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   Chapter 17 THE TRUE WORTH OF BARON PETRESCU

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 21927

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


There was excitement in Sturatzberg. Rumor flies fast, and the moment it was whispered that the city gates were watched, that Captain Ellerey, of his Majesty's Horse, was to be arrested, men began to stop and gossip at street corners, and women to stand upon their thresholds ready to give, or to receive, information. Strange stories grew current in this manner, which served to keep the excitement alive until more definite news were forthcoming. There was unwonted stir in the secret societies and clubs, sympathy being with Ellerey, since he had in some manner offended the Government. They did not stay to inquire what he had done, or, indeed, to think whether his action would tend to further any scheme of their own; it was enough that he had shown defiance to the powers that be. Every hour fresh rumors were started and eagerly discussed and as eagerly denied. Only two things were definite: there was much coming and going at the palace, and Captain Ellerey was not to be found.

Those who lead rebellion, or pull the wires of conspiracies, are seldom open with those they lead, any more than the policy of King's Ministers is wholly spread before the people. There were leaders in Sturatzberg who knew many things, who shrewdly guessed at more, and their knowledge was not reassuring.

Lord Cloverton did not expect the immediate arrest of Ellerey after the failure to discover him at the Countess Mavrodin's. He had fully believed that he was there, and had purposely kept the Countess driving in the Bois until such time as the search should be accomplished. The failure was disappointing, but his interview with the Countess would bear fruit. Ellerey would have to move cautiously, and time was therefore gained. The gates were closed that night, and no Captain Ellerey had passed through them. Countess Mavrodin's house was watched, and no one had left it. So the Ambassador met the morning with a smile; so far his prompt action had saved the situation. A few hours were destined to bring him surprises. First came the news of the return of Captain Ward's cloak. The messenger who brought it was promptly taken before the Ambassador and sharply questioned. He had received it from Captain Ellerey himself an hour before midnight, he said.

"Why were you chosen as a messenger?" asked Lord Cloverton.

"I cannot say. I brought it because I was paid to do so."

"You seem very certain of the time. Did Captain Ellerey tell you the hour?"

"No, sir; the clocks were striking the hour as he spoke to me."

"What is Captain Ellerey like?"

The description given seemed satisfactory until after the man had been dismissed, and then Lord Cloverton recognized that it would fit many men. The cloak was Captain Ward's, but there was no certainty that Ellerey was the man who had given it to the messenger. To-day the city was being searched; the return of the cloak went to prove that Ellerey was still in Sturatzberg; had that been the intention in returning it? The smile of satisfaction slowly faded from the Ambassador's face, and he began to grow feverish for further news. Later he was with the King when the Countess Mavrodin begged for an audience.

"She may unwittingly enlighten your Majesty," said Lord Cloverton, He could not believe that his cleverness would not be sufficient, sooner or later, to make the Countess betray herself, although the past was utterly barren of result.

So Frina Mavrodin was admitted. The presence of the British Ambassador did not disconcert her. She went to the point at once.

"Is it true, your Majesty, that my house was searched yesterday by your instructions?" she asked.

"Countess, how can you think that?" said the King. "It is true that

I commanded the arrest of Captain Ellerey, and that command may have

been used to open your doors, as it would serve to open any door in

Sturatzberg."

"I have heard of no other house being entered by force," the Countess answered. "Naturally, I seek to know why I am suspected."

She puzzled Lord Cloverton more than ever. This was a bold stroke to disarm suspicion.

"My dear Countess," said the King, blandly, "would you hold me responsible for the actions of my officers? Believe me, the city is being searched in every corner for this rebel Captain. It is pardonable if in the search some annoyance is given to innocent persons, is it not? Their loyalty should overlook the offence."

"True; but your Majesty, I would humbly submit, overlooks one fact of the gravest importance to me. That my house is searched for a rebel is nothing; but when it is searched for a man who, at Court, has been somewhat in my company, the action affects me curiously. It is not a question of loyalty, but one which concerns my fair fame."

"Surely, Countess, you exaggerate."

"Indeed, your Majesty, I do not, as Lord Cloverton can prove. Only yesterday, in the Bois, he made it evident that Court gossip linked my name with Captain Ellerey's, and even suggested that I might render service to my country and this Englishman at the same time by saying all I knew. Is it not so, my lord? You were very anxious to save your countryman and get him out of the city?"

This was more than the Ambassador had bargained for and an answer did not come readily to his lips.

"Is it not so, my lord?" the Countess repeated. "I admit, Countess, that, fancying there was some tender understanding between you and my countryman, I was willing, if possible, to render you a service. I seem to have heard that love has been accountable for strange, and even foolish actions. This is the beginning and the end of my offence."

"Are you sure of that?" she said. "Forgive me if I am mistaken, but the searching of my house was strangely timed with our drive in the Bois."

"Oh, Countess!" the Ambassador exclaimed. "Surely you forget that I only availed myself of your courteous invitation."

"Which I could do no less than give since you explained that you had foregone your afternoon sleep to meet me there," she replied quickly, and smiled, the smile of a very charming woman of the world, as most people considered her; but Lord Cloverton seemed to catch some meaning behind the smile, and the King felt that he ought to come to his rescue.

"We have both fallen under the Countess's displeasure; how can we prove how unjustly? I will reprimand my too zealous officers, and they shall make you an apology."

"Your Majesty is good," she answered. "For myself it is no great consequence, but had you witnessed the consternation of my servants, you would have understood how serious a matter it was in their eyes."

"Subjects and servants alike, Countess, are our masters," said the

King.

Frina Mavrodin departed full of thanks and wreathed in gracious smiles. When she had gone, the King and the Ambassador looked inquiringly at each other.

"I think your suspicions were unfounded, my lord," the King said.

"I missed the centre of the target, your Majesty, but I believe I aimed at the right mark. She is a clever woman; I admire her more every day."

Lord Cloverton spoke the truth; he did admire her. Like all great men, he was quick to recognize the sterling worth of his adversaries, and it was borne in upon him more and more that in this crisis he had a clever and beautiful woman to deal with, and what antagonist could be more powerful? He began to rearrange his thoughts upon this basis, passed in review all the seemingly trivial incidents with which Frida Mavrodin had been connected, and found many new meanings in them. The possibility that her influence might be paramount in Sturatzberg dawned upon him. Such a subtle power at work would explain many things, and the Ambassador determined to watch her more closely than ever.

All that day search was made for Captain Ellerey throughout the city. Many places, known to be haunts of the dissatisfied, were entered, but were innocent of even the appearance of evil. There were too many ready to bear warning for such places to be taken unawares. But no other houses of such importance as the Countess Mavrodin's were disturbed. There was no result. No one had seen Captain Ellerey; indeed, few people appeared to know him, or to have heard of him. This Lord Cloverton did not believe. He thought he recognized Frina Mavrodin's influence at work in such ignorance.

It was on the following day that Monsieur De Froilette called at the

Embassy, and was shown into Lord Cloverton's room. With this new train

of thought in his mind, the Frenchman's importance in the politics of

Wallaria appeared to sink into insignificance.

"You are welcome, monsieur. Is this a friendly visit or-"

"Friendly, certainly, but something more," De Froilette answered. He had not come to the Embassy without due deliberation. He had had an audience with the Queen that morning, and there was something in her tone which decided him to make his own interests doubly secure by giving help to the British Ambassador-such help that might count for much when the time for settling accounts came, but which should not materially hasten that time.

"I had begun to think you had forgotten your promise," said Lord

Cloverton, "News of Captain Ellerey would be very useful to-to the

Government of this country. You had a servant watching him, I think."

There was something resembling the Queen's tone in the Ambassador's-a want of appreciation of his position and importance.

"That is so," replied De Froilette quietly. "I understand you-that is, the Government-have done your utmost to find this Englishman, and have failed."

"At present, monsieur, at present."

"Which is hardly wonderful," continued De Froilette. "I have so constantly observed that you-the Government, I should say-concentrates its energies in the wrong direction; is it not so, my lord?"

"An opinion which may-observe, I do not say which does, but which may-arise from an entirely wrong conception of the Government's aims."

"Ma foi, that is so!" laughed the Frenchman, conscious that the Ambassador was annoyed. "Of course, in my ignorance I have supposed that the Government, in searching for this Captain Ellerey, really wanted to find him. Foolish of me! It was a mere blind, a strategy, to mislead. The Government is really looking for some one else. Pardon me, my lord, for taking up your time." And De Froilette rose to go.

"You are too hasty, monsieur; pray be seated again. It is Captain

Ellerey we want."

"Ah! Then I am not deceived," said De Froilette, sitting down again.

"Tell me, why do you so persistently look for him in the wrong place?"

"Can you show us the right one, monsieur?"

"Send your troops out by the Southern Gate and bid them march toward Breslen, and let sharp eyes watch the depths of the forest. They may be rewarded by seeing men gathering to a centre there. Find that centre and you shall find Captain Ellerey."

"Is it your

timber business which teaches you so much?" inquired Lord

Cloverton with a smile, some contempt looking out from behind it.

"You laugh at my trade, but it may prove useful even to you. You watch the city gates, you search every street and corner of Sturatzberg, and behold your bird is flown and is many hours upon his journey before you even start in pursuit."

"This is most interesting, monsieur, but-"

"But you do not believe it," interrupted De Froilette. "I have had a message from this Captain Ellerey. My servant watched his lodgings. Early in the morning a boy brought a message to the Captain's servant. Francois, my man, entered the house and got into conversation with this servant, a rude soldier with small understanding, but with stanch love for his master. Put upon his guard by Ellerey, doubtless, he conceives the possibility that Francois may be playing the spy, and falling upon him unawares he gags and binds him and locks him in a cellar. The next day Captain Ellerey, a band of horsemen with him, meets a woodman in the forest toward Breslen, and by him sends me word that my servant is gradually starving behind his cellar door, of which the woodman gives my the key. I go to the Captain's lodging, and there is Francois. Pauvre garcon, he was hungry, my lord; and, ma foi, he will be very terrible the next time he and that soldier meet."

"On the Breslen road, you say," Lord Cloverton remarked thoughtfully.

He had made up his mind quickly.

"Probably in Breslen itself by this time. I understand there is much dissatisfaction there."

"And Captain Ellerey's object, monsieur?"

The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders as though such a consideration had not occurred to him.

"Is my opinion worth anything, my lord? I am not in the councils of the Government. I know little of the State's difficulties, the plots which threaten, the particular points of danger; but as a private person I should incline to the belief that it has to do with the Princess Maritza. I have already told you that she is, or was, in Sturatzberg You do not believe it. That is a pity."

"I am beginning to believe it, monsieur," the Ambassador answered, "and I thank you for coming here to-day. The gates of Sturatzberg are not so well guarded as they should be."

"That is not my affair," said De Froilette with a smile. "I have given my information to you because I know the prestige of Lord Cloverton and his value to the peace of Wallaria."

With these parting compliments the Frenchman bowed himself out, feeling that he had established his position with the Ambassador, and put him off the real scent at one and the same time. The pleasant security of the latter feeling was destined to be quickly and rudely dispelled. Some troops certainly did leave the city and go toward Breslen, but many more set out in the opposite direction and stretched across the country which lay between Sturatzberg and the mountains. Lord Cloverton, in advising the King, was still convinced that the most imminent danger threatened from the brigands in the hills.

The despatch of the troops did not surprise Frina Mavrodin. That they should go chiefly toward the hills seemed only natural, seeing that the brigands lay there. The time since she had returned to find that her home had been searched had passed in a whirl of conflicting emotions. For a few moments after dismissing Hannah she had stood upright, immovable, with a sense of being alone in the world. All the interests and hopes of her life seemed to slip from her and fall into a heap of dead ashes at her feet. The Princess had gone. Doubtless she had meant to go when Frina had left her that morning, and had got her out of the way on purpose. It was Dumitru who had suggested her going into the Bois; it was Dumitru, probably, who had persuaded Maritza that the time to act had come. Not for a moment did Frina suppose that Dumitru was cognizant of the fact that her house would be searched; she did not believe that they had gone to escape discovery. If such had been the case she would have been taken into their confidence. No; the departure had taken place for the furtherance of plans in which she had no part, and which she promptly linked with the disappearance of Captain Ellerey. It never occurred to Frina to set watches to warn the Princess should she return. She would not return. For good or ill she had begun the final move toward her goal. What were her plans? What chance had they of success? Frina knew what secret societies nursed the cause of Princess Maritza in the city. She knew to a unit what support could be depended upon, knew the exact value of it, the strength and the weakness of it. The cause had looked to the hills for support, not without reason, perhaps. Were not the men gathered there rebels, ready to strike a blow at the Government? This had always been Maritza's argument, and there had been some signs that she was right. Frina knew that the material for revolt was to hand, but a resolute leader had been lacking. Now this want had been supplied by Captain Ellerey. It was round Ellerey that the whirl of Frina's emotions centred. Her relief that the Princess had gone before the house was searched gave place to the apprehension that she had gone to join Captain Ellerey. She saw only a rival in her late guest. It was her love for the man which ruled Frina Mavrodin's actions, not her love for the cause. It was in this spirit that she made her complaint to the King, for the time might come when her house would prove the only safe refuge for Ellerey. It was in this spirit that, with her maid in attendance, she presently went to visit Baron Petrescu.

The Baron's wound had not proved serious, but it had kept him to the house. The Countess found him lying on a sofa, from which he half rose as she entered. She hurried forward to prevent him.

"This is good of you, Countess," he said. "Strangely, you were in my thoughts when you were announced."

She inquired about his wound and expressed her regrets in a few prettily turned sentences. "It was nothing," said the Baron. "The greatest hurt was to my pride."

"And, of course, you long for an opportunity of wiping out the defeat?" said Frina.

"Curiously enough, that idea has not risen uppermost in my thoughts," Petrescu answered. "I owe the Englishman an apology for the attack which was made upon him directly he succeeded in wounding me. He is a gentleman and a gallant swordsman, and I writhe under the fear that he believes that attack was of my contriving."

There was the genuine ring of truth in the Baron's words. Frina Mavrodin was not surprised. She believed that she thoroughly understood him, or would not have visited him.

"You would befriend Captain Ellerey were it in your power?" she questioned.

"Gladly, for his own sake and for yours. Pardon me, Countess, if my own confession slips out with these words. Those who love recognize love quickly."

"Was that in your mind when you forced this duel upon Captain Ellerey?" she asked.

"I have tried to believe that love for the cause stood first, Countess. Please question me no further. I take refuge behind the punishment I have received. That I have not forfeited all your esteem is proved by your presence here. Tell me how I can serve you."

"Like many others, Baron, you jump to a conclusion too quickly; but let it pass. There is weightier business in hand," and then she told him all that was known about Ellerey, and of the disappearance of Princess Maritza. "Knowing that the Princess always had it in her mind to use Captain Ellerey when the time came," she went on, "I have little doubt she has joined him in whatever mission he has undertaken. What art she will, or can, use to turn him to her service, I do not know."

"He is not the man to be lightly turned from the cause he has espoused," said the Baron thoughtfully, "and that cause is not ours."

"Love might prove incentive enough," said Frina.

Petrescu turned to her quickly. The look in her eyes told him her secret plainly enough, but her words were sufficient to have a quickening influence on the hopes which had died within him.

"I may be jumping to a rash conclusion," Frina went on hastily, "but if I am right-indeed, whatever art is used, what hope is there of success?"

"None, unless those in the hills are with us," replied the Baron decisively. "Here in Sturatzberg we have much enthusiasm, much talk, much jealousy; but I doubt the fighting temper behind it. The Princess has moved too soon."

"Is there any chance of her being able to persuade the brigands?"

"Where men are concerned I dare not limit the power of a woman," he answered; "but since the Princess has moved, we are bound to be on the watch. Failure will be disastrous to you and me, Countess."

"It will probably mean death to Princess Maritza, to Captain Ellerey certainly."

"I understand," said the Baron. The hope that was in him died, and it is doubtful if the woman ever gave him full credit for what his words cost him. "I understand. To-morrow I shall be out again. Command me and trust me. There shall at least be one arm to strike a blow in the Englishman's defence, and back to back, Countess, he and I would render no mean account of ourselves." She had taken the hand he held out in token of her thanks and the compact between them when the door was suddenly opened and a man entered hurriedly. He stopped abruptly, seeing that his master was not alone.

"I have no secrets from this lady," said the Baron. "You may speak freely."

"The city is in excitement," said the man. "Some horsemen have ridden in saying that Captain Ellerey is in the hills surrounded by the brigands. Instead of being on the King's service, as the men supposed, he carried the token of Princess Maritza's house. The brigands immediately attacked the party."

"Yes, and then?" exclaimed Frina.

"These men deserted, my lady, and left the Captain and two or three companions to their fate. These fellows are boasting loudly of their loyalty to the King."

"And the others, are they dead or captured?" asked the Baron quickly.

"It seems they managed to gain some ruin in the hills, and are there making a last stand."

The Baron dismissed the man, and then turned sharply to the Countess.

"You must go quickly and learn all the news," he said. "My wound shall be made to serve a useful purpose. It shall be sufficient to keep me free from visitors for some days to come, but it will not prevent my leaving Sturatzberg to-night. I have a few men I can rely upon. We may not turn failure to success, but we may effect the escape of Captain Ellerey and those who are with him. Have you a trusted messenger you can send to me?"

"Yes."

"Learn all you can, then, and send word to me here before nine to-night. At that hour you may know that I have departed, and what a man may do, rest assured Countess, I will."

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