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   Chapter 27 IN PURPLE AND RED AND GOLD

Princess Maritza By Percy James Brebner Characters: 25476

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


The attack upon the Countess Mavrodin's house had commenced soon after daybreak. At that early hour few persons were abroad in the streets except the soldiers, who had been hastily marched to all points of vantage in the city as soon as the escape of the Princess became known; but it was not until an hour or two later that the news of the attack, and the desperate resistance the soldiers had met with, began to circulate.

When the riot, which had resulted in Maritza's rescue, had been quelled, and the rioters had melted away before the onslaught of the troops, it was hoped that a salutary lesson had been administered which would prevent any recurrence of open rebellion. That the Princess could not long elude recapture seemed certain, and her brief triumph had been dearly paid for. Citizens lying dead in the streets were a grim reminder of the reality of law and order.

The strenuous defence of the Countess Mavrodin's house had come as a severe blow to the complacency of the authorities. It seemed probable that Princess Maritza had found shelter there, that she was actually in the house when the attack was made, and her defenders had succeeded in holding the soldiers back until she had escaped. But this was not all. It was evident that it was not only upon the rabble that the Princess could depend. Her cause was espoused by Frina Mavrodin, and those who had considered her only a beautiful, frivolous woman awoke to the fact that she had power and unlimited wealth. She had played a part, she had become a Lady Bountiful in Sturatzberg, and it was easy to understand how far reaching her commands might be at this crisis. Baron Petrescu, too, had been a prominent figure in the resistance which had been made, and was still unharmed; it was impossible to foretell how many others, from one cause or another.

That the attack had been successfully resisted, in so far that the Princess had been able to escape, gave an enormous stimulus to the courage of the rebels. The death of companions last night had had a sobering effect upon some; they were inclined to argue that they had done what they had set out to do, and that for the present enough had been accomplished; but the news of the morning raised fresh passions within them, and their leaders were not slow to add fuel to the furnace. These enthusiasts declared that it was only necessary to seize the advantage already gained, to win the city and to force their will upon the country. Was not their Princess among them? Had not important persons already declared for her? Were there not hundreds of others ready to do so, only that fear of the people's fickleness and half-heartedness held them back?

So the carefully secreted arms were taken out again. There were stir and determination in every corner of the city. The word had gone forth that the day so long looked for had indeed come; that before nightfall Sturatzberg would be in their hands; that Maritza, their sovereign, would most surely come amongst them in the Grande Place to lead them, and that by noon all loyal men must win their way there. It was no mere rabble to whom this command was given. Some organization, at least, had been proceeding for a long time. Points of meeting were known. Leaders had been chosen and accepted, men who knew every alley and byway of the city, and had made a study of street fighting, the cover to be had and taken advantage of, and the narrow ways where the soldiers would manoeuvre at a disadvantage, being compelled to fight singly and hand to hand.

As the morning advanced, separate bands traversed the meaner streets, avoiding conflict for the present as much as possible. Here and there sharp skirmishes took place, but no determined effort was made to rush the soldiers, nor were the soldiers successful in dispersing those with whom they came in conflict, except, perhaps, to make them change their route. The rebel leaders had no wish to make boldly for the Grande Place before noon, that would only be to make known what their objective was. When the time came, their numbers would be overpowering, and when once the soldiers saw that they were hemmed in, many of them would be fighting with them instead of against them. Was it not common knowledge that among the troops there was dissatisfaction?

Desmond Ellerey had fallen in with one of these bands when he escaped from Frina's garden. The leader, a lusty enthusiast, who had already looked forward to the rewards which must accrue from this day's victory, could tell him all that was to happen, but of Maritza's whereabouts at that moment he knew nothing. All he was sure of was that she would be in the Grande Place at the appointed time. He was a skilful leader. He took his followers by a multitude of back streets, avoiding every point where soldiers were likely to be. Every man was valuable, and to lose even one in a skirmish which could achieve nothing was to jeopardize the success of the rebellion to that extent. He constantly turned aside to avoid some particular corner which the scouts sent on before reported occupied; but although this often necessitated returning for some distance along the way they had come, he managed gradually to approach the place of rendezvous, until a little before noon he had brought his band into an alley opening out of one of the streets which led directly into the Grande Place.

"An excellent battle ground for us," he said, turning to Ellerey. "The space is confined, narrow streets abound for us to fight in, which will prevent the soldiers rushing us or bringing guns into action."

Ellerey nodded, but his heart was heavy. Enthusiasm might accomplish much, but he did not believe in the ability of the rebels to withstand the military force which would be opposed to them. After last night, Sturatzberg was not likely to be caught asleep. What was this day to bring to the woman he loved? If he could have known that she was in safety, he could have drawn his sword with a lighter heart, and struck boldly for her cause-died for it, if need be. But she was not safe. Unless she had already fallen into the hands of her enemies, she was coming to the Grande Place. She had promised, and that promise was the mainspring of the enthusiasm which was on every side of him. He knew her too well even to hope that she would not come. And her coming must mean death. His love made him afraid. He could not see even the barest possibility of victory, nor had he any hope that she could escape now. Love made him a coward-his vital force seemed numbed, and his hand shook. He had been an entire stranger to such a sense of fear until this moment, and it was only with a great effort that he was able to throw off the paralyzing effect it had upon him.

From the tower of the Hotel de Ville the hour of noon sounded clear and musically over the city.

"Ready!" said the leader. "But the Princess?" said Ellerey.

"She will come," was the answer. Would she? The striking of the hour was evidently the signal. The last stroke had not died away when the men moved out from the alley into the street, and went quickly towards the Grande Place. Similar bands of men came from other alleys, and from every street they poured impetuously into the Square.

No place had been assigned to Ellerey, no duty had devolved upon him, and as the forward rush was made, he contrived to keep at the side of the street, so that he might not be forced to the front of the crowd. Once in the Square he stepped aside, sheltering himself in the angle of a wall, and no one noticed his movements as they rushed past him.

There were comparatively few soldiers in the Grande Place, and for them the striking of noon had had no warning. The sharp rattle of musketry came swiftly, but in a moment the soldiers were swept back or beaten down. There was a triumphant shout at this success, but the men were well in hand. They did not attempt to follow the enemy into the side streets into which they were driven, but, having in the first onslaught seized every entrance to the square, took up their positions to hold them. For a few moments there was silence, save for the quick commands of rebel leaders, and the hurrying feet of men taking their appointed places. They were heartened and enthusiastic. They had only to hold the Grande Place for a while-comrades were marching from every quarter of the city-and the soldiers would be between two fires. So the leaders encouraged, and the men believed and were content.

Ellerey still remained in the angle of the wall, endeavoring to attract as little attention as possible. Were he seen and recognized, some position of command was likely to be thrust upon him, and this he was most anxious to avoid. His place was beside Maritza when she came. One man spoke to him, asking him what orders he had received. "To protect the Princess," he answered.

The man gave him a friendly nod, and Ellerey conceived that to certain men some such command had been given, and that his answer was a happy one.

From the opposite side of the square came the crack of rifles again, quickly answered. The rebels were well armed, and, whatever the issue, the struggle was to be a desperate one. Here was no loose rabble to turn and flee, but enthusiasts bent on disputing every inch of the way.

"Charge!" came an order from the distance, and there followed the sudden growling of conflict. Yonder the battle had begun in earnest, and a moment later a roar of triumph proclaimed that the soldiers had been thrust back. There was wisdom in making them fight in narrow streets.

It was difficult for Ellerey to remain where he was. Fighting was going forward, and the spirit of the soldier in him made him restless to take his part in it. His hand was upon his sword, when suddenly a great roar of voices from every side seemed to shake the Square. Again and again it rose swelling and breaking like storm waves lashing a shore. There was quick movement round the statue of Ferdinand, a frantic waving of arms, and then the mighty roar became articulate.

"Maritza! Maritza!"

She had come among them-a warrior, even as her fathers were: it was fitting that her name should resound over Sturatzberg.

"Charge!" Again the distant command, again the fierce cries and groaning of conflict, and still the rebel ranks remained unbroken; again the soldiers were beaten down and driven back. Maritza had come, and that meant victory. The belief was deep seated in the heart of every man.

From what point she had entered the square, Ellerey could not determine, but in a few moments he saw her. She was standing on the steps of the statue, a pathetic, yet an heroic figure. She was still in her boy's dress, her bright curls falling loosely from under her cap. She said something which Ellerey could not hear, and then the shouting broke out again. Men ran to join their comrades, impatient only for opportunity to strike a blow at the foe, leaving the Princess in the midst of a little band, evidently a picked bodyguard, among them Baron Petrescu and Dumitru.

For a moment Ellerey watched her. She had come. There was no sign of fear in her face; how should there be? Did he not know her courage? When had Maritza ever failed when the time for action arrived? Had he not full reason to know what a splendid comrade she was in a tight place? All these who shouted her name were her comrades; was it likely she would desert them in the hour of their need? And this was the woman he loved, the woman who loved him-yes, in that instant all doubt seemed to fade into knowledge. Almost he fancied that her quick glance sought him in that striving crowd, and, not finding, that disappointment touched her heart. Oh, it was good to be loved, even for one short hour, by such a woman as this.

His sword was naked in his hand as he went swiftly across the square and shouldered his way to her.

"Desmond Ellerey!" she cried, a wondrous light glowing in her eyes as she stretched out her hand to him.

"At your service and command, Princess," he answered.

In her glad cry at his coming he heard the confession of her love; he read it in her eyes, yet he did not call her Maritza. To-day, indeed, she claimed the address of sovereignty.

"I thought perhaps you would not come," she said in a lower voice.

"You do not love my cause."

"To-day I stand or fall for it, Princess," he said aloud; "because-"

"Desmond!"

"Because I love you," he whispered.

It was said. It had to be said now, lest she should never know, for this day was a day of battle, and, before evening, ears might be deaf and lips silenced forever.

For a moment longer she held his hand in hers, and then, fearing, perhaps,

that others about her might see some preference in her welcome, she cried aloud:

"Ah, God must surely destine me for victory. He has given me so many brave and true men!"

The roar of conflict was not confined to one side of the Square now. Street after street took up the fight. The soldiers were attacking from every quarter. The sharp command to charge rang out more often, and the sudden growl of the hand-to-hand struggles was fiercer and longer and more continuous. Here and there was an ominous bending inward of a mass of defenders, but it was straightened again by mere force of numbers.

"They want more men there," said Ellerey, pointing with his sword to one place.

Maritza gave a quick order to a man near her, and immediately other men were hurrying to strengthen the position.

"Who commands?" asked Ellerey, turning to the Baron.

"The Princess," was the answer.

"A dozen leaders fight for me," said Maritza; "but I look to you and the Baron to advise me."

"What forces have you in the city beside these?" Ellerey asked, turning to Petrescu.

"Many are hurrying to join us," he answered.

"And will have to fight their way to us," said Ellerey. "We must hold the Square at all costs, for I see no line of retreat."

"Retreat!" exclaimed Maritza. "There is no retreat for me. To-day makes me Queen in Wallaria or nothing."

"Still, Princess, a momentary retreat might save the day."

"We have no way of retreat, Captain," said Petrescu, and the look in his face told Ellerey plainly enough that, loyal as he was, he had little hope of success. "Circumstances have forced matters to an issue, and we must stand or fall as the fates decide."

The rattle of musketry was now continuous on all sides, and for those who fell there was little help or thought, friend and foe alike trampling them to death in the struggle. More than once soldiers, thrust forward by those behind them, had broken through the ranks of the defenders, only to be shot or stabbed before they could recover themselves. Again the rushes were stopped and repulsed, but still they were made with unabated fury, and Ellerey saw that each one was more determined, more difficult to meet than the last. Constantly that ominous bending inward was only straightened with great effort.

Presently he touched the Baron on the shoulder, and pointed to one street where, in the distance, mounted men could be seen.

"I have been wondering why they did not use them," said Ellerey.

"The streets are narrow for them," said Petrescu.

"True; but if only a dozen break through there will be confusion." And then, lowering his voice, Ellerey went on: "Is there no way of escape for her?"

"We may carve one for her, Ellerey, you and I; it is the only way I know of."

They had spoken in a low tone, but, had their voices been louder, it is doubtful whether Maritza would have heard them. She was absorbed in watching the deadly struggle which raged around her. She was unconscious of the bells above her, which told quarter after quarter, sounding musically over the city. Perhaps the thought came to her that these men were dying in her cause, at her bidding; but how could she blame herself? Had not thousands before them died for her fathers? Were her rights less than those of her fathers? And was she not among her subjects to cry victory with them, or to die in their midst? She asked from them no sacrifice which she herself was not prepared to make.

"Will those others who are coming never fight their way to us?" she said turning to Ellerey suddenly.

"If they can, Princess."

It was a vain hope. In every street which led to the Grande Place there had been desperate struggles. In the roadways lay the dead and dying, while others fled to find safety if they could. There was no help to come, and Ellerey did not expect it.

"Charge!"

The command rang out simultaneously from all sides, and there was the jingle of harness and the thud of horses' hoofs.

Here the attack was hurled back, horses riderless, here horse and man pitched forward to be shot and stabbed; and here the same, and here; but yonder the defenders had been driven in, and there too. A dozen horsemen were in the square, and although they fell, confusion had begun. The defense was weakened at several points, more horsemen fought their way in, and with them foot-soldiers gained an entrance. Step by step the rebels were driven backward toward the statue where Maritza stood. "Will those others never fight their way to us?" she cried in almost piteous tones.

"You cannot stay here," said Ellerey. "Come!"

Men were already rushing past them. Once beaten back, hopelessness came quickly, and many of those who had been foremost in the fight now shouted to their comrades to escape if they could. The soldiers, resistlessly pressing forward, were closing in on them when Ellerey spoke. Maritza did not answer.

"Come!" he said again, his hand on her arm.

The touch roused her.

"I have brought you to this; forgive me, Desmond," she said. Her whole ambition was forgotten for a moment in the thought of the man beside her.

Ellerey did not answer. There was no time. The soldiers were upon them. With Petrescu on one side and Dumitru on the other Ellerey threw himself before the Princess. The final struggle had commenced, and so fierce was the resistance of these three men that the soldiers hesitated and fell back a pace.

"Fly, Princess, while there is time," Ellerey shouted.

"Victory or death, I stay" (and her voice rang clear above the uproar) "with you, Desmond."

The last words were spoken almost in a whisper, and they maddened him.

Here was death, butchery, and she was in the midst of it.

"Maritza! Go, dear! Go!" he cried. "Let me hold them back for a moment.

I will follow. Petrescu! Dumitru!"

So determined was the struggle round the steps of the statue that the tide of battle seemed to have turned again, and some of the rebels dashed fiercely back into the fray.

"Take her, Dumitru," Ellerey whispered. "We'll hold them while we can." Suddenly from a corner of the Grande Place, rushing swiftly through the ranks of the flying rebels, came a woman.

"Are you cowards or men?" she cried aloud as she came, and some turned at that cry and met death with a shout of defiance, while others stood irresolute until fear overcame them.

Ellerey saw her as she reached Maritza's side, and then he was conscious that a stalwart arm was raining heavy blows upon the foes which seemed to surround him.

"She would come. I could not stay her," said Stefan between his deeply panted breaths as he struck again and again.

"Fly, Maritza!"

"Frina! You!"

"Fly, Maritza!" The salvation of Maritza seemed her one thought. The hope that she might accomplish it, even at the last moment, had drawn her hither. How it was to be done she had not asked herself. Yet now she appeared to have found the way.

Even as she spoke Dumitru seized the Princess.

"Come!" he said, as he threw a cloak about her to conceal her identity.

"To-day we fail; to-morrow-Ah!"

It was a short, sharp cry, a cry with finality in it. Whatever to-morrow might bring forth, he should have no part in it. His hand still grasped the cloak as he fell backwards, and Maritza was dragged down with him.

"Grigosie," said Ellerey to the soldier beside him as he saw Dumitru fall. He used the name that Stefan might understand to the full. Was there anything that Stefan would not do for Grigosie?

Frina Mavrodin stood for a moment alone above the surging, fighting mass. She had shuddered when she had passed the dead body of Francois in the passage, now she drew herself to her full height and looked down upon the battle. She stood there that all men might see her, that Maritza might escape, and then she saw Ellerey with the sweat and grime of the conflict upon him. For an instant their eyes met, her lips whispered his name, and then she threw up her arms, and with a low cry fell prone upon the steps of the statue.

Maritza, who was bending over Dumitru, turned swiftly and made one step towards her when Stefan stopped her.

"Come," he said. And this time he waited for no pleading. Drawing the cloak tightly round her, he caught her in his arms, and, in the midst of those who fled, rushed from the Square. The plan he had made earlier in the day when the Countess walked beside him he would carry out now. He had ears for no entreaty, for no threat.

"We'll win through, Grigosie," he said over and over again as he turned now into one alley, now into another, leaving the flying rabble further and further behind. "We'll win through, Grigosie. It's the Captain's orders."

Ellerey heard that cry too, and knew its meaning. There was a shout of triumph from the soldiers pressing forward, a swaying back of the rebels, and he was carried along with them unable to use his sword in the seething mass of friends and foes.

"She is dead!" someone cried; and the effect was instantaneous. Men took up the cry and shouted that Maritza was dead, and the soldiers may have thought it was so seeing a woman fall. Every rebel was at once struggling to fight his way out of the crowd, his own safety his only thought. They day was lost, it was the time to seek safety if it were to be found. The Baron and Ellerey were still side by side, and together they were forced back toward a narrow street.

"There is still a chance for you," Petrescu whispered. And the next moment he was striving madly to force his way back to the statue, to the side of the woman he had loved. Then he was cut down and trampled under foot as Ellerey was carried away in a rush of pursued and pursuers. Suddenly the pressure relaxed, the open street was before him.

"Ellerey! No matter who else escapes, seize Ellerey!" He had been recognized, and for him there was no hope of mercy. He swung round one sweeping blow of his sword and sprang forward. The way seemed clear, when a figure suddenly dashed from a doorway and fired at him point blank, twice in quick succession, crying his name to those who appeared to have lost him for a moment.

A pain like the running in of a red-hot skewer was in Ellerey's arm, but not his sword arm, and the weapon flashed high in the air and fell with relentless force.

"Quits, you devil!" he cried as De Froilette reeled backwards, cut with deadly depth downward from the shoulder. Then Ellerey rushed on again, one among hundreds seeking safety, followed by their conquerors, who showed no mercy. Suddenly an arm was outstretched from an alley and seized him. The impetus of being thus turned in his headlong flight carried him some yards down the narrow way.

"Quickly!" said a voice in his ear. "To the right, now to the left."

A guiding hand and a supporting arm urged him forward. Ellerey asked no question, never turned toward the man who ran beside him, but went on mechanically. His brain was full of a whirling nightmare. Then a door was slammed heavily, there was the sensation of rapid movement, the quick beating of galloping horses, and then faintness and oblivion.

The red sun sank westward, glowing on the roofs and spires of the city. The minutes passed swiftly, and the hours. Still in the smaller streets and the narrow alleys there were flying feet, and now and again a shriek as some poor wretch pitched forward, shot or stabbed by his relentless pursuers. Resistance there was none; that was over. The dead and dying lay in the roadways where they had fallen, the only cry now was for mercy, and that was seldom granted. The soldiers were savage too, and rebellion must be stamped out.

By the statue of Ferdinand a squad of soldiers was halted, and on the steps, just as she had fallen, lay Frina Mavrodin. She was beautiful in death, and there was a pathos in that prostrate form which appealed even to these rough soldiers. Had she not been the Lady Bountiful in that city? They were silent for the most part, or if they spoke, hushed their voices to a whisper, and used no oaths. She had sacrificed her life for the man and woman she loved. Here in the Grande Place of Sturatzberg, where a little while since fierce conflict raged; here where Maritza's cause had been fought for and lost; here where so many turned sightless eyes to the deepening sky, Frina Mavrodin had found her rest. No tramping, struggling feet had touched her, and only the blood staining the brown hair where the bullet had struck showed that this was death and not sleep. The minutes passed, and the hours, the bells sounding musically at short intervals over the city, and the sun slowly sank lower and lower into his bed of purple and red and gold.

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