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   Chapter 21 THE RESCUE

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 17978

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


The white signal had gone, but Ellerey's eyes remained fixed upon the moving black line until a fold in the hills hid it from sight. Something seemed to have gone out of his life, suddenly as a candle is blown out in a room. Then he turned and held out the paper to the soldier.

Stefan read the pencilled lines, turned the paper over meditatively, and then read them again. The words seemed to burn their way into his brain as they had burnt into Ellerey's, but the effect was somewhat different.

"It is not like a woman, is it?" said Stefan.

"Very like, I think."

Stefan shook his head, as though he regretted his companion's ignorance.

"I took a liking to Grigosie," he said. "I saw the making of a grand comrade in Grigosie. I can understand his doing this kind of thing, but not a woman."

"The fact remains that she is a woman," said Ellerey.

"Wonderful," answered the soldier, as he handed back the paper. "It would appear that the making of a man rests much in his clothes. I've never known good come from a petticoat. Grigosie didn't wear one. Maybe he recognized that he was a man, hidden by a cruel mistake in the shape of a woman. Ah, Captain, women have had the spoiling of many a good man I've drunk with and fought beside. I wish you a better fate than theirs."

"This does not look like treachery," said Ellerey. It was evident that he had not been attending to his companion, but had been following out a train of thought of his own, and now put his decision into words.

"We're standing here like two fools, at any rate," Stefan said. "We ought to know the value of precaution by this time. What is to be done, Captain? Are you for Sturatzberg, or for crossing the mountains northward? It's a speedy making up our minds that is needed if we are not to starve."

Ellerey was still following his own thoughts.

"What can her plan be?" he said. "What hope for her cause is there in these hills? What mercy can she expect from Vasilici?"

"As Grigosie, none; as a woman, she may persuade these men to anything," Stefan answered. "Some power she has, or why did they not kill Grigosie at once?"

"It is a terrible thought, Stefan, but may they not have reserved her for Vasilici's vengeance? Did they not cry to us that we might go free if the lad were given up? She heard that; she argued with us, you remember. She has sacrificed herself for us."

"Well, Captain, shall we follow? Give me but leave to kill something on the way and get on friendly terms with my stomach. I care not which road we take, nor to what it leads us."

"We will follow her," said Ellerey.

"I'd never leave so good a comrade as Grigosie in a tight place," murmured Stefan. "Keep watch, Captain, while I gather up what we take with us, and fill our flasks at Grigosie's fairy fountain yonder."

When Stefan returned, he found Ellerey standing on the edge of the plateau looking down into the pass.

"What is it, Captain?" he called out as he came. "They have not kept their promise, Stefan, that is all," Ellerey answered, pointing down into the valley.

A savage oath burst from Stefan's lips. "They've played the lad false in this, they'll play him false in all," and the tone in which he said it revealed for a moment the real heart of the man hidden deep down under this rough exterior.

From a hidden pathway at the foot of the hills the brigands came out singly, fourscore of them at least. Each man looked up at the plateau as he issued from the path, and the manner in which his eager steps gave way at once to an easier and more slouching gait showed plainly enough that the object of their coming had been attained, that no further hurry was necessary. Some went to the places where the fires had been, and kicked the ashes together; while others stacked their arms, and sat down in twos and threes along the pass.

"Those were revolver shots that woke us, Captain," said Stefan thoughtfully. "I expect Grigosie meant to rouse us as soon as we could no longer prevent his going, and intended us to make the best of our chances."

"And we've missed them," said Ellerey. "I fancy this is meant to be our last adventure, Stefan."

"They'll come up the path presently, and the sooner the better," was the answer. "A few of them shall finish their adventures along with us; but we'll fight our last fight here, Captain, not in the tower yonder."

"I have a sudden lust for life, Stefan, a longing to be face to face with Vasilici once more," whispered Ellerey, as though he imagined the men in the valley below might hear his secret. "If we wait until sundown we might get through them in the darkness."

"Our original plan," Stefan answered. "I am with you, Captain, and if you will watch those blackguards yonder, I'll turn my attention to a bird that's hovering on the mountain above. Heaven grant he comes within range, and an empty stomach does not put my eye out."

But the bird seemed to have no more intention of serving two hungry men for food than the brigands meant to throw away their lives by an attempt to win the plateau. They posted sentinels, one near the foot of the zig-zag path, and one beyond the camp-fire toward the head of the pass; the rest sat or stood at their ease between these two points, and, unless they changed their plan at night, Ellerey perceived that, if the sentry at the foot of the path were once silenced without being able to give warning, the road to the way taken by the Princess and her captors would be clear. He studied the shape of the hills and the distance carefully, so that he might the more easily find that road, and he noticed how long a time elapsed between the relief of the sentries. If they attacked the man soon after his coming on duty, so much the longer start would they obtain.

The day wore on, and he and Stefan finished the scraps of food which were left, and thanked their good fortune that they had not the terrors of thirst to face. Stefan still watched the mountains above for a bird, and Ellerey planned the work of the night in every detail, explaining some new point to the soldier every time he approached him. He had paid little attention to the men in the valley below for some time, when he was startled by a single shot, which rang out clearly in the still air. For a moment he thought that Stefan had got his bird at last, but the next instant the soldier was beside him, as startled as he was. It was the sentry toward the head of the pass who had fired, and he now came rushing toward his companions, who quickly seized their weapons.

"Do I hear horses?" exclaimed Stefan excitedly. "By the father and mother I never knew, there are horses galloping up the pass. There are several of them, and they come quickly."

The brigands were evidently unprepared for such an attack, and did not appear to have a capable leader among them. They had not come there to fight, only to starve two men into surrender, and as they ran together there was a general movement toward the path they had come.

Into the pass galloped some two dozen horsemen, who, at a sign from their leader, drew rein upon seeing the brigands, and turned to shout to others who had not yet come into view.

"An advance guard only," muttered Stefan.

The brigands evidently thought the same, and those who could not reach the mountain path in time began a hasty retreat up the pass, firing in a desultory manner as they went. They had no intention of attempting to hold their position; safety was all they cared about. The horsemen paused a moment to fire a volley, and then charged, but there was little fighting. Two or three of the brigands were cut down, and one horseman pitched forward suddenly as a bullet brought his horse to the ground, but that was all. The brigands scrambled into the mountain paths or up the mountain slope out of reach, and the leader of the troop checked any pursuit of those who were fleeing rapidly up the pass.

"Is this a rescue, or have we only changed our enemy?" said Ellerey.

"They are dismounting, and will come up the zig-zag way; we had better meet them at the top of it," said Stefan.

Only one man came up to them.

"There is not much distinction to be had from routing such an enemy,

Captain Ellerey," he said. "Baron Petrescu!"

"At your service, although barely recovered from the effects of our last meeting. Time pressed, so I did not wait for a doctor's certificate of fitness."

"I thank you, but I hardly understand the situation, Baron," said

Ellerey.

"And that is not to be wondered at," was the answer; "but there will be time to explain presently. Enough that we can shake hands over a past quarrel for which I have paid the penalty, and know that we stand together now."

Ellerey took his outstretched hand without a word.

"The Princess is with you?" Petrescu asked.

"She was until this morning."

"Killed!" cried the Baron.

"No; and yet I do not know that worse has not happened to her."

"While you explain, Captain, have I your leave to go down and make the acquaintance of our new comrades?" said Stefan. "My stomach yearns toward them, and their victuals and drink."

"I had forgotten," said the Baron hastily. "You can explain while we eat and drink, Captain."

"A few moments will make no difference, Baron," said Ellerey, nodding a consent to Stefan, who went down into the pass quickly. Then he went on: "Do you know the Princess's plans, Baron?"

"I thought I did, but her sudden disappearance from Sturatzberg was unexpected by me; still, I know enough of your mission to guess her reason for joining you."

"Then, Baron, you know my position. It was not Princess Maritza's cause which brought me to these hills. I am the victim of a conspiracy; but at the same time, my only thought now is for the safety of the Princess." The Baron nodded, and glanced swiftly at his companion.

"I understand, Captain."

Shortly Ellerey told him what had occurred since Princess Maritza had joined him at the Toison d'Or, reserving nothing, not even his own anger at the deceit which had been practised upon him.

"It was a desperate enterprise, doomed to failure from the beginning," he went on; "but as it was, only one course was open to me, to protect the Princess to the best of my ability. Our food was gone, and we had determined to make a dash for safety after dark to-night. That we did not do so last night was by the Princess's desire. Her going must have been in her mind then."

"She took the bracelet of medallions with her?" said Petrescu thoughtfully.

"She told me it was in the tower yonder; it is not there now, so I presume she took it."

"It may possibly secure her safety."

"Vasilici is a truculent villain," Ellerey answered. "He is not likely to forget, or forgive, that shot which saved my life."

"Then you would follow her?"

"Stefan and I had decided to do so when those fellows stole back to prevent us. We should have taken our chance after dark to-night."

Petrescu was thoughtful for a time.

"I hardly know what course to advise," he said presently. "We may not be able to help her much in these hills, while in Sturatzberg we might stir up the people in her cause."

"At least I have small power in the city," said Ellerey, with a smile. "Those who trusted me very naturally think me a traitor, and I should quickly be delivered over to enemies who would make short work of me."

"Yet you have powerful friends there."

"Indeed?"

"When the men who deserted you rode into the city with stories of your treachery, Captain Ellerey's name suddenly became known to hundreds who had never heard it before, and to each one of them he became a friend, since his fate was linked with Princess Maritza's."

"Would such friendship protect me from my enemies?"

"At least many a hiding-place in the city would be open to you, and some men might sooner give up their lives than betray you. There is one proof of the truth of what I say. The men who deserted you all died a violent death that night. They were found lying side by side in the Bergenstrasse, in spite of the fact that the city was patrolled by troops."

Ellerey looked at him inquiringly.

"No, Captain, I was not privy to their assassination, although I might make a shrewd guess in what quarter the plot originated."

"Then Sturatzberg is in uproar?"

"No; it is strangely quiet, all things considered-that quiet which presages a storm. The King would strike if he knew where to strike, but he hardly knows who are his enemies."

"The sight of me would give him some idea where to aim a blow," said

Ellerey.

"Yes; and yet he might think twice before striking it. You have powerful friends, one very powerful friend-one very powerful friend."

"You do not mean her Majesty?"

"I think you know I do not, Captain Ellerey," the Baron answered. "It was the Countess Mavrodin who bid me come."

"I know that the cause of Princess Maritza is dear to her," said Ellerey quietly.

"It is, and to me," said the Baron; "and yet we are probably not doing the best for it by bringing two dozen horsemen into the hills. There are no more behind. Our calling back as though there were was a stratagem to strike greater terror into the brigands. No, Captain, the Countess bid me come to rescue the Princess, and you, to aid your escape out of Wallaria if need be, and her command is my law. Do we understand each other, Captain Ellerey?"

They looked into each other's eyes for a moment.

"Do you understand why I forced a duel upon you?" Petrescu went on. "I might tell you that I believed the Queen's token was in your possession; it would be true; but that was not uppermost in my thoughts when we stood face to face. Therefore, when I come to you at her bidding, you may well trust me, since I have little to win by it."

"Only partly do I understand you, Baron."

"You Northmen, in spite of your many virtues, are slower to understand than we Southerners are. Would you have me pluck the fruit for you as well as show you the tree? Sturatzberg may be in open rebellion before a week is out, and Frina Mavrodin may have to leave it. I will say no more. Even my generosity has a limit."

Ellerey could not fail to understand his meaning.

"You had better read that, Baron," he said, handing him Maritza's letter.

Petrescu took the scrap of paper and read it carefully.

"I met Maritza long ago in England," he said as Petrescu looked at him. "She has remembered it, you see, and I-I came to Sturatzberg."

"Then the Countess is-"

"My friend, but Maritza--We waste precious time, Baron; I must follow

Maritza."

"I understand. Come and eat. We must lose no time."

It was arranged to leave some of the men in charge of the tower and of the horses. They were to wait there six days, and if by that time Baron Petrescu and his party had not returned, they were to go back to Sturatzberg, taking a circuitous road to avoid the soldiers encamped in the plain. Stefan was left in command of these men, since he had had experience how the plateau could best be defended in case of need. That the brigands would attack them, however, seemed unlikely, for they had evidently fled in the belief that the men they had seen were only an advance guard.

Night was falling when the party, well armed and full of excitement, set out. There was a silver light behind the distant heights, herald of the moon, so there was little need to wait for the dawn; besides, one of the brigands had only been slightly wounded, and was pressed into their service as guide. He loudly declared that he had no idea where his chief was hiding, until the Baron held a revolver to his head, and gave him half a minute to find whether his memory could not be jogged sufficiently to serve him better. Before the thirty seconds had passed, it had worked to good effect, and he set out with a man on either side of him who had strict injunctions to see that he should be the first to pay for any treachery which might happen.

"Some of the brigands cannot be far in front of us," said the Baron; "and this fellow will know their likely haunt and give us warning in time. If he forgets to do so, the sun will rise in vain to-morrow for him."

They tramped silently through the night, often in single file, for the way contracted often to the narrowest of defiles. That they had started right Ellerey knew, and he was inclined to think that so far their guide had not misled them. There seemed to be no other way by which they could have come.

Just before dawn the brigand stopped; his memory had been excellently aroused.

"We approach an open space where my people sometimes halt," he said.

Two men were sent forward to reconnoitre, but found the place empty, and here they halted.

"How much farther to where Vasilici is?" asked Petrescu.

"We should reach the place by noon," the brigand answered; "but he may have moved. My comrades will have told him of your coming to the pass."

"I dare say you will remember where he is likely to have removed to," the Baron returned, "since your miserable life depends upon it."

They were just preparing to continue their journey after a short rest and hasty meal, when they heard the sound of falling footsteps coming rapidly toward them. Only one man, and he was running with that easy, measured stride which a runner falls into when his journey is likely to be a long one. A moment later he ran into the midst of them.

"Stop!" cried several voices.

The man, with a glance to right and left of him for a way of escape, stood still; but in an instant a knife gleamed in his hand, and in that moment Ellerey recognized him.

"Anton!"

The man turned toward him and lowered the knife at once. "The Princess,

Anton, where is she?"

"Yonder; alive," Anton answered. "Give me a moment and some drink. I have a message."

"For me?"

"For all, Captain, who love her."

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