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   Chapter 18 SIX LOYAL MEN

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 17729

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


From the Northern to the Southern, from the Eastern to the Western gates Sturatzberg was in an uproar. Excitement was in every face, and the wildest rumors were given credence. When the guards at the gates were doubled and companies of soldiers were met in the streets, it was firmly believed that the brigands were marching in overwhelming numbers upon the city. Comparatively few had heard the news from the returned horsemen's own lips, and from much reporting the tale had grown out of all knowledge. After the excitement caused by the search for Captain Ellerey the city was ready to believe anything.

As the Baron's servant had related, the horsemen were loud in their boasting of loyalty. They had followed Captain Ellerey because they believed they were on the King's service, they said, and never for a moment had they supposed otherwise until they had seen the golden cross in Vasilici's hands. This was the story they told the King when they were taken to the palace, with much more concerning their own valor when the brigands rushed upon them. They disagreed somewhat concerning one another's valour, each one striving to impress the King in his own favor; but they were of one voice regarding Ellerey's treachery and the deceit which had been practised upon them. "What message or token could you suppose I was sending to the brigands?" asked the King.

"It was not for us to inquire, your Majesty," they answered. "We knew

Captain Ellerey, and we obeyed him."

In the main their story was true. If Ellerey had mentioned the Queen as their employer they had considered the King and Queen as one, and no question was put to them to make them differentiate between them.

They were dismissed, and the King was for some hours closeted with one or two of his prominent Ministers. They were men the King trusted, but it was doubtful if their opinion ever weighed with him to the same extent that Lord Cloverton's did. The news astonished the Ambassador, but was reassuring. Whatever the cause, the Queen's plans at any rate had miscarried, and the brigands were evidently not to be tempted into the service of Princess Maritza. For the moment there was no danger to be apprehended from them.

"I think we may leave this turbulent Captain and his companions to Vasilici's tender mercies, my lord," said the King. "All we have to guard against is a riot among the dissatisfied in Sturatzberg."

Perhaps the Ambassador felt sorry for Ellerey, but there was nothing he could do.

"Has your Majesty ever supposed that Princess Maritza is, or has been lately, in Sturatzberg?" he asked after a pause.

"It is impossible. Your Government has sent her visiting your colonies, a delicate attention, which, no doubt, she appreciates."

"Just so, and yet I had a strange story brought to my notice. I heard that she had managed to escape the delicate attention of my Government and had returned to Wallaria. Needless to say, I did not believe the story, but the deliverance of her token certainly lends credence to it."

"She might send her token," said the King; "she would not venture herself in the country, much less in Sturatzberg."

"That was my opinion," answered Cloverton.

"Do you mean that it is not your opinion now?"

"I am in a transitional stage, your Majesty, and have not yet decided."

So there were troops of soldiers in the streets lest rioters should gather together and do damage. No one imagined there was enough power behind them to really menace the city. A few men talked together excitedly in side streets, but these dispersed quietly after a little while without any interference from the soldiers.

The Countess Mavrodin drove in the Bois as usual. She held a little court, her carriage drawn up to the sidewalk, and she listened to and laughed at all the news. What could it all matter to her so long as she could laugh and chatter and be happy?

"My horses will not stand still if you talk politics," she said to one man. "They know their mistress is of the nature of a butterfly." The man was one who was likely to be well informed, and she did not say it until he had told her all he knew.

This butterfly nature of hers caused her to drive about a great deal that day. She had shopping to do in the Konigplatz, in the square out of which the Altstrasse ran and in the Bergenstrasse nearly as far down as the Southern Gate. More than once she caught sight of a group of excited men at a street corner, and once or twice she noticed that a man would walk leisurely toward them, pause a moment, and then pass on. Whenever this happened the little crowd dispersed immediately as though some urgent business had suddenly occurred to each member of it. It was late in the afternoon when the Countess returned home, and before she retired to her private rooms she gave instructions for certain servants, whom she mentioned by name, to be in readiness, as she would require them presently. She had a small reception that evening and was the most brilliant, as she was the most frivolous, among her brilliant and frivolous guests. Yet before nine o'clock Baron Petrescu had received some closely written sheets in her handwriting, and knew much of what had happened in Sturatzberg that day.

But not all; that was, of course, impossible. In dark corners of the city through which it was dangerous to travel after nightfall, there were dismal houses, behind the fast-closed doors of which ready orators held the attention of eager listeners. The time was near. The emancipation from their slavery was at hand. What they had heard in the city to-day was proof of it. Be ready! It was the same story wherever men were gathered together. And in the constant coming and going at the palace, the keenest eyes might easily have failed to notice some who entered and left; and within there were many passages known only to the initiated. One man passed in unnoticed, and in a side room was met by another who, without a word, beckoned him to follow.

"No further news?" asked the first.

"None," was the answer.

Along the same passage which Ellerey had once traversed was De Froilette taken, and ushered into the Queen's presence. He bowed low, but she had no thought of ceremony just now.

"Can you read this riddle, monsieur?" she asked. "All kinds of solutions come to me, madam, but none that seem to entirely fit the case."

"One thing only stands clear," said the Queen: "this Captain Ellerey is a traitor. You were a fool, monsieur, to bring him to my notice."

"I may have been mistaken."

"May? Indeed you have," she answered. "Heaven help him if he returns to

Sturatzberg; he will sorely need it."

"I say I may have been mistaken, your Majesty, and that is what I mean," said De Froilette calmly. "Francois has seen these men who have come back, and I am convinced that Captain Ellerey was as astonished to see the token as any one."

"How could he be?"

"Are you certain of the man who delivered it to him?"

"As I am of myself. Do you still trust this Englishman?"

"If he wished to deceive us he could have done so in a much more effectual way," said De Froilette, "and served his own ends better. Men like Captain Ellerey do not join themselves to such a cause as ours for the love of it, but in their own interests. I have put down his somewhat off-hand treatment of me to his feeling of security in being your Majesty's trusted messenger."

"So Monsieur De Froilette, ever so suspicious, has lived to become weakly confiding."

"I have another reason to urge," the Frenchman went on. "I believe

Princess Maritza has been in Sturatzberg."

"Have you seen her?"

"No, but Francois says he did. He may have been mistaken, but the delivery of her token goes to confirm Francois. Now, your Majesty, one of Ellerey's companions may be a partisan of the Princess, and may have changed the token. The fact that I have led the Princess, while she has been in England, to believe that I have worked in her cause, might induce her to think that the golden cross would be acceptable to the brigands, that they would welcome the message it held."

"Had she trusted you in any degree, monsieur, she would have made her presence known to you."

"She may have come to watch me, and even then she could hardly discover my real object. I have worked in your service too secretly. Even Lord Cloverton trusts me."

"I would Lord Cloverton were removed from Wallaria either by his

Government or by-"

"Ah, madam, death seldom strikes where we would have it. If heaven were pleased to remove him we should have one obstacle the less in our way; but many would still remain. Death would have to be busy to make our enterprise sure."

"Lord Cloverton stands by most of those obstacles to give them strength," answered the Queen, her hands tightening a little. "The

King would be pliant in my hands were this man not beside him to stiffen him. Is there any other man in the world who would have dared to put me to the test he did? I hate him."

"It is fortunate he has done so; he will not dare to repeat the offence," said De Froilette.

"I am not sure of that."

"If he does, the bracelet is mislaid," said De Froilette. "The mere fact that it has not been delivered will prove that you never sent it. For the moment we are powerless to act, but another token will be sent presently, another messenger found to take it. Have we not the assurance of Russia that the moment the standard of revolt is raised she will find plausible excuse to cross the frontier? Has not your Majesty rather hoped to succeed without the help of Russia?"

"The possibility may have occurred to me," answered the Queen.

"These rebels who would help you to occupy the throne of Wallaria alone would be difficult to rule without an army at your call to cow them into submission."

"We are looking to the future; it is the present which concerns us, monsieur."

"We can only wait and watch events," said De Froilette. "These deserters declare that they rode out with Captain Ellerey in the belief that they were upon the King's service. Your Majesty is not mentioned by them. We are safe so far."

"Some one, monsieur, holds my token; until that is in my possession again there is no safety."

"It is mislaid," said the Frenchman; "if that will not suffice, it has been stolen; if that is not enough, pick out some servant you can spare and accuse him of the theft. The sufferings of one man must not count beside the safety of a cause involving many lives."

"You seem to forget that Captain Ellerey knows the truth," said the

Queen.

"You were alone when you told him of his mission. You have told the King that your conversation related to the Countess Mavrodin-hold to that story. Is the word of a traitor, struggling to shield himself, to be taken against yours?"

"I act more readily than I lie, monsieur."

"Pardon, madam, a lie is a vulgar cowardice; we are dealing with secrets of the State."

"I am woman enough to find small difference between them."

"And Queen enough to forget the woman when the sovereign must use diplomacy," answered De Froilette. "Besides, we rush far out to meet trouble. What can three or four men accomplish against an army of mountaineers fighting in their own hills? By this time Captain Ellerey lies food for the preying vultures. We are quite safe, your Majesty."

De Froilette left the palace unnoticed as he had come, and returned quickly to the Altstrasse. Francois hastened to attend him.

"There is nothing to report, monsieur," he said, in answer to his master's look of inquiry. "The city is quieting down. Is monsieur in any danger?"

"Perhaps, Francois, but it does not trouble me. I have been in danger before. Many channels of information are open to a timber merchant, and those in authority find me useful."

"We can wait, monsieur, but those who are expecting us to speak the word, will they wait?"

"I think so, Francois; still, you may have everything ready for a hasty departure. And if by any chance circumstances should necessitate our leaving separately, you must look for me in London at the old address."

Such instructions caused the servant no surprise. His master had usually managed to steer successfully through the troubled waters he encountered, but on many occasions such preparations for rapid flight had been made.

"Did you call to inquire after Baron Petrescu, Francois?"

"Yes, monsieur; his wound is giving him increased trouble."

"I rejoice to hear it. We can well dispense with his crowing in Sturatzberg just now. A walk through the city in an hour or so, Francois, might be good for your health." The servant smiled, falling in with his master's humor, and went out. The streets were quiet when he traversed them an hour or two later. A few soldiers were in the Konigplatz and at the top of the Bergenstrasse, but, except where some entertainment was going forward, and carriages and servants were congregated without, the city was unusually lifeless. Perhaps the presence of the soldiers drove law-abiding citizens home early lest they might come under suspicion, and the lawless were evidently not inclined to run risks. Francois stood for a few moments outside the Countess Mavrodin's watching the arrivals, among whom he recognized many notabilities, including the British Ambassador; and then he went for some distance down the Bergenstrasse before returning home. Had he traversed this street farther he would probably have been convinced that the exciting news of the day was already forgotten, for he would hardly have heard the laughter and songs which came from the Toison d'Or unless he had actually gone up the narrow court in which it stood.

The door was shut, but the light shone dully through the red blinds which were drawn across the windows. They were like two huge eyes bleared with strong drink, and as a late comer pushed open the door at intervals and disappeared within, a watcher might have had the sensation of seeing an ogre swallowing his victim. Another thing might have struck him. There were many late arrivals, and they all came singly, entering swiftly and letting the door swing quickly to behind them. The tavern was, surely, fast becoming overcrowded, for no one came out.

But there was much room in the Toison d'Or, and the chamber in which Ellerey had waited for the token was thrown open to-night. It was crowded with men eager to listen to the horsemen who had ridden into Sturatzberg that day. They were the centre of attraction, and had long ago become talkative and more than ordinarily boastful. They shouted answers to every question, and were regaled with tankard after tankard of liquor. They drank deep healths to the King, and swore to their unswerving loyalty with many a strange oath. They sang snatches of ribald songs at the bidding of any man who had the wherewithal to pay for wine-snatches only, which became less coherent as the evening advanced. They cursed the traitor Ellerey, and made jests upon Maritza, "who was called 'Princess' by some fools and vagabonds."

"Down with her, and all who have a word for her!" cried one of them, trying to rise to give vehemence to his words, but falling back helpless into his seat.

"Curse her again, comrade," said a thin, morose-looking man in his ear. "Don't go to sleep yet. Curse her again. We like to know the true ring of your minds."

It was beyond the soldier's power to reply, but the other soldiers did it for him, vying with one another in their language.

"That's right," said the thin man. "You are all agreed. She is a pest in the land, this Princess, an evil to be trodden down, one to be killed if opportunity occurs, and the fact of her being a woman shall win her no mercy. You are all agreed on that?"

"No mercy!" shouted one soldier.

"Less because she's a woman," growled another.

"Down with her," said a third in a drunken whisper.

"One more drink round, landlord," said the morose man. "We'll drink it standing. Those who cannot stand, let their comrades hold them up. This is a loyal and sacred toast for the last. Not a man shall sit down to it. Tankards round, landlord!"

The soldiers struggled to their feet obediently, but each of them had to be held up on either side, and they laughed at their drunken inability. Seizing a tankard, the thin man sprang upon a chair.

"See that none fail to honor my toast!" he cried. "Let it tell its tale to Sturatzberg before the dawn. Here's to our Sovereign Lady, Princess Maritza!"

Too drunk to understand the purport of the words, the soldiers raised their tankards to drink, and then let them fall to the ground with a clatter, the untasted liquor splashing upon the floor. Each man jerked forward where he stood, and, when those who held him let him go, fell down with a thud. A groan or two, a convulsive movement, and then they lay still, while something mixed with the spilt liquor and dyed it to a darker hue. The six men who had stood immediately behind them wiped their keen long knives and sheathed them again in silence.

"Go quickly!" shouted the man, still standing on the chair. "See that the Bergenstrasse is clear. They shall rest there to-night, and Sturatzberg may find them there presently and read the lesson as it will."

In the early hours of the morning, when the guests were leaving the

Countess Mavrodin's a man rushed past them into the hall.

"Is Lord Cloverton still here?"

The Ambassador came forward at once.

"What is it?"

"The men who returned to-day-the soldiers."

"What of them?"

"They have just been found lying side by side in the Bergenstrasse, dead-murdered!"

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