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   Chapter 8 THE IRON BRACELET

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 17282

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


When Lord Cloverton left Frina Mavrodin he hurried to the vestibule and sent a message to the King, asking for an immediate and private audience, and De Froilette saw the Ambassador go to the King's private apartment soon afterward. De Froilette knew that this sudden audience could only relate to one of two matters-either Lord Cloverton had made some discovery respecting the Princess Maritza, or else he was aware that Ellerey was with the Queen and was about to make some move which would defeat any conspiracy which might be in progress. That the Ambassador had any idea of the real state of affairs, De Froilette did not believe. He did not go at once to warn the Queen. It was only as the King and the Minister were leaving the private apartments that he realized the danger.

Lord Cloverton was troubled. The various pieces of the puzzle which he had fitted into places to his satisfaction suddenly seemed inadequate to fill the places he had assigned to them. To-night he had discovered a depth in Frina Mavrodin the existence of which he had never suspected. She had fenced him with his own weapons in a manner he was little accustomed to, and he had signally failed to make use of her in the way he desired. True, she had told him that Ellerey was with the Queen, but she had mentioned it as a circumstance of small importance. Was it? Was the casual information meant to mislead him? This frivolous woman was beginning to take a new position in the Ambassador's calculations, and he began, almost unconsciously, to look for some large space in the intricate puzzle which she might possibly fill. He had imagined that love linked her to Desmond Ellerey, and he was apparently mistaken; it was only friendship, and such friendship might mean anything.

He spoke to Captain Ward, telling him to be particularly observant of Ellerey, and then went to the King. It was unusual with him, but for once he had not determined what course of action to take even when he entered the King's room.

"What important twist have affairs taken, my lord?" asked the King.

"It is to prevent any twist that I ventured to ask for this audience, your Majesty. I am forced to refer again to a subject which, on a former occasion, gave you some displeasure. You must pardon my importunity, since I believe the danger is imminent."

"I am all attention," the King answered, conscious of the slight embarrassment there was in Lord Cloverton's manner.

"As you are aware," the Ambassador went on slowly, "I have always considered many of the plots which from time to time become apparent in Sturatzberg of small importance. I have, on the other hand, consistently warned your Majesty of the danger which might at any time manifest itself in a sudden development of the tactics of the brigands in the mountains. Their chief, Vasilici, may be a chief only in name, and it is certain that during the past few months many have joined him who are not brigands in any sense of the word, and who, I conceive, are merely using this outlaw as a convenient cloak to their wider and more sinister intentions."

"Certainly you have always been an alarmist in this matter," said the King, with a smile. "Whatever their intentions may be, the fact remains that they have always fled at the approach of a handful of troops."

"Which is rather unnatural, it seems to me," Lord Cloverton answered quickly. "Whatever else he may lack, your brigand is not deficient in courage, and it must be remembered that the troops sent against these men have never succeeded in finding a trace of their spoils."

"Do you suggest that they have been warned of the expeditions sent against them?"

"I think it probable."

"By whom, my lord?"

"We might laugh at the danger, your Majesty, could I answer that question," replied the Ambassador. "It must be remembered that there are many in Sturatzberg who, while personally loyal to you, are not satisfied with your foreign policy; who believe that Wallaria is too much under the direction of the greater European Powers, and would help you to emancipation in spite of yourself."

"A judgment which is the outcome of ignorance, Lord Cloverton."

"I think so, but it is not reasonable to suppose that they do," returned the Ambassador. "Such a feeling is prevalent in all grades of society in Sturatzberg, from her Majesty Queen Elena, down to the beggars in the Altstrasse."

"The Queen, my lord!" exclaimed the King sharply.

"I do not speak hastily, your Majesty, Queen Elena has all those attributes which go to make a great ruler. She has courage, diplomacy, tact, and deep in her heart lies a living, beating interest in her country's welfare."

"Such praise seems merely the mask for an accusation, my lord. I must request you to be more explicit."

"To be so, your Majesty, was my reason for asking for this interview. I humbly protest, however, that I make no accusation in the ordinary sense of the word. Her Majesty's conception of her country's welfare is, I venture to think, an erroneous one, although I imagine her desire is only to help forward a policy which she believes is near to your heart."

"Enough, Lord Cloverton, let us get to the root of the matter quickly.

Our absence will be remarked and occasion comment."

The King spoke irritably, and the Ambassador felt the delicacy and difficulty of the position. He was not quite sure of his ground. He was rather in the position of one who draws a bow at a venture, and yet he had a shrewd suspicion in which direction the mark lay. Of one thing he was certain-the danger; and he felt justified in taking any risk for the purpose of preventing trouble.

"To-night the Queen has given a special audience to a countryman of mine, a Captain Desmond Ellerey in your Majesty's service," said the Ambassador, speaking quietly and concisely. "This Captain Ellerey is a man of courage and resource, in a way an adventurer, prepared for any hazardous enterprise if he is once convinced that it is in the service of his adopted country. I believe the Queen intends to send him upon some secret mission which, although she may be ignorant of the fact, will militate against your Majesty, and against your peaceful policy."

"An accusation of treason!" exclaimed the King. "You go too far, my lord."

"I make no such accusation; I only fear an act which may lead to treason in others, and seek to prevent it."

"Why not question Captain Ellerey?"

"I have done so, but to no purpose."

"I will question him," said the King. "Why not question her Majesty?"

Lord Cloverton suggested. "Captain Ellerey is with her at this moment."

"You shall go with me, Lord Cloverton," said the King. "Since you have such suspicions it is no time for secret questionings. Her Majesty shall hear your accusation and shall answer it."

The Ambassador bowed. The King's decision pleased him. If he had not succeeded in raising the King's suspicion, he had raised his anger, which would serve the same purpose, and Lord Cloverton still held the trump card in his hand.

The moment Ellerey had left her, the Queen glanced hastily around the room. She slipped the box she had shown him underneath some papers in her drawer, and then with a smile reseated herself, and, drawing paper toward her, she rapidly began to write a note to Frina Mavrodin.

She rose quickly with a little gesture of surprise when the King and the English Ambassador were announced. The King strode into the room, anger still in his face, but Lord Cloverton came to a halt near the door.

"Your Majesty is welcome," said the Queen, "but you look troubled. I fear I spend too little time helping to share your Majesty's difficulties."

"To defeat intrigues is my hourly occupation, Elena, but there are some intrigues, or whispers of them, which call for special treatment; they are not to be met by counterplot, but by open speech and outspoken denial."

"Am I accused?" the Queen asked.

"Lord Cloverton has seen fit to warn me."

"Of what?" she asked innocently, looking toward the Ambassador.

The King hesitated for a moment, almost as though he wished Lord Cloverton would speak. "To-night you have received Captain Ellerey in private audience," he said after a moment's pause.

"I have."

"May I know for what purpose?"

The Queen looked first at her husband, then at the Ambassador, her glance lingering on the latter for a moment.

"I cannot tell you why," she answered slowly. "It was a matter of no great importance, but it was essentially private. I would be unfair to Captain Ellerey to speak of it."

It may have been the flicke

r of triumph upon the Ambassador's face which urged the King on.

"We expected to find Captain Ellerey still with you."

"The audience was a short one," was the answer.

"I am afraid I must demand to know its purport," said the King. "I do so in your own interests."

"You wish me to deny some accusation Lord Cloverton has made against me. I tremble lest I may be unable to do so. Of what frivolity do I stand accused?" and she smiled at the Ambassador with an innocent expression on her face pleading for lenient judgment.

"Of no frivolity," said the King. "Lord Cloverton has suggested that you have despatched this Captain Ellerey upon some secret mission to the enemies of our country, seeking to do us a service, but in truth jeopardizing our policy of peace, perchance our throne. In substance, my lord, that is your accusation, I think?"

"That is so," returned the Ambassador.

"To what enemies?" asked the Queen, after a pause.

"Is there any need to particularize?" said the King irritably. "The accusation is either true or false."

"It is false."

The denial was quietly spoken, but an angry flush glowed in her cheeks. "By your Majesty's leave, such an accusation should be definite, and again I ask, what enemies?"

"I will be definite," said Lord Cloverton. "Doubtless you have not considered well-"

"Be direct, too, my lord; what enemies?"

"I will. I mean those enemies who are in communication with the traitors who have joined the brigand Vasilici in the mountains."

"You accuse me of holding communication with these men?"

"Your Majesty must pardon my bluntness, I do."

"You are pardoned, and thanked also," she said lightly. "Such bluntness comes more directly at the heart of the matter than much diplomacy, and is more easily answered. I deny the charge." And then, turning to the King, she went on: "For my own protection I am constrained to tell you the purpose of Captain Ellerey's visit to me. He has quickly received the favor of one of the ladies of our Court, a favor for which I am in some measure responsible. When Captain Ellerey first came among us, he furnished us with subject for jesting by declaring that no woman had ever played a serious part in his life. I expressed a belief that such a statement would rouse feminine enthusiasm in Sturatzberg, and I have since often questioned him whether he could truthfully repeat the declaration. It was a jest, but seriousness has come of it. Captain Ellerey's ambition has flown high, even to the Countess Mavrodin. Such an ambition must bring him bitter enemies, in numbers like leaves in autumn; and if to-night I have persuaded him against soaring so high, if I have made Frina Mavrodin's position in Sturatzberg plainer to him and endeavored privately to warn him against such an ambition, have I done aught to pander to my country's enemies or to jeopardize your Majesty's throne?" The question was asked in such a manner as to make the King laugh.

"No, but by my faith, your interference may have jeopardized the lady's happiness. Is she to have no voice in the matter?"

"I fear she is somewhat fascinated by Captain Ellerey," said the Queen with a smile, "but such a thing as marriage is not to be thought of. Think of it. Frina Mavrodin and a Captain of Horse! You English place no limits to your ambition," she added, turning to Lord Cloverton.

"Love leaps over all obstacles," said the King.

But her Majesty was ready with arguments to prove that the affair was no laughing matter. She even suggested that such a marriage might have a political significance, might lead to complications which would have serious consequences, even to some revolution such as Lord Cloverton had accused her of fostering. It was no laughing matter as his Majesty would make it, and her interference was not unnecessary, but intended to serve the State. Even were Captain Ellerey to rise to great distinction, she argued, such an alliance would still be fraught with danger. The Countess Mavrodin with her wealth, with her prestige, and her close connection with the noblest houses in Sturatzberg, was not for a soldier of fortune, as, at the best, Captain Ellerey was. She became eloquent upon the subject, and the King watched the Ambassador, a smile upon his lips, in anticipation of his discomfiture.

"I had already begun a letter to the Countess," said the Queen, taking up the paper on which she had written a few lines. "I want to show her plainly the impossibility of such a thing. Are you satisfied, Lord Cloverton?"

The Ambassador had remained standing by the door and had not taken his eyes from the Queen as she talked rapidly. There was no tell-tale expression on his face to indicate his thoughts. Now he advanced.

"Your Majesty thinks then that this folly, so far as the Countess

Mavrodin is concerned, is a serious matter?"

"I want to find out."

"If I am any judge, it is," said Lord Cloverton, "more serious with the lady than with the man. Her words went far to confirm my ideas respecting Captain Ellerey, her manner betrayed her own secret."

"You have spoken to her!"

"Yes, only to-night. Your Majesty exaggerates the political significance of such a marriage, I feel sure; it would make enemies for Captain Ellerey, no doubt, but he is the kind of man who is very capable of defending himself. A greatly daring Englishmen is an awkward man to encounter, and there seems to be a general desire to enlist the sympathy of Desmond Ellerey. That has made me suspicious, and using some knowledge which I possess concerning him, I have endeavored to make him apply for leave to return to England."

"To save him from the Countess?" said the Queen.

"No, your Majesty; to prevent his being drawn into a plot which seeks to overthrow the present government of this country."

"Is there such a plot?" she asked innocently.

"A dozen have existed ever since I came to the throne," said the King.

The Ambassador's persistency made him angry.

"Hiding themselves in holes like hunted vermin," Lord Cloverton returned sharply, "afraid to strike, afraid to be seen, with no plan of action ready, and altogether futile. I do not speak of such plots as these, but of one particular plot, whose ramifications spread and grow from end to end of Wallaria, penetrating to the very heart of the nation as surely as tree roots push their way to water. The head of it looks up watchfully from the hidden intrenchments on the mountains at intervals, waiting for the moment to strike. Anxiously is it waiting now."

"For what?" cried the King. "In heaven's name, for what, Lord

Cloverton?"

"For the token her Majesty delivered to Captain Ellerey to-night."

A profound silence followed this deliberate accusation. So unflinchingly was it made, so evident was it that the Ambassador had some knowledge which he had not divulged, that the King found no words to utter. He looked helplessly at the Queen like a man who has received a blow which has dazed him for the time being. The Ambassador's knowledge startled the Queen, too, but she did not shrink before his steady scrutiny. She was the first to break the silence.

"I gave no such token," she said.

Lord Cloverton started slightly at being given the lie so directly.

What subterfuge was a woman not capable of?

"You have your answer, my lord," said the King, moving toward his wife.

The Ambassador bowed. He could hardly pursue the matter further unless the King assisted him, and he turned to leave the room.

"You are not satisfied?" said the King sternly.

"No, your Majesty."

"What proof can you have? What was the token?"

Lord Cloverton turned quickly. It was the very question he had hoped for.

"A sacred treasure of Sturatzberg, the iron bracelet her Majesty is accustomed to wear upon her arm." Again there was silence, and, set as his face was, the mask was insufficient to hide the Ambassador's excitement. The Queen stood for a moment quite conscious of the dramatic effect of the silent pause, and then she made three rapid strides toward the Ambassador. With a sudden sweep of her right hand she ripped open the left sleeve of her gown from wrist to shoulder and thrust out her arm to him.

"I demand your apology, Lord Cloverton."

She stood imperiously before him, looking down at him. Fire was in her eyes, an angry flush upon her cheeks, triumph in look and gesture. It would have gone hard with any subject who had dared to accuse her. The Ambassador was obliged to murmur his apology, for, tightly clasped upon the gleaming white and rounded arm, was the bracelet of iron.

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