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   Chapter 7 THE TIME ARRIVES

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 25496

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


Within a short time of Lord Cloverton's return to the Embassy, spies and secret-service agents were abroad in the city endeavoring to discover the whereabouts of Princess Maritza. The Ambassador at once telegraphed to the Foreign Office in London, and received the answer that the report of her return to Wallaria was absurd, that she was certainly on her way to Australia. This confident answer, however, did not satisfy Lord Cloverton, in spite of the fact that no news of the Princess was forth coming. That she could have returned to Sturatzberg without his knowledge, more, without the knowledge of any of those who were so eager to keep her out of the country, seemed impossible; but then in diplomacy it was often the impossible things which happened. He was too astute a man to underrate the undoubted ability of De Froilette. There were few men who probed more accurately the likely trend of future events, or who were quicker to recognize opportunities and seize them than the Frenchman, and Lord Cloverton argued that he was far too clever a man to tell such an unlikely story merely to serve his own ends. He would know that the very improbability of the tale would have the effect of drawing attention to himself and his actions. No, whether the report were true or not, De Froilette believed it, and evidently saw danger to himself in the presence of Princess Maritza. At the same time he might perceive a favorable opportunity in the state of affairs to exploit his own plans, and Lord Cloverton took the precaution to have the Frenchman under careful observation.

The unexpected information had also caused the Ambassador to reconsider Captain Ellerey's position in Sturatzberg. It was quite possible that he knew more about the Princess than any one else. He was the kind of man who would have nerve and determination enough to attempt a desperate venture, and having little to lose and all to win, might go far toward success. He and De Froilette apparently held little communication with each other; the characteristics of the two men were antagonistic; and the Englishman might be quite as capable of playing a deep game as the Frenchman was.

It was a sleepless night for the Ambassador. This was just such a complication as might embroil the nations of Europe in strife, an excuse which might serve to snap diplomatic relations and spread the lurid clouds of war from the Ural range to the shores of the Atlantic. One thing seemed certain, De Froilette had not repeated his information broadcast. No intimation reached Lord Cloverton that the report had even been whispered in any of the other Embassies, and there was some consolation in this.

No news came during the following day. Wherever the Princess was, her secret was well kept, probably because only a few persons had been admitted into it, and it seemed evident that no special movement had taken place in her favor, or had even been arranged for. Some bold coup d'etat might be in contemplation, and although the many and diverse interests in the country were probably sufficient to render any attempt abortive in itself, yet such an attempt might be the one thing needed to fan the smouldering ashes into flame, starting a conflagration which would burn throughout Europe. Such fires never die out-they are always smouldering.

Any person who had watched Lord Cloverton closely when he went to the palace that night, would have been struck by his particular alertness. He was observant of the composition of the different groups in the rooms, of those who were chiefly about her Majesty, and of those who danced together. The slightest confidential whisper near him attracted his attention, and more than once he caused a blush to mount to a pretty woman's cheeks by suddenly surprising a murmured love passage meant for no other ears but her own. To those to whom he spoke he succeeded in giving the impression that he had only a few moments to spare them, that he was purposely keeping himself free, but he managed to suggest that it was not business, but some pleasure he anticipated.

He glanced round all the rooms in search of Captain Ellerey, who either had not yet arrived, or had already retired into some quiet corner, probably with the Countess Mavrodin. The last conjecture was wrong, however, for standing in a position which commanded the entrance to the suite of state rooms, the Ambassador presently saw Frina Mavrodin on the arm of an attache of the Austrian Embassy, an offshoot of a princely house who, rumor said, had already been twice refused by the fair lady, and was only awaiting an opportunity to adventure his case for a third time. He was evidently persuading her to dance with him, and she was laughingly protesting, perhaps promising to do so later in the evening. She was, however, not averse to his company, for she palpably kept him by her side, and they remained talking and laughing together, the man extremely happy, the woman watchful and rather preoccupied, the Ambassador thought.

For half an hour or more she remained there, evidently using the Austrian's presence to keep herself free from other companions. Several spoke to her, but since the attache did not move away, the new arrivals were obliged to leave her after exchanging a few words. At last Lord Cloverton noticed that the expression of her face suddenly changed. She looked at him, or rather beyond him, and turning to discover the cause, he saw Desmond Ellerey crossing the room toward her. He also became aware that Baron Petrescu was standing close to him and that he was watching Ellerey, too.

Frina Mavrodin spoke quickly to her cavalier, telling him perhaps where he would find her for the promised dance, but at any rate she dismissed him. For a few moments Ellerey stood beside her, her smiling face raised to his, and then they went slowly toward the ball-room.

"The little comedy interests you, my lord."

"Well, Baron, my white hair gives me credit for greater age than does the feeling of youth which is still in me. I am young enough, even now, to recognize love, and to take an interest in it-in others, of course."

Baron Petrescu shrugged his shoulders rather contemptuously.

"The moth ever flits to the candle, and usually gets burnt," he said.

"Would not the lodestone be the more apposite simile?" asked Lord

Cloverton. "In that case the attraction brings no hurt, Baron."

"Time will show which is the best simile," was the answer. "He interests me, this Captain Ellerey."

"He interests the lady too, it seems," replied the Ambassador. "Indeed,

Captain Ellerey interests many people."

"I trust his courage is equal to his ambition," said the Baron with a smile. "There are others striving for the same prize, my lord, who do not easily accept defeat, and are content to pin their honor to the sword's point."

"Jealous," said Lord Cloverton to himself as the Baron turned away, still with a smile upon his face, but with a movement of his shoulders which suggested an angry bird ruffling its feathers. "He means mischief. Ellerey may find his hands fuller than he expects, if the Baron's weapon is as ready as his tongue. Sentiment compels me to wish my countryman victory, but politically-ah! a cunning thrust which would lay him aside for a few weeks would be very convenient to me, and perhaps not the worst thing which could happen for him." And Lord Cloverton went toward the ball-room.

The Countess and her cavalier had disappeared.

"Are you still watching the Ambassador?" Ellerey had asked, as she placed her hand upon his arm.

"No."

"Then let us get out of the crowd. Few people seem to know of the alcove off the ball-room."

"And why such a desire for solitude, Captain Ellerey?" she said, seating herself in a corner and making room for him beside her.

"Not solitude, Countess, but restful companionship. I am not desirous of living perpetually under the eye of Lord Cloverton, and, after what he said, I imagine he watches me pretty closely."

"And is as closely watched," she replied.

"Have you found out anything which affects me?" Ellerey asked after a pause.

She hesitated.

"Not directly."

"Indirectly, then?"

"Perhaps, a little. It is a small matter, but it interested me. It has nothing to do with Sturatzberg, but with England."

Ellerey was silent. Could Lord Cloverton have repeated his story?

"May I know the nature of the-crime is it?-which is imputed to me?"

"It is no crime, Captain Ellerey-rather a romance. I should have repudiated the idea of a crime in connection with you."

"Countess, that is the kindest thing you have ever said to me."

She looked into his face, and the color came into her own.

"Are we not friends?" she said, "and is it not the elemental part of friendship to believe nothing ill? I would hardly believe a confession of crime, though your own lips spoke it. No, this information was about a woman."

"Unknown women are a dangerous subject between us, Countess," said Ellerey, with a smile. "I am barely forgiven yet for the mysterious lady of the Altstrasse."

"This is not an unknown woman, but a very famous one-none other than

Princess Maritza of Wallaria. You have heard of her?"

"I have not only heard of her, but seen her and spoken to her."

"And admired her?" she asked.

"Yes, her beauty and her indomitable courage."

"That is what I heard, that you admired her."

"It is a very strange thing for you to hear. I only saw her once, for ten minutes, perhaps. She was a schoolgirl, and playing truant. We met upon the downs one breezy morning, a hat blown away by the wind served for introduction, and I have never seen her since."

"It was not for her sake, then, that you came to Wallaria?"

"Ah! is that what Lord Cloverton thinks!" exclaimed Ellerey. "Now I understand his attitude more clearly."

"You do not answer my question," she said.

"Her story of the state of affairs in Wallaria certainly gave me the idea of seeking fortune in this country."

"And love?" she said.

Ellerey looked at her quickly and wondered. He was not one of those who believe that they have the power of charming any woman, and his companion's sudden question and attitude startled him. More than one answer sprang to his lips ready to trip lightly and pleasantly to her ears, but they were not spoken. Instead he laughed gayly and said:

"A Princess and a poor Captain of Horse, Countess? Such a flight of fancy after ten minutes' conversation! Oh, you jest and laugh at me."

There was a further question in her glance and attitude, but it was not asked, for a man appeared at the entrance of the alcove.

"I have been seeking you, Captain Ellerey," he said. "Her Majesty commands your attendance. Will you come with me?"

Ellerey rose at once.

"You will pardon me, Countess. I must make another opportunity of quarrelling with you for laughing at me. Shall I take you back to the ball-room?"

"No, thank you. I am tired, and will stay here." And with a low bow

Ellerey left her.

The fact that he had been sent for and the probable meaning of that interview, did not take first place in Frina Mavrodin's thoughts for a time. She was considering Ellerey's answer to her question, trying to understand it when viewed in the light of the Princess's declaration. Maritza could only have intended her to understand one thing, and to-night she had endeavored to surprise the truth from Captain Ellerey. Had she succeeded in learning anything? Surely in such a casual meeting no lasting impression could have been formed, and yet love works in sudden and inexplicable fashion sometimes. The Princess seemed to have treasured the memory of that meeting; Ellerey admitted that it was the cause of his coming to Sturatzberg. Frina Mavrodin remembered, as though they had been noted down in one continuous story, everything Captain Ellerey had ever said to her, and the manner in which he had said it. She had allowed herself to indulge in a dream, which had had naught but pleasure in it until the Princess had looked into her eyes in so strange a fashion; and now that she had sought the truth from Ellerey himself, she was still left in doubt, in a half-waking uncertainty, which had a sense of pain in it.

It was some time before the thought that Ellerey was with the Queen came uppermost in her mind, urging her to be on the alert. She was in the act of rising when a shadow fell upon her, and Lord Cloverton stood in the entrance.

"Alone, Countess!" he exclaimed. "What great event has happened in

Sturatzberg?"

"None that I am aware of, my lord."

"And yet you are alone. It is so rare a circumstance that you must pardon my astonishment."

"Even such a frivolous person as I am welcomes solitude sometimes," she answered.

"I would not allow my dearest friend to so malign you, Countess," said the Ambassador, seating himself beside her. "I expected to find Captain Ellerey with you."

"You wish to speak with him?"

"Yes, but it can wait," answered Lord Cloverton carelessly. "Success is the result of skilfully seizing opportunities, and in finding you alone an opportunity comes to me. Will you spare me a moment?"

She bowed a smiling acquiescence as though the question were unnecessary.

"Like me, Countess, I am sure you take little interest in uninteresting people, therefore you must have found this Captain Ellerey interesting. So have I-so interesting, indeed, that I have wondered why he came to Wallaria."

"He has not given me so much of his confidence as you appear to imagine, my lord."

"He has not told you! Ah, then I will, in confidence, Countess, in confidence."

"I understand, and I shall respect it," she answered, eager to learn what explanation the Ambassador would give.

"He had enemies in England who made certain charges against him which were absolutely without foundation; but so skilfully had they been manipulated that Captain Ellerey was unable to prove them false. His nature is an impatient one, and in anger he turned his back upon England and came to Sturatzberg. In Wallaria there were possibilities. I can understand his action, Countess; it was a natural one in a man of his independent character, but it was foolish. It gave credence to the tales which had been circulated. Now, Countess, influential friends have taken up his case, and he ought to go back to England."

"But why tell this to me, my lord?"

"A woman's persuasion, Countess, is all-powerful."

She looked at him quickly.

"But you have told me this in confidence. How can I approach the subject and yet keep confidence?"

"You flatter me most delicately by asking my advice on such a matter. Is it not true that a woman can frame her questions so that a man is compelled to answer?"

"Some men, perhaps."

"Captain Ellerey, I think," said the Ambassador.

"Under certain conditions."

"Exactly," he answered.

"When the questions are asked by one particular woman," she said.

"You have caught my meaning exactly, Countess."

"But as it happens, Lord Cloverton, I am not the one particular woman."

The Ambassador turned a smiling countenance toward her.

"My dear lady, you do yourself a gross injustice."

The look he expected to find in her face he did not see there. He had believed himself possessed of one secret. He suddenly perceived that he had possibly discovered another-one that might be even more certainly used to his own advantage, and he made haste to turn it to account.

"If I am mistaken," he said slowly, "Captain Ellerey sinks in my estimation as a stone in water. If I am wrong your displeasure should urge his return to England, for he is no fit cavalier for Countess Mavrodin. He would be a mere adventurer to whom every woman is a pleasant plaything-one whose honor is for barter to the highest bidder. Such men may well be advised to return to their native land."

"As I am not the one particular woman so am I not a plaything, my lord. Has your philosophy no position which a woman may occupy between the two?"

"In this case I think not."

"Such a small position as friendship, for instance," she said, rising.

"Captain Ellerey and I are fast friends."

"I hardly know whether I can congratulate you," said Lord Cloverton, rising, too, and showing no sign of annoyance or recognition of defeat.

"You will pardon me, but I fear I may have been missed," and then as they passed into the ball-room he went on, "I will respect your confidence, but may I suggest that your knowledge of Captain Ellerey's affairs may be useful to him? Why not advise him yourself? At present he is with the Queen; when I see him again I will tell him that you wish to speak to him."

"I have already given him my advice, Countess. I thought to do him a service by sending him a more powerful advocate." And the Ambassador left her and went quickly toward the vestibule. As she turned, Monsieur De Froilette bowed low to her; he too was hastening toward the vestibule.

When Desmond Ellerey had followed the messenger across the ball-room, his guide suddenly paused and said in a low tone:

"Her Majesty is in her private apartment, and I am instructed to take you there. Will you come with me this way?"

He turned from the ballroom and led Ellerey along a corridor and through a door, which he locked after him. They passed up one corridor and down another for a little distance, and then ushering him into an ante-room, his guide left him there while he went to inform the Queen of his arrival. In a few moments he returned, and, holding open a door, bid him enter.

The Queen was alone, seated by a table at which she had been writing.

Ellerey approached her and bent over her hand.

"The time has come, Captain Ellerey," she said. "You are ready?"

"I am only waiting your Majesty's commands."

"You have been sent once or twice, Captain Ellerey, to dislodge a certain brigand called Vasilici from his fastnesses in the mountains, and have experienced disappointment perhaps in not finding him."

"That is so, your Majesty."

"It was never intended that you should find him," she answered. "For months past loyal subjects have been gathering in the mountains with Vasilici, waiting for our word to revolt against the thraldom this country is under to foreign nations. In the future it is for us to dictate, not to obey. His Majesty, watched as he is, cannot act freely, so the duty devolves on me. It is for you to proclaim that we in Sturatzberg are ready, by carrying a token to Vasilici, which I will give you, and which you must guard with your life, Captain Ellerey. The mission with which you are intrusted is a hazardous one. Faction is rife in the country, and spies lurk in every corner of it. Even now there may be some setting out upon the road to bar your way to Vasilici. But for the trusted bearer of this token await high honor and great reward."

"Even for a foreigner?" asked Ellerey.

"You are no more one, Captain Ellerey. This is the land of your adoption, and by this service are you not proving yourself a worthy son?"

"Your Majesty commands. I am content to trust to your Majesty for my reward; but one thing troubles me."

"What is that?"

"The revolution-for such it must be-will heat men's blood against the foreigner. May I ask consideration for Lord Cloverton and his staff at the British Embassy?"

"You have our word that no harm shall come to them. We are not fighting Embassies, but the riff-raff which has come into our land-the adventurers who bear themselves as though they were our masters. We have been under an iron flail from the palace to the hovel. It is against this subjection that we rebel. You are prepared to fight and win with us."

"I am waiting for the token, your Majesty."

"I love a man of few words," she said; "and as surely as success will come, I pledge my word that the ribbon of the Golden Lion of Sturatzberg shall be yours, Captain Ellerey, and with it revenue sufficient to bear it fittingly. This is the token," she went on, baring her arm, on which, just above the elbow, was a bracelet of iron, a chain joining together four medallions. "It is an ancient treasure of Wallaria, worn, it is said, by savage kings in this country before ever the Romans had trampled it with their all-conquering legions. I will seal it in this box, which you must guard with your life and bear to Vasilici. Seeing it, he will welcome you as he would ourself. With him return triumphantly to Sturatzberg, and if a rabble of rebellious soldiery, led away by traitors who are among us, stand in your way, I can trust Captain Ellerey's sword to cut a path through it. Will you unclasp the bracelet for me? the fastening is difficult."

As she held out her arm the door opened, and the servant who had fetched

Ellerey entered.

"Monsieur De Froilette, your Majesty, has just informed me that his

Majesty is on his way here."

For one moment the Queen stood undecided.

"Do not unfasten it, Captain Ellerey," she said, laying a detaining hand upon his. "To-morrow, some time before midnight, it shall be sent to you. Not to your lodging, that might be dangerous. Wait for it at the Toison d'Or. It is an inn of no repute in the Bergenstrasse, which runs toward the Southern Gate. This same messenger who came to you to-night shall bring it, sealed as I have said. Then make all speed to Vasilici, who lies in the neighborhood of the Drekner Pass. Now go. Quickly. He will show you the way."

It was by a different way they returned.

"The Toison d'Or about midnight," said his guide as he stood to open a door, "and monsieur would do well to leave his lodging by the Western Gate as soon as he has prepared for the journey. This passage will take monsieur to the vestibule."

As he went toward the staircase, determined to leave the palace at once, Ellerey saw Baron Petrescu leaning against the marble balustrade talking to one of his companions. There were certain men at Court who appeared to follow the Baron like his shadow. He was watching all those who left the palace as carefully as on a former occasion he had scrutinized all those who entered it, and again Ellerey's appearance seemed to release him from his labors. With a whispered word to his companion he moved hastily among the people who were crossing to the stairs, and contriving to jostle Ellerey, came to a standstill directly in front of him.

"I am waiting, monsieur," he said.

"For what?"

"Your apology."

"You jest with me. I have none to make."

"Monsieur is slow to appreciate," said the Baron, with a curl of his lip. "He forgets that he has stared most insufferably at me on many occasions, and that now he attempts to bar my progress."

"I appreciate that you wish to quarrel with me," Ellerey answered bluntly, "but I am in no mood for quarrelling. Will monsieur oblige by standing out of my way, or must I be at the trouble of throwing him down the stairs?"

The answer came quickly and was to the point. With a sudden sweep of his arm Baron Petrescu struck Ellerey sharply across the face with his glove.

Perhaps there was something in Ellerey's expression which made the Baron's companion step hastily to his side. Experience may have taught him that Englishmen have a strange habit of punishing such insults on the spot with a total disregard of all formalities. Perhaps it was his action which prevented Ellerey carrying out his intention. He drew himself up to his full height, the air whistling through his clenched teeth as he caught his breath, and then he bowed slightly to the Baron, who turned away, leaving his companion to settle the matter.

"Monsieur will give me the name of a friend, so that we may arrange for this affair to-morrow."

"Why not to-night? I never sleep upon my quarrels."

"Impossible, monsieur."

"Is not the choice with me?"

"Certainly, but-"

"Then I say to-night," Ellerey answered. "There was a moon when I entered the palace."

The man shrugged his shoulders, disgusted at the utter barbarity of these Englishmen.

"The name of your friend, then, monsieur?"

Ellerey was in a difficulty. He could think of no one to whom he was desirous of intrusting an affair of this kind. Before he could reply, however, he felt a touch upon his arm.

"Can I be of service?" The speaker was an Englishman and a stranger to him.

"You will be doing me a great favor, monsieur, and I thank you."

The stranger at once went aside with the Baron's friend, In a few minutes he returned.

"Come, Captain Ellerey. It is in half an hour's time." And with an assenting inclination of his head Ellerey went slowly down the stairs with his companion.

As he did so a woman came from a corner, and leaning over the balustrade, watched the descending figures. Her face was pale, and her lips trembled.

"I have sought you for my promised dance," said a voice behind her.

"What is interesting the Countess so much?"

"I was thinking that the moon will be setting shortly," she answered absent-mindedly. "In an hour it will be dark or very nearly."

"Well, Countess, what can that matter?" said the Austrian attache.

She looked at him vaguely for a moment, thinking of the man who had just descended the stairs. Then she said with manifest effort and a faint smile as she laid her hand upon the attache's arm:

"No, indeed; what can it matter-to me?"

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