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   Chapter 9 THE DUEL

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 18782

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


The aspect of the night had changed when Ellerey and his companion left the palace. Fleecy clouds raced across the sky, veiling the face of the moon at intervals, and making her light fitful and uncertain. The air struck cold after the warmth within, but beyond drawing his cloak a little closer round him, Desmond Ellerey seemed indifferent to the night and to the business he had in hand.

He asked no questions, and with his eyes bent on the ground followed his companion mechanically. The cause of the quarrel interested him more than the issue of it. Why had Baron Petrescu drawn him into this duel? It had obviously been carefully planned, and the insult deliberately given at a moment when Ellerey was least desirous of placing his life in jeopardy. He could only assume that her Majesty's schemes were, to some extent at least, known to the Baron, and that having other interests to serve, he was bent on incapacitating him from performing the mission he had undertaken. That the Baron had any personal quarrel with him he did not believe.

Ellerey's companion, on the other hand, was interested in the night. Each time the moonlight grew pale, or died out altogether for a moment, he looked at the sky and glanced quickly at Ellerey. He was the more excited of the two.

"This is a treacherous light for our work," he said, presently. "We should have been wiser to have waited until morning."

"I have other work for the morning," Ellerey answered.

"Are you a skilful swordsman? The Baron is."

"Is he?" said Ellerey, indifferently. "I have some reputation in my regiment, but doubtless I shall be a better judge of my skill presently. Where do we go?"

"To tell the truth, I hardly like the rendezvous," was the answer. "It is a stretch of sward behind an obscure tavern in this part of the town. Did I not know the Baron to be an honorable man, I should have refused the meeting in such a place. Your decision to fight to-night made our choice limited."

Ellerey stopped and looked about him. They had turned from a side street into a narrow thoroughfare with tall, dark houses on either side. The neighborhood looked particularly uninviting.

"Where are we?" he asked suddenly, remembering that he knew nothing of his companion, and that by accepting the service he had so readily offered he might be quietly stepping into a trap. Such a thing would agree very well with the rest of Baron Petrescu's behavior.

"Beyond knowing that we are in the purlieus of a lower part of the town and on the outskirts of the city, I am as puzzled as you are."

"You seem very credulous of the Baron's honesty, monsieur, to agree so such a place as this. Which way now?"

"To the bottom of this street, where we are to wait. The Baron's friend will meet us there."

"We will keep the appointment so far," said Ellerey shortly. "I came to meet Baron Petrescu, but I am not minded to step blindly into a nest of cut-throats." He strode on as alert now as he had been indifferent before, and it was not until they had nearly reached the end of the street that his companion spoke.

"One moment," he said. "By that light yonder we are to wait. You do not trust me, Captain Ellerey?"

"I have not said so."

"That admits my statement," was the answer. "Until a moment ago that aspect of the case had not presented itself to me, but on reflection I can hardly wonder at your distrust. The circumstances tell against me, but had I been in any conspiracy against you, I should hardly have called your attention to the strangeness of the rendezvous. I have, however, a better guarantee of my honesty: I am a countryman of yours, an Englishman. I like this affair as little as you do; but if you are minded to see it through, I have a sword and the will to fight beside you should there be any attempt at treachery. There's my hand upon it."

It was not the words, but the manner in which they were spoken that convinced Ellerey, and he took the hand held out to him.

"Forgive my momentary suspicion," he said. "We meet by the light yonder, you say."

The light came from a dim lamp in an upper window. It might have been placed there as a signal, or some poor seamstress, in the struggle for a livelihood, might be ruining her health and sight by it. It must, at any rate, have been very constantly there, or it would not so readily have been mentioned to mark a place of meeting. As they went toward it, the figures of two men became dimly visible standing in the shadow of the wall. One advanced to meet them, and addressed himself to Ellerey's companion.

"I much regret this unusual mode of procedure, but it is unavoidable under the circumstances and in view of your friend's decision to fight to-night. May I request that you will follow us in silence?"

The other man moved from the shadow. It was Baron Petrescu; and going to the house which was next to that in which the lamp shone, he knocked twice at the door in a peculiar manner which was evidently a known summons to those within. Some considerable time elapsed before the summons was answered, but the Baron showed no impatience, and this manifest knowledge of the ways of the establishment did not inspire Ellerey with confidence. Once within, murder and concealment of the crime might be easy. Who was there in all Sturatzberg to know that he had ever entered this house? And how many were there in the wide world to care whether he ever left it?

Presently the door opened a little space, and a shaggy head was thrust out in a truculent manner. Whether the Baron spoke to him, or whether the man recognized his visitor, Ellerey could not determine, but the door was opened wide, and they were admitted into a small, ill-lighted lobby. The entrance was a private one, not a usual cafe entrance, but the smell of stale liquor and smoke and the reek of highly spiced dishes proved that the cafe was under the same roof, and proclaimed it as a resort of that lower stratum of society which loves its food pungent and highly flavored. That there was such silence in the house was surprising.

"A private visit, Theodor," said the Baron. "We do not join the assembly to-night. Reassure them, and let us have a word with you."

Theodor opened one of the folding-doors in the lobby, and in a stentorian voice shouted some word, which Ellerey did not catch. Its effect was magical. Immediately there arose a loud hum of voices, the clinking and clatter of innumerable glasses and plates, and the rattle of dice and dominoes. Then Theodor let the door swing to again, muffling the sounds of this living hive, and led the way into a small bare room at the side.

The Baron's companion now became the spokesman.

"We have a little matter to settle, Theodor, a private quarrel which does concern the good fellows yonder, and of which they must know nothing. The grass alley in the garden will serve our purpose. Let us out quietly, and have a care that no one wanders that way to cool an aching head until we have departed."

Theodor looked from the speaker to his companions, each in turn, and Ellerey keenly watched the man's eyes to note if any look of understanding were exchanged. He could detect none.

"Of course, of course, it is a good spot for such matter, but if one is killed?"

"Well, Theodor, there is earth enough in the garden for burial."

Theodor shrugged his shoulders.

"And you will call none to help you with that work?"

"No. Have I not said that the matter is private?"

"And there is no surgeon."

"I have sufficient skill for that," was the answer. "Come, Theodor, time presses, and the moon will not serve us long."

"Is it in the cause?"

"No," said Baron Petrescu, sharply, as though he were afraid some different answer would be given, but Ellerey could not help believing that the cause, whatever it might be, was at the bottom of the whole affair, that the Baron had designedly insulted him that evening because of it, and that his speedy removal was considered necessary to the well-being of it. Theodor did not seem to believe the Baron's statement either, but it was apparent that either he had not the power or the desire to oppose the Baron, for he answered quickly:

"I see. Will an hour be enough?"

"More than enough."

"Good. Then in one hour I will walk through the garden, and shall find it empty. I shall know that anyone with an aching head is free to cool it there, and if there be a grave to trample on, what matter? No one will know."

Without further words he led the way down a narrow passage, at the end of which he quietly unbarred a door.

"Three steps down," he said by way of caution, as he stood aside to let them pass. He watched them until their figures were lost in the shadows of the garden, and then he closed and barred the door again.

It was a garden of some extent, and little heaps of chairs and small three-legged tables showed that on warm nights the frequenters of the cafe drank their wine and threw their dice there instead of within. The lights in the house-the cafe seemed to occupy only the back of it-shone through the shrubberies, and the murmur and clatter were plainly audible as the four men crossed the lawn and went toward the end of the garden along tortuous paths which made the really short distance seem a long one.

At last they came out on to a level piece of turf surround

ed on all sides by high hedges, through which were many openings leading to other parts of the garden, and through one of which they had come. There were trees here and there, the long shadows thrown across the turf, and without absolutely obscuring the moonlight, they made it extremely difficult to fight a duel by. Baron Petrescu walked to one end of the lawn, and Ellerey to the other, leaving the two seconds together to make final arrangements. Once convinced that his adversary contemplated no treachery, Ellerey sank again into his indifferent state, paying no attention to the choosing of the ground, taking no note of the light, nor considering how he might best use his position to the full advantage. The Baron, on the other hand, was quick to observe exactly how the shadows fell, and to calculate every chance which might help him.

"We are ready, Captain Ellerey."

Without a word Ellerey threw off his cloak and coat, and taking his sword, weighed it in his hand, testing its poise and balance.

"In case of accident is there anything you wish me to do?" asked his companion; "anything to take charge of, any message to send? The affair has been so hurried that there has been no time to make these small arrangements."

"Thank you, there is nothing," Ellerey answered. "Under the circumstances I am fortunate in not possessing a friend in the world who cares a snap of his fingers whether I am living or dead."

"Nor a woman?"

Ellerey hesitated for a moment.

"The Countess Mavrodin might be interested to learn that I was dead.

Yes, if anything should happen, please tell her."

"But in England?"

"There is no one," Ellerey answered.

A cloud passed over the moon as the combatants faced each other, and not until it had passed was the signal given. Then steel rang on steel with a music which sounded weirdly in the night. No other sound was there save a rustling in the leaves now and again as though they trembled in sympathy to some swift lunge or quickly parried thrust. The moon shone clearly for a space, touching the swords into two streaks of flashing light, and painting the men's set faces with a cold hue, ghostly, and deathlike. The Baron had a reputation as a swordsman, had stood face to face with an antagonist many times before, and more than once had seen his adversary turn sightless eyes to the morning sky. It was therefore, perhaps, only natural that he should have contemplated his encounter with the Englishman with equanimity. At the same time Ellerey's determination to settle the quarrel at once and by moonlight may have had the effect of making him more cautious than usual. Certainly his second, who had often seen him fight before, marvelled at his deliberation to-night. The well-known brilliancy of his attacks was wanting, and he could only suppose that the Englishman was a more worthy swordsman than he had imagined. Whatever deliberation the Baron used, he at first pressed the fight far more than Ellerey, whose whole attention seemed occupied in defending himself. He was less attractive to watch than the Baron, slower, it seemed, in his movements, and with less invention and resource, yet Petrescu appeared to gain no advantage. Every thrust he made was parried, if rather late sometimes, still parried, and he found that his adversary's wrist, if less flexible than his own, was of iron. He changed his tactics, he pressed the fight less and less, hoping to make the Englishman careless, and tempt him to attack more vigorously. In a measure the device succeeded. Ellerey's point began to flash toward him with a persistency he had not expected, but there was no less caution. Twice, thrice, the Baron used a feint and thrust which had seldom missed their intention, and had proved the undoing of many an adversary; but now they were met in the only manner it seemed that they could be met successfully. At the third failure the Baron's computation of the Englishman's skill underwent a rapid change. He had met his match, a foeman worthy of his steel, as consummate a swordsman as himself; and if for a moment there was a sense of disappointment, it was quickly followed by one of keen satisfaction not unmingled with a feeling of friendship for his antagonist. There was that in Baron Petrescu which he had received no credit for, even from his friends. What contempt he had had for Ellerey disappeared, and a desire to win for the mere sake of winning took possession of him. All the thoughts which had prompted him to this duel were forgotten; he was no longer intent on killing his adversary. Now to verify his superiority and to prove it to this worthy foeman was his ambition, and it was in this spirit he pressed the contest with increased energy. The night became full of eyes for him, eager eyes, watchful of his skill, and hushed in the silence a thousand voices seemed ready to proclaim his victory.

There was no such complication of thoughts in Ellerey's mind. The Baron had grossly insulted him, had forced this quarrel upon him, and he meant to punish him if he could. Whether he killed him or not was of small consequence so long as he thoroughly taught him a lesson.

Yet to him also the night had eyes, and the air a feeling of movement in it, stealthy movement that walked on tiptoe and held its breath. The steel sang, now high, now low, distinct sounds and continuous. The breeze rustled the leaves then and again, but something else was stirring in the night, now behind him, now to his right, just where the high hedges enclosed the lawn. Once he heard it like the rustle of some startled animal among the dried and fallen leaves, and again he heard it, less distinct perhaps but more pervading, as when a crowd waits spellbound.

The Baron's attack grew fiercer again; twice he nearly broke through Ellerey's defence just when the sounds were audible in his ears. The Baron's most dangerous thrusts, and the coming of the sounds seemed to synchronise, as though there were a connection between them, as though they were parts of some whole. Ellerey almost expected to read a solution of the mystery in his opponent's eyes, which glittered in his pale, moonlit face. But the solution was not in the Baron's eyes-it was behind him. For one instant Ellerey glanced over the Baron's shoulder to the thick-set hedge beyond, and in an alley there the moonlight fell for a moment upon a pale face thrust forward a little too eagerly. The night was alive with eyes.

"It is treachery, then, after all!" Ellerey burst out suddenly, and as he spoke he used the Baron's own particular feint and thrust, and his sword point ran swiftly and smoothly into soft flesh.

With a low cry his adversary staggered back and fell, and in that moment the night was full of voices, too. Men rushed with angry cries and gesticulations from every alley of the garden, some to this side, some to that, to surround the little party. In an instant the seconds had drawn their swords and were beside Ellerey.

"Back, you fools!" came faintly from the wounded man, but the eager crowd did not heed, even if they heard, him as they rushed to the attack in overwhelming numbers.

"On my oath, Captain Ellerey, this is no work of mine," said the Baron, attempting to stagger to his feet, but falling to the ground again.

His second, too, shouted to the crowd, using the Baron's name to enforce his words, but he might as well have shrieked forbiddance to the incoming tide. The mad crowd rushed upon the three men from all sides, and although the flashing swords kept them back for a few moments, and harsh cries told that one blade or another had done its work, it was certain that only in flight was their safety against such odds.

As one ruffian staggered back with a yell of pain from the point of

Ellerey's sword, the Baron's second whispered in his ear:

"Make for the alley just in front of you, to the left, to the right and then to the right again. There is a door in the high wall of the garden. You are safe if you can reach it. It is you they want, they will not harm the Baron. Rush for it. I will keep them off as long as I can."

Ellerey whispered the same instructions to his second, and then, waiting until the crowd had fallen back for a moment, he suddenly rushed forward, using his sword and his clenched fist to force himself a passage. The crowd was taken by surprise, and a cloud hiding the moon at that moment was in Ellerey's favor. Before they understood his intention he had reached the alley.

"To the right, then left, then right!" he shouted to his companion, who was running swiftly at his heels.

"To the door!" rose the shout behind him, and the whole garden was full of rushing feet.

Ellerey gave a cry of triumph as he caught the latch of the door and pulled it open, half turning to his companion as he did so. Had he been an instant later that exultant cry would have been his last, for at that moment a dagger flashed down upon him, and only by a quick spring aside did he avoid the blow. The man who had followed him so closely was not his second.

Before his adversary could recover himself, he struck him full in the face with the hilt of his sword and sent him reeling back into the arms of the foremost of his companions. The next instant Ellerey had slammed the door behind him, and was in a narrow lane on the other side of the wall.

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