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   Chapter 4 THE COURT OF STURATZBERG

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 24327

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


Ellerey's servant had fallen asleep on a settle, partly induced, perhaps, by the liquor the empty tankard beside him had held, but he started, wide awake on the instant, as his master entered. Ellery expected him to remark upon his sorry condition, as he threw off his cloak, but the man did not do so.

"There has been some rough handling in my neighborhood to-night,

Stefan."

"That's plain enough, Captain," was the answer. "They were good clothes, too."

"And interest you more than the man inside them," said Ellerey, grimly.

"For the moment, yes. The man is unhurt, while the clothes are only fit for the rag-shop or to be given to me."

"And, for choice, you would sooner have a corpse to deal with, so that the clothes were untorn?"

Stefan shrugged his shoulders.

"I could spare most of my acquaintances to be made corpses of, for acquaintances are easier come by than good clothes. It was a street attack, Captain, I suppose?"

"They are common enough in Sturatzberg," Ellerey answered lightly.

"The tale will serve as well as another," Stefan returned. "If I tell it, I am not compelled to believe it, and if I chance to be lying, it is no sin of mine."

"Why, rascal, what else should it be?"

"It might be a friend turned enemy, or the pursuit of a woman, or the touching of one of the many intrigues in Sturatzberg; but let it be a street attack. Was any man left sobbing out his life in the corner of the wall? It is well to have the story complete."

"No; it was an encounter of blows and bruises only."

"In such a plight as yours most men would have had some boast to make, pointing to their own condition to prove their statements. I have heard of half a dozen men lying dead, or dying, at a street corner, victims to a single sword, yet was there never a corpse to be found in the morning. Your easy boaster is ever a ready liar."

"Patch up the clothes and wear them, Stefan, if you can persuade your bulk into them," laughed Ellerey. "Some day, perhaps, when I am certain of your affection, I may tell you more of the adventure, and ask your help."

The man took up the tankard, looked into its emptiness, and put it down again. Then he turned round suddenly: "Some time since I was offered higher pay to serve another master, Captain."

"Why didn't you go?"

"I'm beginning to think I was a fool, since you trust me so little," Stefan answered; "but I may yet prove a better comrade in a tight place than many. Good-night."

A soldier, one of his own troop of Horse, Stefan had drifted into Ellerey's service, perhaps because he was a lonely man like his master. He appeared to have no ties whatever, nor wanted any, and declared that the first man he met in the street who was old enough might be his father, for anything he knew to the contrary. His mother, he knew, had died bringing him into the world; a wasted sacrifice, he called it, since the world could have done very well without him and he without it. Being in it, he took all the good he could find, and if he held his own life cheaply, he was even less interested in the lives of others. Women he hated, and his good opinion could be purchased by a man for a brimming tankard, and lasted, as a rule, so long as any liquor remained.

It was hardly wonderful that Ellerey should not trust such a man with any secret of his. Yet the soldier's parting words, and the look on his face as he spoke, made him thoughtful.

"I shall want at least one stout companion on whom I can rely," he mused. "I might choose a worse man than Stefan."

He spoke of his adventure to no one else. He did not even attempt to locate the house into which he had been decoyed. To show too much interest in the affair would only be to attract attention to himself and his movements, which was undesirable, whether it were her Majesty who had taken occasion to test his courage, or others who, knowing the Queen's schemes, sought to defeat them. One thing appeared certain. Some token was to come into his possession, and was to bring peril with it.

On the second evening, Ellerey accompanied Monsieur De Froilette to

Court.

"You are prepared to be frivolous, monsieur, as her Majesty wishes?" said De Froilette, as they went. "You will find it tolerably easy, but, pardon the advice, make few friends; they are a danger to one with a secret mission."

"Do you speak of men, monsieur, or women?" Ellerey asked.

"I spoke generally, but perhaps I was thinking of women," was the answer. "Of one man, however, beware. There is a little, ferret-eyed devil at Court who can spy out secrets almost before they are conceived-the English Ambassador, Lord Cloverton. He is a great man, and I hate him."

Ellerey had no time to ask questions, for the carriage stopped, and the next moment he was following De Froilette up the wide staircase which many people, men and women, were ascending. His companion spoke to no one as he went up, nor did anyone address him. To the casual observer, he might have passed for an unimportant personage in that gay throng, but Ellerey, who had every reason to be interested in the Frenchman, noticed that many people turned to look after him, whispering together when he had passed. Ellerey himself attracted some little attention, due, he imagined, to the fact that he was in De Froilette's company, until he chanced to be left alone for a few moments at the head of the grand staircase. Some half-dozen paces from him four men were engaged in earnest conversation. From their position they could scrutinize every one who ascended the stairs or crossed the vestibule, and it seemed to Ellerey they were there of set purpose; more, that his arrival had been expected and waited for. One of the four was a man of about his own age, richly dressed, and of distinguished bearing. He appeared chief among his companions, who addressed him with a certain deference, and followed his movements, so that when he turned to look at the newcomer, Ellerey found himself the focus of four pairs of eyes. He met their searching looks with equal inquiry, but experienced a certain attraction toward the man who led the scrutiny. He might be an enemy, but he looked as though he would prove an honest and open one, incapable of anything mean or underhand. Presently he made some remark to his companions, who nodded acquiescence, and then they separated, and were lost in the crowd crossing the vestibule, just as De Froilette returned.

"Pardon me for leaving you, monsieur; shall we seek her Majesty?"

Ellerey passed with the Frenchman into a magnificent room, brilliantly lighted from a domed roof, one of a suite of rooms which were all of splendid proportions. From the distance came soft, dreamy music, hushed in the murmur of voices. There were a great many people present, and dancing had commenced in the ball-room. It was a brave assembly, men wearing brilliant uniforms and the decorations of every nation in Europe, and women beautiful in themselves, glorious in sheen of satin, rustle of silk, and flash of jewels. Women's light laughter answered men's jests-on every side were gayety and careless acceptance of the pleasures of the passing hour. It was difficult to believe that under it all lay deceit and treachery. Ellerey was inclined to doubt it, as he followed his companion.

In one of the rooms, surrounded by a group of men and women, with whom she turned to speak and laugh between the welcome she extended to each new arrival, sat her Majesty. She was even more beautiful to-night than when she had come to the Altstrasse, and, surrounded as she was by beautiful women, seemed to hold by right the central position of the group. Jewels glistened at her throat and in her hair, and across her breast she wore the scarlet ribbon of the Golden Lion of Sturatzberg.

"Ah, Monsieur De Froilette, you are welcome," she said. "I was just saying that your countrywomen are the most accomplished, the most fascinating, in Europe, and Count von Heinnen laughs at my opinion."

"Your Majesty will not understand," said Von Heinnen, in guttural tones which ill agreed with a compliment; "I loved the women of France until I arrived in Sturatzberg."

"I would narrow the Count's limit, and say the palace of Sturatzberg," said De Froilette, bending over the Queen's hand.

"No word for the women of their own country," laughed the Queen. "Are we so unpatriotic, Baron Petrescu?" and she turned to a man who was standing close behind her.

"I fear so, your Majesty. I have been in England, and, for my part,

I think the English women are the most beautiful in the world."

Baron Petrescu was the man who had looked so searchingly at Ellerey in the vestibule. He looked at him now, as though his answer had some reference to him; and the Queen, who did not seem too pleased with the frankly spoken answer, following the direction of the Baron's glance, let her eyes rest on Ellerey for the first time.

"Captain Ellerey, you, too, are welcome," she said. "You come but seldom to Court. As an Englishman, you will doubtless support the Baron's opinion."

"I find something to contemplate in all women, your Majesty, but, as yet, I have placed none above all others."

"That confession should fire feminine ambition in Sturatzberg," laughed the Queen. "Spread the report of it, Monsieur De Froilette, and we shall witness excellent comedy, or tragedy-I hardly know which love may be. Oh, you are doubly welcome, Captain Ellerey, for the sport you shall give us, and we will ask for a repetition of that confession constantly. The first time you look down before our questioning eyes, and stammer in your answer, we shall know that love has laid siege to the citadel of indifference, and captured it." Ellerey smiled, as he moved aside to make room for others. He would have approached Baron Petrescu had he been able to do so, but he was prevented; first, because someone who knew him slightly spoke to him, and, secondly, by a general movement in the room occasioned by the King's entrance.

When the history of Ferdinand IV. comes to be written, the King will probably have as many characters as he has biographers. The character given him will so entirely depend upon the point of view. As he walked slowly across the room, his manner was not without dignity, but had little graciousness in it. There were a few who feared him; many who despised him; some who hated him; and from east to west of his kingdom it is doubtful whether a dozen loved or admired him. In appearance he was cadaverous-looking, tall and thin, with a stoop in his shoulders. His skin was parchment-colored, and his eyes heavy and slow of movement.

Europe's plaything, a witty Frenchman had once called him; but those about him found it hard work often to make him dance to their piping. Perhaps no one understood him better, or had greater influence with him, than the man who now walked a pace or two behind him, and was so small that, beside the King, he looked almost ridiculous. His mincing gait, and his apparently nervous deference to everyone about him, would have amused those who did not know the man, or until they had made a more careful study of his face. Nature seemed to have tried her hand at a caricature, and had placed upon this diminutive body a leonine head. The face was a network of lines, as though wind, rain, and sunshine had worked their will upon it for years. The hair was white as driven snow, and thick, shaggy, and long, while, set deeply under heavy brows, his small eyes were never still. For a fraction of time they seemed to rest on everyone in turn, and to note something about them which would be stored up in the memory.

"A ferret-eyed devil, monsieur, is it not so?" whispered De Froilette in Ellerey's ear after the Ambassador had passed. "He has already noted your presence, and will know all about you before he sleeps-if he ever does sleep. We must be very frivolous to escape detection."

To be frivolous at the Court of Sturatzberg was no difficult matter. Whether it was the report of what he had said to the Queen had made him especially interesting to women, or

whether those steady blue eyes of his were the attraction, Ellerey found it easy to make friends. He studied to catch the trick of pleasing with a light compliment or pleasant jest, and before many days had gone had earned a reputation as an irresponsible cavalier; one whom it would be dangerous to take too seriously or believe in too thoroughly. Such a man was, for the most part, after the heart of the feminine portion of the Sturatzberg Court, and that he played the part well the Queen's smile constantly assured him. In one point, however, Ellerey was peculiarly unsuccessful. He had been attracted to Baron Petrescu, and went to some trouble to become acquainted with him, but to no purpose. Either the Baron avoided him intentionally, or a train of adverse circumstances intervened. Not a single word passed between them.

On several occasions the Queen made Ellerey repeat his confession, and he did so with a smile upon his lips.

"I expected downcast eyes and a stammering tongue to-night," she said one evening, and as Ellerey looked at her, she glanced swiftly across the room toward a small group, of which a woman was the centre-a beautiful woman, with a silvery laugh which had the spirit and joy of youth in it. By common consent, her beauty had no rival in the Court of Sturatzberg. Men whose tastes on all else were as wide asunder as the poles were at one in praise of her, and even women were content to let her reign supreme. Her dark eyes, fringed with long lashes, were, perhaps, the most perfect feature of a perfect face. They could persuade, they could reprove, and it was dangerous to look into them too constantly if one would not be a slave. Her hair, which had a wave in it, and was rich nut-brown in color, was gathered in loose coils about her head, a veritable crown to her, and her voice was low, as if compelling you to listen to some sweet secret it had to tell, a secret that was only for you.

"I can still make my confession, your Majesty," said Ellerey, wondering whether his words were quite true, for he had looked into this woman's eyes many times. Then he went toward the group, quick to observe that Baron Petrescu left it at his coming.

Ellerey understood that the Queen must have watched him carefully. To this woman he had certainly paid more attention than to any other. She was in close attendance upon the Queen, was treated by her with marked favor, and many envious and angry glances had been cast upon Ellerey, because she seemed to find pleasure in being with him. Ellerey could not deny that the time spent in her company sped faster than all other hours, but he had another reason for seeking her so persistently. He had seen little of the face of the woman who had cried to him for help that night at the corner of the Altstrasse, being more concerned with what was required of him than with her who petitioned, but somehow this woman always reminded him of that night. Whenever she walked beside him, he recalled that other woman who had run hand-in-hand with him through the deserted streets. Was she the woman, or, at least, was she aware of what had occurred that night? Why had she so easily given him her friendship? Why should she so obviously prefer his company to that of others? There was some reason, and yet she had made no confession, had stepped into none of his carefully prepared traps. Did she know Maritza? Were those Maritza's eyes which had looked through the silken mask?

"You will dance with me, Countess?"

She placed her hand upon his arm at once.

"You are ever generous to me," he said, as they went toward the ball-room. "I wonder why?"

She looked up at him. He might have been laughed at for not understanding such a look.

"A Captain of Horse is a small person in Sturatzberg," he said carelessly.

"Even if he is honored with her Majesty's friendship?" she asked.

"Is he?"

"Well, are you not? I can judge by what I see, and you seem welcome always."

"I have noticed that, Countess, and have thought sometimes that you might tell me the reason."

"Of her Majesty's welcome, do you mean?"

"Of her welcome, and of your own kindness to me," Ellerey answered.

The woman laughed.

"I think Englishmen are slow of comprehension," she said.

"But a Captain of Horse, Countess?"

"Who may be of much higher rank to-morrow, and in his own country may be-Ah! you know, so many come to Sturatzberg."

"Many vagabonds, Countess."

"Oh, yes, and others," and then she made a gesture that they should dance, and they floated gracefully out among the couples gliding over the floor of the ballroom to the strains of a sensuous German waltz. Ellerey danced well. He had earned the reputation in many a London ball-room, and the Countess Frina danced as few English women can, with the soul of the music in her feet.

"Those others are sometimes difficult to distinguish," Ellerey said presently.

"Not to a woman," was the answer. "She has an intuition which is denied to most men. Indeed, I only know one man who has it in the fullest sense, in greater measure even than most women, and he is an Englishman, curiously enough. Yonder!"

With a touch she directed Ellerey's attention to one side of the room, where Lord Cloverton was standing talking to two men. He seemed to be interested in the conversation, but at the same time took notice of every couple which glided by him. Ellerey thought the Ambassador's eyes rested upon him for a moment, although he did not go near him.

"He, too, has noted you," the Countess whispered, "and if you have aught to conceal, Captain Ellerey, take care that the secret be well buried, or those small eyes will spy it out."

"You do not like the Ambassador?" said Ellerey, as he guided his partner to a deserted seat in an alcove.

"I admire him. It is not the same thing, but admiration I cannot help. There would have been desperate work for you soldiers long since had it not been for Lord Cloverton."

"And that would have pleased you?"

"It would have given my friends a chance of distinction," she answered. "And turned some friends into enemies, Countess. Surely you must know that. There are such conflicting interests in Sturatzberg."

"I have taken great care in choosing my friends," she answered.

"Ah, then, you have a very definite idea to which interest you are attached."

"Of course."

"And which is it?" he asked in a whisper, leaning toward her.

"The same as monsieur's," she said.

Ellerey was baffled. He had expected to surprise her into a confession. He did not suppose he had subjugated this woman so completely that she would make her interests identical with his own, and he could only explain her answer by presuming that she was sufficiently in the Queen's confidence to know something of the mission to which he stood pledged.

"You seem very certain of me, Countess."

"Have I not said that I take great care in choosing my friends?"

"I cannot conceive any reason for your faith in me, unless--"

"Well, you may question me."

"I had lately a strange adventure, Countess, in which a woman was concerned. She found me after midnight at the corner of the Altstrasse, and--"

"Monsieur! monsieur!" she exclaimed, holding up her hand. "Do you imagine I should visit the Altstrasse for my politics, and after midnight, too?"

"I confess that was in my mind."

"It pleases you to jest, Captain Ellerey, and I am in no mood for such jesting."

She rose, and he was forced to take her from the ballroom. He had succeeded in making her angry, and had gained nothing. He had been ill-advised to question her.

"You must pardon me," he said.

"You must earn your pardon, monsieur," was her answer, as she turned away with another partner who had approached, leaving Ellerey perplexed.

"A love quarrel, monsieur? I have noted several; they are frequent here."

At the slight touch on his arm Ellerey turned to face Lord Cloverton.

"Hardly a quarrel, my lord; certainly not a love one," he said.

"I was mistaken then, or you think so, Captain Ellerey. Love is a curious disease at all times, and in all places, difficult to diagnose sometimes. In the Court of Sturatzberg one has ample opportunity of studying it. I may be right after all, Captain Ellerey. I have more knowledge of this Court than you have; I have spent a longer time in it."

Lord Cloverton moved forward smiling, evidently expecting Ellerey to walk beside him across the room.

"I endeavor to fit myself to my surroundings," Ellerey said, as he walked slowly by the Ambassador's side, striving in vain to accommodate his step to the mincing gait of his companion.

"Quite so, but it is hardly the best atmosphere for a young man to develop himself in."

"Perhaps not."

"You interest me, Captain Ellerey."

"Since when, my lord?"

The small, deep-set eyes were turned upon him for a moment, as though to gauge the full meaning of the question, and they looked into steady blue eyes, which, perhaps, made Lord Cloverton more interested than ever, although he did not say so. "You are thinking that I might have taken notice of a countryman before this," he replied. "Well, perhaps there is something in the thought. Still, you were not brought to my notice at the Embassy. I heard no mention of Desmond Ellerey as a friend of anyone connected with the Embassy, nor, indeed, any remark that an English officer was serving his Majesty the King of Wallaria."

"No, my lord, my friendships are few, and, in truth, I have no great desire to increase the number."

"I might, indeed, repeat your question-since when?" laughed Lord Cloverton, "for lately surely you have made many new acquaintances, and move in the sunshine of Royal favor."

"I am afraid I have not been conscious of the fact," Ellerey returned.

"I must be more careful to study his Majesty."

"I was speaking of the Queen."

Ellerey looked at Lord Cloverton in astonishment.

"Indeed, I think you are mistaken. Her Majesty is very gracious to all. I do not think she has been especially so to me."

"Another mistake of mine," said the Ambassador, with a smile. "I am full of them to-night. They began immediately after dinner. I dropped two lumps of sugar into my coffee, instead of one. It made it abominable, and I had to leave it. But there is another reason why I have become interested in you lately. I heard that you were the brother of Sir Ralph Ellerey. I know Sir Ralph."

"We are certainly sons of the same father; our relationship has got no further than that. If you know my brother well enough to accept his opinion about me, you have, doubtless, accorded me a very low place in your estimation."

"I am supposed never to accept another man's opinion about anything," the Ambassador replied; "certainly, I seldom do in judging men I come in contact with. Sir Ralph, however, gives some prominence to the name of Ellerey, and his brother can hardly hope to pass through the world unnoticed."

"I am succeeding beyond my expectations," said Ellerey.

"Are you?"

"Believe me, my lord, I am."

They were standing apart in a corner of one of the rooms. There was no one near enough to overhear their conversation. Lord Cloverton glanced over his shoulder to make sure of this before he went on quietly:

"I have heard that Desmond Ellerey was obliged to leave a crack cavalry regiment on account of his cheating at cards and for other dishonorable practices. I took you to be this same Desmond Ellerey."

"Yet another mistake to-night, my lord," Ellerey answered, looking the Ambassador unflinchingly in the eye. "The Desmond Ellerey you speak of was an unfortunate English gentleman and honorable soldier, whose services his King and country had no further need of. He was foully murdered by a lie. The Desmond Ellerey who has the honor to speak to you is a Captain of Horse in the service of his Majesty Ferdinand IV. of Wallaria, and looks for favor and reward only from the King and country he serves."

He turned on his heel as he spoke, and the Ambassador stood looking after him until his figure was lost in the moving crowd.

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