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   Chapter 26 REBELLION

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 20781

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


The servants, heartened by Baron Petrescu, contested the stairs step by step. With all the odds against them not one turned to fly. They were fighting for the mistress they loved, and were staunch to a man. Some fell, staining the thick carpet with their blood, yet even in dying struck one more blow as the soldiers trampled over them. Meeting with such unexpected resistance made the soldiers savage, and there was no quarter given or asked for. In the forefront of the battle Petrescu's sword did deadly work, for so mixed up were besieged and besiegers that those behind dared not fire. It was a hand-to-hand struggle, steel to steel, and although there could be no real doubt of the issue, the Baron knew that the longer he could hold the soldiers in check, the more time would the Princess and the Countess have to get away.

Stefan was silent until the sound of Ellerey's quick steps in the garden had ceased.

"Where does that lead to, Countess?" he said, pointing to a door at the other end of the room.

"To my bedroom."

"And from there?"

"There is a door on to a landing seldom used," she answered.

"That is our way, then," said Stefan. "I shall stay here. I am safe from them. It is only the King who would dare-"

"The gentlemen fighting yonder are in no tender mood; I know them. Besides, the Captain left me in command, and you must obey, Countess. This is war time, and I am only doing my duty. So we'll lock this outer door, and we'll put as many more between us as possible. Is this your cloak?"

"Yes," Frina answered.

In a moment Stefan had ripped a piece from the edge of it and stuck it in the creeper at the window, and thrown the cloak into the garden below. Then he tore down one of the curtains.

"They'll think we've gone that way, maybe. Come, Countess, you can get another cloak as we pass through your room."

There was strength in this great bearded soldier, and besides, Desmond trusted him, so Frina Mavrodin obeyed.

At every point the servants were driven back, and the soldiers spread through the house, cutting down anyone who opposed them, but not making any particular effort to pursue those who got out of their way. They were there to take the Princess Maritza and the Countess Mavrodin. Such were the orders the officers had received. But long before the servants had given way on the stairs, Hannah had opened the door leading to the passage, and the Princess and Dumitru had gone together swiftly, while Hannah waited for the coming soldiers, her heart growing the lighter the longer that coming was delayed. She had locked the door again, but kept the key lest others should want to use that way of escape presently. The soldiers rushed in at last, and Hannah's face assumed an astonished look as if they had roused her from sleep. "Who are you?" demanded one man sharply.

"I might as well ask that question of you," she replied curtly. "What's come to the city that a band of ruffians break into an old serving woman's room before she's scarce awake?"

"Do serving women sleep on couches only in this house, and are they pampered with leopard skins for covering?"

"How they sleep, and what they're covered with is none of your affair,"

Hannah said.

"A soft tongue will serve you best," replied the man. "Tell me who slept on that couch during the night?"

"And how she slept and what she dreamt about, I suppose. Well, I had no dreams of such a rough awakening as this."

Other men were turning over the things in the room, and presently one espied the door. He called the attention of the others to it at once.

"Open it," they cried.

"It's locked."

"The key, woman-quickly," said one who seemed to command.

"It's likely I shall let you pry into my cupboards, isn't it?"

"This is no cupboard. Give me the key."

"I haven't got it," said Hannah, and with a sudden swing of her arm she sent the key flying through the open window with unerring aim.

"Curse you!" cried the man.

"In the time you take to find it you may learn better manners," said

Hannah defiantly.

Brave, staunch old soul, full worthy of that far-off Devon county which gave her birth. The man followed his curse with a blow-a heavy blow, striking with the hand which held his sword, and the woman fell with a thud to the ground, to lie there until Stefan and the Countess, stealing from the house presently, covered the dead serving woman with the leopard skin.

To find the key was hopeless, and the door was a stout one. It resisted the soldiers' efforts for a long while. When at last it yielded they rushed along the passage to the small house by the river, but, save for rubbish, it was empty. No boat lay upon the water. There was no sign of the fugitives. "They must have come this way," said one man. "Had not that old beldame resisted us we should have caught them."

"Back to the house, comrades," shouted another; "there should still be something there worth laying hands on."

Until now Ellerey had waited, hidden by the river house. He had reached it almost directly after the Princess and Dumitru had left it; but ignorant of this fact, he had waited for them. From the soldiers' words he learnt the truth. Soldiers were in the garden now, and as only a little while since he had sought to enter it unseen, he now sought to leave it, crouching from tree to tree and from shrubbery to shrubbery. His life was too valuable to be uselessly thrown away. He succeeded presently in scaling a wall and dropping into a side lane, to fall in later with a band of conspirators, some of whom were present when the tale of the Countess's treachery was told last night, and who were now quietly making their way to an arranged meeting place.

"But the Princess, comrades?" said Ellerey. "My place is beside her."

"Fear nothing, Captain. She will come and help us to make this day a glorious one in Sturatzberg." The morning was advancing, but people who respected the law kept within their houses, and left their doors fast barred. From early dawn the soldiers were in the streets, and it was evident that to-day the ordinary business of life must be suspended. As the hours passed there were sounds of fighting on every side, the fierce rattle of musketry at street corners, flying men charged by the soldiers, turning sometimes into every alley and place of refuge which offered, turning sometimes at the shout of one determined leader to withstand the charge, to be cut to pieces or to bear the soldiers back, leaving many a King's man and King's enemy lying dead or writhing with their wounds, their enmity forgotten in their common suffering.

In one side street, soon after such a skirmish had swept it from end to end, a dark figure glided from door to door. He had not fought; he seemed unwilling to do so, for at the sound of approaching conflict he was in readiness to retreat and hide himself. More than one wounded man in the roadway pleaded for help, or cried for water, but he was deaf to their entreaties. He was making all speed to some point, and would allow nothing to hold him back. Now he ran forward a few paces, now stopped and turned hastily into an alley and went quickly on again. He came at last to the house of Frina Mavrodin, when it was close on noon. The door at the chief entrance had been torn from its hinges, there was nothing to bar his entrance. The servants who had escaped death had fled, or lay hidden in secret places in the house. The soldiers had deserted it, finding their quarry gone, to go and help their comrades in the streets. At the moment the street was empty, and the man slipped across the threshold, stepping over the dead which lay in the hall, grim witnesses of the fierceness of the fight there. The man passed from room to room rapidly, his ears intent to catch every sound. It was clear that robbery was not his object, for there was none to stay him taking whatever he would. He passed on, touching nothing, and, by the way he glanced down this corridor and that, it was evident that the house was not familiar to him. Chance directed his footsteps and brought him to the room where Princess Maritza had been. The broken door at the further end attracted his notice and he entered the room, stopping for a moment to look into the face of Hannah. The leopard skin had not been thrown over her yet. She was the first woman lying dead he had come across, and he grew excited. She had been killed because she stood in the way, and she would not have stood in the way unless she had had someone in imminent danger to defend. She must have been with the Princess, he argued, and if so, this must be the way they had taken. He went quickly along the passage and up to the house by the river. Someone had certainly been there, but which direction had they taken afterward? He glanced to right and left, and stood for some time looking across the river.

"He would not leave the Princess, and he would take her as far as possible from these fighting madmen in the streets," he mused. "Surely he cannot escape such a day as this."

The man went slowly back along the passage again, and then he stopped suddenly. The sound of voices reached him distinctly.

"Brave woman," he heard one say. It was a woman's voice and the man's heart beat high.

"Cowards to treat her thus," came the muttered answer in a man's lower tone.

There was a moment's silence. "Help me to cover her," said the woman.

There was a turn in the passage, and the man standing waiting there could not see into the room. But the passage was dark, and if those in the room came that way they were not likely to see him, and his mouth widened into a malicious smile. Would they come? He had hardly whispered the question to himself when it was evident that they had entered the passage and were approaching. The waiting man drew back against the wall, a knife in his hand, and if this failed his other hand grasped a revolver. They came slowly, cautiously, and just before the turn paused. It was clear that they meant to be careful, for the man said, after a moment's hesitation-

"It is clear."

Then he came, but alone and swiftly, with his sword in his hand. The waiting man had not recognized Stefan's voice, nor, had he done so, would he have feared detection. Stefan's eyes and ears were quick, however, and in that pause he had held up a warning fin

ger to his companion and had then sprung forward.

"I took you for your master," cried the waiting man when he saw that he was discovered, "but--"

The cruel blade flashed swiftly down, but fell on Stefan's sword only, and then before his fingers could pull the trigger of his revolver, the sword point was thrust through his throat, and the man, who had so stealthily waited for his victim, fell back against the wall, upright for a moment, and then collapsed, only a gurgled sigh sounding in the silent passage.

"My ancient friend of the cellar," said Stefan, bending over him. "Waiting for the Captain, eh? Well, you did your best, Master Francois, and so I will report to your master, should I find him. Come, Countess, the light is too dim to see the unpleasant sight," and the soldier held out his hand to her.

Frina shuddered a little as she stepped past the fallen man, and she and Stefan went slowly out of the passage together. The soldier's eyes were searching and keen as they went. The servant was dead, but the master might not be far off, and he would be even a more dangerous enemy. They passed stealthily from street to street, much as Francois had done a little while since. Stefan had a plan, a goal to win, but he did not speak of it to the Countess.

Suddenly Frina stopped. They were at the end of a deserted alley, but the roar of voices came from a distance; then the sudden rattle of musketry, the harsh and discordant music of battle.

"Which way now?" she asked.

"To safety," said Stefan.

"While others fight and fall?" she said.

"So the Captain willed it."

"I will go no further toward safety-not yet. Time for that when the day is lost. Our way lies there." And she pointed in the direction from which the roar of battle came.

"Countess, I have my orders."

"And have obeyed them; now listen to mine. Yonder, where they fight, lies the Grande Place. Lead me there by the quietest way we can travel."

"That is to go to your death."

"Listen, Stefan-and look!" She pointed to the street into which the alley opened. Some men were running swiftly to the battle. "I have but to cry my name and they will come to me. Shall I cry?"

"For heaven's sake, Countess--"

"Then lead me as I say."

"I cannot. I dare not. The Captain--"

"Follow me then if you will." And before he could stop her she had darted from him.

"Stay!" cried Stefan, rushing after her. "Stay! If you will go, let me lead you."

"Show me the quiet ways if you can, but come." And though Stefan argued, though he tried to deceive her at every corner they came to, she would not be turned from her purpose. Ever, as they went, the roar of battle grew louder in their ears, and there was fear in the heart of Stefan the soldier because of the woman who walked beside him.

Francois was dead. That was one enemy the less, but of the master there was no sign. It had been as wakeful a night for Jules de Froilette as it had been for Frina Mavrodin, but he had spent it in no restless pacing up and down, nor in listening for expected footsteps. Francois he knew was prowling about the streets. In the early hours of the morning the servant had come hastily and told his master of the rescue of Princess Maritza. De Froilette had turned pale and dropped back in his chair, dumbfounded at the news, but he quickly recovered himself. Her freedom could be only temporary. There might be some street fighting, but her re-capture was certain. Francois had neither heard nor seen anything of Captain Ellerey, but he was sure to come, and the servant had gone out to roam about the city again in search of him. Jules de Froilette spent his time in busily destroying papers, now and then placing an important one aside, sometimes reading one with greater care and hesitating over it. At intervals he leaned back in his chair and remained buried in thought for awhile, and once he got up and went to a side table on which stood the portrait of Queen Elena.

"If Ellerey were out of the way we might win through yet," he mused. "I wonder what has become of the bracelet of medallions. If it were in my hands I might save the situation, or the Queen might have to leave Sturatzberg, and then who is there to protect her but me?"

The dawn found him still sorting and destroying. He expected Francois to return with further news, but the servant did not come. The Altstrasse began to wake, and grew noisy at an earlier hour than usual. The fact made De Froilette lean back in his chair in thought again. The news that the Princess had escaped was spreading-that was natural, and with the town in an uproar, rebellion in the air, there were many who would look to him for a sign. They had been waiting for it and expecting it hourly during the last few days. Had he not for a long time been fostering rebellion, a revolt that should set him in high place, that should bring him riches from Russian coffers, that should bring him love? Was not his house at this moment full of men to whom he had promised much-men who should presently help the brigands to seize the city, and then in their turn be quelled and crushed by Russia, whose army on the frontier was only awaiting the word from him? His scheme had failed through this cursed Englishman, but De Froilette had not dared to tell the waiting men so, had not dared to tell them at any moment he might be compelled to fly for safety. They were rebels, and would be quick to see treachery in any failure when they had not even been given the chance to strike a blow for success.

Presently a servant brought him coffee and some rolls.

"The city is noisy," De Froilette said.

"Yes, monsieur."

"Where is the rioting chiefly?"

"Toward the Southern Gate they say, monsieur; but the soldiers are everywhere."

"What about the Northern Gate and the Bois?"

"It is quieter that way, monsieur, I am told."

De Froilette nodded and the servant went out.

The Altstrasse became quieter presently. The men had gone to swell the crowds in the Bergenstrasse, not to fight perhaps, but to hang about in side streets and seize whatever loot they could. With dead and dying men lying in the roadway, there would be much to be picked up. Many of the women had gone too, for in the Altstrasse much of the human refuse of the city had its home, and sex counted for little.

It was toward noon that De Froilette's door opened suddenly, and a tall figure, cloaked to the eyes, glided in, closing the door. In an instant De Froilette was on his feet, and then as the man let the cloak fall apart, he exclaimed-

"Vasilici!"

"Yes, Vasilici," was the answer.

"They are not your men who are fighting in the streets, are they?" asked

De Froilette, a ray of hope in his eyes.

"No; my men remain in the hills."

"We have been overreached," said De Froilette; "but only for a little while. It was a good move of yours to deliver up the Princess, although it might have been wiser to shoot her. There will be many lives lost through her today. She escaped last night. Do you know that?"

"I have heard nothing else since I entered the city," returned the brigand.

"It was bold of you to enter it at all just now," said De Froilette.

"I am used to dangers," said the brigand, grandiloquently, "and I had business with you."

"With me?"

"With you and with one other," Vasilici answered. "It was fortunate this Princess came into our hands; we learnt many things. We were to do the fighting, monsieur, but to have little of the reward; that was for the Russians lying on the frontier. It was a pretty plot you and the Queen had arranged."

"Whose tale is that, Vasilici? You are easily deceived if you believe it."

"We learnt the truth when we received this, monsieur." And the brigand held up the bracelet of medallions.

"Whoever your messenger was, he lied to you," said De Froilette. "Her Majesty shall presently convince you of that. I will return the bracelet to her."

Vasilici burst out laughing. His quick eyes had taken in every detail of the room, had noted what lay upon the table, had keenly scanned his companion from head to foot.

"We are not all fools in the hills, monsieur. I am going to deliver this to her Majesty myself. She is the other I spoke of with whom I have business in Sturatzberg. Ah, you are clever," he went on, replacing the bracelet in his pocket, "but you have failed. We are not to be sold to Russia just yet, and by a foreigner, too. Exterminate the foreigners, monsieur, that has been your cry. It is a good one. Tell me, why should you go free?"

He did not wait for an answer. With a sudden spring, his glittering dagger raised to strike, he was upon his adversary. But the blow fell limply, and his fingers relaxed, letting the knife fall with a clatter upon the table. The brigand's swaggering courage had risen as he contemplated his defenceless enemy. From the moment of his entrance, however, the Frenchman understood that he came in no friendly mood, and was prepared. As Vasilici sprang forward, two shots in quick succession startled the echoes of the room, and the tall figure swayed for a moment, then fell sideways on to the table, and slithered to the ground.

In an instant De Froilette was at the door and had locked it. There were running feet in the passage without, and cries of "Monsieur! Monsieur!"

"It is nothing," De Froilette shouted. "The weapon was loaded and I had forgotten the fact. I am not hurt. Dejeuner at once."

As the servants departed, De Froilette bent over the dead body.

"Fool! Canaille! To think to make an end of me so easily," and he took the bracelet from the dead man's pocket. "In bringing this you have served me, and I thank you. I would give you decent burial had I the leisure, but time presses. You must rest here until they find you."

De Froilette hastily put some papers in his pocket, and reloading the two chambers of his revolver, slipped that too into his pocket.

"Now if I can only see Ellerey as silent as this brute, I can laugh at them all. With the bracelet in my possession I am safe. It will buy the King's courtesy, or, if it suits better, the Queen's obedience. I thank you, friend Vasilici," and with a mocking bow to the lifeless brigand, De Froilette took up his hat and cloak, and left the room by a door concealed in the wall behind his writing table.

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