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   Chapter 3 THE WOMAN IN THE SILK MASK

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 16680

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


Once alone, there were many questions which Ellerey regretted he had not put to his host, and some misgivings arose in his mind whether he had not been led to promise service which might be contrary to the oath which he had taken to the King. The scheme to enlist his help had evidently been carefully considered and prepared, with the result that he had pledged himself to some hazardous task of the nature of which he was entirely ignorant. Not a clue had been given him, and were he desirous of turning traitor, he realized that it was not within his power to do so. Not a word of information could he speak, and who would believe that alone, and apparently unattended, the Queen had visited the Altstrasse at midnight? That she had done so for the purpose of speaking to him proved to Ellerey that her need for him was urgent; that she had explained nothing pointed to the fact that she was not inclined to trust him fully at present.

"I judge there is work for my sword," he said, as he drew his cloak closer round him. "It would seem there is employment for my wits also. At least, I have my wish: a part to play which holds possibilities. A Queen, a designing Frenchman, and an ambitious Captain of Horse, who may be a fool. Well, the drama may prove exciting. We shall see!"

Desmond Ellerey was, after all, an adventurer, of the better sort, perhaps; driven to the life by force of circumstances-yet still an adventurer. His position proclaimed him one. He looked for reward from the country which had purchased his sword, and had no inclination to fritter away his chances of espousing any cause but the winning one. At the same time he was an Englishman: a birth privilege carrying with it weighty responsibilities, which he could not away with as easily as he had cast aside his country. There were few ties to bind him to England. He had become that unenviable member of a family-the black sheep. He had run deeply into debt; a fact that had grievously told against him when he had to face the accusations which had ruined his career. In withdrawing from England he had probably left only two friends, Sir Charles and Lady Martin, who would ever trouble to send a kindly thought after him. His going had aroused the keenest satisfaction in the breast of his brother, Sir Ralph Ellerey, tenth baronet of the name, who was quite ready to believe the very worst that was said of Desmond, remarking that it was little more than he expected. Sir Ralph's cast of mind was perhaps narrow and ungenerous, but, since the sympathy so usually shown to the open-handed spendthrift was not forthcoming in this case, it must be assumed that popular opinion condemned Desmond Ellerey, and sympathized with Sir Ralph. It had been easy, therefore, for Desmond to become a stranger to his native land; it was impossible for him to forget that he was an Englishman: that a peculiar code of honor was demanded of him by the fact.

The Altstrasse was deserted as he passed through it; the lights were out in most of the houses, and silence was over the whole city. The sky was black with clouds, giving promise of heavy rain before morning if the wind dropped. Ellerey walked quickly, his ears alert, and his eyes keenly searching every shadow on either side of him. Attacks in the street for the purpose of plunder were of too general occurrence to make a lonely walk in Sturatzberg safe or desirable at night, and in this quarter of the city help would be slow in coming.

As he turned out of the Altstrasse, a woman, coming hastily in the opposite direction, ran against him, and, with a faint cry, started back in fear. A cloak was gathered tightly round her, showing nothing of her dress and little of her figure, and the hood of it was pulled so low down that little of her face was visible.

"Help, monsieur!" she cried, striving for breath, which came in spasmodic pants after her running. "Help, monsieur, if you be a man!"

"How can I serve you?"

"Ah, a soldier!" she cried, seeing the cloak he wore. "Quick! There is no time to delay. While we speak, murder is being done."

"Where?"

"Come. It is a house yonder. Are you armed? Ah, but they are cowards, and only attack defenceless women!" And she plucked him by the arm to compel him to follow her. She did not appeal in vain.

"Show me," Ellerey said, and taking her hand, that he might help her pace, he ran with her, their footsteps resounding along the silent street.

As they ran, he tried to get a better view of her face, but in vain. He noticed that her cloak, which flapped outward with every step she took, revealed a rich white skirt beneath, and there was the rustle of silk. She kept up bravely with him, seeming to gain new courage in his company. She led him round two corners, across a dark square, and to the open door of a house in a small street beyond. "Quick! They are within. Straight up the stairs to the first floor."

Ellerey released his hold of the girl; indeed, she pulled her hand away that she might not detain him from dashing to the rescue, and, as he touched the stairs, he heard the door close with a loud reverberating slam behind him.

"Quickly!" she cried after him.

The house was dark and quiet, doubly quiet it seemed now that the door had closed. Not a sound came from the rooms above, as Ellerey went up the stairs. If murder were here to-night, he had surely come too late.

He had reached the top of the stairs, had stretched out his hand to feel his way by the wall, and had paused to listen for a sound or to discern a glimmer of light to guide him, when suddenly the air about him seemed to break into life, and before he had time to turn and throw his back against the wall, strong arms were about his shoulders and legs. In an instant Ellerey had grasped one man in the darkness, and kicked himself free from a second, who went rolling down the stairs, uttering curses as he struck the balustrade heavily, making it crack to breaking point. Another received his heel squarely in the face, and dropped with a thud upon the floor, a thud that almost had the sound of finality in it. Meanwhile the man he had seized wrenched himself free, and another pair of arms were flung round Ellerey's waist, obviously to prevent his getting at any weapon he might carry. Ellerey strained every nerve to free himself from this assailant and to get his back to the wall, striking out right and left, now hitting a man's neck or shoulder, now landing a heavy blow between eyes he could not see, anon beating the air only. How many his adversaries were he could not determine. The air was full of panting breaths and growling imprecations, of swaying bodies, and heavy blows, which were, for the most part, wide of the mark. Every moment Ellerey expected to be his last; expected to feel the sharp thrust of a blade, or to fall into sudden oblivion before the sound of the revolver shot had time to reach his ears. Yet he still lived; fighting, struggling, being slowly spent by the odds against him. Why did these murderers not end it? Were they fearful of injuring a comrade in the darkness, or were they desirous of not injuring him too severely? Indeed, it seemed so. Had he fallen into a trap, baited with the frightened woman who had petitioned him for help? The thought that he could have been such a fool, that so transparent a device should have deceived him, maddened him, and he redoubled his exertions to free himself, trying to drag his assailants with him to the head of the stairs, so that he might fling himself and them down, and chance regaining his liberty in the shock of the fall. But the men appeared to perceive his motive, and redoubled their efforts, too, straining every nerve to end the struggle. The man who held him round the waist was dragged this way and that, yet never for a moment relaxed his hold. Other hands were upon his legs now, and Ellerey suddenly felt his feet drawn together with a snap. The next instant he was thrown backward, knees were pressed upon his chest, his arms were twisted and caught with a rope, his ankles bound together, and he was helpless.

"I'd like to bury this knife in your cursed carcass," whispered a voice in his ear.

"I've been expecting you to do so," said Ellerey, panting for breath.

"Why don't you?"

"I don't know. By Heaven, I don't kn

ow why not."

"Well, I'm sure I don't," panted Ellerey.

"Is he secure?" said another voice.

"Yes," at least half a dozen voices answered. "Then drag him in. Perhaps we'll have leave to despatch him presently."

A door was opened, and, with scant ceremony, Ellerey was dragged by his feet across the floor into a room. The door was shut again, and someone produced a lantern.

Ellerey found himself lying in a bare room with seven or eight men standing in a circle round him, regarding him with sullen and angry looks, yet with curiosity and some respect; and on more than one face there were marks of the struggle, savage flushes that would blacken to-morrow, and blood on lips. He looked from one to the other, but saw no face he recognized, yet they were not such a murderous set of scoundrels as he had expected to see, and although more than one of them, perhaps, would have taken the keenest pleasure in burying a knife-blade in him to revenge the hurt he had received, it appeared evident that some consideration held them back. Whatever they contemplated doing, murder was not their intention.

"It takes a lot to knock the sense out of you," said one man, and Ellerey thought he recognized the voice which had ordered him to be dragged into the room: "and there are one or two of us who have something to settle. That must wait for a more convenient season."

"If I am to make a fight for it, it certainly must," said Ellerey, with a smile. "I suppose it's no use asking you to loosen my wrist a little. The cord is very tight."

"Not a bit of use."

"May I know why you have trapped me in this way? I should like to see the little hussy who deceived me."

The men laughed.

"She's a safe bait, is a woman, all the world over," said the spokesman, "and this one's finished her part of the business well enough. Now our parts have got to be done. Some time to-night you received a token. We want it."

"You are welcome to any token I received," Ellerey answered.

"Give it me, then."

"Because I received none," Ellerey added.

"That's a lie," said one man.

"It is well for you that I am bound hand and foot," said Ellerey quietly. "If I remember your face, I may ask you to repeat that some day."

"I ask you again to give me the token you received to-night. Once it is in my hands, you are free to depart," said the spokesman.

"And I repeat that I received no token to-night," answered Ellerey.

"Search him!" cried several voices, and at a gesture from their leader, they fell on their knees beside him.

It was rough handling Ellerey received for the next few minutes. His coat was torn open; rough hands were thrust into his pockets, and even his under-garments were rent apart lest by any means he should have secured the token next his skin.

"There is nothing," they said, rising to their feet one by one. The last man knelt a moment longer, and turned an evil eye toward his chief.

"May it not happen by an accident?" he said. "An accident would be forgiven, and it would be so much safer."

The dim light shone on the keen blade the man had ripped eagerly from his girdle, and Ellerey doubted whether the chief's word would have power to save him; whether, indeed, it would be spoken. His salvation came from quite an unexpected quarter.

"Why that knife, Nicolai?" said a voice which caused the man to spring to his feet, and made Ellerey turn his head. "You would dare to disobey my commands, Nicolai? Stand aside. I have no faith in you."

The ruffian slunk back into the shadows of the room without a word. Ellerey was astonished that so mild a reprimand should have so great an effect. He looked at the dim figure, which the mean light of the lantern revealed; a woman's figure, closely cloaked from head to foot, while an ample scarf was wound round her head, and her face hidden by a silken mask. She had entered by a door somewhat behind him, and he and the man who was so desirous of killing him were the last to become aware of her presence.

"Have you found it?" she demanded, after a pause.

"No; he declares no token was given. At any rate, it is not upon him," answered the man who was in charge of the ruffians.

The woman took the lantern from the man who carried it, and, as she held it up, saw more distinctly the faces of the men about her.

"He has given you trouble, it seems. You bear marks of the conflict.

Eight of you."

"And two on the stairs who have not yet recovered," said one.

"He should be a good man, then, for a hazardous enterprise," and the woman bent down, holding the lantern low to look into Ellerey's face.

Ellerey could see the eyes through the holes in the silk mask, but they told him nothing. He had hardly noticed the eyes of the woman who had stopped him at the corner of the Altstrasse; he did not know whether they were the same. This woman seemed taller; yet there was a familiar ring in her voice. She gazed at him for some moments in silence, and then, standing erect, handed the lantern to one of the men. Behind the mask she smiled. "Your cut-throats, madam, have made a mistake. I have no token," said Ellerey.

"Do any of you know this man?" she asked, turning to her followers.

"A foreigner," growled one. "A soldier," said another.

"A King's man," said a third, "and better put out of the way, if I may advise."

"You would be as Nicolai yonder, under my displeasure," she answered sharply. "Have a care. I shall know how to deal with the first man who disobeys me."

Was this the Queen? Ellerey thought she must be, half-believing he recognized something familiar in her manner. Was this her method of proving his daring before she fully trusted him?

"You have no token?" she said, addressing Ellerey.

"No, madam."

"Yet you went on a secret mission to the Altstrasse to-night?"

"I went openly."

"Openly! To visit whom?"

"Surely, one who lives in the Altstrasse," Ellerey answered.

"And were graciously entertained?"

"I ate and drank, madam, and both food and drink seemed to me of excellent quality."

"And afterward?"

"We talked."

"Monsieur De Froilette, you, and-"

"Yes, madam, we talked, and smoked, but the matter of the token surprises me. I heard no word of such a thing mentioned."

"I am inclined to believe you," she answered. "You have not yet been sufficiently proved."

"I would bow my thanks for your compliment, were I able. I make but a sorry picture at the moment, I fear, but my ragged and hardly respectable appearance you will excuse. May I know to whom I am indebted for this adventure?"

"Not yet. I may have need of you again."

"An invitation less hastily devised would please me better," said Ellery. "I am not rich enough to adventure such good garments as these often."

"A bullet would certainly have made less havoc with them, Captain

Ellerey," she returned.

The mention of his name startled him.

"A word of warning," she went on. "Beware of Monsieur De Froilette, and of any enterprise he may handle. There will be specious promises, but small fulfilment. Beware of the lady who visited the Altstrasse to-night. Hesitate to do her bidding. Unless I mistake not, you will thank me for the warning one day," and then, turning to the men about her, she said, "Unloose him."

They hesitated, and did not move.

"Unloose him, I say," and she stamped her foot sharply.

Two or three fell on their knees beside Ellerey and unfastened the cords, and, stretching his limbs to take some of the ache out of them, he rose to his feet.

"You are free," she said; "but for the safety of these men, you must consent to be blindfolded, and led to the place you came from."

"By the same lady who brought me here?" Ellerey inquired.

"That might hardly be to her liking," was the answer.

At a sign from her, Ellerey's eyes were bound with a scarf, and in a few minutes he was being guided along the streets.

"One moment, monsieur," said one of his guides, presently. "There are footsteps, surely!"

Ellerey stood still and waited, listening. He heard no footsteps, and presently did not perceive the breathing of the man beside him. Then he understood the ruse, and tore the bandage from his eyes. He was alone at the corner of the Altstrasse, and the rain was beating slantwise into his face.

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