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   Chapter 24 HOW MARITZA ENTERED STURATZBERG

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 19550

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


It was a dark night without a moon, and only a faint star or two glimmered in the sky. The smell of rain was in the air, and there was a closeness in the atmosphere which made the effort of breathing a conscious one. It was still early as Frina Mavrodin was driven rapidly homeward. She left the palace immediately after her conversation with the King. The few hours before to-morrow were best spent alone. A wild confusion of thoughts surged through her brain, but one thought was ever dominant-how could she save Desmond Ellerey without betraying others? For while the King's suggestion was a subtle and potent temptation, it had the effect of steadying the Countess. Such an idea as a wholesale betrayal of those who had trusted her had never occurred to her; her only thought had been how to raise a barrier between Maritza and Desmond Ellerey, how to act so that they might be effectually separated forever. Such plans as had come into her mind may have been mean and unworthy, but the circumstances had excused them. The King's words had robbed them of all excuse, had shown her that base treachery belonged to them as surely as to the larger scheme which he had suggested. It did not occur to her to blame him for the suggestion; politically, perhaps, he was justified; but that he could believe her capable of such treachery showed her that, between her private jealousy and her political position, there was no room to draw even the finest of lines. So the few hours before to-morrow were not to be used, as the King supposed, in a struggle between her honor and her desire, but in concentrated thought of how his Majesty might be outwitted. Desmond Ellerey must be saved, but neither the Princess nor her followers must be sacrificed to save him. Her own desire must stand aside, whatever the suffering might be. Thus, through the fierce fire of temptation Frina Mavrodin came forth a stronger woman, a keener slave to duty, because that duty must cost her so much. And having shaken herself free from the fetters of selfishness, her thoughts and conceptions became more acute.

It was hardly possible that Desmond Ellerey had yet returned to Sturatzberg. No one could know his movements better than Dumitru, and he had shown no fear concerning him. Even if the King possessed information which might point to the probability of his arrest, Ellerey's courage and resourcefulness were factors to be reckoned with before his arrest could become an accomplished fact. That in Maritza's defence he might prove reckless was true, but he would hardly do so until every other means had failed. No; the King had played upon her fears, and she had fallen a victim to his cunning. She had plainly shown that Ellerey was dear to her, that she was prepared to sacrifice much to secure his safety; she had, moreover, given the impression that she could betray many in Sturatzberg if she would, and therefore, should the rescue of Maritza prove successful, she herself, and her house, and all who belonged to her would be closely watched. She had, in fact, undone what she had so persistently taken pains to accomplish; she had given cause for suspicion; she had rendered her house by the river an unsafe place of refuge. How was she to retrieve the position? Entering her house she gave rapid instructions to certain of her servants, and then went to her own rooms and sent for Hannah. The old serving woman came quickly, and to her Frina made her first confession.

"I have been cross, Hannah, sometimes," she said; "forgive me."

"Oh, no, my lady, you have only been troubled. We all have our own way of showing grief."

"True, Hannah, and I have had troubles which you cannot know of. Your quick pardon teaches me a lesson."

"O my lady--"

"Listen, Hannah, there is much to do and little time to do it in.

To-night, perhaps, the Princess will return."

"Here!" Hannah exclaimed.

"Yes; but she will be a fugitive from her enemies, and how long this house may be a safe refuge for her I cannot tell. Come with me. I will show you a means of escape should the worst happen-a stout door which will hold back pursuers for a long time. It opens from a room which shall be yours for the time. The key shall be in your possession. Study to look innocent, Hannah, when you are questioned, and in a crucial moment you may prove a far better defence than a dozen armed men. Come."

As Frina Mavrodin had driven through the city there were many people in the streets. The cafes were still full, and there were no signs of any unusual excitement. A few may have discussed Princess Maritza over their coffee, liquor, or syrup, but in most cases it was with casual interest, or with a remark that, if they "were abroad early enough, they might walk down to the Southern Gate to see her enter." What had her fate to do with them? Though the times were troublous they would go their way to-morrow as they had done to-day, as they would every day until their own small circle of interest were touched. They had as little sympathy with the agitator as they had with the Government; neither the one nor the other did anything to affect them materially. So these law-abiding citizens, law-abiding only because there was no temptation to be otherwise, perhaps, finished their coffee and went home, and the streets of Sturatzberg grew quieter, and, with the closing of the cafes, darker. The city gates were shut, and if a few soldiers appeared at the corners of streets, they caused little interest to the people going home. Since the murdered bodies had been found lying in the Bergenstrasse, it was only right that the city should be well guarded.

The soldiers themselves grumbled somewhat. Fighting was their trade, and they were discontented at being made a city watch. Beyond a late reveller or two no one was out after midnight. What was the use of all this precaution? In the smaller streets there was even greater silence. Where one might have expected to find whatever dissatisfaction existed in the city, there was only the greater peace. Hardly a light shone out from any of the dark buildings, no one lurked in shadowy corners, and although the soldiers had been ordered to be especially careful tonight, there seemed to be even less than usual to demand their attention. They believed that the Princess Maritza was to enter the city at dawn.

At the guard-house of the Southern Gate the men were alert. An hour ago their officer had told them what was to happen, and the news was presently conveyed to the soldiers at the corners. The officer of the guardroom kept a steady watch upon the slowly passing minutes, while outside the city a small army had approached under cover of the darkness.

Without and within there was silence. Yet wakeful and watching men may be as silent as those who sleep. Throughout the day a man had passed from one narrow street to another with quick and stealthy steps. Into this house he went, mounting the stairs swiftly, and disappeared for a few moments into some upper room; then as swiftly he came down again, and, gliding up alleys and half-deserted streets, entered one little cafe after another, and mounted to many a room whose occupants listened eagerly to his words and made a sign that they were understood. Long before darkness had fallen upon Sturatzberg there were many cafes doing little business to all seeming, which, nevertheless, were crowded with men hidden away and waiting.

Such a crowd waited in the long room at the rear of the Toison d'Or. The men who composed it had gathered there one by one, as they had done that night when they came to drink with the soldiers who had been found dead in the Bergenstrasse next morning. Many of the same men were in the crowd, many also of those who had once chased Ellerey so furiously through the garden of that other tavern where was the door in the wall. They greeted each new arrival with a nod, and for the most part were silent or spoke only in whispers.

"At what hour?" asked one.

"Two hours after midnight."

"Are our numbers sufficient?"

"Quite sufficient," answered another. "At a dozen places I have had our brothers gathered, close to the spot from which they will make their rush upon the troops. The attack will come from all sides at once, and the soldiers will be taken by surprise. We cannot fail."

"Does the Princess know, Dumitru?"

"Not certainly, but she will be expectant and ready. You understand whose command you have to obey, and the signal?"

The men about him nodded and smiled with quiet confidence, while Dumitru passed on to others to answer similar questions. He was of much importance among them to-night. They felt that he was but the mouthpiece of the Princess, that she was their real leader, that the time they had waited for and plotted toward had really come. A few nervous ones there were among them who calculated what the price of failure would be, and had planned what they might do for their own safety in such an event; but the majority of them were enthusiasts who rejoiced that the hour of action had arrived at last.

"After to-night, Dumitru, there will be no turning back," whispered one man, who, standing on a chair, had called for the toast to Maritza on that night fatal to the deserting soldiers. "The next few days will make the name of Sturatzberg ring through the world, and our deeds strike terror into the heart of the nation."

Dumitru nodded and passed on, but he too kept eager watch upon the time, even as did the officer at the guardhouse.

The crowd became more excited and restless as the hands of the clock crept farther and farther from midnight. "Surely it is time now," they whispered at intervals. And the leaders had some difficulty in restraining them. As it

was in the Toison d'Or, so it was in many a dark house where men lay hidden and waiting.

From the watchman over the gate word was sent to the officer that the prisoner had come, and at his command the gates silently swung back upon their hinges. It was a large body of men that entered, having in their midst a slim boyish figure mounted on a charger. So Maritza entered Sturatzberg.

The men at the word of command halted to right and left, and only a few, comparatively, continued their silent march along the Bergenstrasse. With the city full of troops what chance of escape had that lonely prisoner, who spoke no word, yet furtively glanced to this side and that, and studied the attitude of the men nearest to her? She noted that soldiers stood at attention at street corners, a few here, a few there; that of all other signs of life the streets were empty. She realized that she had been brought in at an unexpected hour, and the silence over the city fell upon her soul. Hopelessness and despair seized her, and a wild thought prompted her to make a sudden dash for freedom. Death might come, but such a death was preferable to the fate which must await her at the end of this journey. Her fingers had tightened on the reins, when the silence was suddenly broken, and, with a swift hiss, a streak of light cut through the darkness skyward, paused a moment, and then, with a muffled detonation, burst into globes of light which floated downward. The foremost of the troop reined in their horses sharply at the unexpected flight of the rocket, causing some confusion among those behind. Then came a quick command from an officer which was half lost in the great shout which rent the air on every side-

"For Grigosie! Grigosie!"

Had the cry been for Maritza the soldiers might possibly have understood better what this sudden stopping of their progress meant; but, as it was, a black, rushing mass was upon them before they had time to draw their weapons. The attack was so fierce, so sudden and overwhelming, that when the meaning of it had thoroughly dawned upon the soldiers, they had enough to do to protect themselves without giving much thought to their prisoner. There was hardly a trooper who was not in a moment separated from his fellows by a swaying mob, whose one object seemed to be to force the soldiers apart and prevent any concerted action. The ring of steel and the crack of revolvers mingled with groans and curses and sharp cries which blades thrust home drew forth. Here a horse fell prostrate on its knees, bringing its rider head foremost into the arms of his assailants; and there some plunging charger, dexterously managed, beat down and trampled on a writhing mass of limbs. Shouting came from a distance, as the soldiers from the various street corners came running into the Bergenstrasse to the assistance of their comrades, and, since they ran compactly and with bayonets fixed, the mob gave way before them. An officer, whose plunging horse cleared a path before him, slashed right and left as he came, and shouted: "To the prisoner! Secure the prisoner!" and desperately he struggled toward the slim figure carried this way and that by the swaying, fighting crowd. At his shout the crowd threw itself more savagely upon him. The greatest danger seemed to centre in this man, and bullets sang about him, and steel struck at him from every side.

"Quickly, Princess!"

A strong arm was about her and drew her swiftly from her horse. In a moment a ring of men had formed about her as they pushed their way through the crowd. Two soldiers who sought to stop them fell back groaning, and were trampled under foot; and then the little band with the slim figure in the midst of it was outside the mob, and at the entrance to a narrow, dark street.

"Hold this street with your lives!" cried one. "This way, Princess," and with half a dozen men to guide and guard her she ran forward, the din of the struggle in the Bergenstrasse growing fainter and fainter as they went.

Another rocket hissed skyward, and then tactics changed. The crowd knew what the signal meant, and instead of throwing themselves fiercely on the soldiers, they began to draw back to side streets, fighting desperately at corners for a few moments and then fleeing, breaking up into small knots and turning by twos and threes into alleys and dark passages into which the soldiers did not deem it wise to follow them. Fully an hour passed before the Bergenstrasse was cleared, and many a dark form lay stretched in the roadway, and not a few who wore the King's uniform. Some lay quite still, their troubles and ambitions over; some attempted to crawl away and hide themselves; while others, too hurt to move, groaned and cried piteously for help. The inhabitants of the Bergenstrasse had been rudely awakened, but for a long time none ventured out to render any help to the wounded, lest the soldiers should attack them.

Meanwhile, running feet woke the echoes of the quieter streets and distant parts of the town-men speeding toward safety. More troops would march from the castle presently, and it would be dangerous to be found in the streets to-night. Doors in dark streets opened and quietly closed again; weapons were carefully hidden away under loose boards, and their owners became harmless citizens again.

One little band of men held together, running lightly, and certain of every corner they turned. Some of them were those who had guided the Princess to safety, and now they were bent on carrying the good news to others who were waiting eagerly to hear it. The foremost stopped at a door and gave a peculiar knock. It was opened immediately, and the custodian asked no questions as the men filed in and went quickly to the rooms looking on to the garden, where, not so long ago, they had helped to put an end to a duel. As they entered the long room, which was only dimly lighted, they paused. It was easy to see that there was consternation among the men gathered there, and strangers were present. "Well?" cried a dozen voices.

"She is safe."

"Safe! Gone to her death and destruction," was the answer. "The Countess is a traitor."

"It's death to the first man who repeats that accusation," thundered one of the strangers, his hand upon his sword hilt, and as the men drew back before such sudden fury, they noticed that the other stranger, a bearded soldier of huge proportions, grasped his sword hilt too.

The men who had run from the Bergenstrasse waited for an explanation.

"Are we not all friends here?" exclaimed Baron Petrescu hastily. "There is some mistake. Tell us your story again," and he turned to a man who had only ceased speaking as the newcomers had entered. He had come in breathless haste at the very moment that Petrescu had brought Desmond Ellerey and Stefan through the garden. Willing hands had opened the low door in the wall for them, forewarned of their coming by Dumitru. Ellerey's fame had run before him, and eagerly was he looked for and recognized as the leader of the rebellion which must quickly follow the work going forward in the city to-night. He had come; the conspirators had succeeded in rescuing Princess Maritza; and now came this man with a tale which filled their hearts with consternation.

"I had it from one who fills a chief servant's place in the palace, and who is one of us," said the man, speaking rapidly. "He was delayed in coming to me, or I should have been here earlier. The King sought out the Countess, danced with her, and then, seated in an alcove, behind some curtains of which this man was hidden, the King persuaded her to betray those who favored the cause of the Princess, and the Countess was tempted, and promised. Early to-morrow she is to send the information to the King by a trusted messenger, and the King has given his oath that no one shall know from whom it comes."

"I do not believe it," said the Baron. "She may have promised, but she had some reason for doing so."

"She had, Baron. The King persuaded her that her act of betrayal should be the salvation of a rebel."

"What rebel? Princess Maritza?" asked Petrescu.

"No, Baron; Captain Ellerey."

"It was indeed a subtle temptation," and Petrescu turned slowly to look at his companion.

"The truth shall quickly be put to the test," said Ellerey. "Give me wine, a full measure, to put new strength in me. Is mine to be the only voice raised in her defence? Are you all so ready to believe evil of the woman who has served your Princess so well? I stake my honor that with her Maritza is safe."

"True; but speak less harshly, Captain," whispered Petrescu. "These men are our friends; do not anger them."

"He from whom I had the news ever speaks the truth," said the man who had told the story. "He has never failed us in the past."

"Has the Countess ever failed you in the past?" Ellerey cried. "Shame on you all for the thought. Her loyalty shall be proved on the instant."

"You can do nothing to-night," said Petrescu.

"Soldiers are in every street," said a chorus of voices.

"Therefore give me wine to renew my strength," Ellerey cried, and he seized the tankard held out to him.

"It is madness to go now," said Petrescu.

"For you, perhaps, for you, but not for me. Man-man, do not you understand? Besides the woman whose truth I would vindicate, is not Maritza there? She once gave me life yonder in the hills; even less than love would repay such a debt as that. To-morrow, comrades, we may fight side by side in the streets of Sturatzberg, but this hour is my own. Let me pass. It is death to rebel or soldier who seeks to stay me to-night." And throwing down the empty tankard, he went quickly to the door, followed by Baron Petrescu and Stefan.

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