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   Chapter 1 PLAYING TRUANT

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 19652

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


A breezy morning after a night of rain. Fleecy clouds, some in massive folds and fantastic shape, some in small half-transparent wisps like sunlit ghosts, were driven rapidly across the blue. Hurrying shadows flecked the swelling bosom of the downs, and where the grass was long it rippled like a green sea, making rustling music. Overhead the larks fluttering upward, ever-diminishing specks to the empyrean, carolled their joyous song, and a thousand perfumes filled the air. It was a morning to live in, to enjoy, to take into one's lungs in deep, intoxicating draughts, until the sorrows of life and its cares were forgotten; a morning that lent strong wings to ambition, filling the future with hope and the promise of realized desires.

Something of the aspect of the morning was reflected in the face of the man who stoutly climbed the downs against the wind. He was above the average height, but did not give the impression of being tall. His frame was well knit and muscular; strength and power of endurance above the common were evident in every movement; and there was a quiet determination in his face which proclaimed him one of those who would be likely to succeed in anything he undertook, no matter what dangers and difficulties might stand in his path, one who would march straight forward to his object even as he breasted the downs this morning. Most men would have pronounced him handsome, judging, as men ever do, by build and muscle; women might have hesitated to give an opinion in spite of the well-cut, clean-shaven face, and the dark blue eyes which never looked away from a person with whom their possessor talked. Perhaps there was a want of sympathy in the face, a certain lack of that gentle deference which so appeals to women in a man, that silent recognition of the woman's power which is so pleasant to her.

Desmond Ellerey had had little to do with women. He did not pretend to understand them, and it had never occurred to him that there was any reason why he should strive to do so. He had experienced pleasant moments in their company, but one woman was pretty much the same as another to him, and it is quite certain that no such thing as a faded flower, or a glove, or love token of any kind held a place among his treasures. No woman in the past had given him a single heart throb which love lent a sense of pain to, and it seemed unlikely that any woman would wish to do so now. For Desmond Ellerey was a man under a cloud, a very black cloud, the gloom of which even this breezy morning could not entirely dispel from his face. He had set himself to bear his burden bravely, but the task was a heavy one. Surely those straightforward blue eyes gave the lie to much that was said against him?

There were few hours in the day in which he did not brood over his trouble, over the loss of his career which it involved, and as he approached the top of the downs his eyes were bent upon the ground in deep thought, while in his heart was fierce rebellion against the world and his fellow men.

He was suddenly startled by a sharp and shrill "Hallo!" and at the same moment was aware of a straw hat racing past him a little to his left. A run of a few yards enabled him to intercept it, and he grasped it in his strong fingers, regardless of the flowers and ribbons upon it. Then he turned to discover the owner.

She was standing on the summit of the downs, her loose hair streaming in the breeze. She did not come to meet him, but waited for him to go to her.

"I am afraid it is not improved," he said, handing her the hat.

"I hardly expected it would be when I saw the way you dived for it," she answered with a smile; "but thanks all the same. Had it got past you, it would have been good-bye to it altogether. Isn't this a morning?"

"Very pleasant after the rain," he said.

"Pleasant!" she cried. "Is that the best you can say for it? Pleasant! Why it makes me feel that there is nothing in the world which is beyond my power; no difficulty I could not fight and overcome; no danger I could not despise and laugh at. My blood is full of the very fire I of life, and I pant to do something-something unexpected, outrageous, desperate. Don't you ever feel like that?"

"Sometimes."

"It is good to be a man," she went on. "He has the world before him, with its high places waiting to be won. There is nothing out of his reach, if he strive sufficiently, no honor he may not win to. Oh, I wish I were a man!"

There was a half-whimsical smile upon Ellerey's face, at her enthusiasm, and in his eyes a look of admiration, which he could not conceal, at her beauty. Her loose hair streaming in the wind was the color of burnished copper, rich as a golden autumn tint in the glow of an evening sun. Her eyes were dark, yet of a changeful color, as full of secrets as a deep pool in the hollow of a wood, quiet, silent secrets which presently, when the time came, a lover might seek to understand, yet promising angry and tempestuous moods should storms happen. Her lips, parted often as though she were waiting for someone with eager expectation, revealed an even row of pearly teeth, and the pink flush of health and beauty was in her cheeks. She was tall: with her hair done up, would have passed for a woman already, Desmond thought; with it down, and her frock to her boot-tops, she was still a girl, a beautiful girl, a very pleasant picture to contemplate.

"Being a man is not always such a grand thing as you suppose," Ellerey said after a pause.

"He has a freedom which a woman never has," the girl answered quickly. "Oh, yes, women try, especially in this country, I know, but it is never the same. She cannot be a statesman, she cannot be a soldier. She cannot take her life by the throat, as it were, and win place and power by the sheer force of a good right arm as a man can."

"But she often succeeds in ruling the man after he has won place and power," Ellerey answered.

"That sort of conquest does not appeal to me."

"Ah, but it will some day," he returned quickly, and then he half regretted his words, remembering she was but a girl.

She looked at him curiously for a moment, a smile upon her lips, yet a little anger lurking in her eyes.

"You think I am very young," she said.

"Are you not?"

"And very innocent, or ignorant, or whatever word you would use to explain me."

"You can hardly have probed life very deeply yet," said Ellerey.

"Much deeper than you would imagine," she answered. "You are not so very wise and old yourself, are you?"

"Indeed, no; I fancy I am more of a fool than anything else," he laughed.

"You should not let yourself think that," she said gravely. "To think highly of one's powers is half-way to success. That sounds as if I had stolen something from a copy-book, doesn't it? But no, I am speaking from experience. Why do you laugh? Some of us have to touch life's hardships early."

"You do not show the marks of such experience," said Ellerey, hardly knowing whether to treat her seriously or not.

"No, but I might, were I conscious of what is before me. I am not as other girls. There is a destiny I have to struggle towards, an end I must win. It was born into, handed down in my blood through generations of men of action. The ambition of those generations of men beats to-day in the heart of a woman. It is a pity, but I shall win, or die fighting."

"At least the spirit in you deserves success."

"Come a little this way," she said, touching his arm, and then she pointed down into the valley below them. "Do you see that building yonder, white among the trees, with a point of conical roof at the end of it?"

"Yes."

"Do you know what it is?"

"No."

"By this time they are hunting for me all over that place down there. I heard the bell ring half an hour ago. That's a school, a big, expensive, fashionable school, where they teach young ladies how to behave properly, how to grow up to rule those fighting men we were speaking of, how to fit themselves to be their wives, and in due time the mothers of their children-in short, how to fulfil their destiny, woman's destiny. They are trying to teach me."

"You? Then-"

"Yes, I'm one of the girls there, and I've played truant, and-yes, I think I shall go back presently, when I have taken my fill of freedom and this glorious morning."

"And will get punished, I am afraid," said Ellerey.

"Perhaps; but it will not be very heavy punishment. It is strange, but they rather like me there, in spite of everything."

"I do not think that is strange at all."

"No, you wouldn't; you're a man," she answered quickly, "and men are weak where attractive women are concerned, all the world over."

Such a declaration coming from a truant schoolgirl somewhat startled Ellerey, and yet, as he looked at her, he was more conscious of the woman than the girl.

"Oh, yes, I know I am attractive," she went on, and there was no deepening of the color in her face as she said it. "I am glad that it is so. My looks will help me when the work of my life begins in earnest, when I have played the truant from school for the last time, and do not go back."

"Then you intend to run away eventually?"

"Yes, unless another way should seem better. That shocks you. I often shock them down at the white house yonder, and they excuse me because I am a foreigner. You English are so polite. You do not seem to expect foreigners to know how to behave, and you make excuses for them. It is very funny. It makes me laugh," and she laughed so merrily that her former gravity seemed more unnatural.

"You speak English perfectly. I should not have taken you for a foreigner," said Ellerey.

"And French, and German, and my own tongue, I speak them all perfectly.

I have lived in all these countrie

s. It was necessary."

"And you do not like England nor Englishmen?"

"I have not said so," she answered; "but here in England I am being taken care of, kept out of mischief, and sometimes I feel like a prisoner. It is only that which makes me dislike England. Of Englishmen I know little, but I have read about them, and they have done some good, brave deeds. They are, perhaps, just a little conceited with themselves, don't you think? There is no one quite like an Englishman it would seem."

"There are all sorts, good and bad," said Ellerey carelessly. "At the best he wants a lot of beating; at the worst, well, he wants a lot of beating that way, too. How is it you feel like a prisoner?"

The girl drew herself up to her full height. There was something haughty in her demeanor, occasioned, perhaps, by the careless way in which he asked the question. She felt that he was treating her rather like a spoilt child, while she felt herself a determined woman.

"In my own country I am a princess," she said.

"Indeed?"

"You do not believe me?"

"Why not? You look every inch a princess," he answered.

"It is so like a man to say what he thinks will please," she returned with a flash in her eyes. "You do not believe me, but you are afraid to say so. Go down there and ask them."

"I do not disbelieve you," said Ellerey quietly.

The girl relented in a moment.

"We should be very good friends, you and I, if we knew each other. You have ambition. I can see it in your face."

"I had, Princess."

"Hush, no one calls me that here. Why do you say you had ambition?"

"You would not understand."

"Try me and see," she said, standing close beside him as though to measure her strength against his for a moment. "You may trust me. I would trust you anywhere, in peace or war."

Ellerey looked at her curiously for an instant, with a sudden desire to take her into his confidence. Then he shook his head slowly. It was pleasant to hear such faith expressed in him, and he was unwilling to destroy the faith of this fair woman. Altogether a woman she seemed to him just then.

"You will not. Never mind, perhaps one day you will. Only never speak of ambition as something past. That is weak and unmanly."

"Upon my honor, you do me good," Ellerey exclaimed.

"And you me," she answered eagerly. "To look at you makes me feel strong. It is good when a man makes a woman feel like that. I am a woman, although I am still at school. There is southern blood in me, and we become women earlier than English girls do. Listen! There are England, and France, and Germany, and Austria, and Russia all interested in me, and nothing would please them all so much as my death. As it is, I am a difficulty in all their politics. They would like me to forget who, and what, I am. They would marry me to some nobleman of no importance, if they could, just to keep me quiet."

"And you will not be quiet."

"No. Why should I be? Would you? In my country a usurper is upon the throne, kept there, held there, like a child who would fall but for its nurse's arms, by all the Powers of Europe. It is I who should be there. It is I who will be there one day. Shall I tell you? There are hundreds, thousands, of men who are ready to strike in my cause when the time is ripe. Even now there is a statesman working to set these countries at cross purposes with one another, and when they quarrel, then is my opportunity. You shall see. That is why I said I would be a man if I could. It would be so much easier for a man, but as it is, a woman shall do it."

"I hope you may. You deserve to."

"But you doubt it?" she said.

"There seem to be heavy odds against you."

"That helps me. It stirs up the best that is in me. It is good to have something to struggle for, something to win, and if I may not win, I hope to fall in the press of the fight, and, to the loud funeral music of clashing steel, find the death of a soldier. What is your name?"

"Desmond Ellerey."

"It is an easy name to remember. Well, Desmond Ellerey, if your ambition finds no outlet in England, come to my country, to the city of Sturatzberg, and claim friendship with Princess Maritza. She shall find you work for your good right arm."

She walked away from him as though she had bestowed a great favor, never looking back. She went in the opposite direction to the school, her truant spirit not yet satisfied, and Ellerey watched her until he lost sight of the tall, graceful figure in a fold of the downs. Then he turned and went slowly back the way he had come.

Desmond Ellerey had declared that she had done him good. It was true. Although he walked slowly, his spirit was stirred within him, and his blood ran with something of its old vigor. Faced by a thousand difficulties, this girl had the courage to look upon them bravely, and to believe in her power to overcome them. That was her secret, the belief in her own power. He had faced his difficulties bravely enough, but he had not had the courage to hope; therein lay his weakness, and this girl, this princess, had shown it to him. He had allowed himself to drift into a backwater; it was time he pulled out into the stream again, and fought his way back to his rightful place, inch by inch, against whatever tide might run.

For some little time he had been staying with Sir Charles and Lady Martin, two people who had looked into his eyes when he had denied the charges brought against him, and had believed him.

As he crossed the lawn toward the house he met his host.

"I have had an adventure, Charles; I have met a princess."

"There are some pretty rustic maidens in the village. I have been struck with their beauty myself."

"I mean a real Princess; at least, she said so," Desmond answered. "She was playing truant from school, a large white house, on the other side of the downs."

"Do you mean a tall, red-headed girl?" asked Sir Charles.

"Have you seen her?" Desmond asked.

"No, but I know all about her."

"Ah, I thought you couldn't have seen her, or you wouldn't describe her as a tall, red-headed girl. She's the most beautiful woman I ever saw. She spoke the truth, then; she is a Princess?"

"Oh, yes, but the sooner she forgets the fact the better for her and for-for everybody. She is the descendant of a line of rulers chiefly remarkable for their inability to rule, and her chance of ascending the throne of her fathers is absolutely nil, fortunately for Europe. You are not a student of contemporary history, Desmond, or you would know something about Wallaria and its exiled Princess."

"I am not a diplomat, but a soldier-at least, I was," Desmond answered.

"Still, I should like to improve my knowledge."

"That is easily managed," said Sir Charles. "If you come into the library I can find you a heap of literature concerning this little wasps' nest of a state, and when you have mastered the position, thank your natal stars that you were not born to take a hand in ruling it. It is a menace to Europe, Desmond, that's the truth of the matter. Wallaria may at any time be the cause of a European war. If this Princess of yours had her way, that time would not be long in coming."

For the remainder of the day Desmond Ellerey filled a corner of the library with tobacco smoke, and his head with a thousand details concerning Wallaria. When he went to dress for dinner he felt that he had been reading an absorbing romance, and blessed the good fortune which had brought about the meeting on the downs.

"Helen and I have been talking about you, Desmond," said Sir Charles after dinner.

"Not revising your opinion of me, I hope."

"No," said Lady Martin, "but thinking of your future. Why not travel for a little while, Desmond; for a year or so? It will give time for the truth to leak out. It will leak out, you know, even as a lie does."

"I have made up my mind to go abroad," said Desmond quietly. "I shall clear out of England before the month is over. It has been awfully good of you both to have me here at a time when most of my friends found it convenient to forget me. I shall not come back until the men who were so ready to accuse me have eaten their words and the country so ready to dispense with my services asks for them again."

"That will come in time," said Lady Martin.

"I am glad to hear your determination," said Sir Charles. "Where are you going?"

"To Wallaria."

"Wallaria!"

"Why not? It seems there is room for a soldier there."

Sir Charles looked grave.

"But, Desmond, supposing-"

"I know what you would say," returned Ellerey quickly. "Supposing Englishmen should have to fight against Wallaria, and I should have to carry arms against my country; well, with whom does the fault lie, with England or with me? England has dispensed with my services, believing a lie; she drives me from her, and makes me a renegade. What allegiance do I owe to England? I will offer my sword to Wallaria, and if she will have it, by Heaven, she shall."

Lady Martin put her hand upon his shoulder, pressed it in kindly sympathy for a moment, and then left the room.

"Sleep on it, Desmond, you will think better of it in the morning," said

Sir Charles.

"You have been very good to me, both of you," said Ellerey, turning round suddenly when Lady Martin had gone. "I can never thank you enough. It seems poor gratitude to pain you now. Such a contingency as we imagine will probably never arise, but I have decided to go."

"The Princess has bewitched you."

"Nonsense. Am I not offering my sword to the usurper, her enemy? My ambitions have been nipped like a tree in the budding here, and I see a new outlet for my energies yonder, that is all. My own country despises me. I hope for better things from the country of my adoption."

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