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   Chapter 20 TREACHERY OR SACRIFICE

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 16975

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


All that night the stone, menacingly balanced on the wall above the door, remained in its place. The brigands had no desire to court a useless death, and they could afford to wait.

At dawn Ellerey ascended to the roof of the tower and found Anton pacing its narrow limits to keep the warmth in his limbs.

"Nothing happened, Anton?"

"Nothing, Captain."

"You have helped your mistress into a desperate strait. How could you hope for anything else but failure?"

"The Princess has told you, Captain?"

"Aye, man, but that was a woman's hope-a brave one if you will, but there was no weighing of chances, no counting the cost in it. Was there nothing more than this desperate hope at the back of your mind, no sane man's reasoning to see the peril of it?"

"I am but a servant to obey," Anton answered. "Yet desperate ventures have succeeded, and we had honesty on our side, Captain. Ours is the just cause, and that counts for something."

"No wonder Princess Maritza's history is one of failure if her counsellors have advised after this manner," said Ellerey.

"Are you certain she has failed, Captain?" Anton asked, turning quickly toward him. The earnestness of the question, added to its seeming absurdity, was startling. Could there be any doubt of the failure?

"Can your eyes penetrate beyond the spur of the hills yonder and see an army marching to our rescue, or your ears catch the welcome sound of tramping feet?" Ellerey said, pointing to the head of the pass.

"No, Captain."

"Is there any hope that a single man has set out from Sturatzberg to help us?"

"I know of none," was the answer.

"And about us the plateau is full of men, and below us in the pass men wait-enemies all. Outside this tower there is certain death for us, and within there is food enough to satisfy one man for a day perhaps."

"I know, Captain, and yet the Princess may not have failed."

Ellerey did not answer. He leant against the parapet watching the day grow brighter, and Anton resumed his quick pacing to and fro.

The men on the plateau and below in the pass were beginning to stir. Sentries were changed. There was the murmur of voices, and presently rising curls of faint blue smoke from fires cooking the morning meal. There was sunlight on the higher slopes, and the song of birds in the air, a welcome new day to myriads of creatures on the earth. To the man looking out across the panorama of mountain peak and gorge everything seemed a mockery. There was something cruel in gladdening the eyes with the beauty of earth and sky when in a few short hours those eyes must close forever. In the full possession of his life and strength the man rebelled against his fate. It was the end of a rat in a trap-ignoble, inglorious. That he would fall in striking a last blow for a woman who cared naught for him had little attraction for him just now. If he could save her, if his death could bring some good thing to pass, it would be different.

Once or twice Anton stopped in his pacing backward and forward to look steadily toward the head of the pass.

"Can you hear the tramping feet?" Ellerey asked when he stopped again.

"No, Captain."

"Can you see anything?"

"No, Captain; but it is too good a morning to accept failure."

"The sun doesn't put on mourning for every miserable dog that dies." And then, as Anton resumed his walk without a word, Stefan's voice was heard calling Ellerey to breakfast.

All the stones which had once served for seats and a table had been piled up against the door, and the food was spread in a little circle in the centre of the floor. It was Stefan's arrangement. He had refused all help from the Princess, gruffly but firmly, although the gruffness may have been something less than his usual manner and intended for courtesy. Maritza stood with her hands behind her watching him, a smile upon her lips.

"There's more table than breakfast, Captain," he said as Ellerey came down; "but it's as well to have things orderly. There's little enough to say grace for, but there's a lesson in the display, for all that. It represents all that stands between us and starvation."

"With care, Stefan, we can live for-" And then Ellerey paused.

"Quite so, Captain. I've been trying to fix a limit myself and failed."

Ellerey looked at the scraps of food. At any other time he would have spurned them as a meal of any sort; but in such a case as theirs was, morsels of food bulk large with possibilities.

"To-day and perhaps to-morrow," he muttered.

"Yes, we'll be quite ready to welcome a change of diet by to-morrow night," said Stefan, "and for my part I shouldn't quarrel with any kind of food and drink which happened to arrive sooner. There's no drawing from the mountain stream now and the flasks hold little."

"Much may happen in two days," said Maritza quietly.

"True. They may storm the tower successfully and put us beyond the want of food before to-morrow night," Ellerey answered.

They ate their small portions in silence, and having eaten them remained silent. Each one was conscious that there was something to be said, yet each one waited for the other to say it.

"Captain." It was a relief to hear Stefan's voice, and Ellerey looked up. "Captain, I make no claim to be much of a man at giving advice. I've seldom been asked for it, and I've usually been in a large enough company for it to be done without; but as we are, I take it each one of us becomes of more importance than under ordinary circumstances."

Ellerey nodded.

"Well, then, my case is this: Years ago someone found me in the streets, and for some reason known only to themselves decided that I should live. I may have been hungry then-I don't remember-but I've never been hungry since. I may have had to steal my victuals, but anyway I've got them. It follows, therefore, that in fighting hunger I'm not to be depended on. The weapons in use for such a fray are new to me, and I don't know how to handle them. I'm afraid of the enemy."

"Well, Stefan?"

"Now death, I suppose, is as certain within the next few hours as anything well can be, and I should like to meet the kind of death I understand. Let us fix a time for hauling down the barricade, and then make a dash for it. We'll get as far as the path, perhaps-there is just a chance that some of us may get farther; but anyhow, we die in the open."

"Have you thought of the Princess?" Ellerey asked.

"The circumstances don't make it easy to forget her," Stefan answered.

"Nor difficult to hate her," said Maritza.

"I took a kind of liking to Grigosie which somehow keeps me back from hating her," Stefan went on, speaking to Ellerey and not looking at the Princess. "I don't suppose, however, that she knows much more about starvation than I do, and dying in the open may suit her case as well as mine."

"But a woman, Stefan?"

"I've naught to do with women, Captain, and I see none in our company. I only see two good comrades before me, one lacking a bit of muscle it may be, but lacking no courage. He shall go between us, and Anton shall cover our rear. There's such pleasure in the thought of striking another blow that there's even a hope in it that we may win though."

"Stefan is right," Maritza said. "Let us make the attempt to-morrow."

"Why not to-day?" Stefan asked.

"The food is not all gone," she said; "besides, the day holds possibilities. Let us wait a day, Captain."

"If the attempt is to be made, why not make it to-night? The darkness will help us," said Ellerey.

"I prefer dying in the sunlight," said Stefan, "but so long as I die in the open the stars will serve."

"In the night if you will, but not to-night," pleaded Maritza, laying her hand on Ellerey's arm. "Let it be to-morrow night.

"Hope dies hard with you, Princess."

"I have a fancy to look upon another dawn," she returned. "Perhaps to-morrow is the anniversary of some great event in my history, and that is why I long to see it. I do not know, but in us all there is a vein of superstition. I will go and relieve Anton."

Stefan watched her as she went up the stairs and disappeared into the upper chamber.

"If anyone could make me change my opinion of women, she would," he said; but Ellerey took no notice of the remark. He had commenced walking up and down, deep in thought.

The day passed quietly. The brigands made no attempt to storm the tower, and the huge stone above the doorway remained ba

lanced on the wall. But to those within the hours dragged heavily. Stefan spent his time feeling the edge of his sword and seeing that the revolvers were in good order and loaded. The occupation seemed to bring him nearer to his emancipation. Ellerey walked from wall to wall, turning with the regularity of a wild beast in a cage. A dozen times or more he climbed to the roof, but hardly spoke a word to whoever happened to be sentry there. Maritza lay down and appeared to sleep a good deal when her duty on the roof was over, for she demanded to take her turn with the rest; and Anton was restless and nervous. He lay down, but he did not sleep; his eyes were constantly on the Princess.

"You know what we have decided?" said Ellerey to him during the day.

"Yes, Captain."

"You have no better plan?"

"No, Captain, so that I die with her I am content." The day drew slowly to its ending. A camp-fire blazed upon the plateau, and two in the pass below, around which the besiegers gathered. Still there were no signs that an attack was meditated, and Ellerey watched the moving figures for a long time and marked the position of the sentries. Such knowledge might prove useful to-morrow night. And he determined which direction to take should Providence so far favor them as to allow them to gain the pass. It was a relief to find even this employment to occupy his mind.

After the weary day the night was almost welcome. First Stefan, then Ellerey, had watched through the early hours; now Anton paced the roof restlessly while Maritza still slept. She was to go on duty at dawn, so might she see the new day break as she wished. When Ellerey came down, Stefan was sleeping heavily, and the Princess lay in her corner with her arm under her head, a picture of graceful repose and rest. The thought of the certain death that awaited her made Ellerey sick almost, and with a shudder and a curse at his own impotence, he cast himself down. For a time he tossed and turned restlessly this way and that until, utterly wearied out, sleep fell upon him and held him fast, smoothing the care from his face with pleasant dreams. Now he climbed a stretch of sunny, wind-swept downs, the song of a lark and the sighing sound of the long waving grass in his ears; now he heard the rustle of silk beside him and a sweet low voice and pleasant laughter answered him, a little foot stepped out bravely beside his own, and a little hand rested confidently in his. There was music and laughter about him, and then a sudden pause, and darkness, and out of it a sharp crackling sound.

"What was that?"

Ellerey had started up only half awake. It was Stefan's sudden question which thoroughly aroused him. The dawn had come and a dim light was in the chamber, strangely dim and sombre after the light and movement in his dream. He looked across at Maritza's corner and saw that it was empty.

"We have slept soundly, Stefan," he said, springing to his feet. "The

Princess has gone on duty."

"It sounded like revolver shots to me," the soldier answered as he followed Ellerey quickly to the roof. They stepped from the broken stairs into the open, and then stood still, turning to look at each other. There was no one there. The stone still rested on the wall, and a rope which had been in the lower chamber lay sprawling over the roof, one end of it hanging a few feet over the parapet. Both men ran to the wall together. The plateau was empty, not a man remained there. No sentry paced along the edge of it, no one stood there at the head of the zig-zag path.

"Gone!" Ellerey exclaimed. It was not of the brigands he was thinking, and Stefan knew it.

"By that rope. And Anton, too. Maybe we woke none too soon, Captain." And then, as Ellerey turned questioning eyes to him, he added: "There's the look of treachery in this."

Ellerey did not answer, but the question asked a moment later showed the direction his thoughts were taking.

"Have they really gone?" he said, pointing to the plateau.

The soldier shook his head doubtfully and then suddenly leant forward, his hand stretched out toward the pass before them. "Look yonder!"

The light was growing stronger every moment, and the moving figures in the valley could be seen distinctly. There was more going forward there than the awakening of a camp to a new day. The men were moving in orderly groups, and there was no curling smoke from newly-lighted fires. "They are on the march, Captain: and-look, is not the lad in the midst of them?"

Ellerey's eyes might not have served him to pick out the slim figure, but thus directed he had no doubt it was the Princess in the midst of the men who marched quickly along the pass for a little way and then turned aside and seemed to be swallowed up in the foot of the mountain opposite.

"She could not have gone of her own accord, Stefan. They must have found means to capture her."

"Anton may have helped them, perhaps."

"No; he was faithful-my life on that. Great heavens! She is in their power, in Vasilici's power, and we stand here doing nothing."

"She may have gone willingly," said Stefan, as Ellerey rushed toward the steps; "besides, what can we do?"

"Come or stay as you will!" Ellerey shouted as he disappeared.

"She went willingly," Stefan murmured, lingering behind for a moment to look at the rope. "At least, she climbed down to them, not they up to her. I never trusted Anton. If I hadn't taken a liking to Grigosie I shouldn't trust the Princess. She's a woman."

Although only a few moments had elapsed, Ellerey was already throwing down the barricade at the door in the lower chamber of the tower. Stefan first looked at his weapons and then went across to the corner which the Princess had occupied. Ellerey did not notice him, and he rose from his knees there only as Ellerey had sufficiently thrown down the stones to draw back the bolt and open the door wide enough to get out.

"One moment, Captain. I am with you, but be prepared for attack." Ellerey, sword in one hand, revolver in the other, rushed out on to the plateau, Stefan at his heels. No shout rang out, no man sprang from his hiding-place among the ruins to bar their way. Even the valley was empty. The last of the men who had encamped there had been swallowed up by the mountain opposite.

"Captain, the token which the Princess said was hidden under the loose brick yonder is gone."

The sword which Ellerey held ready to defend himself fell suddenly, almost as it had done when he recognized that he had raised it against a woman. Shame had sent the color to his cheeks then, and the color came into his face now, anger bringing it there. Had she deceived from first to last, played carelessly with all the finer feelings that were in him, using them boldly and deliberately for her own end? These were the thoughts which ran swiftly through his mind, and well might they stir him to anger. Then came the reaction, suddenly, swiftly. No, she could not have deceived him in this manner. There was some reason for her going, something unforeseen had happened. After all they had come through together, she could not be guilty of treachery.

"You found nothing else?" he asked hoarsely.

"Yes, this. A piece of stone lay upon it to keep it in its place close to where she slept last night."

Ellerey seized the scrap of paper Stefan held out to him.

"I have brought you to this," he read, written faintly in pencil; "I have thought of a plan to save you. At dawn I shall have gone, but so will the brigands. You will be free to go to Sturatzberg, if you will, or across the mountains northward to safety. I wonder which way you will take? Mine is a desperate venture. If I fail, think of me sometimes, for to me also there has often come the memory of that breezy morning in England-Maritza."

"Look, Captain!" Stefan cried.

On the slope of the opposite hills, where the path rose over a spur, a party of the marching brigands had come into view. The sunlight had come, and it touched the men as they went. The distance was too great to distinguish the slim figure in the midst, but one spot of white showed clearly, quivering as the sunlight touched it. For a moment it disappeared, then it fluttered again, and, as Ellerey looked, a crowd of conflicting thoughts and emotions were in his brain. This was not treachery, but sacrifice.

"A waving handkerchief, Captain; a signal of farewell," Stefan murmured in a low gruff voice.

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