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   Chapter 16 THE TRAITOR

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 21225

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


A smile wrinkled Stefan's face, not of amusement at the deception which had been practised upon them, but in expectation of disappointed rage from Ellerey. With diplomacy and the fine points of strategy Stefan the soldier had little to do. His business was fighting. It was his livelihood, and some day, near or far in the future as fate decreed, it would be his death. His respect for his fellows was measured by their power of withstanding him, and the man he had the greatest affection for, perhaps, was a soldier, now incapacitated, who had once in a melee succeeded in knocking him from his saddle. At the same time he believed in his own astuteness, not without some reason be it said, and in the back of his mind there was always a certain admiration for the man who could get the better of him. It is more than possible that if he ever married he would thoroughly respect his wife on account of her cleverness in having hoodwinked him into marrying her.

But the burst of anger did not come. Ellerey's eyes were fixed on the point in the pass round which the soldiers had disappeared, and for some minutes he did not speak.

"What is done must remain as it is," he said at last. "We have only ourselves to consider now. We must watch two and two, one on the plateau, one at the path. Anton and you, Stefan; Grigosie and I. It's short rations for us and careful use of cartridges. We must understand how our enemy is going to conduct this siege before we calculate our chances. What ammunition have we?"

It was little enough that the four of them could display. If every cartridge accounted for a man, small damage would be done to their foes.

"I flung a belt of cartridges in a corner of the tower before we left," said Grigosie.

They all turned to look at him.

"Did you fling some food into a corner, too?" asked Stefan.

"No, but I marked that birds used the plateau in the early morning,"

Grigosie answered.

"They'll be coming in larger numbers presently, and, maybe, get a good picking off the four of us," said Stefan. "You haven't happened upon a fountain of wine, have you?"

"That, too, is supplied, Stefan; you can hear it leaping down the mountain-side, and see it too," and the boy pointed to a corner of the plateau which was within reach of the narrow stream which, from the heights, fell with many a cascade into the pass beneath.

Stefan looked at him for a moment, and then said in disgust: "Water and birds; fairies' fodder."

"It might be worse," said Anton.

"Wait a day or two, comrade, and you'll be crying a different tale," said Stefan, "although, for that matter, the food will doubtless last our time. Had we, in our small circle here, half a dozen taverns filled from cellar floor to garret ceiling, those fellows yonder would give us little chance of visiting them. Keep watch here, Anton; I'll go to the gate."

"We'll rest, Grigosie," said Ellerey.

The boy turned and entered the tower, but Ellerey did not follow him at once. He paced in and out the ruined walls, his hands clasped behind him, deep in thought and troubled.

Who had deceived him? It could only be the Queen, or the man who had brought him the token, or perhaps De Froilette. Indeed, they might all be in a conspiracy to deceive him. Yet why should the Queen desire to deliver the token of Princess Maritza's house to the brigands? How could it serve her ends? De Froilette's position and political aims were less clear. Ellerey had never believed him heart whole in his devotion to her Majesty; yet surely he would have taken the precaution to find out how such a token would be received before sending it. He was not the man to risk the work of years without some real hope of success. Then Ellerey's thoughts turned to the woman who had craved his help in the Altstrasse, the manner in which he had been searched for the token, the masked woman who had come to look upon him, and the warning she had given him. Baron Petrescu, too, had probably forced the duel upon him because of the token, believing that it had been delivered to him that night by the Queen. At his interview with her Majesty, the token which had been decided upon was the bracelet of medallions; it was hardly likely that it would be suddenly changed. Somehow the bracelet had been filched from the sealed box, and the golden cross placed there instead. Ellerey decided that the power to effect this change lay only with the man who had brought him the token, and on this man he fixed the blame.

Whoever was responsible for it, the scheme had failed miserably, and it was difficult to see how success could ever have been hoped for. On the other hand it could hardly be supposed that all those who followed the fortunes of the golden cross were fools, acting upon sudden impulse, courting disaster. They must have had some reason for believing that the token would receive some consideration from the brigands and those who had gathered to their standard. Possibly they had themselves been deceived, even as they had attempted to deceive. Ellerey could not doubt that Princess Maritza had a considerable following in Sturatzberg, that the seeds of the rebellion were widely scattered. The soldiers now riding toward the capital would spread the news of failure, and the rebellion in self-defence might be forced to break into open conflict at once. Even then, would Maritza's followers give a thought to the remnant of the band who had carried the message? If Countess Mavrodin had a voice in their councils, as surely she must have, they might. The chance of rescue was a slender one, but a hope did exist.

Strange to say, anger at the trick which had been played upon him did not assert itself in any great degree, in spite of the fact that all hope of honor and advancement was now at an end. Vasilici's attitude had doubtless something to do with Ellerey's state of mind, personal antagonism rising above ambition; but this would not have been the case probably had Ellerey been forced against his will into any other service than that of Princess Maritza. There was a charm for him in her name, the memory of her had dwelt with him and lent a halo of romance to his present position. He saw her again with her hair streaming in the breeze, and felt again the subtle strength and vigor that were in her. Had he not thought then that it would be good to fight in her cause? Why should he rage at the circumstances which had forced him into it?

When he entered the tower Grigosie was asleep, and he lay down to snatch what rest he could before relieving Anton and Stefan.

When they went on duty, Grigosie watched by the path, Ellerey on the plateau. "They will wait for Vasilici," Stefan said, when he reported that all had been quiet so far.

Ellerey paced up and down, pausing at short intervals to listen. Not a sound broke the deep silence. The great world seemed to lie still and motionless under the glow of the moonlit night and the pale glimmer of the stars. It was a time to dream of life and realized ambition, not to ponder on lurking death and failure. He walked presently to the head of the zig-zag path.

"Your castle has proved a refuge after all, Grigosie. How came you to be prophetic?"

"I did not believe my own prophecy."

"Yet you hid the cartridges."

"Believing, perhaps, that they would never be wanted," Grigosie answered. "I am full of strange thoughts and superstitions to-night, Captain, and cannot talk."

"It is the moon and the stars, Grigosie."

"Madmen's time, when everything is distorted," answered the lad.

"And lovers' time too, Grigosie."

"Which are you, madman or lover?"

"A little of both, I think," Ellerey answered.

"And below us death is waiting," said Grigosie.

"I don't think death is coming to us this time," replied Ellerey.

The boy did not answer. Several times during those watching hours Ellerey went to the head of the path, but Grigosie never spoke, never turned to him. His thoughts and superstitions occupied him; and with the light of day Ellerey noticed that there was something in his face which was new. He had changed during the night. Something-was it his courage?-seemed to have left him, but in its place there had come an addition to him, to his expression, almost to his character, Ellerey fancied. He watched the lad enter the tower, saw him cast himself wearily into his corner, and would have followed him had not Stefan detained him.

"I was right, Captain. Vasilici is coming. They are gathering in the pass waiting for him."

A little later a shout proclaimed the arrival of the chief, and Ellerey saw his huge frame in the midst of his followers. His right hand was swathed in a handkerchief and rested in a sling, and savage ferocity was in his face as he looked up toward the castle. His orders, and he appeared to give many, were promptly obeyed, and he struck one man viciously, perhaps because he dared to offer advice unasked.

It was evidence of his power among them that no one interfered, nor did the victim himself retaliate. Men began to climb the opposite slopes, while others massed themselves at the foot of the zig-zag pass.

"They are going to attack us at once, Captain," said Stefan. "It is to be hot work for us to-day."

At the head of the path the little band of defenders waited.

"Every shot must tell," Ellerey whispered, "and keep well behind the stonework, all of you."

The path was narrow with deep sides. The brigands came up it boldly enough until the last bend in it showed them the stone-barred gateway. Then they halted, and the foremost leaned back upon those behind who pushed them on and shouted: "Forward!" Two men fired blindly at the stone wall, and then rushed upon it, never to reach their goal. Only two shots rang out, but both men threw up their arms and staggered backward upon their companions. Not more than two abreast could come up the narrow way, and twice again a speedy death crowned the temerity of those who rushed to the attack. Those behind shouted to be let up to the front, and those before made every effort to let them come. The spirit of the brigands seemed to die out of them as their eyes fell upon their dead companions and that silent death-dealing barricade. Then one fellow suddenly picked up a corpse, and holding it before him as a shield, dashed forward with a shout.

"Let him come," whispered Ellerey. "Shoot at those who follow."

The man rushed to the wall until the dead body struck the stonework. Success for a moment seemed to be his. He had plugged one narrow slit through which the

bullets came, and he cheered his comrades on. They came, but only to have their leader fall back into their arms. Through the slit Ellerey had driven his sword with all his strength, piercing the living through the dead. It had been an ugly rush, but for the present it was the last.

"They'll try some other plan before attempting this way again," said

Stefan.

"Is there any other way?" Grigosie asked.

"For mountaineers there may be. These fellows can walk in places where we should never venture and only expect to find flies."

From the opposite mountain a desultory fire was maintained upon the plateau, which could only do harm if the defenders were careless. For the rest of the day the brigands held aloof, standing or sitting in parties in the pass and watching the castle. Vasilici strode from one group to another, but no movement followed. There was no sleep for the defenders that night, and at dawn, in spite of Stefan's forecast, another attack was made upon the gate. It was as unsuccessful as the first, nor was it made with such determination. The obedience to orders was only half-hearted.

Later in the day it became evident that a council of war was being held. The murmur of the men's voices reached the plateau, but no words could be distinguished. An oath from Vasilici sounded clearly now and again, but that was all. Some persuasion was apparently pressed upon the chief which he jeered and laughed at, but there was a shaking of heads when he pointed to the zig-zag way. His followers were not inclined to try that road to victory again. They had had their surfeit of it. Vasilici was quick-witted enough to see that he must listen to counsel, and with lowering visage he turned first to one and then to another as they spoke. Presently one speaker seemed to please him, for his features relaxed into a grim smile. A movement ran through the whole assembly, men turned to one another and nodded their satisfaction. Some definite conclusion had been arrived at.

"They seem to have hit upon another way of getting at us," said Stefan.

"Is there another way?" asked Grigosie, repeating the same question he had asked before. No one answered him, nor did he seem to expect an answer. He stood watching the now moving mass below, little interest in his eyes. His alertness had departed.

Vasilici had disappeared into some pathway at the foot of the opposite slope, and then the crowd fell aside for one man, who, standing alone, took off his neckcloth and waved it toward the plateau.

"A parley, Captain. Shall I answer?" said Stefan; and then, having permission, he shouted: "Hallo!"

"I would speak with your Captain," came the answer.

"I'm a mouthpiece, comrade, same as you are. Speak on."

"I am commanded to offer you your lives and freedom on one condition."

"And the condition?" Stefan shouted, prompted by Ellerey. "You are free to leave the pass unmolested if you will deliver up the youth who is of your company."

"We'll see you-" Stefan began, without any prompting.

"Word it as you will," said Ellerey, "the coarser the better, perhaps, for such a devilish suggestion."

"Wait!" exclaimed Grigosie. "Ask for time to consider."

"Who wants to consider such a thing as that?" growled Stefan.

"We gain time," said Grigosie, turning to Ellerey. "Say you will consider the suggestion and answer them tomorrow. We sorely need rest; what does it matter how we gain it?"

"My gorge revolts against their even fancying that we should consider such a thing," said Stefan.

"Command him, Captain," pleaded Grigosie. "In war and love everything is fair."

Ellerey gave way and Stefan shouted the answer.

"Until to-morrow," came the answer. "The youth once in our hands, you are free to depart. If he is not given up to us we will have our revenge, though half the sons of these mountains fall in the gaining it; and the longer that revenge is delayed the fiercer shall it be when it does come. Until to-morrow. There shall be peace between us until then."

"But we'll keep watch by the gate for all that," growled Stefan, who was not in the best of tempers at having to answer the brigands in this fashion.

"There is another way, you see," said Grigosie. "I have got an answer to my question."

"Well, lad, when you alone are in their hands, the rest of us will have said his last prayer, or growled his last oath, whichever pleases him best at the hour of departure."

"The question is not so easily settled, Stefan," Grigosie said. "Send

Anton to the gate, Captain, while we discuss it."

Ellerey laughed at the lad's strange mood as he entered the tower with him. Stefan followed them and stood in the doorway.

"The question is worth consideration, though you may not think so," Grigosie began. "You have been deceived, Captain, and also those who served with you."

"Enough of that, lad. It is past, and the present is our concern. If we come out of this with our lives we may talk of punishing those who deceived us."

"Should it not be a bitter punishment?" queried the boy.

"As bitter as the death to which they have brought us face to face," said Ellerey fiercely, his whole being roused for a moment at the thought of the outrage practised upon him.

"But that revenge seems out of your power," Grigosie went on. "For you and Stefan there is almost certain death to-morrow or a week hence, it may be."

"It is very likely. I have looked death in the face before, and so has Stefan there. When we look into his eyes for the last time I warrant we shall not change color."

"Except with the heat of our final struggle," said Stefan from the doorway.

"Your comrades have gone. You two stand alone," said Grigosie.

"With you and Anton," said Stefan.

"And we wish for no better companions," added Ellerey. "Vasilici's knife would have written finis to my history had it not been for you, Grigosie."

The boy colored a little with pleasure.

"Still you forget, Captain, that Anton and I were not of your choosing.

We forced ourselves into your company."

"What of it? I am glad, I-" and then the look in Grigosie's eyes stopped Ellerey suddenly. Stefan, too, started from his leaning position and stood upright in the entrance, looking straight at the boy.

"By your leave, I would become the hostage for your safety," said Grigosie. "I asked you to take me with you; now I ask you to give me up."

"Plague upon you, lad, you almost anger me. You are beyond my understanding," was Ellerey's answer, but he still looked fixedly at him.

"Since I have deceived you it is fitting that I should pay the penalty," said the boy quietly. "I would sooner meet death at their hands than at yours. Grant me this much, and make an end of it."

"You!" exclaimed Ellerey. "You deceived me! I do not believe it."

"It is the truth. Stay, I would not have you think too ill of me. It was not done wantonly. Those who made me believe that there was a good chance of success misled me, but if I thought you too would reap the benefit, it is none the less true that I deceived you. I came not from the Queen; I came to work this very thing that has happened, the delivery of the golden cross instead of the bracelet. I have played my hand and lost. Mine should be a bitter punishment; you yourself have said it. Grant me this only, that I receive it from the brigands yonder, and not from you."

Ellerey hardly seemed to hear the boy's latter words. The sudden confession was all his brain seemed to have the power to take in. Stefan remained motionless, statue-like, still staring at Grigosie. For a space there was silence in the tower. Then Ellerey turned sharply upon the boy and laid his hand roughly on his shoulder, so roughly that he winced a little, but showed no sign of fear.

"You lie, Grigosie, confess that you lie. The box containing the token has never left me, night or day. As I received it from her Majesty so it has always been, so I delivered it. Of course you are lying."

"You slept soundly, Captain, the night you drank from my wine flask."

"Was it then, you scoundrel?"

"It was then."

Deep down in every man is the instinct of the savage, the acceptance of the law which demands an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Given occasion great enough, it may rise even in the man who has all his life studied to curb his passions, and in his judgments to be merciful. Ellerey was of the rough and readier sort. He was a disappointed man, one who nursed the thought of revenge against those who had injured him. He was a soldier among soldiers who had much of the barbarian in them. He was an adventurer among adventurers. If the youth of this deceiver and betrayer appealed to him for a moment, the thought was sternly crushed. If the thought of what they had come through together came into his mind, there also came the knowledge that he had committed the unpardonable sin. He had betrayed his comrades.

"Heaven forgive you for making me your judge," Ellerey cried; "but what is there except death for the traitor?" and his sword rang from its scabbard as he spoke.

He paused a moment and looked toward Stefan.

"It's hateful, but it's just," muttered the soldier in his beard, and he did not move from the doorway. He only lowered his head so that he might not see.

"I admit the justice," said Grigosie; "but will you not grant my request and deliver me to the brigands? So you shall escape."

"Escape!" cried Ellerey. "For what? Is there any truth and honor in the world? I have not found them, and the end may come when it will. It is an easier death you shall have from my hands than you would have from theirs."

The sword was ready, and Stefan turned in the doorway just in time to see Anton and to catch his uplifted arm as he attempted to rush past him toward Ellerey. Not a word spoke the soldier, but he fiercely twisted Anton's aim, and the knife he held rattled to the floor.

"As my fathers faced death, so can I, unflinchingly," Grigosie cried. "Strike, Captain! God knows it was not such work as this I thought to find for the strong arm of Desmond Ellerey."

As he spoke, he tore his shirt open at the throat to receive the blow. His cap fell from his head, and curls, the hue of copper, slipped loosely down upon his forehead, while the open shirt just revealed the curve of a white bosom.

"A woman!" exclaimed Stefan, letting go of Anton in his blank astonishment.

Slowly Ellerey's sword was lowered, and for a moment he did not speak.

Then almost in a whisper he said:

"Maritza! Princess Maritza."

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