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   Chapter 2 MONSIEUR DE FROILETTE

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 23321

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


At a turn of the road which had been deserted for some two hours past, a man suddenly reined in his horse to a walking pace. He had ridden far, for his dress was dusty, and the animal showed signs of fatigue. The evening was stormy-looking, and there was a bite in the wind blowing from the higher lands to the plain.

The road ran, with many a twist and turn, between dense woods on one side, and rugged waste ground, with tangled patches of undergrowth, on the other. Here and there a clearing had been made in the woods, and a rough dwelling erected, but they were apparently deserted; there were no signs of life about them this evening. The man rode easily, yet with constant watchfulness. The times were unsettled and dangerous, and the slightest unfamiliar sound instantly attracted his attention. He was accustomed to be on the alert, and whatever thoughts held sway behind his gloomy looks, they were not sufficiently absorbing to render him careless for a moment.

Suddenly he pulled his horse to a standstill, turning sharply in his saddle to look back upon the way he had come. Then he examined his holster, and, moving his horse to a position which gave him a better command of the road, sat quietly waiting.

The sound which had attracted his attention grew rapidly nearer, and presently three riders came round the bend at a gallop, one some paces in advance of his companions. He pulled up short, seeing the motionless horseman by the roadside, scenting danger and ready for it; but the next moment he raised his hat with pronounced courtesy, and bowed low in his saddle.

"Pardon, monsieur," he said, "but one sees a possible enemy in so unexpected an encounter."

"Unexpected, monsieur?"

"I said so. May I add fortunate, too?"

"Such enemies as you suggest seldom stand singly," was the rather ungracious answer.

"And in these times wise men seldom ride alone, monsieur," came the

quick retort. "I travel with an escort myself, you see, Captain Ellerey.

I do not make a mistake, I think; you are Captain Ellerey of his

Majesty's Regiment of Chasseurs?"

"That is my name."

"And you are returning to Sturatzberg? Good! We can proceed together," and without waiting for an assent to this arrangement, he ordered his servants to go forward, and watched them until they had disappeared. "Now, monsieur, we may go forward at our leisure."

"I have not the honor of-"

"My name. Ah, it is of small consequence. Jules de Froilette, at your service. It is unknown to you?"

"I think so, but your face seems familiar," said Ellerey, as they went on together.

"Ah, yes. I go to Court sometimes."

"And I but seldom, monsieur."

"Then you may have seen me in the streets of Sturatzberg. I know the city well, and have nothing to hide. I have interests in this country, let us say, in timber; it is the answer I give when I am questioned, for no one respects a lazy man. A voluntary exile from my country, I have no quarrel with France, nor she with me. In these days men are become cosmopolitan, is it not so?"

"It looks like it in Sturatzberg," Ellerey replied.

"Monsieur is also an exile, and has no quarrel with his motherland?"

"At least I do not speak of it, Monsieur De Froilette."

"Pardon me, I am not inquisitive. You crave for excitement, so come to Sturatzberg. The promise of adventure will ever attract men of spirit and-"

"And the failures at home," suggested Ellerey.

"I was going to say men of courage," De Froilette answered, "but the failures come, too, and succeed-sometimes."

"You are as doubtful of the reward as I am," said Ellerey, laughing.

De Froilette did not join in his merriment.

"A Captain of Horse is not to be despised," he said slowly, glancing furtively at his companion.

"True, but he remains a Captain of Horse. I expected rapid events in this country, and quick promotion for those who came out of the struggle with their lives. Instead, we have an expedition against some brigands' fastness, which is deserted when we arrive, or a troop to quell a petty riot which has fizzled out when we get there, and that is all."

"And monsieur thirsts for more; the desperate encounter and the bloody sword; for high place and Court favor."

"Is it too great an ambition?" Ellerey demanded. "Do we not all from the bottom rung of the ladder look eagerly toward the top-the student to the masters of his profession, the apprentice to the seat of his employer? Why should not a soldier look for high favor at Court?"

"Such favor must be won, Captain Ellerey."

"I am willing to win it."

"Patience. You shall not always find those fastnesses deserted, those riots quelled when you arrive. This is the waiting time, the preparing time, and there are difficulties in the way of promotion. Let me ask you, are you loved in your regiment?"

"Neither loved nor hated."

"And in the city?"

"I have few friends. A Captain of Horse does not command them."

"That is not the reason. It is because you are a foreigner," De Froilette answered. "You are welcome to fight this country's battles, welcome to get killed in them, but you must not participate in any rewards. If Sturatzberg could do without us, how many foreigners would wake tomorrow in the city, think you?"

"All Europe has talked of such a rebellion, but it does not come," said Ellerey.

"It will," was the answer, "and if you are strong enough you may take the reward."

"You speak in riddles."

"Is it wise to speak plainly?" and De Froilette swept out his arm as though the prospect before them gave the answer. They had left the woods and the rough country behind them, and were approaching houses, for Sturatzberg had grown and spread itself beyond its walls. In the distance the lights of the city blinked under the dome of growing darkness, while to the right a long line of light marked the citadel and the palace of the King.

"There are ever-watchful eyes, ever-waking ears about us, looking and listening for treachery," De Froilette went on. "Every man suspects his neighbor, and has fingers ready for the knife handle. Yonder in the citadel, amid the laughter and the music, a dozen plots will creep forward a space before the dawn. Does monsieur, the Captain, long to play a part in the intrigues there?"

"Yes, so that it is honest."

"Monsieur must decide. We part here, it is better so. Come to me to-night, at the Altstrasse, 12, at ten o'clock. We can talk further. Until then, au revoir" and De Froilette put his horse into a canter, leaving Ellerey to pursue his way alone.

Entering the city by the eastern gate, Ellerey crossed the Konigplatz at walking pace on his way to his lodging by the Western Gate. They were a pleasure-loving people in Sturatzberg, working as little as possible, and spending without a thought of the morrow. The cafes were full to-night, the laughter sounded genuine enough, and there was little indication of the coming storm of revolution so confidently predicted by De Froilette. Ellerey's mind was busy with the events of the afternoon. For two years he had been in Sturatzberg, ready to seize the opportunity of distinguishing himself whenever it arose. It had not come yet. His life had been passed on a dead level of inactivity, and the stirring times he had hoped for seemed as far away as ever. Many a time had his thoughts gone back to that breezy morning on the downs, and he devoutly wished that Princess Maritza would come to Sturatzberg, so that he might go to her, claim friendship with her, and ask for that work for his good right arm which she had promised to give. Who was this De Froilette, and why should he take an interest in him or wish to help him? For such favors there was always a price to be paid in some form or other. Would it be wise to go to the Altstrasse? And another question came to him, a question that set his pulse beating faster for a moment. Was this De Froilette an emissary of the Princess Maritza? Might she not be in Sturatzberg now? Might he not see her to-night? "I would risk anything for that," he said, as he swung himself from the saddle, "and whatever the adventure is, so that it has a spice of danger in it, it is welcome. I shall know how to take care of myself if the price asked be too heavy."

A big, bearded man came forward to take the horse, and the manner in which he drew the back of his hand across his mouth suggested that he had left the tankard hastily.

"Has anyone inquired for me, Stefan?"

"No, Captain, I have been undisturbed until now," the man answered in a deep voice well suited to his frame, as he led the horse away. Knowing his soldier-servant's weakness and his capacity for indulging in it with impunity, Ellerey wondered how long a time he would require undisturbed before signs of his potations showed themselves. Drink heavily he certainly did, but since he never exhibited any ill effects from it, at night or morning, it would have been unjust to call him a drunkard.

The Altstrasse was of the old town, a narrow thoroughfare of gaunt houses which now sheltered a dozen families in rooms where the wealthy had once lived, and in which Ministers and Ambassadors had entertained the wit, beauty, and bravery of nations. These glories had departed to the palatial buildings which had grown up round the citadel, leaving the Altstrasse as misfortune may leave a gentleman, the marks of breeding evident though he be clad in rusty garments. Over the doorways, through which tatterdemalions, men, women, and children, flocked in and out, were handsome carvings, deep-cut crests and coats-of-arms; ragged garments were hung to dry over handsome balustrades and wrought-iron railings; while in the rough and broken roadway garbage, cast there days since, lay rotting where it had fallen. Poverty had seized upon the place, flaunting poverty, seeking no concealment. Ellerey had passed through the Altstrasse before to-night, but the surroundings had had no particular interest for him then. Now they arrested his attention. What plots might not have birth and grow to dangerous maturity in such surroundings, among such people as these? The rabble had overrun these deserted mansions; might it not one day hammer at the doors of the palaces by the citadel yonder with demands not to be gainsaid? What manner of man was this De Froilette, what ends had he in view, that he should live in such a place?

Number 12 looked as faded as its neighbors, showed even fewer lights in its windows, and, except that no small crowd hung about the closed door, was no whit more attractive than ever. Ellerey's summons was answered immediately, however, and he entered a large bare stone hall, the dim light which hung in the centre disclosing many fast-closed doors on either side.

"Monsieur is expected," said the man deferentially, leading the way down a stone passage and up a flight of stairs to a landing corresponding with the hall below. But how different! Here was luxury. A deep carpet deadened the footfall, rich curtains hung over windows and doorways, and ancient arms were upon the walls. Ellerey had little time to appreciate more than the general effect, for the man, drawing back a heavy curtain, opened a door, and without making any announcement stood aside for him to enter.

"Welcome, mon ami, welcome," said De Froilette, coming forward to meet him. "Confidences are easier here than on the highway."

The room was perfect, the abode of a man of taste with the means to gratify it to the full. It was costly and unique, a collector's room, discriminately arranged, and the owner, motioning his guest to a chai

r, was worthy of his surroundings. In the afternoon he had been muffled in a cloak, and Ellerey had noticed little of his appearance beyond the fact that his eyes were dark and restless. Now he saw a man courtly and distinguished in a manner, with a clever, earnest face, at once attractive and inviting confidence. His hair, cut short, and his beard trimmed to a fine point, were black with a few streaks of white in them, but his face was young looking, the lines few and faint. His fifty years sat lightly upon him. One would have judged him a student, or a traveller, rather than a politician, or a man fighting life strenuously.

"My surroundings surprise you?" he said, with a smile.

"Such things are hardly looked for in the Altstrasse," Ellerey answered.

"They are a part of myself, Captain Ellerey, but I wish to remain in privacy. Your elect of the city do not naturally visit in the Altstrasse, and I have rooms below bare enough to impress uninteresting people with the fact that I am a poor sort of fellow, and likely to be an unprofitable acquaintance. For my friends-well, you see, I have other apartments."

"I thank you for the preference shown me," said Ellerey, with a bow.

"And since we parted have been speculating on the reason, is it not so?"

"Naturally."

"I think I can help you; I believe you can assist me. There is the position in a nutshell. I am honest. I make no pretence of liking unprofitable friends myself. But we will talk afterward, monsieur," he added, as a servant announced supper, and De Froilette led the way into an adjoining room. The meal was faultlessly served at a round table lighted by candles in quaint silver candlesticks. Although not exactly an epicure, De Froilette understood a supper of this description as perhaps only a Frenchman can, and his taste in wines was excellent. He led the conversation into general topics, talked of Paris and London with equal ease and knowledge, and of Berlin, Vienna, and St. Petersburg only a little less intimately.

"I have said I am cosmopolitan," he explained. "After all, it is the greatest nationality to which a man can belong. Coffee in the library, Francois."

De Froilette ushered his guest into another room, which from floor to ceiling was lined with books-books on all subjects and in many languages. A huge writing-table, littered with letters and foreign newspapers, occupied the centre of the apartment, which was evidently a working room, though luxurious in all its appointments. De Froilette did not speak until the servant had placed the coffee on a side table and had left the room, when he turned suddenly toward Ellerey.

"I followed you to-day, monsieur; it was not a chance meeting."

"I am not surprised," said Ellery. "Twice before you overtook me I heard the sound of galloping horses, and was prepared for an enemy."

"And instead, behold a friend," De Froilette laughed, pushing a silver box of cigarettes across the table. "You must bear with me if I am prosy for a time. I can promise you that the end of the story is better than the beginning."

Ellerey settled himself to listen attentively.

"The history of this country, monsieur, is composed, as it were, of the rough ends and edges of the histories of other countries. Every crisis in Europe causes trouble of some kind here, and first one family and then another have become paramount in Sturatzberg. All the Powers have recognized one fact, however, that Wallaria must be kept inviolate; so it is that this is an independent kingdom to-day. The position is unique, and gives the King, within his own realm, a power more autocratic than the Czar's should he care to use it, since he has only to play off one great Power against another to preserve himself from attack. You follow me?"

Ellerey murmured an assent, wondering what this recital was to lead to.

"It is clear that his Majesty does not use this power," De Froilette went on. "He may be timid, he may lack ambition, we will speak no treachery; but in times past there have been ambitious monarchs, and still little has happened. Why? Because, monsieur, recognizing that this country is one of the chief factors in preserving the peace of Europe, the nations have sent the ablest men they possess as their Ambassadors to Sturatzberg. Your British Minister is a case in point. The result is that to the present time no monarch has risen with courage enough, allied to sufficient political acumen, to take his own course, carry it to success. Have you ever realized, monsieur, that Sturatzberg might play with the nations of Europe as a gambler plays his hand of cards?"

"I am no diplomatist," Ellerey answered.

De Froilette shrugged his shoulders as though the point were immaterial to him, and went on:

"To all appearance, the facts are to-day as they have always been, with one great and important exception-the people. The people are awaking to the sensation that they are ruled and oppressed, for so they consider it, by foreigners. They have had secretly preached to them, and they understand, what possibilities there are; and a wave of national enthusiasm is silently stealing through the length and breadth of the land. The bolder spirits have already declared against law and order, as it exists, by flying to the hills and associating themselves with the brigands there. The forces under the outlaw Vasilici, I am told, increase daily. You have heard of him, Captain Ellerey?"

"And have tried to find him," Ellerey answered, with a smile. "But his fastness in the mountains was always deserted when we got there."

"Some day it will not be. A leader worthy of the cause will be found. The people will remember that there are others with an equal, or better, right to the throne than his Majesty, and then you will have the revolution."

"I presume, monsieur, the leader is found, and only awaits the opportunity?" said Ellerey.

"You are right, Captain, she is found," De Froilette answered slowly.

"A woman!" Ellerey exclaimed, and he felt the color flush to his face as he spoke. He forgot for a moment that his sword was pledged to the King. His thoughts went back to that breezy morning on the downs, and the tall, straight girl with her bright hair streaming in the wind.

De Froilette laughed.

"A woman, Captain Ellerey, who destines you for high service. Let her plead for herself," and as he spoke he opened the door, and stood aside with bowed head.

A woman entered. Tall she was, and of imperial mien. Diamonds glistened in the coils of her raven hair. Her face was beautiful, her smiling lips and deep, soft eyes, full of sympathy and tenderness, seemed incapable of any stern expression of anger. A woman born to rule, born to lead, but not the woman Ellerey had expected to see.

It was the Queen, and Ellerey bowed low before her.

"You have not been unnoticed by us, Captain Ellerey," she said in a low voice, "and we would have you more constantly at Court."

"I shall obey your Majesty," Ellerey answered.

"There are stirring times at hand," she went on; "times in which men may strive and win. His majesty, the King, is fettered, politically bound, by conflicting interests, watched, carefully nursed by this Power and by that. He is unable to move as his people would have him. It is for me to act for him in this matter, secretly until the appointed hour strikes. Remember, Captain Ellerey, I am Queen as his Majesty is King, with equal rights, not as consort merely. Your sword is pledged to me as to the King. Therefore I can demand your service. I prefer to ask it."

"Your Majesty is gracious."

"It will be secret service, for the present secret even from the King.

I may require it to-morrow, a week hence, or it may be in a month's

time. I cannot tell. It is perilous service, but that will not deter

Captain Desmond Ellerey. May I claim your full and perfect allegiance?"

"I hold myself entirely at your Majesty's disposal."

"You shall not find me ungrateful," she said, giving him her hand. "Choose you a dozen stout men on whom you can rely. Good pay you may promise them. Have them in readiness to set out at an hour's notice. Then wait and watch. We shall call you into private audience on some occasion, either personally or by Monsieur De Froilette, and now that we have found the man, may the time be quick in coming."

There was delicate flattery in her words and manner, yet withal perfect consciousness of her own power, the power that beauty gives. Ellerey felt the magic of her influence, and his eyes looked unflinchingly into hers for a moment; the woman in her understood what manner of man he was in whom she trusted. "If I read you aright, Captain Ellerey," she said, with a radiant smile, "it is not your nature to be frivolous, to catch pleasure as it flies and play with it while the bubble lasts; yet must you school yourself to do so. The light-hearted cavalier and careless lover will not be suspected of any deep design, and it would be well that that should seem your character at Court. More easily will you keep the nearer to our person, for love of pleasure and the gratification of the moment is thought to be our end and aim also. Even his Majesty is deceived in this, and knows not that under the surface we are working night and day in his cause. Monsieur De Froilette shall see to it that you have ample opportunity to be merry, and I promise you active, hazardous service, work after your own heart, in the near future."

"In the one as in the other, I shall hope to win your Majesty's approval," Ellerey answered.

The Queen turned, and retired as quickly as she had come. De Froilette bowed low as she passed out, but exchanged no word with her, nor did he attempt to follow her. Her coming and her going had evidently been prearranged for Ellerey's benefit.

"I surprise you for the second time to-night," said De Froilette, as he closed the door.

"Yes, I expected another woman-Princess Maritza."

De Froilette started at the name, and looked keenly at his companion. For an instant he showed surprise, perhaps annoyance, but he was quickly himself again, and asked quietly:

"What do you know of the Princess Maritza?"

"I have studied something of the history of this country in my leisure, monsieur, that is all; and I fancied you might be interested yourself in the fortunes of the exile. You spoke of others with an equal or better right than his Majesty."

"I was thinking of the Queen. The Princess is impossible. Her fathers sat upon the throne, it is true, and by their misplaced ambition and folly not only lost the support of every foreign Power, but alienated the love of the people besides. Her father barely escaped assassination. The Princess is known to me, as her father was. At present she is in England."

"Does she make no claim for herself?"

"She might were the throne vacant, but she could not succeed. The people would never accept her. In two days will you do me the honor of accompanying me to Court, as her Majesty desires?"

"The honor will be mine. I thank you for bringing me into notice,"

Ellerey answered.

"I will come for you at your lodging," said De Froilette, and then a servant entered, apparently without being summoned, and in silence conducted Ellerey to the bare hall again. All the doors were fast closed as before, but the air seemed to vibrate with life and the silence to be ready to break into a hoarse roar of voices at a moment's notice. Yet only in a window here and there was there a dim light when Ellerey looked up at the gloomy house as he stood alone in the Altstrasse.

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