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   Chapter 23 THE TEMPTATION OF FRINA MAVRODIN

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 19181

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


Lord Cloverton pushed his chair back from the table, and with his arms folded gazed abstractedly at the ceiling. Captain Ward sat opposite to him, turning over a pile of papers, noting their contents, and placing them in order.

"De Froilette was right after all, Ward. Princess Maritza has been in

Sturatzberg."

"And will be again almost immediately, now that the brigands have delivered her up. She is likely to be brought into the city to-morrow, I understand."

"Yes, and lodged in the palace under safe keeping, and then-then,

Ward?"

"She must bear the consequences of her folly," Ward answered. "Has

England any part to play in whatever treatment she may receive?"

"No, I think not. One may pity the woman, but even a woman must pay the penalty of her actions. Still the death or banishment of the Princess may do little to relieve the situation; indeed, may only intensify it. There have been other influences at work, and we are as ignorant of them as ever we were."

"I see you have some scheme maturing, my lord," Ward said with a smile.

"It might mature at once did I know what had become of Captain Ellerey. Would he seize the opportunity and escape out of Wallaria, think you?" "Not if he thought anyone who had a right to his help needed it. He is the kind of man who would return, no matter what the danger might be," answered Ward.

"I believe some friendship of the sort does bind him to Sturatzberg," said Lord Cloverton, "and I should be happier if he were in Princess Maritza's company. I should know how to act then."

The door opened and a servant brought in a card.

"Ah, now we may hear news," said the Ambassador. "De Froilette, the timber merchant. Show him in. You need not go, Ward."

De Froilette came in quickly and was cordially greeted by the Minister.

"My secretary, Captain Ward; you may safely speak before him, monsieur."

"It is no secret information I have to give," said De Froilette. "I came rather impudently to give myself the pleasure of laughing at your lordship."

"You have seen fit to praise me so often, monsieur, that I can no doubt bear your ridicule with the same equanimity as I accepted your praise."

"A witty retort to my pleasantry, my lord. You did not believe me when

I said Princess Maritza was in Sturatzberg. You see I was right."

"Monsieur, I grant your information was valuable; my policy might have suffered considerably by my disbelief. I have learnt a lesson and wish to profit by it. Can you tell me where Captain Ellerey is?"

"No, my lord; but I can tell you where to watch for him."

"You will help me by doing so," said Cloverton.

"In Sturatzberg, my lord," said De Froilette.

"Do you imagine he will return to the very centre of his danger? I am inclined to think he has crossed the hills and taken the quickest way out of Wallaria."

"You do not know the man, and you forget he is an Englishman," said De Froilette. "They are desperate fellows, these English adventurers. They have no eyes for danger, and are lacking that diplomacy which makes men feel that it is honorable to retreat sometimes. He is one of those who love their sword and would fain die with their boots on. Besides, he is in love."

"Ah, now you interest me, monsieur," Cloverton exclaimed. "I have been wondering whether he had not some weak spot."

"I heard him once speak of Princess Maritza," De Froilette went on. "He had met her in England; and I read the story behind his careless words. Here in Sturatzberg the Princess must have seen him, and for love of her he espoused her cause. She is being brought to the city, and he will surely follow her. Seize him, my lord, and you nip the rebellion in the bud."

"You think so," said Cloverton reflectively.

"I am certain of it," was the answer. "I am even bold enough to give advice. The King can afford to treat the Princess leniently. She has no strong personality to guide and counsel her; alone she is no danger, or the brigands would not have given her up. But this mad Englishman has the power to keep her cause alive. The King cannot afford to pardon him. Kill him, my lord, as quickly as you can. With her lover dead, the Princess will have no heart to plot."

"I think you are right, monsieur. I shall advise the King."

"And I will do my part in watching for Ellerey," said De Froilette. "You will be serving the State, monsieur," said the Ambassador; "but are there no others who are dangerous?"

The Frenchman was thoughtful for a moment.

"No, I think not," he answered. "There are some who talk loudly in the back streets, but their talk serves them instead of fighting, and does no harm."

"Quite so, monsieur; but I was not thinking of them," Lord Cloverton returned. "There is one curious feature in the situation. The brigands, it is true, have played into the hands of the State, but there seems little doubt that they were waiting for a message from Sturatzberg and were prepared to act upon it. They did not receive the message they expected, and so became revengeful. Now what message did they expect, and from whom was it to come?"

De Froilette shrugged his shoulders.

"Perhaps Captain Ellerey betrayed his trust and delivered the wrong message," suggested the Ambassador.

De Froilette looked at him in astonishment.

"By doing so he may have unconsciously served the State," Lord Cloverton continued, "and perhaps-of course, monsieur, one has to guess rather wildly sometimes-perhaps balked the intentions of those Russian troops which, for no apparent reason, have been gathering on the frontier."

Then De Froilette laughed.

"You are prepared for all emergencies, my lord; it is wonderful, your foresight; but I conceive that you are making something out of nothing. The diplomatic brain is so fertile it surpasses me."

"It is a soil which so many persons throw seed into, monsieur," was the answer. "Those who deal in timber are not the only merchants who scent danger to their interests in the political ferment of the times. But your advice is good; I shall advise the King. When Captain Ellerey comes he may tell us more." And the Ambassador rose, putting an end to the interview.

When the door had closed upon the Frenchman he resumed his seat and smiled benignantly. The smile invited comment from his companion.

"Personal enmity as regards Ellerey," said Ward, "and astonishment at your accurate knowledge."

The Ambassador nodded.

"He should be watched," said Ward.

"That is no longer necessary," was the quick answer. "Whatever power he may have had is gone. He is chiefly concerned about his own skin nowadays, and it would not surprise me to hear that business had suddenly called him away from Sturatzberg. Still, I thank him for giving me an idea. I shall see the King."

De Froilette went quickly back to the Altstrasse, and it would appear that Captain Ward's estimate of his attitude was near the truth. He sent for Francois at once.

"The net is being drawn in, Francois," he said.

"Are we within it?"

"We shall easily escape," was the answer. "Is everything ready to depart at a moment's notice?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"Good. You carry a revolver, Francois?"

The man showed it to him.

"Good again. Captain Ellerey will return to Sturatzberg-may have done so already. That he has played us false we know, that he can give evidence against us is certain. Revenge and safety, therefore, lie in the same direction. Watch for him, Francois, as I shall, and silence him."

"And his servant?" asked the man.

"If your private quarrel with the servant leads you to do so, no harm will be done." And with a wave of the hand he dismissed him.

The news that Princess Maritza was in the hands of the King's troops and was being brought to Sturatzberg had reached the city early that morning, but the news was not immediately known to Frina Mavrodin. It was being conveyed to her by a trusted messenger who had much to do on his way, and the fact that she had lately kept much at home accounted for her not hearing it from any other source.

The days of waiting are ever the longest days to live through, and the hours had dragged heavily for Frina Mavrodin since Baron Petrescu had started for the hills. Hardly anyone saw her except Hannah, and the old serving woman pitied her, judging her distress by her own. She little knew the terrible struggle which raged in the breast of this beautiful woman, how all that was good and bad in her, all those latent forces which lie in the heart of everyone, sprang into life and fought equally for the mastery. It was not the Princess who was first in her thoughts from dawn to dark, or whose image passed incessantly through her restless dreams. It was the man who was beside the Princess, who had fought desperately for her whether he loved her cause or not, who was hourly under the spell of her enchantment. The potency of that spell seemed to grow the more she thought of it, and all the charm which some had professed to find in herself seemed to sink into insignificance. It was not sufficient to win the love of this man. And those waiting hours, too, are hours of danger. Troubles or desires, or whatever thoughts assail at such a time, lose their proportion, and idleness lends vitality to the evil lying dormant. Was there no way to win her desire? Between it and her stood only the Princess, an enemy to the State. Might she not be swept out of the way? How easy such a thing seemed to be. She had only to speak a few words to dash to the ground all Maritza's hopes o

f success. Why not speak them? In love and war all means are fair. And then arose the good in her, and she turned away in horror from the very thought of such treachery.

It was in a fierce moment of her struggle that the messenger arrived. Dumitru, travel-stained yet unweary, more keenly alive now perhaps than he had even been as Anton in the hills, came to her.

"What news? What news?" she cried, springing up.

"The worst, Countess."

"Dead?"

"No; the Princess lives."

"Yes, yes; and those who are with her?"

"Are on their way to the city," Dumitru answered. "We could not enter openly; we had to delay, and exercise the greatest care. Baron Petrescu will come to-night if possible, but extreme caution is needed. I came on. I am of no importance and pass unnoticed. I have visited a score of places in the city already, and I have much more to do before sunset."

"Does Captain Ellerey return to Sturatzberg?" asked Frina thoughtfully.

"Aye; and he is a man whose equal these eyes are never likely to see again. He is fit to be a king."

"A king!"

"Yes, a king, and though he be a foreigner, I for one shout for him."

"A king, Dumitru; tell me, does he love the Princess?"

"Surely he must, since for her cause he has shown no great affection. He will be here to strike one more good blow for her, and, loving her, may learn to love her cause too. We may yet triumph, Countess. But listen. The Princess has been delivered by the brigands," and Dumitru told her the whole story quickly. "To-night she will be brought back to Sturatzberg," he went on, "although it is given out that she will not come until the morning. The gates will be shut, and when the streets are quiet they will be opened again. Not many soldiers are with her, and those within the gates will hold all danger cheap. The city will be hushed and still, but there are many who will not sleep. A signal will blaze forth in the darkness and a few may fall in the streets, but the Princess will be free. You will be ready to receive her, Countess?"

"Here?"

"Is it not the safest refuge in Sturatzberg?" asked Dumitru. "There are hiding-places here, and you are not a suspect in the city."

"And afterward?" said the Countess.

"I know not. A small success in the city would perhaps raise the country; the afterward is for the Princess to decide. She will have to consider the welfare of those who strike to-night. You will be ready to receive her, Countess?"

"Yes," Frina answered, and Dumitru went to pursue his way through the city, calling men to arm and prepare, little dreaming what thoughts troubled the beautiful woman he had left.

The frail little hopes she had found consolation in vanished at Dumitru's words. Desmond Ellerey loved Maritza. Dumitru had said it, and had he not had ample opportunity of judging? Now Maritza was to come a fugitive to her house; her very life perhaps lay in her hands. How easy it would be to speak the few words which would tell her enemies where she was hidden, and who would know, who would guess, that it was the Countess Mavrodin who had betrayed her? Such specious arguments did the evil that was in her whisper in her ear, and she could not shut the whisperings out. All day long her restlessness increased. Her solitude became unbearable. She longed for the world of men and women, hungered to hear laughter and the sound of voices-anything to distract her from her thoughts. That evening she went to Court, beautiful, reckless, heartless to all seeming, ready to be flattered and to flatter-a dangerous mood for such a woman to be in.

So, all unconsciously, she was driven forward by destiny. She was in a mood to be tempted, and the greatest temptation of all was lying in wait for her.

She had shown such marked preference for Captain Ellerey when he came to Court that a host of her admirers had perforce to stand sullenly aside. To-night they gathered round her, each one in his turn receiving some little favor which buried in oblivion all past disappointments; such virtue lies even in the least of a beautiful woman's favors. Frina Mavrodin had always had the subtle power of making her companion of the moment believe that he was the one person in all the world she would wish to have beside her, and this power she exercised to the full to-night.

Lord Cloverton, covertly watching her, was constrained to admire her, and even his old blood tingled with a remembrance of youth as he did so. But he did not approach her. It was not his part to play the tempter to-night. He had arranged otherwise. Presently he saw the King enter the room alone, and look round in search of some one. His eye fell upon Frina Mavrodin, and he went toward her. Perhaps, too, in his veins the blood tingled a little.

"An hour of ease which so seldom falls to me renews my strength to-night,

Countess, and youth and beauty draw me like a lodestone," said the King.

"Your Majesty is pleased to flatter me," she answered with a sweeping curtsey.

"That would indeed be impossible. I am honored, doubly so, if you will take my hand in the dance."

It was a set dance, stately in its measure, and those who watched remarked how the grace of the woman seemed to lend grace to the King's movements, who danced but seldom, and that, in truth, somewhat awkwardly.

The King thanked her as he led her to a seat when the dance was over. It was in the alcove where she had so often sat with Ellerey, and the coincidence impressed her.

"There should be brighter times at hand for Wallaria, Countess," said the King. "The Princess Maritza will enter Sturatzberg-a prisoner-to-morrow."

"So I have heard, your Majesty."

"And you loyally rejoice with us, Countess?"

The question was so marked in the intonation of the King's voice that

Frina Mavrodin was on her guard in a moment. "She is a woman, your

Majesty, and, since I am no politician, I pity the woman."

"I am not without pity, either, Countess," was the answer. "The Princess has been ill-advised, and the onus lies with those who have advised and supported her. It is upon them punishment should rightly fall."

"And who are they?" asked the Countess.

"That is a question to which there is no complete answer," said the King. "There is only one I can name definitely. But there is one person in Sturatzberg who could answer the question, so I am informed, and so I believe."

"And he will not answer?"

"She has not yet been asked," the King returned.

"A woman, your Majesty?"

"A very beautiful woman; yourself, Countess."

Perhaps Frina Mavrodin was prepared for the King's words. She did not start, the color did not rise to her cheeks. She remained silent for a few moments, feeling that the King's eyes were fixed upon her.

"I can guess who was your Majesty's informant," she said quietly. "Lord Cloverton. He has always credited me with a power I do not possess, and has often set traps for me. They were subtly hidden, well devised to catch a schemer; but, being innocent, they failed to ensnare me."

"We ourselves have eyes, Countess; it is not necessary that the British

Ambassador should see for us."

"No, your Majesty; but we, the Court, sometimes fancy that he attempts to take that duty upon himself," Frina answered.

"Then you will not help me, Countess?" said the King with a smile.

"In any way I can, your Majesty."

"But not in the way I want. It is a pity. You will force me to harsh measures. There is one other I may constrain to tell me, unless he values his secret more than life."

Frina looked at him, a question in her eyes, but her lips gave it no words.

"A brave man," said the King, "although circumstances have made him my enemy. You might save him."

Still Frina was silent.

"Probably Captain Ellerey will not speak, therefore it is certain that

Captain Ellerey must die," said the King slowly.

"Is he in Sturatzberg?"

"Ah, Countess, you must not try and surprise my secrets; but rest assured he must die unless you choose to save him."

"How can I save him?" she asked.

The King suddenly laid his hand on hers, which were folded in her lap. "To-morrow, early, send me by a trusted messenger the names of those who are foremost in Maritza's cause, the names of the societies whose plans and aims they govern, and, so far as is in your knowledge, the plans which they have formed. On my royal oath, none shall know from whom I received this information, and Captain Ellerey shall be free to leave Wallaria."

"He is a brave man, and I would help him if I could," she said.

"You can, Countess; if you love him, you will."

"Your Majesty is strangely at fault; Captain Ellerey is nothing to me."

"I have touched your hand, Countess, as you asked a question concerning him, and felt the quiver in your frame. Your heart would not answer as your lips do. Remember this: he dies unless you save him."

"But I am powerless, your Majesty."

"Then, Countess, his case is hard indeed. There are some hours before to-morrow; use them to understand how powerful you are in this matter."

"So far I will obey your Majesty."

"Always remembering, Countess, that if you cannot save him no power on earth can;" and, with a bow, the King left her alone.

Here was the opportunity she had dreamed of. No one would ever know. What to her were Princess Maritza and all her followers in comparison with Desmond Ellerey? There was a look of determination in her face as she left the alcove quickly. The few hours before tomorrow seemed all too short for her.

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