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   Chapter 25 'TWIXT LOVE AND PITY

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 18716

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


Long before midnight Frina Mavrodin had completed her work of preparation. The servants who were in her confidence had been told of the coming of the Princess. Some were at the main entrance ready to admit her if she came that way; others were waiting at a small door which opened from the garden into a side street. They were instructed to show surprise, but not consternation, should any officer of the King demand admittance, and servants were stationed on the stairs and in the corridors, a signal arranged between them, so that news of any such demand might be immediately conveyed to the Countess silently, and without any man rushing to her and causing suspicion to those who entered.

"If Captain Ellerey comes, let him pass to me at once," she said. "And at the usual hour put out all lights that shine upon the street. This house must seem to sleep, no matter how wakeful it may be."

Only a dim light burned in her own room, which looked toward the garden, and here the Countess paced up and down with slow, thoughtful steps. She had changed the dress she had worn at Court that night for a soft, loose gown of delicate rose color, caught in at the waist by a silken girdle of a deep shade of the same color. A filmy cloud of lace was about her throat, and fell over her shoulders and from the short loose sleeves.

Once or twice she stopped before a glass to set a wayward tress of her hair in its place, or to arrange the falling folds of the lace, and perhaps lingered for a moment in contemplation of her own reflection, half conscious that she looked fairer dressed as she was than in Court attire of costly silks and flashing jewels.

Many times she paused at the open window, drawing aside the curtains to listen for footsteps in the garden, and she listened often for footsteps in the corridor. Princess Maritza was coming; perhaps Desmond Ellerey would come, too.

How to outwit the King should Desmond Ellerey fall into his hands, she did not know. She thought of little else as she paced the room, but no solution of the problem came to her. If he should be taken, it seemed as if he must suffer for the cause into which he had been pressed. If by her betrayal of others he only could be saved, she knew now that he must perish. There was no thought in her mind of writing out a list of names to send to the King to-morrow. She put her hands before her eyes to shut out the hideous vision which rose before her- Ellerey standing with folded arms, facing a dozen loaded muskets waiting for the order to fire; but even in her vision the face of the so-called traitor, firm, resolute, determined, in this supreme hour, as it had been throughout his life, as it would be in reality when such time came, thrilled her soul and made him only the greater hero.

"Oh, to be at his side then!" she exclaimed in a low voice. "What would

I not give to share that death with him?"

But Ellerey was not yet in the King's hands, that seemed certain. She felt convinced that some time before the dawn she would see him; that he would enter the house to stand by Maritza's side to the last. Had she not power to save him then? There was a way of escape for the Princess; that same way could Desmond Ellerey go. He and Maritza should go together to find in some other land a quiet haven of happiness.

"Yes," she murmured, her little hands clasped so firmly behind her that the rings cut into the flesh, though she hardly noticed it; "yes, that is how it shall be. Even if my life pays the forfeit, they shall go together. Perhaps, when his happiness is greatest, he will sometimes think of the woman who helped him to it."

There were hurried steps in the corridor, and the next moment Princess

Maritza and Dumitru entered.

"So far the fates are with us, Frina," said the Princess, taking the Countess's hands in hers and kissing her; "but I little thought to use your house again as a refuge."

"It may prove an insecure retreat," Frina answered. "There is no escape from this room. I have arranged another place for you. Come, and come quickly."

"Are you suspected, Countess?" asked Dumitru anxiously.

"I fear so, but they will hardly trouble me to-night. Still, I do not feel that you are safe in this room, Maritza."

Frina led the way down several corridors and up and down short flights of steps until she came to the room where Hannah waited. The old serving woman came hurriedly forward as the door opened. For a moment she did not recognize Maritza in her boy's dress, and it was not until she spoke that the old woman's arms were stretched out with trembling eagerness toward her, and her joy found its expression in tears.

"O my Princess! O my dear lady!" was all she could say.

"Dumitru has brought her back, you see, Hannah," said the Countess, "You owe Dumitru some apology for the hard thoughts you have had of him. Go with him while I speak to your mistress a moment."

"Gladly, now she has come back," said Hannah; "and then I'll be looking out decent garments for you, Princess. I should not wish all the world to see you as you are."

"This is a safer retreat for me, is it?" said Maritza, glancing round the room when Hannah had closed the door. "It is a corner of your house I do not know, Frina. Thanks for your great care of me. It is not long that I shall trouble you."

"What do you mean?"

"Mean! Why, that the days for sitting idly down to wait are over. There has been deadly work in the Bergenstrasse to-night, and to-morrow the King will seek to avenge it! Do you suppose I shall leave them without a leader? Before dawn, those who love me will be preparing for the final struggle. To-night's work will convince many who until now have wavered. Rest assured, there will be a goodly host about me when the King sends to take me."

"It is madness, Maritza!" exclaimed the Countess. "What can these men, untrained, undisciplined as they are, do against the troops which even now doubtless are pouring into every street? Wait."

"My dear Frina, you are a woman; I, in heart at least, am a man. Hundreds are in jeopardy because of me to-night; would you have me desert them? You were wont to be of better courage."

"But wait-wait for counsel and advice."

"From whom?" asked Maritza.

"From Desmond Ellerey."

The two women were looking into each other's eyes; neither fully understood the struggle in the other's heart, yet each of them knew something of the other's secret. For some moments there was silence.

"Is Desmond Ellerey here?" asked Maritza presently.

"No; but he will come. Something tells me that he will come. Wait until then, Maritza. That door," Frina went on, pointing to one which was hardly discernible from the panelled walls of the room, "opens into a passage which leads to a small building by the river, where there is only rubbish. No one is likely to search there. Hannah has the key, and it is a way of escape if they come to this house. I implore you to wait for Captain Ellerey. Has he not struggled for you? Is he not returning to Sturatzberg to stand beside you in the hour of your need, rather than take the road to safety as he might have done? Have you not a hundred times in your heart chosen him the champion of your cause?"

"If he comes to-night he may help me, but I cannot wait," was the answer. "The people call for me; they shall not call in vain."

"Maritza! Maritza! I tell you it is madness. Be persuaded. Think of your love for him; think of his love for you. Ah, you must be ruled by me in this," the Countess went on desperately. "I might let you go to your death. I have been tempted to let you go. Yes, it is true, look at me as you will. Mine has been the waiting part, and temptation comes easily then; more than once it has nearly conquered me. Only to-night the King persuaded me to betray his enemies to him; I am to send a list of them to-morrow; no, it is to-day-in a few hours."

"You have promised to do this?" said the Princess, laying her hand sharply on her companion's arm. "I promised to think of it-aye! and when I made the promise I meant to think of it. Shall I tell you why?" And Frina looked straight into Maritza's eyes. "The King made me believe that Desmond Ellerey was already in his hands, and he swore to spare him if I would do his bidding. It was the keenest temptation he could have assailed me with. Do you understand, Maritza?"

"And you will send that list?" repeated the Princess.

"Can you ask the question now? No, I have fought my battle and won. What is to come will be easy after the stress of that fight. But that the King should so tempt me shows that I am suspected; therefore you are here in this room with the means of escape at hand. Wait for Captain Ellerey, Maritza. For the present, at least, I believe your cause is lost; but a way of escape, desperate though it be, still lies open, and you will take it with the man you love to defend you. Wait, Maritza."

The hand that had rested on Frina's arm stole slowly round her, and the Princess kissed her.

"I understand," she whispered. "I have had my struggle, too. I have never forgotten that meeting long ago in England, and now-now I love him. Ah, Frina, you may pity me. Many a time in the hills I longed to cry out to him to take me northward into safety, to give me love instead of helping me

to a kingdom. And then would surge into my soul the memory of my fathers, and I felt myself a coward. If you have been tempted to treachery, so have I. I have my mission to fulfil, my work is before me, and there is no place for love in it. If ever I call any man husband, he must be a king who will satisfy the State."

"But he loves you, Maritza."

"Do not make it harder for me, sister of mine. Fate deals ungently with us both. If Desmond comes before daybreak, bring him to me, and he shall give me counsel. Should I taste failure, should I-should I never see him again, say to him-"

"Maritza!"

"Yes, speak my name and say that you loved me, too. If I understand him he will love you for that. I am very weary and have much to do to-morrow. Send Hannah to me and let me sleep."

In silence the two women kissed each other, and then Frina returned to her room while Maritza threw herself on a couch, Hannah watching beside her. Dumitru stood sentinel outside her door.

For Frina there was no sleep, only a restless pacing to and fro, and a longing for to-morrow-the end, surely the end would come to-morrow.

The dim light in her room grew dimmer, paling before the coming day. A bird in the garden whistled a long note, and after a silence it was answered from another part of the garden, and then quickly from another. A star gleamed low in the ever-lightening purple of the east, the herald of the dawn, and from her window Frina watched it, wondering. There was mystery in the breaking of a new day; would her eyes behold its setting? What thoughts would be in her brain as the golden light faded once more into the black pall of night?

She turned from the window sharply as she heard quick footsteps in the corridor.

Long hours had she waited for them, and now they had come. Her heart seemed to throb violently to a sudden standstill, and having taken one hurried step toward the door, she paused as it opened, and Desmond Ellerey stood before her.

Looking forward to this meeting it had seemed to Frina Mavrodin that in it her life must reach a crisis; but the reality fitted none of her preconceived notions of what this meeting would be like. Ellerey's dress was travel-stained; there was a rent in his sleeve, and he looked as though he had come through some struggle. She noted all this, but it was the expression on his face which fixed her attention. It was stern, unyielding, desperate; and her frame stiffened, and a flash came into her eyes as though she were angry at his intrusion.

"The Princess, Countess?" said Ellerey.

"Is sleeping," she answered.

"I would see her."

"She has need of your counsel. Come."

She swept past him without another word, without looking at him even, and led the way.

Dumitru stood at the door, doubly alert at the sound of approaching footsteps. One hand was thrust inside his cloak, and it was easy to guess what his fingers played with there. He smiled as he saw who the newcomer was.

"Welcome, Captain," he whispered.

"Is all well?"

"Sleeping," was the low answer.

Frina opened the door softly, and then she motioned Ellerey to enter; but he came no farther than the threshold. The Princess lay on a couch sleeping peacefully, dreaming pleasantly it may be, for her lips were half parted in a smile. One arm was thrown above her head, her fingers thrust through her bright curls, and over her feet Hannah had spread a leopard-skin rug. A lamp was still burning on a table, and the glow from it lit up the graceful figure. For some moments Ellerey gazed upon the sleeper, taking in the whole picture.

"Shall I wake her?" asked Frina. "No, let her sleep awhile," said

Ellerey, as he went back into the corridor. Then he turned to Dumitru.

"Is there a way of escape open?"

"Yes."

"When will you go?"

"When the Princess commands, unless it should be necessary suddenly,"

Dumitru answered. "There are servants watching who will let me know.

The Countess has arranged." He knew nothing of the tale which had been

told concerning the Countess.

Frina had closed the door and stood beside them, but she did not speak.

As Ellerey turned and showed that he had no other question to ask

Dumitru, she led the way back, but at the door of her room she paused.

"You have come to protect the Princess, Captain Ellerey. You are welcome. Use my house and my servants as you think fit."

"Countess, will you give me leave to speak to you a few moments? You must."

He followed her into the room and closed the door; then Frina turned, facing him, and waited.

"To-night, Countess, I entered Sturatzberg by a way you know of, doubtless, to hear two things. One that Princess Maritza had been rescued and brought to your house; the other that you were a traitress."

Frina started, but Ellerey went on quickly-

"Hear me to the end. Heaven knows I am in no mood to take you unawares. The man who brought this tale of you came from the palace. Why you should have been spied upon I neither know nor care; but every word you said to the King last night was heard, and out of them came this story, that you had agreed to betray to his Majesty all those who favor the cause of Princess Maritza. No; hear me out, Countess; I swore it was a lie. Petrescu, Stefan, and I came together. Do you know, Countess, that this house is surrounded, watched by the King's troops? Every way of entrance that the Baron knew of was guarded, and only after long waiting have we managed to scale the garden wall and get in unseen. What does it mean? Is the Princess trapped? If she is, who has betrayed her?"

She was silent, but her eyes did not fall before his.

"For heaven's sake, speak, Countess!"

"The tale is untrue," she said in a low voice, "and yet-"

"Yes, yes; tell me. I have pledged my honor; trample on it if you will, only tell me the truth now."

"I have been tempted," she said. "Yes, you shall hear the truth. I have been tempted, perhaps even I have stumbled, but I have not fallen. I am a woman first, then a conspirator, and I have had many idle hours. Look into my eyes, read my secret if you can and judge me. I was tempted, and the King's words seemed for a moment to help my decision. I did not promise to betray, but I did promise to think of betraying."

"To gain time, that was it, merely to gain time," said Ellerey.

"No; I think when I promised I had almost decided to act."

"Ah, how could you!" Ellerey exclaimed.

"You have heard the story; were you told the bribe the King offered?"

Ellerey did not answer, but Frina understood in a moment that he did know.

"Yes, Captain Ellerey, that tempted me; but with it came a clearer knowledge, and I saw that for me only one road lay open. I have taken it. Maritza is in a room from which there is an escape. The King suspects me. He has surrounded my house with soldiers; presently they will hammer at my closed doors, and I shall stay to face them; but Maritza will have gone, and you will go with her. She would stay in Sturatzberg to fight with those who love her cause; only you can persuade her to go. Do you understand, only you? Go now and wake her. Hannah has the key of that secret way. If in my temptation I have been trapped into showing that I have power in Sturatzberg, that I have knowledge of this conspiracy and the conspirators, I have opened the way of escape too. I am prepared to meet the King's wrath. Go to Maritza, and think less hardly of me."

Ellerey stood with lowered head, his hands pressed before his face.

"What can I say, Countess? God has brought into my life two noble women. I am powerless to help the one; to the other it seems I have only given sorrow."

"You must not say that," she said softly. "You are powerful to help her and to counsel her. As for me, I am a weak woman; if fault there was it was mine. Go now-now that I am forgiven-to Maritza. She expects you. I told her I would send you."

The door was suddenly burst open and Stefan entered.

"Quick, Captain. They demanded admission, which was refused, and they are breaking in. The Baron and those with him will hold them as long as possible."

"The Princess!" Ellerey exclaimed.

"She has been warned," said Stefan.

"She will get away. She will have time," said Frina. "They will not find her room easily."

"Whatever is done must be done quickly," said Stefan from the door. "Even now they drive the servants up the stairs, and the good fellows fight every inch of the way."

"By the river is a house," exclaimed Frina-"only rubbish is in it. Maritza will come that way. Go to her. The window. You can easily drop into the garden."

"And you?"

"I shall stay here."

"You cannot; you must not."

"Quickly, Captain," said Stefan.

"Go, go!" Frina cried. "You must be with her. She will need all your love and courage to-day."

"But you-what will you do?"

"I, too, may find a way to help her."

He caught her hand and raised it to his lips.

"God keep you," he whispered.

"And you, Desmond."

Then he sprang to the window.

"Do I come?" asked Stefan.

"No," Ellerey answered. "The Countess is in your keeping. Guide her to safety."

"I will do all a man may do," Stefan answered, as Ellerey swung himself free by the stout branch of a creeper near the window, and dropped into the garden.

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