved. Behold the other liars cringing in the background. And these are the men by whom you were asked to choose someone to take my place. I hope you are proud of them. But I am back, and I am back just in time."

As the King paused, a vast sigh went up from the street, a sigh, and no more.

"They called me pleasure-loving and easy-going. It is a lie. Was I easy and pleasure-seeking for ten whole years when I lived in a tent defending my frontier and never during that time slept in a bed? For the Queen's sake I slacked the bow and took the month of holiday that I was conceited enough to feel I had earned. I was wrong."

A storm of protest broke from the street. The King smiled, and in that moment Oldaker knew that the battle was won. George whispered a word in his ear. Oldaker came back from the table a moment later with the secret treaty in his hand. The King crashed it down on Lipski's head so that the paper broke and hung round the traitor's neck like a ham frill. The crowd below rocked with mirth.

"Take him," the King cried, "and treat him as he deserves. We have done with him here."

He raised Lipski in his arms as if he had been a child and tossed him through the window. He fell into a thicket of laurels below. There was a wild rush in his direction as King George slammed the window down and pulled the curtain across.

"They will be making jest of this in the music halls to-morrow. Lipski's power has gone. Nothing kills a political reputation more than ridicule."

"And what shall I say to the rest of you?" he demanded. "Is there not one honest man among you? You thought I was no more than a blunt soldier unskilled in the ways of diplomacy. I was the Mars who had forsaken his arms at the call of Venus. I was warned against Lipski, but I trusted him. And when I came to my senses it was nearly too late. But for this brave and gallant gentleman here I should have been too late. It was he who solved the problem whereby I could be in two places at the same lime. Before daybreak I shall be back at Merum and Staffanoff will come with me to bear testimony to the truth of what I say—"

An old faded grey man in the background shuffled uneasily. A gentle bead of perspiration glistened on Staffanoff's great bald head. His dark eyes moved shiftily.

"Sire," he stammered. "If you will allow me to explain."

"No explanations," the King thundered. "These are your marionettes, but your's the cunning hand that pulls the strings. Come with me to Merum."

Staffanoff cringed and fawned. The King crossed the room and rang the bell. A moment later the room was filled with armed men. With a contemptuous gesture the King indicated his unhappy councillors.

"Take them all save Staffanoff," he commanded. "They are prisoners, and shall be treated as such. They are not to see anyone except the gaolers. Now go."

The room was empty presently save for the King and Oldaker and Staffanoff. The latter stood there with bent shoulders and a frame shaking like a leaf.

"I am an old man, sire," he groaned. "A very old man, your Majesty—"

"As if that is any excuse," the King cried. "You are coming with me to Merum, and in my presence you shall tell your fellow conspirators the story of this fiasco. You have room for another passenger, Mr. Oldaker?"

"More if necessary, sir," Oldaker said, "But one of the sort is enough."

"Good. Then follow me in the grounds, Staffanoff. Wrap yourself up well for the journey that is by no means a warm one. Here, my friend. You are no longer puzzled. Get in."

Staffanoff stood there in the darkness shaking with terror.

"But it is madness, your Majesty," he protested. "I am an old man—"

"And therefore you should not mind, Staffanoff. It is madness like this that has saved Asturia to-night. Come, get in, unless you would he gagged and bound first. Get in, I say."

It was nearly two hours later, and the scene had shifted to Merum again. There was the council chamber, another little knot of conspirators gathered round the table. The King took the hoary old traitor by the shoulders and sent him spinning into the room. A hoarse cry came from the table.

"Staffanoff," the leader muttered. "How did you get here? The King is on his way to Marenna. It is impossible for him to reach there before, well, before it is too late. Is there anything wrong?"

"Everything is wrong," Staffanoff stammered. "The King has been to Marenna—"

"Oh, the man is mad," another cried. "Three hours ago the King was here. He—"

"I tell you I am speaking the truth," Staffanoff shrieked. "Gentlemen, we have failed."

"Failed, then in that case the treaty with Teutonia—" The speaker broke off abruptly, his jaw dropped. For the King was in the room with eyes turned with contempt and yet full of cynical mirth upon him.

"Tell him where the treaty with Teutonia is, Staffanoff," he mocked.

"Hanging in tatters round Lipski's neck," Staffanoff whined. "And Lipski is in the hands of the mob in the street who mocked and jeered him. All Europe will be laughing at us to-morrow. They will make us into a vaudeville for the comedy stage. Lipski as the chief clown of the piece and the rest of us will be low comedians. The King was there. The King threw him out of the window to the mob below. And, heavens, how they laughed! And the rest of them are all under lock and key."

A quivering silence followed. There was that in Staffanoff's face, and the palsy of his voice that carried conviction to the most cynical spirit there. Not so long ago they had seen the King on his way to Marenna; at the earliest possible time he could not reach the capital before daylight. And yet he had been there and back again. What unknown force had he called to his aid. Oldaker could have told them, but there was no one there who associated the silent Englishman with this miracle.

The faint grey dawn was breaking in the east as Oldaker stood alone with the King. Something in the way of a belated supper was waiting for him in a private room. The King raised his glass.

"Here's to our friend. Oldaker, the saviour of Asturia," he said.

"I am afraid I cannot make that claim your Majesty," Oldaker said modestly.

"Oh, yes, you can. Without you and your Grey Bat I should have been powerless. Here's to the Grey Bat, the most wonderful aeroplane that was ever made by man—the Grey Bat that flew in the dark and never made the semblance of a mistake. The gallant little craft is safely housed again? And we can trust our faithful allies to keep the secret. Good again. A fine night's work, Oldaker, and an adventure after my own heart—and yours. And here's to dear little Elizabeth who suggested the whole scheme. And may you be as happy with her as you desire. Did I hear the telephone?"

A servant came in with a message for Oldaker. He was wanted by Marenna. The sun was shining brightly and the birds were singing as Oldaker crossed the hall.

"Is that you, Dick?" a sweet voice asked.

"Elizabeth," Oldaker responded. "Well, then Betty. My Betty! You are well and safe?"

"I am well and safe," the sweet voice said. "I want to tell you that I shall be waiting in the Palace Gardens this afternoon to see you, and—and, oh, my dear, my dear—"


THE END

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