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   Chapter 6 FRINA MAVRODIN'S GUEST

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 18878

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


For some time Monsieur De Froilette remained silent. The return of the

Princess was a contingency he had not provided for.

"Where is she?" he asked suddenly.

"Alas, monsieur, I do not know," Francois answered. "She has powerful friends in Sturatzberg, and they conceal her well. I saw her for one moment in Konigsplatz. She was alone, and entered a shop there. I followed her, but she was gone. I called myself her servant, and inquired about her, making the sign that has so long been used by her partisans to secure an answer. It had no effect. I was told that I was mistaken, that no such lady as I had described had entered. Do you not understand, monsieur, the sign must have been changed?"

De Froilette understood only too well. At his very door were enemies, the more dangerous because they had been partially admitted into his plans. He had himself given them reason for watching him, and the opportunity of doing so. That was past and beyond reparation, but this arch schemer was not the man to stand idly regretting a mistake. Even mistakes might be used to advantage.

"I will dress, Francois," he said presently. "I had not intended to go to Court to-night, but this news compels me."

"And how shall we find the Princess, monsieur?"

"We will not trouble. We will set others to do that. Matters will be for our benefit in the end, Francois. Quickly, I must dress."

De Froilette dined alone and dismissed the man who waited upon him as soon as possible. A portrait of Queen Elena stood on a side table, and he got up and placed it beside him, contemplating it thoughtfully as he sipped his wine.

"If we succeed," he mused, "there is high place and distinction to be won. This Englishman may win it for me. In a revolution a King's life is as other men's, dependent on the hazard of a die. If I read her smile aright I shall have my reward. And if we fail?"-he paused to consider the course of events in such a case-"who knows? My reward might come the easier. There would be few shelters open to her. Only in defeat through Princess Maritza's influence is there danger to me. Success or failure otherwise, what does it matter? I shall win. The paths to mountain peaks are ever rugged, but men reach the summits. Why should I fail? The road to power may be closed against me, but the road to love-" And he gazed into the eyes of the portrait, finding an answer in them. This man of action was a dreamer too.

When he entered the palace that evening, De Froilette inquired whether Lord Cloverton had arrived, and being answered in the negative, remained at the head of the stairs, speaking a few words to this acquaintance and to that, bowing a well-turned compliment to one fair lady, or meeting another's pleasantry with an answering jest. He was in excellent good humor.

Presently Lord Cloverton came mincing up the steps, pausing half a dozen times to greet acquaintances. He, too, was in excellent humor; but then he seldom allowed people to see him otherwise.

"How I hate the man," De Froilette said to himself, going toward the Ambassador as he reached the vestibule. "May I have a word with you, my lord?"

"A thousand, my dear Monsieur De Froilette. Ah, a private word is it?" he added as the Frenchman led him aside.

"My lord, you have my greatest esteem, as you are aware."

Lord Cloverton bowed.

"If, as a loyal Frenchman, I would see France predominant in the affairs of this country, that is natural, is it not so?"

"Most natural indeed, and, monsieur, I say frankly, France is playing a very worthy part."

"No doubt, my lord," De Froilette answered. "I am but a looker-on, with certain business interests which politics might affect, and therefore I take some notice of politics. Perhaps I see more clearly than some, my lord-the lookers-on often do; and I am convinced that British policy is at the present moment the safeguard of Wallaria."

"I rejoice to hear it, monsieur."

"And if you will allow me, my lord, I will add that your presence in

Sturatzberg is the great security."

"You flatter me," Lord Cloverton returned. "You will be pleased to learn that I have received no notification that I am likely to be removed from Sturatzberg."

"That would indeed be a disaster," said De Froilette. "So, my lord, any small help, any little information I can give you, I shall give gladly. Regard for yourself and my business interests will prompt me. We have all a vein of selfishness in us."

"I am honored by your confidence, and you will be welcome at the Embassy."

"I will give you the information now," said De Froilette. And he lowered his voice as he leaned toward the Ambassador: "The Princess Maritza!"

"Is in Australia at present, I believe."

"Exactly," said the Frenchman. "Making a tour of the English Colonies.

A delicate attention to an honored guest and unfortunate exile, designed

to keep her out of the way while the present unsettled feeling in

Wallaria lasts; is it not so?"

"Your political acumen is not at fault."

"No, my lord, but yours is. The lady at present in Australia, or wherever she may be, is not the Princess, but a substitute. It needs very powerful friends to carry through such a deception as that."

Lord Cloverton turned sharply toward him, and, as Francois had done,

De Froilette answered the unasked question.

"Yes, my lord; Princess Maritza is in Sturatzberg."

"Hiding where?"

"That I do not know. You will doubtless take means to find out. Command me if I can help you in any way."

"I thank you for the information. If you are not mistaken, the wayward child has been very ill advised. I gather, monsieur, that your business affairs would suffer were such a thing as a rising in the Princess Maritza's favor to take place?"

"Have I not said that there is a selfish vein in all of us?"

Lord Cloverton smiled, and together they crossed the vestibule.

Their short colloquy had not been overheard, nor had their presence been particularly noticed there except by one person-the Countess Mavrodin. She had reached the head of the stairs as De Froilette had leaned confidentially forward toward the Ambassador, and she hastily greeted a friend, keeping her standing at the top of the stairs while they talked. She had good reason to be curious regarding such a confidence between two such men, and while she laughed and talked she watched them. She did not move until they had crossed the vestibule, and when they separated she followed Lord Cloverton.

Desmond Ellerey met her and found her in a gracious mood.

"Have I quite pardoned you for mistaking me for another woman that night in the Altstrasse?" she said gayly.

"I hope so; indeed, I thought so."

"I am sorry. I ought to have reserved some of my displeasure."

"Why?"

"So that I might demand a favor."

"You have but to demand, Countess."

"Then stay with me and keep me near Lord Cloverton," she said.

"What! Has he incurred your displeasure, too?"

"Must I give reasons for my demand?"

"No."

"Then you trust me?"

"As I would trust any woman."

For a moment she seemed satisfied, and then she turned toward him.

"Is there a meaning underneath that? Do you trust no woman?"

"I have learnt my lessons in a hard school, Countess. I trust few, either men or women, and I have more knowledge of men than women." They followed Lord Cloverton across the rooms, and she noticed every one to whom he spoke. Presently he stood to watch the dancing for a moment, but he seemed to avoid any person who might detain him in conversation for any length of time.

"I think the Ambassador will leave early to-night," the Countess said. "May I beg another favor, Captain Ellerey? Will you see that my carriage is ready waiting for me?"

Ellerey went to do her bidding, wondering why she was watching the Ambassador so keenly. It took him some time to find her servants, and as he returned he met Lord Cloverton. With the slightest of recognitions the Ambassador got into his carriage.

"The Embassy, quickly," he said.

Countess Mavrodin came down the stairs as Lord Cloverton drove away.

"I thank you," she said. "I have a habit of remembering favors."

"I shall remember that you have said so," Ellerey answered. "Indeed, I can even now ask one. Only this afternoon Lord Cloverton was pleased to tell me that he looked upon me as an enemy. Should you discover anything which might affect me, will you tell me?"

"He said you were an enemy; then I am not suspicious in vain. Yes, I will tell you if I can. One word, monsieur. You neither trust women nor men, so perchance the warning is unnecessary; but of all men at least distrust one-Jules De Froilette."

"Did her Majesty bid you give me that message?" Ellerey asked.

"No, monsieur; it is an original idea. I have ideas of my own sometimes. I have one now. If you are leaving the palace, I will drive you to the Western Gate." She was pretty, and Ellerey was only human. Strictly speaking, his duty was to remain, lest the Queen should send for him; but he helped the Countess into her carriage and seated himself beside her. She refused to be serious as they drove through the city, and when Ellerey entered his lodging he was left to wonder at what point the incidents of the evening touched his mission. Why should the Countess become suddenly interested in the movements of Lord Cloverton? and since she

was closely attached to the Queen, why should she warn him against De Froilette, who was also deep in her Majesty's confidence? The problem was beyond his power to solve.

Frina Mavrodin was a far more important person in Sturatzberg than Ellerey imagined. It was not only at Court that she was popular; she was besides the Lady Bountiful to the poor. She was immensely wealthy, and her beautiful home by the river, in the southwest of the city, had been called the beggars' paradise, for those who asked charity were seldom sent away empty. The general criticism of her was that she was a pretty woman, very adorable, a little frivolous perhaps, and possessed of much more heart than head. She seemed to take delight in such criticism, and to be at some pains to fully merit it. But there was another side to her character which few persons ever got even a glimpse of. Her profound knowledge of current politics would have startled Lord Cloverton, and her capacity for intrigue and scheming would have astonished even Monsieur De Froilette into admiration. There were few clubs and societies in Sturatzberg, where discontent was fostered and secret plans discussed, which were not known to Frina Mavrodin. She was conversant with their secret signs, their aims, and their means, and knew by sight most of their influential members. A single word from her would have sent many a man to prison who walked the streets freely. Perhaps, in all Sturatzberg, there was only one person who gave her credit for such knowledge, and who was content to be guided in some measure by her advice.

This person, at present, occupied a suite of rooms in Frina Mavrodin's house, and this evening she reclined at full length among the cushions of a low couch, and watched a door at one end of the room expectantly. Her hand was stretched out to a bowl of flowers on a table by her side, and she plucked a petal at intervals which she crushed and let fall. Something of the girl's character seemed to be in the action. She was not weary, not worn out with the day's work or pleasure, whichever it might have been, but was waiting anxiously, irritably even, for news, or for someone's coming. Her hair had loosened by contact with the cushions, and fell about her shoulders in luxuriant copper-colored tresses. Presently the door opened, and an elderly woman entered-an English woman, plain in feature and resolute in manner.

"You have been spoiling your flowers," she said, seeing the scattered petals on the carpet.

"Never mind them. Has Dumitru come, Hannah?"

"Just come."

"Then bring him in, bring him in. Why do you wait?" exclaimed the girl, half-rising from her reclining position. "I cannot afford to have fools about me in such times as these."

"You haven't," the woman answered bluntly, evidently quite used to the petulant moods of her mistress. "I was one when I came out of Devon to a heathen place like this; but that time is past." And she went to the door and beckoned to a man to come in. As he entered she went out, closing the door behind her. When she had gone the man dropped swiftly on one knee by the couch.

"Well, Dumitru?"

"He returned to-day," said the man, rising and standing erect. "He went straight to the lodging of this English Captain."

"And then?"

"To Court, Princess."

"And his mission, Dumitru-was it in my interests, think you?"

The man made a fierce clicking sound with his tongue.

"Ah, no, no, no; and again a hundred times, no. He is for the Queen a little, and for himself very much. Have you still a doubt, even now? A sudden death should be his reward."

"Patience, Dumitru."

"The English Captain had another visitor to-day-the British Minister."

"This English Captain is in great requisition, it would seem," she said.

"Aye, he is a man, I grant you that-strong, resolute, and rides as though horse and rider were one piece."

"And honest, Dumitru. I have looked into his face and thought him so."

"Can one judge so easily?" asked the man. "Besides, honest or not, he is for our enemies."

"Our enemies must be swept aside," she said imperiously, as though not only the will, but the power to do so were hers.

"Thus, Princess," and the man's dark eyes gleamed as he just showed the keen, thin blade of a dagger which he carried in his cloak.

"Not without my command, Dumitru," she said hastily. The man bowed low, disappointed perhaps that the same spirit was not in her as was in him.

"We may use this English Captain for our ends," she went on. "I have a way and you shall help me, Dumitru, when the time comes. That Lord Cloverton has visited him shows that some new pressure is to be brought to bear upon him. We shall see how he stands in this, whether firm or not, and may learn how to act ourselves."

"He is ready to act when the token is given him," said Dumitru. "He has a few desperate men who are pledged to his service."

"You are sure of this?"

"Quite sure."

"Who will follow for love of him?" she asked.

"They are of the kind who follow more readily for money," answered the man.

The girl remained thoughtful for a few moments. Something in the man's information had set her thoughts running in a new channel, and while she mused Frina Mavrodin entered the room hurriedly.

Dumitru bowed low before her.

"You are early," said the Princess.

Frina turned to Dumitru.

"Captain Ellerey has returned early to his lodging, too; it would be well to watch. I do not think it will happen to-night, but should any messenger seek him we must know at once."

"Go, Dumitru," said the Princess, and when he had gone she turned to her companion: "What has brought you home so early?"

"You, Maritza. I wondered whether you had remained safely here, or whether you had again jeopardized your cause by going so openly into the streets. It is known that you are in Sturatzberg."

"By whom?"

"That lynx-eyed servant of De Froilette's saw you, as you know. You thought he would believe himself mistaken, but I knew better. His master returned to-day, and to-night I found Monsieur De Froilette and Lord Cloverton in confidential conversation. When two men who hate each other as they do, agree, it is time to prepare for the storm. You must remain an absolute prisoner here for a while."

"I am tired of inactivity."

"You will not have to wait long," Frina answered. "Within an hour, I warrant you, there will be spies out in every quarter of the city to try and find your hiding-place. You are safe so long as you remain here. What an advantage it is to have such a reputation for empty-headedness as I have. No doubt De Froilette played a trump card in telling Lord Cloverton of your presence in Sturatzberg. The task of finding you will occupy the Minister's attention for a little while, and if De Froilette is ready, he will seize the opportunity to strike his blow. That is why I offered to drive Captain Ellerey to his lodging. If the token is to be given to-night he will not be there to receive it."

"It may be sent to him," said the Princess.

"That is why Dumitru watches by the Western Gate."

"The moment the token is given I must know," said Maritza. "I have a plan. I have had plenty of lonely hours in which to mature plans. I am longing to put them into action. We are too cautious, Frina."

"Your want of caution in going openly into the city has nearly ruined us, Maritza."

"I have many friends in the city."

"True, and many enemies; and it is the enemies who happen to be in power. Do not be impatient."

"Over-caution may be as fatal as impatience," Maritza answered. "We should advance a step each day, each night; do we advance?"

"So fast that we shall have to run quickly to keep abreast of affairs shortly. A few weeks ago had you any real hope of being in Sturatzberg? Yet you are here. Had you even a suspicion that Jules De Froilette had been working in his own interests for these two years past, and not in yours?"

"True, Frina, we have advanced. Heaven help De Froilette when I touch power. Who knows what injury he may not have done to my cause in these two years? And he has succeeded in drawing this English Captain into his schemes."

"Captain Ellerey does not like De Froilette," said Frina. "Tell me your plan, Maritza."

The Princess drew a flower carefully from the bowl and held it to her face, as though she were absorbed for a moment in its beauty and fragrance.

"Captain Ellerey left the Court with you, to-night," she said. "That was wisely thought of. Did he come willingly?"

Frina laughed, such a joy in the laugh that the Princess looked at her in astonishment.

"Yes, he came willingly, most willingly, I think."

"You hope to win him to my cause?"

"He is a man, I am a woman; I shall try."

"And then?"

"Then, Maritza-ah, we run on too fast. Tell me your plan."

"It is strange," said the Princess slowly; "but in England, as I told you, I once met Captain Ellerey. I told him who I was, and promised him work for his sword should he ever come to Wallaria."

"You told him that! Why?"

"I am a woman, and he is a man," the Princess answered.

For a moment the two women looked into each other's eyes. Then Frina, looked down and straightened a fold of her dress, while Maritza bent to inhale the perfume of the flowers in the vase. The Princess did not tell her plan, and Frina Mavrodin forgot to question her.

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