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   Chapter 19 IN DESPERATE STRAITS

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 17401

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


Desmond Ellerey stood with his sword lowered and his head bowed. As he spoke her name a flush came into his cheeks. His anger at Grigosie's deceit had been great, stern, cold, and judicial-only in such a spirit could he take vengeance on the lad; now it was shame which flamed into his cheeks. He had drawn his sword against a woman-in another moment the blade would have been dyed in her blood-the very thought of it was horrible.

In Maritza's face there was no look of triumph. If for a moment it had lightened her eyes, if the woman's power over the man defiantly proclaimed itself as she tore open her shirt to reveal the truth, it was gone more quickly, more completely, perhaps, than Ellerey's anger.

The Princess was the first to break the silence.

"You will not strike?" she said, closing the shirt again with hasty fingers.

"Regrets are useless. I had hoped to succeed. I will tell you why when you choose to listen to me. To-morrow you can deliver me to the brigands; until then I am Grigosie again."

As she picked up her cap and drew it over her curls Ellerey looked up.

It was a relief to see the lad before him as he had always known him.

"And Grigosie talks folly," he said. "I would far sooner take his life myself than deliver him to the tender mercies of the brigands." A cry from Stefan, which was half an oath, startled them, and in an instant Ellerey had sprung to the soldier's side. Anton at the same moment seized his knife, and all three men were in the doorway slashing and thrusting furiously at those without. For a moment there were only two or three, who had approached silently, but their shouts upon being discovered brought a crowd rushing to their assistance.

When Anton had deserted his post to come to Grigosie's help, the temptation to secure an easy victory had been too great for those who watched the plateau. Vasilici may have given no orders that the truce should be thus flagrantly broken, but those who had seized the opportunity knew well enough that success would win easy forgiveness.

As it had been at the gate guarding the zig-zag path, those in front, wounded or dying, were thrown back upon their companions, impeding the rush which must have effected an entrance. Perhaps there was still a desire among most of them to let any comrade who would force himself into the forefront of the attack. The prowess of the defenders had already taught them a salutary lesson.

"Quick, Stefan; see that the door will close and fasten," whispered Ellerey. "When it is ready, shout; give us a moment to thrust back the foremost of them, and a moment to get in, and then we'll shut them out, if we can."

Stefan made a sharp cut at the first man within reach of him, and then slipped back into the tower. He shouted almost immediately, for Grigosie was already at the door, and had seen that it was in working order. At the shout Ellerey and Anton made a dash out as if in a last attempt for freedom. A slash to right and left, a cringing back of those in front gave them the opportunity and the time they wanted. In another instant they were within the tower, the door was shut, and the great bolts in it shot home.

"It's not likely we'll be using this way out for a while," said Ellerey, "so we'll pile everything against it we can to strengthen it."

They worked with a will, and while the brigands beat at the door without, they barricaded it within; and having heaped up against it everything they could lay their hands on, they drove in some wooden stakes at an angle to hold the obstruction in its place and resist the pressure.

"That will stop them for a little while," said Ellerey.

No one answered him. As soon as the work was accomplished Grigosie turned away, and Stefan, wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, looked with unutterable fierceness at Anton.

"You-you--" And then he burst out with a mighty oath. "There's no word in devil's or man's vocabulary to call you by. You're to thank for this. Weren't you ordered to keep guard by the barrier yonder?"

"Let him be, Stefan," said Ellerey, laying his hand on the soldier's arm. "He did rightly in leaving it. He came to protect his mistress."

Stefan glanced at Grigosie, whose back was toward him, and muttered something deeply; oaths they may have been, but the words seemed to lose themselves in his beard. Anton said not a word. He looked at Ellerey, and it was a look of which it was difficult to read the meaning. It was one of wonder rather than of gratitude. Perhaps he was trying to understand the real character of this strange Englishman. The brigands still continued to hammer at the door, but it showed no sign of giving.

"It will hold for a time," said Ellerey, "but we must see what can be done to interrupt their attentions as much as possible. A shot or two from the chamber above might help them to become quieter. Come, Stefan, and let us see what we can do."

In the chamber above there were narrow slits in the walls, and the top of the zig-zag was commanded from this vantage place, but those immediately below were out of danger. Some men were standing by the broken-down barrier, and Stefan wanted to fire at them, but Ellerey stopped him. Their ammunition was too valuable to throw away. A cartridge presently might be worth much more to them than one man's life just now.

"Those at the door below are the danger," said Ellerey.

"There's a good deal of loose stonework on the roof," said Stefan. "A piece of that heaved over at intervals might give them something to think about besides hammering at that door."

"They shall have a lesson at once," said Ellerey, climbing carefully up the broken stairway which led to the roof. It has been said that a turret had fallen in, breaking part of the stairs away, but the roof could easily be reached. There were many fragments, some large, some small, lying there, and one piece of considerable size Ellerey and Stefan managed to get on to the wall of the parapet immediately over the door. The manoeuvre was apparently unnoticed, for there came no warning shout to those below.

"Over with it," said Ellerey.

It did its work effectually. There were groans and execrations, and several bullets struck harmlessly about the stonework from whence this message had been hurled, but the hammering at the door ceased, and the besiegers retired to a safe distance.

"We must keep watch from here, Captain," said Stefan. "Help me to mount another piece upon the wall. It can rest there until they get courageous again and ask for it to be thrown upon them."

Ellerey did so, and, leaving Stefan there for the present, returned to the basement of the tower.

Anton was standing in exactly the same place as when Ellerey had mounted the steps, but the expression on his face had changed. It was quite evident that in the interval some words had passed between him and Grigosie, and that, whatever the subject of the conversation, Anton disapproved of it. Grigosie was leaning against the wall counting the cartridges he still had in his possession.

"We have stopped their hammering for a while," Ellerey said. "While the loose stones on the roof last, we have another weapon of defence."

"Do I relieve Stefan?" asked Grigosie.

"No; Anton. Rest while you can. There will be little enough sleep for any of us."

"And little enough food, too," said Grigosie, when Anton had cast himself down in a corner.

"We are truly in a sad case, Princess."

"Grigosie, please; let me remain Grigosie. It will be easier for both of us."

She crossed over to the steps which led to the upper chamber and sat down.

"As you say, our position is hopeless," Grigosie went on. "In Sturatzberg there are some who would strike a blow for Maritza, but no one knows of Grigosie. It is a poor end to make, Captain. I have had my moments of despair, but whenever I have thought of failure, I have never pictured such a miserable failure as this. I was prepared to face death and disaster, but if death came, I meant that it should be glorious, that it should come in a fashion to set Europe ringing with the news. It was a magnificent setting I had arranged for myself-the going down of a sun in purple and red and gold."

"Even as it is we make a mountain legend of it," said Ellerey, with a short laugh; "and legend lives long, longer than fame, often. You have a fair chance of being remembered by the generations to come."

"I have brought you to this, so it is your privilege to laugh at me," she said.

"At least, we can be honest with each other now," said Ellerey. "At the best we can only keep these wolves at bay for a few hours. Though

these old walls stand, we have little food, little ammunition. Death has no very great terrors for me. I seem to have lived my life for the express purpose of showing how a man can fail, and, having been unjustly robbed of my honor, you succeed in robbing me of my self-respect by making me lift my hand against you-a woman."

"I am sorry. Question me as you will."

"How could you hope for anything else but failure from such a mad enterprise?" he asked.

"Captain Ellerey, do you remember what I said when we met on the downs that day?"

"Every word."

"That I spoke truly you now know. You know how my claim stands, and whether you love my cause or not, you must recognize the justice of it. While I was in England, kept there to be out of the way, my friends were working in Sturatzberg. My adherents, my well-wishers, are in every grade of society there, but there was one man on whom I thoroughly depended. He was in constant communication with me, and one of his great schemes, a plan which he swore was ripening every day, was getting the brigands to espouse my cause. To these hills have flocked all the malcontents of the country. They are not robbers; they are political outcasts many of them, and should welcome one who is by right their ruler. So said this man, so he swore they were ready to do, but constantly advised a little further delay. You cannot understand what this waiting day after day, month after month, meant to me. Impatient in heart, I was yet patient in action. I might still be quietly waiting but for two things. First I learnt that to be put further out of the way I was to visit England's colonies, a pleasure trip graciously arranged for me by your Government; secondly, I was informed that the man I trusted was scheming for his own ends more than for mine. It was the parting of the ways, Captain Ellerey, and I had to choose. Another stepped on board the vessel placed at my disposal in my stead, and while she was taken to the colonies I came secretly to Sturatzberg. There I have since lived, watching and waiting, in the house of the woman who devised and helped me to carry out this plan."

"A woman!" Ellerey exclaimed.

"Countess Mavrodin, whose power is only the greater because no one has any idea of its existence. My first work was to watch the man whom I believed had been working for me. I quickly found that my interests were not first in his consideration, but I learned also that he feared his own schemes would fail should some unlucky chance bring me to Sturatzberg. In this fear I saw my hope. Was this unnatural?"

"Is this man De Froilette?" asked Ellerey.

"He is the man. Unconscious of my presence in the city he continued to work against me. Queen Elena had now become his dupe. The men in the hills would help to set her alone upon the throne in Wallaria, and the King once got rid of and the country in insurrection, De Froilette would have sold it to Russia-more, would have aspired to the hand of the Queen. Perhaps he loves her, perhaps he only loves the power he would gain. His conspiracy was well laid, and he only wanted a man to lead, to bear the brunt of the fight, to pay the penalty should failure come, while he remained an uninterested citizen ready to be the first to cry out against the rebellion if necessary. His choice fell upon Desmond Ellerey."

Ellerey did not answer. This recital was making many things clear to him.

"I knew something of this Captain," the Princess went on. "In my heart I had long ago chosen him to lead my cause. I tested his courage on the night I believed he had received the token. It was I, Captain Ellerey, who ran with you along the deserted streets from the Altstrasse that night; it was I who, when only numbers had succeeded in binding you, came and looked into your eyes and was satisfied."

"Yet you didn't trust me enough to whisper your name," said Ellerey.

"At Court you came under the influence of Frina Mavrodin," she went on hastily. "Perhaps, even with her, my cause took second place then. You were stanch to the mission you had undertaken; she could not turn you from that, although she influenced you in another way."

"What do you mean, Princess?"

"I have heard her speak of you, I have noted the light in her eyes; do you think I could be deceived?"

"And do you think, Princess, that I have no memory? Since that morning on the downs--"

"Her success did not help my cause, therefore what was it to me!" cried Maritza, suddenly starting to her feet. "It was time for me to act. You know the rest. There are spies everywhere, and I knew when the token was given, how it was sent, and enclosed in a similar fashion I had my own. De Froilette was afraid of me, therefore it was possible that the brigands, or some of them, at least, were ready to take up my cause. The wine that night made you sleep heavily, and I changed the tokens. There is a loose brick in yonder corner, under it lies the Queen's bracelet of medallions. So, Captain Ellerey, you have me in your power. I brought you to this strait-the remedy is in your own hands. Deliver me and the Queen's token into Vasilici's hands, and-who knows, you may yet win place and power in Sturatzberg."

With an impatient gesture, Ellerey walked across the chamber, and as he did so Anton raised his head.

"What, old watch-dog, so you think as basely of me as your mistress does," he said, noticing the sudden movement.

Anton did not answer, but waited, resting on his elbow.

"No man loves being fooled, Princess," Ellerey went on, turning round hastily, "and that I have been by the Queen, by De Froilette, and by you, but of them all you only have insulted me. What contempt must you have for me to think even of such a thing! Let me be as short and brutal. If by the sacrifice of a dog to those wolves without I could purchase my freedom, I would not buy it at the price. I will wake you presently, Anton. You, at least, I can understand," and Ellerey mounted the steps and disappeared into the upper chamber. He went no farther for a time, but sat on some fallen stones to think, and his thoughts were not of how to escape from his enemies, nor even how to hold them at bay as long as possible, but of two women. One, a woman of the world, for so she seemed, the centre of attraction, beautiful, witty, frivolous, shimmering in silk and lace and jewels, jewels that were no brighter than her eyes. He had not mentioned her among those who had fooled him. She had not done so. She had been a pleasant companion, a true comrade, perhaps; indeed, was ready to give him even more than friendship. He might have loved her but for the other woman, whom he saw again as in a vision, standing on the summit of the downs, talking of empire and power, stirring his soul from its lethargy and bidding him play the man. If she had stirred him then, how much more did she make his pulses throb now, now that she had shared his dangers and braved so much! Had she any memory such as his, of that breezy morning long ago? And then the horror of the present overwhelmed him for a time. He was powerless to help her.

"There is no future for us beyond tomorrow, or the day after," he murmured. "Fate has strangely linked me with these two women, and made sport of me. One might have loved me perchance, and will regret me; the other I love, and she cares not, and I am likely to lay down my life in a last endeavor to save her. Thank God for such a death! A man could scarcely die a better one, although Stefan would hardly think so," and he climbed to the roof to talk to the soldier there.

Princess Maritza stood for some time where Ellerey had left her. She too, perhaps, forgot the present for a little while, and her thoughts sped to Frina Mavrodin, Then she crossed the chamber quickly.

"Dumitru, are you asleep?"

"No, Princess," the man answered, starting up.

"Lie down again, Dumitru, and listen. If he comes, be asleep, as I shall feign to be; but listen, and if you do not understand, question me until you do."

"You distrust this Captain, Princess?"

"No; he may yet do good work for us."

For a long time she continued to speak in a whisper.

"It is madness," murmured the man.

"Wise men would call all I have done madness," she answered. "Listen,

Dumitru, there is more."

When she had finished there was silence.

"You would have me play the traitor," said the man, slowly.

"He is never a traitor who obeys the word of his sovereign," she answered.

"But, Princess--"

"Am I your sovereign, Dumitru?"

"My beloved Princess, indeed."

"Then obey, Dumitru. Act promptly when I give the word. It shall be soon. Perhaps to-night."

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