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   Chapter 5 TWO VISITORS

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 19941

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


Lord Cloverton sat in his private room at the Embassy, a knitted brow and tightly-closed lips showing that he was deeply occupied in a problem which either baffled him altogether, or which, having been solved, gave him considerable anxiety. He had pushed his chair back from the table, and his attention was concentrated on the papers he held in his hand. They had come during the past few days, and although he had read each one carefully on its arrival, he had put them aside until he could study them together. They were all before him now, and he had spent the greater part of the morning reading them, and in piecing together the information they contained into one complete and intelligible story. It was not an easy task, and the result he arrived at gave him little satisfaction.

"This pestilential fellow will make trouble for us," he said to himself, and then he went systematically through the letters again.

"Absolutely no doubt of his guilt," he read slowly from one of them. "He denied everything, of course, but the evidence was exceedingly strong against him. That he accepted the verdict and disappeared in the manner he did, would seem to confirm the truth. That is what I cannot understand," said the Ambassador, arguing the point to the empty room. "Why did he accept it and disappear? Why didn't he stand and face the frowning world and beat it? That is what I should have expected from such a man, and with such eyes, too."

He took up another paper.

"The question can hardly be reopened, my lord, and since it was closed nothing has transpired to suggest that there was any error of justice in the matter. Of course he might bring an action for slander in the civil courts, and for this purpose be persuaded to return to England."

The Ambassador shook his head; he had not much faith in persuasion in this case. Then he turned to another letter and read one paragraph in it more than once. It impressed him.

"'I feel convinced that Desmond Ellerey is an innocent man. One has such convictions without being able to explain them. That he accepted the inevitable I think I can understand, considering the weight of evidence against him; and although I endeavored to persuade him against his determination to offer his sword to another country, I can appreciate his point of view since his career had been ruined in his own. If you think any good will come of my writing to him, making on my own account the suggestion contained in your letter, I will certainly do so, and shall, of course, not mention that I have heard from you, or that we are known to each other.'" The Ambassador looked at the signature-"'Charles Martin.' An excellent man to have for a friend, and I believe he is right."

He turned over another paper signed Ralph Ellerey.

"He does not count," said the Ambassador with a gesture of contempt, and threw the letter aside without troubling to read it again. Then he rang a bell upon his table, and a man entered.

"Ask Captain Ward to come to me."

The Ambassador was pacing the room with little short steps when the

Captain entered. "Do you know a Desmond Ellerey, who lodges by the

Western Gate, Ward?"

"I know there is such a man, but I know nothing about him."

"He is likely to be dangerous. I want you to keep an eye upon his movements. He is friendly with Monsieur De Froilette, and is in her Majesty's favor. I do not want you to make Ellerey's acquaintance. I don't want him to know who you are, for the present at any rate."

"I understand."

"I should be glad to see him turn his back upon Wallaria; failing that,

I am uncharitable enough to hope he may meet with an accident," said

Lord Cloverton.

"That might be arranged," was the answer.

"Sturatzberg is having a bad effect upon your moral sense. At least we will try persuasion first," and it was difficult to tell from the Ambassador's smiling face whether a sinister thought had entered his head or not. After a moment's pause he added: "Will you also have a telegram sent to Sir Charles Martin? Just say, 'Please write, Cloverton.' He will understand."

The extent of the Ambassador's interest in him would have surprised Ellerey considerably had he known of it. After his interview with Lord Cloverton he had half-expected that he would seek to question him further, or, if he had any reason to suppose he was in his way, might bring pressure to bear upon the King to dismiss him from the army. He certainly did not do the one, and Ellerey had no reason to think he had attempted to do the other. At Court the Ambassador had bowed slightly as he passed him, and the flicker of a smile had been on his face for a moment when he saw him crossing the room with Countess Mavrodin, almost as though he wished him to remember what he had said about a lovers' quarrel. Ellerey had made his peace with the Countess as speedily as possible. He was likely to make so many enemies that he could not afford to lose a friend, and he felt that this woman was a friend. He had duly humbled himself and had been forgiven, and even when she questioned him about his adventure in the Altstrasse, he refused to speak of it lest he should again offend. He succeeded, as he hoped to do, in raising her curiosity.

"But if this woman so resembled me, surely it would be a satisfaction to me to know something more about her," she said.

"It was dark, Countess, but she seemed to be pretty. That misled me perhaps. I was foolish to imagine for a moment that it could have been you."

Ellerey knew that such an explanation would not content her. Would it satisfy any woman? He had only to wait and she would ply him with further questions, and, if she were not the woman, would not rest until she had discovered who the other woman was. She would probably help him to some explanation of his adventure in the long run, her curiosity leading her to play the part of a useful ally.

The days passed and no message came from the Queen, neither did he see nor hear anything of De Froilette. The Frenchman was not at Court, and Ellerey did not meet him in the streets of Sturatzberg. He did not go to visit him in the Altstrasse; it had been agreed that he should not do so.

After consideration Ellerey had taken Stefan into his confidence. He believed the rough soldier had some affection for him, so had told him something of his adventure in the Altstrasse, and of the mysterious mission he might be called upon at any moment to perform. Such men as Ellerey wished to enlist in the enterprise were not easy to find. There were plenty of adventurous spirits ready for any service so they were well paid, but such men were quite likely to desert him at the critical moment if they saw any benefit to themselves in doing so.

"Now, Stefan, can we find the men we want?" Ellerey asked.

"A dozen of them?" queried the soldier, thoughtfully. "Twelve trusty comrades? It's a large order in a world where it's safest to trust nobody."

"There is adventure, there is good pay, two attractions to the soldier of fortune."

"Yes, Captain; but the soldier of fortune in Sturatzberg is a scurvy sort of rascal. He's not over fond of his trade when there's any danger in it. But I'll sound one or two I know of, and you can see what you think of them. And mark this, Captain, don't pay them too much until they've earned it. A few coins to oil their courage is enough to begin with."

The choosing of the men became Stefan's work, but only half a dozen had been determined on when Ellerey received an unexpected letter from Sir Charles Martin.

It was a pleasant letter of friendship, such a letter as brings forcibly to the senses of the mind the sunlight and shadow dappling an English lane, and the familiar sounds and refreshing fragrances which linger about an English home. Toward the end Sir Charles turned to a painful subject, but wrote hopefully. "Let me urge you," he said, "to return home. I am convinced that the time has come for you to begin to slowly prove that you are innocent. While the affair was fresh in people's minds you were at a disadvantage, but that time is past. One thing I may tell you. A person very highly placed has expressed his complete belief in you. Come home, Desmond."

Ellerey was musing over this letter and the remembrance it brought with it, when Stefan entered. "A gentleman to see you, Captain."

Ellerey rose hastily. The one or two brother officers who visited him stood on no such ceremony as this. He bowed in silence as Lord Cloverton came in. Neither of them spoke until Stefan had closed the door.

"You will pardon the intrusion, Captain Ellerey."

"I am honored, my lord," said Ellerey as he placed a chair for his visitor.

"I am still interested in you, you see," said the Ambassador, "but have not considered it wise to draw attention to ourselves at Court. A man in my position labors under a disadvantage of never being supposed to speak a word that has not weighty matter behind it. Some people will find a mystery in my simple utterance of 'Good-evening.' You and I are both Englishmen, and to be seen often in intimate conversation would start a small army of rumors on the march."

Ellerey bowed. He intended to let the Ambassador lead the conversation.

"Do you mind looking at me, Captain Ellerey?"

Ellerey did so, and for the space of thirty seconds the two men gazed into each other's eyes.

"No, I do not believe it."

"To what do you refer?" Ellerey asked.

"To that card scandal of yours. I believe you are an innocent man. Why don't you prove it?"

Ellerey took up the letter which he had thrown on the table when Lord

Cloverton entered.

"Do you know Sir Charles Martin?" he asked, holding the letter out to him.

"I have heard of him. Who that is interested in English politics has not? I may live to see him Prime Minister. What, do you wish me to read this?"

"If you please." Lord Cloverton read the letter thro

ugh.

"Evidently an intimate friend of yours. You could not have a better sponsor for your character. I think he gives you excellent advice."

"You would give me the same, Lord Cloverton?"

"Certainly."

"Why?"

"Because you are an innocent man. It is your duty to fight for your character to the last ditch."

"Why should you suppose I am not fighting for my character?" Ellerey asked.

"Here in Sturatzberg?"

"Why not? Words will never mend a broken reputation; deeds may."

"Deeds done here will not count in England."

"And in England, or for England, I am debarred from doing anything.

A sorry position, is it not, my lord?"

"I am advising you to alter it."

"But you have not told me why," said Ellerey. "Shall I tell you the reason, Lord Cloverton? You wish me to leave Sturatzberg."

"Why should I?"

"That you must tell me."

"There is a candor about you, Captain Ellerey, that compels straightforward treatment in return, and you shall have it. I have a misgiving that your presence here will tend to hamper my work, and by my work I mean England's interests. I do not pretend to know exactly in what direction you will hinder me, but I can guess, and you are too good a man to be crushed while striving against your own country. Go back to England. I thoroughly believe in you, and you shall have my hearty support in your endeavor to establish your innocency."

"You are very good, my lord, and I thank you; but I regret that I cannot comply with your wishes. I shall not leave Sturatzberg."

"You prefer to be crushed?"

"Yes, in the service of my adopted country. We fight with different weapons, Lord Cloverton."

"Then it is to be war between us?"

"You seem to say so. I cannot leave Sturatzberg."

"Is it not possible that some sense of honor may exist here, that officers here may not care to associate with one who has been convicted of cheating, even though he be a foreigner?"

"I am not afraid that Lord Cloverton will spread such a report of me."

"My country stands first with me, Captain Ellerey."

"But not to make you dishonorable. You are attempting to do yourself an injustice. Besides if I were driven to use such weapons in self-defence, is it not possible that Lord Cloverton has some enemies in Sturatzberg?"

"Many, no doubt."

"I might suggest, for instance, that he had secretly sought to alienate the loyalty of one of his Majesty's officers."

"Enough, Captain Ellerey," said Lord Cloverton rising. "I see that we must unfortunately be enemies. It is a pity. You will be crushed under the Juggernaut of international politics."

"It may be so, it may not," said Ellerey. "Believe me, I am not unmindful of your kindness; but as I have said, we fight with different weapons. You wield the power of the politician; I have only my sword. We cannot therefore meet in hand-to-hand encounter. I should hesitate to use my sword against my countrymen, but until British soldiers hold the heights above Sturatzberg there is no need to consider that question; and your work, I presume, lies in preventing any chance of such a contingency. If you could forget that I am an Englishman, and remember only that I am a Captain of Horse, subject to the commands of my superior officer, you would understand my position better."

"You are a difficult man to deal with, but I rather like you," said the Ambassador, holding out his hand. "I regret that Fate makes us enemies, and if at the last moment I can save you from being entirely crushed, I will."

"Thank you. I, too, may find an opportunity of rendering you a service, my lord."

As Lord Cloverton went quickly away, a man who had been sitting at a small table in a cafe opposite, who had sipped two glasses of absinthe and smoked innumerable cigarettes, rose hastily and crossed the street. His dress was travel-stained, and he had evidently ridden through dirty weather, for his boots were thickly cased with mud. Ellerey was almost as surprised to see De Froilette as he had been to see the Ambassador.

"You have been away from Sturatzberg," he said.

"I have only just returned," De Froilette answered, throwing out his arms to draw attention to his clothes, "and before going to the Altstrasse came to prepare you. I have been waiting at the cafe opposite until Lord Cloverton came out."

"And wondering why he visited me?" asked Ellerey, smiling.

"Wondering, rather, how far you would be successful in deceiving him."

"He was disposed to be friendly," said Ellerey, carelessly taking up

Sir Charles Martin's letter from the table and putting it in his pocket.

"Friendly! A trick of his, monsieur, a trick."

"Exactly. We have agreed to be enemies."

"Ah, but that was foolish," said De Froilette quickly. "You should have played with him even as I do. He believes that I am very friendly, while I hate him."

"That is your method; it is not mine. I am not an adept at crawling, even to the British Ambassador."

"What does he suspect?" asked De Froilette after a pause, during which he had seemed inclined to resent Ellerey's words.

"Naturally, he did not say, and I am unable to guess, which is hardly remarkable, seeing that I am entirely in the dark myself."

"But why did he come?"

"He used his knowledge of some friends of mine in England as an excuse for visiting me, but he had probably taken upon himself for the time being the office of spy. As I had no information to give, he has returned little wiser than he came. When am I to be fully trusted, monsieur?"

"You are fully trusted now, Captain Ellerey, but the time for striking has not arrived. It approaches, however. Until the man in Sturatzberg was ready we could not proceed. Look at me; I have come from a journey. I have been doing my part, and I come to you and say, Be ready. At any moment her Majesty may send for you."

"I am waiting," said Ellerey.

"Not to-night, perhaps, nor to-morrow, but soon."

Knowing the Frenchman's secretive method, Ellerey was convinced that the time was at hand. Were it not, De Froilette would hardly have risked seeking him at his lodging; he had been so careful to avoid all appearance of intimacy with him. Ellerey was not inclined to place implicit trust in De Froilette. He did not pretend to a keen insight into other men's characters, but he conceived that De Froilette would not be likely to lose sight of his own interests, no matter whom he served, nor how humbly such service might be tendered. Ellerey was not even convinced that the Frenchman's support of the Queen's schemes was whole-hearted, and believed him quite capable of giving just so much help as would presently enable him to thwart her and reap benefit for himself. Whatever the mission was which he was about to undertake, Ellerey intended to do his utmost to carry it to success; and if De Froilette by chance stood in his way, it was not likely to be merely a question of words between them.

More subtle, more given to abstract reasoning, a successful student of character, it must be said for Monsieur De Froilette that he fully trusted Captain Ellerey, in so far that he believed he would do whatever task was set him better, probably, than most men would. That he would be a match for such men as Lord Cloverton, with the weapons Lord Cloverton would use, he did not expect, and that the Ambassador had visited Ellerey troubled him not a little. That Lord Cloverton could possibly suspect the true state of things he did not for a moment believe; but every hour's delay now would be in the Ambassador's favor, and the sooner the blow was struck the better-the more hope of success was there. Everything was ready, and it was now that De Froilette's anxiety was greatest. He was too complete a schemer not to realize how often it was the small insignificant thing which served to ruin great enterprises built up with so much care and elaboration. Over and over again he had tested every point in his plans, and had not succeeded in finding any weak spot. There seemed to be no contingency he was not prepared to meet, for which he was not ready; and yet a sense of misgiving, almost amounting to a feeling of insecurity, oppressed him as he walked along the Altstrasse. The people hanging about the door saluted him, for the Frenchman had been liberal to his poor neighbors, and had an excellent name for charity. He had made many friends of this kind in Sturatzberg, and since he had confessed to disliking unprofitable friends, it must be assumed that he looked to reap some reward from them in the future. He was not the man to pay merely for respect and smiles.

He went to his room, the room in which he and Ellerey had sat talking after dinner, the room to which the Queen had come. A pile of unopened letters was upon the desk, for Monsieur De Froilette employed no secretary, and he turned over these letters without opening them before ringing for Francois.

"Well, Francois?" he said as the man entered. He always asked the question in the same manner when he had been absent for any time, and listened to the servant's answer without interrupting him. The answer was usually a long one, full details of the happenings during the master's absence, not of those in the house only, but of those in the city as well. To-day, however, there was no long answer. Francois seemed fully aware of the essential point.

"Monsieur, the Princess, she has left England!"

"My good Francois, you are uninteresting. That happened weeks ago. The Princess is cruising to the British Colonies. It is known, indeed was arranged, by the British Government."

"It was, monsieur, that is right-it was; but the Princess found a substitute for that voyage. She did not go. She slipped away quietly, and no one knew." De Froilette's face was suddenly pale. He did not speak, but Francois read the question in his eyes.

"It is so, monsieur," he said. "The Princess Maritza is in Sturatzberg."

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