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   Chapter 22 IN VASILICI'S STRONGHOLD

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 22040

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


Although Anton had declared to Ellerey that there was no certainty that the Princess had failed, he did not believe in his own optimism. True, death seemed certain in the tower, but it had been kept at bay until now almost miraculously, it seemed to him, and a faith in Captain Ellerey had grown up in him. The Princess's resolution to deliver herself to the brigands appeared little short of madness to Anton; he even considered whether he would not be acting in her best interests by disclosing the plan to Ellerey; and he felt a traitor even when he carried out her commands.

During his long hours of watching on the roof, it had been comparatively easy to communicate with the brigands on the plateau. Having attracted their attention, he dropped a paper, wrapped round a piece of stone, telling them who the youth really was, that she was ready to go with them to Vasilici, on condition that her companions were allowed to leave the hills unmolested; that she had in her possession the token which Vasilici expected and was, moreover, the bearer of a message which those who were with her would not allow her to deliver. The brigands accepted the terms, and although they broke faith and came back to secure the two men in the tower if possible, they made no attempt to injure the Princess when she climbed down the rope after Anton and stood in the midst of them. She was not wrong in thinking that she was far too valuable a prisoner not to be taken with all speed to Vasilici. As the brigands surrounded her, Anton caught the rope, and, with a quick, dexterous turn of his arm, sent the end of it flying upward to the roof.

"You may trust us," said one man, trying to keep the anger out of his voice.

"I do," Maritza answered; "but nothing was said about the rope, and a small matter may make a difference in such a treaty as ours."

As they descended the zig-zag path, Maritza fired three times into the air, causing the men near her to start back.

"They are sleeping," she said, nodding toward the tower. "That is to wake them, and let them know of the treaty."

"I must ask you for that weapon," said the leader, but in spite of himself he spoke with a certain deference. "It is a dangerous plaything in your hands."

"It is empty and of no further use to me," she answered, with a smile, handing him the revolver. "Keep it, my friend. It has my initials engraved on it, and may serve you as a boast some day when you entertain your fellows with tales of your adventures."

Having arranged which men should gradually fall out in twos and threes and presently return to the pass, the brigands made haste to march, and they did not interfere when Maritza waved her handkerchief to the two solitary figures standing on the plateau. It would show that the Princess was safe and allay any suspicions they might have; they would probably not hurry their departure, and were likely to fall into the hands of the men returning to the pass. Nor did they make any objection to Anton walking beside the Princess; there was so evidently no idea of attempting to escape. "How long a march have we before reaching Vasilici?" Maritza asked, turning to a man who walked near her.

"We shall reach him to-night," was the answer, "unless we make a long halt on the way."

The man did not look at her as he spoke. He had been specially told off to keep near her and to listen should she talk secretly with her fellow-prisoner. His companions immediately near straggled a little as they marched, and presently he drew nearer to Maritza, and she noticed it.

"Take no heed of me and do not look at me," he said. "Have you a hope of winning over Vasilici?"

"I have a message for him."

"A doubtful protection," was the answer.

"Perhaps so, but I have friends in his company."

"You were ill-advised to make this journey; I have warned you." And still keeping his even pace, the man moved farther from her side.

This whispered conversation set many thoughts surging through Maritza's brain-not new thoughts exactly, for there were few contingencies she had not provided for when she determined to place herself in the hands of the brigands, but thoughts which began to cut deeper, as it were, into a channel already made. This man's action proved that he was not altogether indifferent to her, and it was hardly likely that he was the only one among Vasilici's followers who might be ready to speak a word for her, perhaps even strike a blow for her, could she stir them sufficiently. Brigandage was not the natural calling of many who had flocked to Vasilici's standard, nor were they likely to rest contented with Vasilici's leadership for long. Were they not even now waiting for a message from the Queen, to whom in the future they would look for favor?

At noon, when a halt was called, this same man saw that Maritza had sufficient to eat, and replaced the flask of wine given her by another, saying that it was better and that she would want all her strength. He took no notice of Anton, who, by the Princess's instructions, spoke to no one unless he were spoken to. She wanted to draw as little attention to him as possible, and sought by various means to show that he was a servant only, and not a very highly valued one. She felt that his insignificance might render him trebly valuable under certain conditions. So utterly absorbed was she by her thoughts that the length of the march did not greatly fatigue her. She failed to recognize that the way was often rough and difficult, and that the pace of the whole band had slackened somewhat as the day advanced.

It was late in the afternoon when they entered a narrow defile between two precipitous mountain walls, which looked as though some huge giant had cut out one slice from the top to the bottom of the mountain. Perhaps through many ages a rapid narrow torrent had rushed here cutting slowly but surely deeper. There was no water now, but the way was paved with loose pebbles, which made progress slow and tiring. It was not a way one would choose, and since near the entrance there were other paths more inviting, Maritza concluded that they were nearing the end of the journey. For a moment on entering the defile her heart sank within her. It was like leaving the open world and the sunlight to creep into the dark unknowable, where some horrible fate might await her. Would she ever step freely into the open light of day again? Her thoughts sped backward to the tower standing above the pass and to the man she had left there. Which road had he taken-the way to Sturatzberg, or the path across the mountains northward which led to safety? If to Sturatzberg, why had he gone there? Her hands clenched a little as an answer came quickly to her question, but she murmured to herself: "What is it to me? I am Maritza, the lawful ruler of this land. What is anything to me but the memory of my fathers and the battle for my rights?" The thought brought back her courage, and made her calm.

They had not proceeded far along the narrow defile before they were challenged by a sentry posted upon a narrow pathway which seemed to have been scooped out of the solid rock above the rough road they were traversing. The challenge was a mere form, for he could not fail to recognize many of his companions, but his gun was not lowered until the pass-word had been shouted back. This was evidently the brigand's stronghold, and it was well guarded. In a retreat so defended by nature, the brigands could defy any army sent against them, and for the first time Maritza understood why no effort had been successful in dislodging them.

At the end of the defile they were challenged again, this time by a small body of men on guard there, and having answered and been allowed to pass, they emerged into a large circular hollow in the hills. On every side it was enclosed by precipitous walls in which, here and there, were narrow openings, evidently paths similar to the one they had travelled. The hollow was covered with tents and wooden huts, the latter put together with a solidity which showed that they were permanent structures, and suggested that whatever enterprise the brigands entered upon, this stronghold was never left undefended.

The party was evidently expected. The news that Princess Maritza had determined to place herself in his hands had been quickly carried to Vasilici, and with a few of his leading men he was seated in front of a long wooden shed when his captive was brought into the hollow. His arm was still in a sling, and his expression was morose and fierce, although a grin of satisfaction lightened his face for a moment when he saw the trim, youthful figure and knew that the cause of his bandaged arm was now in his power. Perhaps in the back of his mind he had already begun to devise fitting tortures for his enemy. During the long march Maritza had pictured this moment, and had determined how to act; but the real scene was rather different from the picture she had imagined. As the men who had brought her fell back, leaving her alone, with Anton a few paces behind her, she glanced round at the crowd and said:

"Which among you is Vasilici?"

His appearance sufficiently marked him out from his companions, but Maritza was quick to perceive that there was a half-concealed smile on the faces of some of the men near him when she pretended not to recognize him. Perhaps Vasilici saw the smile, too, for, although his face darkened, he answered the question without any sudden outburst of anger.

"Greeting," said Maritza. "I would be seated while I talk. The journey which I have undertaken into these hills has been a hurried one over a rough road; and, besides, it is not usual for a sovereign to stand in the presence of her subjects."

Vasilici burst into a loud laugh, which found an echo among many of his followers, but not all. Even while he laughed, and before he could say a word to prevent it, one man had stepped forward and placed a rough stool beside Maritza.

"Carry it nearer, Anton; that will do." And then she seated herself,

Anton standing behind her.

"Thus we can talk more easily," she said after a pause. "Are all your leading men here, Vasilici-all those who form your council? for what I have to say concerns all."

"In these hills my will is law," was the answer.

"So long as you please your followers, or the majority of them; I understand," Maritza said quickly. "Absolute power lies in the pleasure, or the fear, of the majority."

"Not here," said the chief, raising his voice angrily. "I alone am the law."

"Then indeed are you great among the kings of the earth."

Her question had forced him to exalt himself, and this was not pleasing to all those who stood about him.

"What you have to say, say quickly," Vasilici went on. "The death of good comrades lies at your door, and punishment is swift here. We move too rapidly to burden ourselves with prisoners."

"I will be brief," said Maritza. "For a long time you hav

e been intriguing with Queen Elena, through a servant of hers, one Jules de Froilette. By him you have been told to expect a certain token from her Majesty, upon the receipt of which you were to sweep down upon Sturatzberg, join yourselves with those who espoused her cause in the city, and set her alone upon the throne of Wallaria. That token was brought to you by Captain Ellerey."

"It is a lie," Vasilici burst out, "and you know it. He delivered the golden cross, the sign of your house, if indeed you be the Princess Maritza as you say."

"Captain Ellerey brought the Queen's token," Maritza went on quietly, as though there had been no interruption, "and delivered it as he supposed. He was as astonished to see the golden cross as you were."

"Then you-"

"Yes, I changed them. There is the proof." And she tossed the sealed box carelessly into Vasilici's hands. He cut it open quickly, while dead silence reigned around him, and then held up the bracelet of medallions that everyone might see.

"By this message you accuse yourself," cried the brigand, standing at his full height. "Now, hear your punishment."

"Wait!" said Maritza; "there is more to tell."

Absolute as he had proclaimed himself to be, Vasilici nevertheless glanced at those about him and, seeing that they were inclined to hear all the Princess had to say, waved his hand for her to continue. The fact that the chief was not quite so strong as he said was not lost on Maritza.

"It is true that I changed the token," she went on, not addressing herself especially to Vasilici, "and if I had a hope that there might be men loyal to me in these hills, for so this miserable scoundrel De Froilette has told me, that was not my only reason for changing it. De Froilette never told you that there was a time when he espoused my cause; he has never said how he would come fawning to me to-morrow were it in his own interests to do so; he has never explained what is to follow your devotion to the Queen. Rewards, place, honor, he has promised them all; yet on the frontier at this moment lies a Russian army only waiting this De Froilette's word to enter Wallaria and secure every benefit which you have pledged yourselves to fight for."

"The proof! The proof!" shouted many voices.

"What proof can I carry of such a scheme? Send for De Froilette on some pretext or other and question him, or send to the frontier and spy upon the army that waits there. You have the Queen's token; I have delivered it. Go out and meet the King's army, which lies ready to contest your way to Sturatzberg, if you will, but remember this: if you win your way to the city, if you succeed in overthrowing the present Government and setting Queen Elena alone upon the throne, you will not have advanced the cause of your country one step. You will be forgotten as soon as your work is done, and be under the firm hand of the Muscovite. You will have fought your enemies' battle for them and sold yourselves into slavery. You will have played into the hands of this Frenchman, De Froilette, who is serving his own ends only, who cares nothing for Wallaria, whose reward lies ready for payment in Russian coffers, who is as false to Queen Elena and to you as he has been to me."

There was a low murmur among the eager crowd as Maritza stopped abruptly, and those sitting and standing near Vasilici turned to one another and whispered together. Whatever hopes lay in the hearts of these men, selfish hopes for the most part, perhaps, yet with some patriotism in them, too, it was evident that the accusation against De Froilette was not entirely a surprise. There were men there who had never trusted him, and Maritza recognized that her words were not without weight. While they still whispered, and even grew quarrelsome over their opinions, she rose from her seat.

"For a long time I have been in Sturatzberg watching events," she said, raising her voice a little and obtaining instant attention. "There are many there who love my cause, some because of my right, some because they have learnt that Wallaria is merely the plaything of the nations. Are there not here about me many who love their country, who have fled from tyranny to the freedom of these hills, not to defy just laws, but to withstand oppression? I tell them that Queen Elena's promises are valueless. I tell them that every move the Queen has made is known in Sturatzberg, discounted and guarded against by the Ministers of foreign powers who rule the King. I tell them that the token of the bracelet of medallions has no power to help them to freedom, that from first to last they have been deceived. I might point to the golden cross and tell them that it is the sign of this country's salvation; but Vasilici, who stands for chief among you, has spurned it. I might stand here and cry to you that he is no chief worthy to lead an army of patriots, that there is another now among you whose right it is to lead, who has the power to win success; but men who bow to windy words are no countrymen of mine, and I scorn to tempt them to such false loyalty. Judge for yourselves and choose. There stands Vasilici, a brigand, King of these hills; and here stand I, Maritza, Princess, daughter of Wallarian kings, come among you of her own free will. I promise you not success, that knowledge is in the mind of God only; but this I do promise: I will lead you toward success, and, if we fail, die fighting in the midst of you. Choose, therefore, Maritza or Vasilici."

The stroke was a bold one. Brave men could understand the daring of flinging down such a challenge to a man like Vasilici, here in his own stronghold. It appealed in a manner that nothing else she could have done would have appealed, and she enhanced the force of her words by her apparent indifference as to what their decision might be. She resumed her seat as abruptly as she had risen from it, and beckoned Anton to approach her.

"Princess!" There was reverence in his tone as he bowed before her.

"Listen," she said quickly. "You marked well the way we came?"

"Yes, Princess."

"There is division among them, and for the present we are safe, perhaps, but the issue is doubtful. If they decide to hold me prisoner for a while, if their decision be anything short of making me their leader, take the first opportunity to escape back to Sturatzberg as swiftly as you can, and tell them what has happened in the hills. Wherever there is a man who loves me, tell him the story, tell Countess Mavrodin, tell Captain Ellerey if he be in the city. Give me but a score of men to shout my cause, and there are many here who will gladly add their voices to such an acclamation. Tell them that."

No shout, not a murmur, even, had followed Maritza's challenge. Those who hated her most were astonished into silence. Vasilici's face grew a shade more savage, but he was quick to note that the Princess had not appealed altogether in vain. He did not turn to those about him at once and mock her pretensions. It was not the moment to assert an authority which he well knew some of those with him in the hills resented. For a time he made no effort to suppress the whisperings on all sides; he had to determine on some counter-stroke. Suddenly he turned toward Maritza-

"Princess," he said, "I love a courageous foe. All here shall be your judges, not I."

"I am content," she answered.

At a sign from the chief, food and wine were brought to her, while the brigands gathered together and listened eagerly to this counsel and to that. There were many who, like Vasilici, had taken to the hills merely to swoop down upon the defenceless for pillage and for ransom, who cared nothing who might sit upon the throne in Sturatzberg, and among these there was a certain resentment that latterly there had come a change into the councils, that the organization was in danger of growing into a political one. What rewards in the city could compensate for the loss of their freedom in the hills? This faction was strong, but hardly strong enough to make it possible for Vasilici to break with his other followers. The chief knew it was the time for plausible arguments rather than domineering demands, and these he well knew how to use. He listened to the counsel of others, and he advised, and gradually there arose a large majority in the camp to whose decision the minority bowed because their opinions were subtly provided for.

There was a smile upon Vasilici's face as he stood forward to speak from which Maritza argued no good.

"Princess, I am but the mouthpiece, not the judge," he said. "It is true that there are many political refugees among us to whom you appeal personally, even if your cause does not; but chiefly we are not political. We are against all kings and the laws which make men either rich or poor, and we have set up in these hills a kingdom of our own of which I am at present the head. We take our living where we find it. Such a leader as you would make should draw men to your cause; but are they drawn? Is there any real force in Sturatzberg to rise and fight at your bidding? We doubt it. We are not patriotic enough to throw our lives away upon a dream. Yet you may be right, and the time may come when the golden cross will send us to fight your battles; but that time is not yet. We want more certainty before we espouse so desperate a venture. Those friends you have in the city yonder should, however, be strong enough to insure your safety if their loyalty is as you say, and for them the time has come to prove that loyalty. For us, we have to live. It has been decided, therefore, to hold you to ransom. We shall despatch messengers to the troops which lie in the plain, and for a price we shall deliver you to them. I doubt not you will receive as great courtesy from them as from us."

Maritza did not answer.

"You are content, Princess?" said Vasilici.

"I am disappointed," she returned. "I perceive that they were only the cowards who fled from Sturatzberg to these hills; the brave hearts remain in the city."

"We move to-night," said Vasilici, turning to those about him. "Let the messengers start at once."

"Remember, Anton: to Sturatzberg with all the speed you may. Now leave me alone," whispered Maritza.

To the good offices of the man who had shown kindness to the Princess, Anton owed his ability to slip past the guards as soon as night had fallen, and he had travelled a long way when he fell in with Ellerey and Baron Petrescu's party at dawn. He told his tale quickly.

"Only in Sturatzberg can we help her," Anton declared. "It is useless going forward. She will certainly be delivered to the soldiers."

His counsel prevailed, and they returned as quickly as possible to the castle in the hills, taking the brigand who had been their guide with them. They could not let him go and divulge their plans. Before another dawn came they were riding as swiftly as the rough way would permit in the direction of Sturatzberg.

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