By PERCY BREBNER
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY
To V. F. G.
CHAPTER I.-PLAYING TRUANT
CHAPTER II.-MONSIEUR DE FROILETTE
CHAPTER III.-THE WOMAN IN THE SILK MASK
CHAPTER IV.-THE COURT OF STURATZBERG
CHAPTER V.-TWO VISITORS
CHAPTER VI.-FRINA MAVRODIN'S GUEST
CHAPTER VII.-THE TIME ARRIVES
CHAPTER VIII.-THE IRON BRACELET
CHAPTER IX.-THE DUEL
CHAPTER X.-THE FOLLY OF A SOLDIER
CHAPTER XI.-IN THE BOIS
CHAPTER XIII.-THE CASTLE IN THE HILLS
CHAPTER XIV.-THE TOKEN IS DELIVERED
CHAPTER XV.-THE RACE FOR LIFE
CHAPTER XVI.-THE TRAITOR
CHAPTER XVII.-THE TRUE WORTH OF BARON PETRESCU
CHAPTER XVIII.-SIX LOYAL MEN
CHAPTER XIX.-IN DESPERATE STRAITS
CHAPTER XX.-TREACHERY OR SACRIFICE
CHAPTER XXI.-THE RESCUE
CHAPTER XXII.-IN VASILICI'S STRONGHOLD
CHAPTER XXIII.-THE TEMPTATION OF FRINA MAVRODIN
CHAPTER XXIV.-HOW MARITZA ENTERED STURATZBERG
CHAPTER XXV.-'TWIXT LOVE AND PITY
CHAPTER XXVII.-IN PURPLE AND RED AND GOLD
CHAPTER XXVIII.-THE DIPLOMACY OF LORD CLOVERTON
CHAPTER XXIX.-AFTER WAR—PEACE
A breezy morning after a night of rain. Fleecy clouds, some in massive folds and fantastic shape, some in small half-transparent wisps like sunlit ghosts, were driven rapidly across the blue. Hurrying shadows flecked the swelling bosom of the downs, and where the grass was long it rippled like a green sea, making rustling music. Overhead the larks fluttering upward, ever-diminishing specks to the empyrean, carolled their joyous song, and a thousand perfumes filled the air. It was a morning to live in, to enjoy, to take into one's lungs in deep, intoxicating draughts, until the sorrows of life and its cares were forgotten; a morning that lent strong wings to ambition, filling the future with hope and the promise of realized desires.
Something of the aspect of the morning was reflected in the face of the man who stoutly climbed the downs against the wind. He was above the average height, but did not give the impression of being tall. His frame was well knit and muscular; strength and power of endurance above the common were evident in every movement; and there was a quiet determination in his face which proclaimed him one of those who would be likely to succeed in anything he undertook, no matter what dangers and difficulties might stand in his path, one who would march straight forward to his object even as he breasted the downs this morning. Most men would have pronounced him handsome, judging, as men ever do, by build and muscle; women might have hesitated to give an opinion in spite of the well-cut, clean-shaven face, and the dark blue eyes which never looked away from a person with whom their possessor talked. Perhaps there was a want of sympathy in the face, a certain lack of that gentle deference which so appeals to women in a man, that silent recognition of the woman's power which is so pleasant to her.
Desmond Ellerey had had little to do with women. He did not pretend to understand them, and it had never occurred to him that there was any reason why he should strive to do so. He had experienced pleasant moments in their company, but one woman was pretty much the same as another to him, and it is quite certain that no such thing as a faded flower, or a glove, or love token of any kind held a place among his treasures. No woman in the past had given him a single heart throb which love lent a sense of pain to, and it seemed unlikely that any woman would wish to do so now. For Desmond Ellerey was a man under a cloud, a very black cloud, the gloom of which even this breezy morning could not entirely dispel from his face. He had set himself to bear his burden bravely, but the task was a heavy one. Surely those straightforward blue eyes gave the lie to much that was said against him?
There were few hours in the day in which he did not brood over his trouble, over the loss of his career which it involved, and as he approached the top of the downs his eyes were bent upon the ground in deep thought, while in his heart was fierce rebellion against the world and his fellow men.
He was suddenly startled by a sharp and shrill "Hallo!" and at the same moment was aware of a straw hat racing past him a little to his left. A run of a few yards enabled him to intercept it, and he grasped it in his strong fingers, regardless of the flowers and ribbons upon it. Then he turned to discover the owner.
She was standing on the summit of the downs, her loose hair streaming in the breeze. She did not come to meet him, but waited for him to go to her.
"I am afraid it is not improved," he said, handing her the hat.
"I hardly expected it would be when I saw the way you dived for it," she answered with a smile; "but thanks all the same. Had it got past you, it would have been good-bye to it altogether. Isn't this a morning?"
"Very pleasant after the rain," he said.
"Pleasant!" she cried. "Is that the best you can say for it? Pleasant! Why it makes me feel that there is nothing in the world which is beyond my power; no difficulty I could not fight and overcome; no danger I could not despise and laugh at. My blood is full of the very fire I of life, and I pant to do something-something unexpected, outrageous, desperate. Don't you ever feel like that?"
"It is good to be a man," she went on. "He has the world before him, with its high places waiting to be won. There is nothing out of his reach, if he strive sufficiently, no honor he may not win to. Oh, I wish I were a man!"
There was a half-whimsical smile upon Ellerey's face, at her enthusiasm, and in his eyes a look of admiration, which he could not conceal, at her beauty. Her loose hair streaming in the wind was the color of burnished copper, rich as a golden autumn tint in the glow of an evening sun. Her eyes were dark, yet of a changeful color, as full of secrets as a deep pool in the hollow of a wood, quiet, silent secrets which presently, when the time came, a lover might seek to understand, yet promising angry and tempestuous moods should storms happen. Her lips, parted often as though she were waiting for someone with eager expectation, revealed an even row of pearly teeth, and the pink flush of health and beauty was in her cheeks. She was tall: with her hair done up, would have passed for a woman already, Desmond thought; with it down, and her frock to her boot-tops, she was still a girl, a beautiful girl, a very pleasant picture to contemplate.
"Being a man is not always such a grand thing as you suppose," Ellerey said after a pause.
"He has a freedom which a woman never has," the girl answered quickly. "Oh, yes, women try, especially in this country, I know, but it is never the same. She cannot be a statesman, she cannot be a soldier. She cannot take her life by the throat, as it were, and win place and power by the sheer force of a good right arm as a man can."
"But she often succeeds in ruling the man after he has won place and power," Ellerey answered.
"That sort of conquest does not appeal to me."
"Ah, but it will some day," he returned quickly, and then he half regretted his words, remembering she was but a girl.
She looked at him curiously for a moment, a smile upon her lips, yet a little anger lurking in her eyes.
"You think I am very young," she said.
"Are you not?"
"And very innocent, or ignorant, or whatever word you would use to explain me."
"You can hardly have probed life very deeply yet," said Ellerey.
"Much deeper than you would imagine," she answered. "You are not so very wise and old yourself, are you?"
"Indeed, no; I fancy I am more of a fool than anything else," he laughed.
"You should not let yourself think that," she said gravely. "To think highly of one's powers is half-way to success. That sounds as if I had stolen something from a copy-book, doesn't it? But no, I am speaking from experience. Why do you laugh? Some of us have to touch life's hardships early."
"You do not show the marks of such experience," said Ellerey, hardly knowing whether to treat her seriously or not.
"No, but I might, were I conscious of what is before me. I am not as other girls. There is a destiny I have to struggle towards, an end I must win. It was born into, handed down in my blood through generations of men of action. The ambition of those generations of men beats to-day in the heart of a woman. It is a pity, but I shall win, or die fighting."
"At least the spirit in you deserves success."
"Come a little this way," she said, touching his arm, and then she pointed down into the valley below them. "Do you see that building yonder, white among the trees, with a point of conical roof at the end of it?"
"Do you know what it is?"
"By this time they are hunting for me all over that place down there. I heard the bell ring half an hour ago. That's a school, a big, expensive, fashionable school, where they teach young ladies how to behave properly, how to grow up to rule those fighting men we were speaking of, how to fit themselves to be their wives, and in due time the mothers of their children—in short, how to fulfil their destiny, woman's destiny. They are trying to teach me."
"Yes, I'm one of the girls there, and I've played truant, and—yes, I think I shall go back presently, when I have taken my fill of freedom and this glorious morning."
"And will get punished, I am afraid," said Ellerey.
"Perhaps; but it will not be very heavy punishment. It is strange, but they rather like me there, in spite of everything."
"I do not think that is strange at all."
"No, you wouldn't; you're a man," she answered quickly, "and men are weak where attractive women are concerned, all the world over."
Such a declaration coming from a truant schoolgirl somewhat startled Ellerey, and yet, as he looked at her, he was more conscious of the woman than the girl.
"Oh, yes, I know I am attractive," she went on, and there was no deepening of the color in her face as she said it. "I am glad that it is so. My looks will help me when the work of my life begins in earnest, when I have played the truant from school for the last time, and do not go back."
"Then you intend to run away eventually?"
"Yes, unless another way should seem better. That shocks you. I often shock them down at the white house yonder, and they excuse me because I am a foreigner. You English are so polite. You do not seem to expect foreigners to know how to behave, and you make excuses for them. It is very funny. It makes me laugh," and she laughed so merrily that her former gravity seemed more unnatural.
"You speak English perfectly. I should not have taken you for a foreigner," said Ellerey.
"And French, and German, and my own tongue, I speak them all perfectly. I have lived in all these countries. It was necessary."
"And you do not like England nor Englishmen?"
"I have not said so," she answered; "but here in England I am being taken care of, kept out of mischief, and sometimes I feel like a prisoner. It is only that which makes me dislike England. Of Englishmen I know little, but I have read about them, and they have done some good, brave deeds. They are, perhaps, just a little conceited with themselves, don't you think? There is no one quite like an Englishman it would seem."
"There are all sorts, good and bad," said Ellerey carelessly. "At the best he wants a lot of beating; at the worst, well, he wants a lot of beating that way, too. How is it you feel like a prisoner?"
The girl drew herself up to her full height. There was something haughty in her demeanor, occasioned, perhaps, by the careless way in which he asked the question. She felt that he was treating her rather like a spoilt child, while she felt herself a determined woman.
"In my own country I am a princess," she said.
"You do not believe me?"
"Why not? You look every inch a princess," he answered.
"It is so like a man to say what he thinks will please," she returned with a flash in her eyes. "You do not believe me, but you are afraid to say so. Go down there and ask them."
"I do not disbelieve you," said Ellerey quietly.
The girl relented in a moment.
"We should be very good friends, you and I, if we knew each other. You have ambition. I can see it in your face."
"I had, Princess."
"Hush, no one calls me that here. Why do you say you had ambition?"
"You would not understand."
"Try me and see," she said, standing close beside him as though to measure her strength against his for a moment. "You may trust me. I would trust you anywhere, in peace or war."
Ellerey looked at her curiously for an instant, with a sudden desire to take her into his confidence. Then he shook his head slowly. It was pleasant to hear such faith expressed in him, and he was unwilling to destroy the faith of this fair woman. Altogether a woman she seemed to him just then.
"You will not. Never mind, perhaps one day you will. Only never speak of ambition as something past. That is weak and unmanly."
"Upon my honor, you do me good," Ellerey exclaimed.
"And you me," she answered eagerly. "To look at you makes me feel strong. It is good when a man makes a woman feel like that. I am a woman, although I am still at school. There is southern blood in me, and we become women earlier than English girls do. Listen! There are England, and France, and Germany, and Austria, and Russia all interested in me, and nothing would please them all so much as my death. As it is, I am a difficulty in all their politics. They would like me to forget who, and what, I am. They would marry me to some nobleman of no importance, if they could, just to keep me quiet."
"And you will not be quiet."
"No. Why should I be? Would you? In my country a usurper is upon the throne, kept there, held there, like a child who would fall but for its nurse's arms, by all the Powers of Europe. It is I who should be there. It is I who will be there one day. Shall I tell you? There are hundreds, thousands, of men who are ready to strike in my cause when the time is ripe. Even now there is a statesman working to set these countries at cross purposes with one another, and when they quarrel, then is my opportunity. You shall see. That is why I said I would be a man if I could. It would be so much easier for a man, but as it is, a woman shall do it."
"I hope you may. You deserve to."
"But you doubt it?" she said.
"There seem to be heavy odds against you."
"That helps me. It stirs up the best that is in me. It is good to have something to struggle for, something to win, and if I may not win, I hope to fall in the press of the fight, and, to the loud funeral music of clashing steel, find the death of a soldier. What is your name?"
"It is an easy name to remember. Well, Desmond Ellerey, if your ambition finds no outlet in England, come to my country, to the city of Sturatzberg, and claim friendship with Princess Maritza. She shall find you work for your good right arm."
She walked away from him as though she had bestowed a great favor, never looking back. She went in the opposite direction to the school, her truant spirit not yet satisfied, and Ellerey watched her until he lost sight of the tall, graceful figure in a fold of the downs. Then he turned and went slowly back the way he had come.
Desmond Ellerey had declared that she had done him good. It was true. Although he walked slowly, his spirit was stirred within him, and his blood ran with something of its old vigor. Faced by a thousand difficulties, this girl had the courage to look upon them bravely, and to believe in her power to overcome them. That was her secret, the belief in her own power. He had faced his difficulties bravely enough, but he had not had the courage to hope; therein lay his weakness, and this girl, this princess, had shown it to him. He had allowed himself to drift into a backwater; it was time he pulled out into the stream again, and fought his way back to his rightful place, inch by inch, against whatever tide might run.
For some little time he had been staying with Sir Charles and Lady Martin, two people who had looked into his eyes when he had denied the charges brought against him, and had believed him.
As he crossed the lawn toward the house he met his host.
"I have had an adventure, Charles; I have met a princess."
"There are some pretty rustic maidens in the village. I have been struck with their beauty myself."
"I mean a real Princess; at least, she said so," Desmond answered. "She was playing truant from school, a large white house, on the other side of the downs."
"Do you mean a tall, red-headed girl?" asked Sir Charles.
"Have you seen her?" Desmond asked.
"No, but I know all about her."
"Ah, I thought you couldn't have seen her, or you wouldn't describe her as a tall, red-headed girl. She's the most beautiful woman I ever saw. She spoke the truth, then; she is a Princess?"
"Oh, yes, but the sooner she forgets the fact the better for her and for—for everybody. She is the descendant of a line of rulers chiefly remarkable for their inability to rule, and her chance of ascending the throne of her fathers is absolutely nil, fortunately for Europe. You are not a student of contemporary history, Desmond, or you would know something about Wallaria and its exiled Princess."
"I am not a diplomat, but a soldier—at least, I was," Desmond answered. "Still, I should like to improve my knowledge."
"That is easily managed," said Sir Charles. "If you come into the library I can find you a heap of literature concerning this little wasps' nest of a state, and when you have mastered the position, thank your natal stars that you were not born to take a hand in ruling it. It is a menace to Europe, Desmond, that's the truth of the matter. Wallaria may at any time be the cause of a European war. If this Princess of yours had her way, that time would not be long in coming."
For the remainder of the day Desmond Ellerey filled a corner of the library with tobacco smoke, and his head with a thousand details concerning Wallaria. When he went to dress for dinner he felt that he had been reading an absorbing romance, and blessed the good fortune which had brought about the meeting on the downs.
"Helen and I have been talking about you, Desmond," said Sir Charles after dinner.
"Not revising your opinion of me, I hope."
"No," said Lady Martin, "but thinking of your future. Why not travel for a little while, Desmond; for a year or so? It will give time for the truth to leak out. It will leak out, you know, even as a lie does."
"I have made up my mind to go abroad," said Desmond quietly. "I shall clear out of England before the month is over. It has been awfully good of you both to have me here at a time when most of my friends found it convenient to forget me. I shall not come back until the men who were so ready to accuse me have eaten their words and the country so ready to dispense with my services asks for them again."
"That will come in time," said Lady Martin.
"I am glad to hear your determination," said Sir Charles. "Where are you going?"
"Why not? It seems there is room for a soldier there."
Sir Charles looked grave.
"But, Desmond, supposing—"
"I know what you would say," returned Ellerey quickly. "Supposing Englishmen should have to fight against Wallaria, and I should have to carry arms against my country; well, with whom does the fault lie, with England or with me? England has dispensed with my services, believing a lie; she drives me from her, and makes me a renegade. What allegiance do I owe to England? I will offer my sword to Wallaria, and if she will have it, by Heaven, she shall."
Lady Martin put her hand upon his shoulder, pressed it in kindly sympathy for a moment, and then left the room.
"Sleep on it, Desmond, you will think better of it in the morning," said Sir Charles.
"You have been very good to me, both of you," said Ellerey, turning round suddenly when Lady Martin had gone. "I can never thank you enough. It seems poor gratitude to pain you now. Such a contingency as we imagine will probably never arise, but I have decided to go."
"The Princess has bewitched you."
"Nonsense. Am I not offering my sword to the usurper, her enemy? My ambitions have been nipped like a tree in the budding here, and I see a new outlet for my energies yonder, that is all. My own country despises me. I hope for better things from the country of my adoption."
MONSIEUR DE FROILETTE
At a turn of the road which had been deserted for some two hours past, a man suddenly reined in his horse to a walking pace. He had ridden far, for his dress was dusty, and the animal showed signs of fatigue. The evening was stormy-looking, and there was a bite in the wind blowing from the higher lands to the plain.
The road ran, with many a twist and turn, between dense woods on one side, and rugged waste ground, with tangled patches of undergrowth, on the other. Here and there a clearing had been made in the woods, and a rough dwelling erected, but they were apparently deserted; there were no signs of life about them this evening. The man rode easily, yet with constant watchfulness. The times were unsettled and dangerous, and the slightest unfamiliar sound instantly attracted his attention. He was accustomed to be on the alert, and whatever thoughts held sway behind his gloomy looks, they were not sufficiently absorbing to render him careless for a moment.
Suddenly he pulled his horse to a standstill, turning sharply in his saddle to look back upon the way he had come. Then he examined his holster, and, moving his horse to a position which gave him a better command of the road, sat quietly waiting.
The sound which had attracted his attention grew rapidly nearer, and presently three riders came round the bend at a gallop, one some paces in advance of his companions. He pulled up short, seeing the motionless horseman by the roadside, scenting danger and ready for it; but the next moment he raised his hat with pronounced courtesy, and bowed low in his saddle.
"Pardon, monsieur," he said, "but one sees a possible enemy in so unexpected an encounter."
"I said so. May I add fortunate, too?"
"Such enemies as you suggest seldom stand singly," was the rather ungracious answer.
"And in these times wise men seldom ride alone, monsieur," came the quick retort. "I travel with an escort myself, you see, Captain Ellerey. I do not make a mistake, I think; you are Captain Ellerey of his Majesty's Regiment of Chasseurs?"
"That is my name."
"And you are returning to Sturatzberg? Good! We can proceed together," and without waiting for an assent to this arrangement, he ordered his servants to go forward, and watched them until they had disappeared. "Now, monsieur, we may go forward at our leisure."
"I have not the honor of—"
"My name. Ah, it is of small consequence. Jules de Froilette, at your service. It is unknown to you?"
"I think so, but your face seems familiar," said Ellerey, as they went on together.
"Ah, yes. I go to Court sometimes."
"And I but seldom, monsieur."
"Then you may have seen me in the streets of Sturatzberg. I know the city well, and have nothing to hide. I have interests in this country, let us say, in timber; it is the answer I give when I am questioned, for no one respects a lazy man. A voluntary exile from my country, I have no quarrel with France, nor she with me. In these days men are become cosmopolitan, is it not so?"
"It looks like it in Sturatzberg," Ellerey replied.
"Monsieur is also an exile, and has no quarrel with his motherland?"
"At least I do not speak of it, Monsieur De Froilette."
"Pardon me, I am not inquisitive. You crave for excitement, so come to Sturatzberg. The promise of adventure will ever attract men of spirit and—"
"And the failures at home," suggested Ellerey.
"I was going to say men of courage," De Froilette answered, "but the failures come, too, and succeed—sometimes."
"You are as doubtful of the reward as I am," said Ellerey, laughing.
De Froilette did not join in his merriment.
"A Captain of Horse is not to be despised," he said slowly, glancing furtively at his companion.
"True, but he remains a Captain of Horse. I expected rapid events in this country, and quick promotion for those who came out of the struggle with their lives. Instead, we have an expedition against some brigands' fastness, which is deserted when we arrive, or a troop to quell a petty riot which has fizzled out when we get there, and that is all."
"And monsieur thirsts for more; the desperate encounter and the bloody sword; for high place and Court favor."
"Is it too great an ambition?" Ellerey demanded. "Do we not all from the bottom rung of the ladder look eagerly toward the top—the student to the masters of his profession, the apprentice to the seat of his employer? Why should not a soldier look for high favor at Court?"
"Such favor must be won, Captain Ellerey."
"I am willing to win it."
"Patience. You shall not always find those fastnesses deserted, those riots quelled when you arrive. This is the waiting time, the preparing time, and there are difficulties in the way of promotion. Let me ask you, are you loved in your regiment?"
"Neither loved nor hated."
"And in the city?"
"I have few friends. A Captain of Horse does not command them."
"That is not the reason. It is because you are a foreigner," De Froilette answered. "You are welcome to fight this country's battles, welcome to get killed in them, but you must not participate in any rewards. If Sturatzberg could do without us, how many foreigners would wake tomorrow in the city, think you?"
"All Europe has talked of such a rebellion, but it does not come," said Ellerey.
"It will," was the answer, "and if you are strong enough you may take the reward."
"You speak in riddles."
"Is it wise to speak plainly?" and De Froilette swept out his arm as though the prospect before them gave the answer. They had left the woods and the rough country behind them, and were approaching houses, for Sturatzberg had grown and spread itself beyond its walls. In the distance the lights of the city blinked under the dome of growing darkness, while to the right a long line of light marked the citadel and the palace of the King.
"There are ever-watchful eyes, ever-waking ears about us, looking and listening for treachery," De Froilette went on. "Every man suspects his neighbor, and has fingers ready for the knife handle. Yonder in the citadel, amid the laughter and the music, a dozen plots will creep forward a space before the dawn. Does monsieur, the Captain, long to play a part in the intrigues there?"
"Yes, so that it is honest."
"Monsieur must decide. We part here, it is better so. Come to me to-night, at the Altstrasse, 12, at ten o'clock. We can talk further. Until then, au revoir" and De Froilette put his horse into a canter, leaving Ellerey to pursue his way alone.
Entering the city by the eastern gate, Ellerey crossed the Konigplatz at walking pace on his way to his lodging by the Western Gate. They were a pleasure-loving people in Sturatzberg, working as little as possible, and spending without a thought of the morrow. The cafes were full to-night, the laughter sounded genuine enough, and there was little indication of the coming storm of revolution so confidently predicted by De Froilette. Ellerey's mind was busy with the events of the afternoon. For two years he had been in Sturatzberg, ready to seize the opportunity of distinguishing himself whenever it arose. It had not come yet. His life had been passed on a dead level of inactivity, and the stirring times he had hoped for seemed as far away as ever. Many a time had his thoughts gone back to that breezy morning on the downs, and he devoutly wished that Princess Maritza would come to Sturatzberg, so that he might go to her, claim friendship with her, and ask for that work for his good right arm which she had promised to give. Who was this De Froilette, and why should he take an interest in him or wish to help him? For such favors there was always a price to be paid in some form or other. Would it be wise to go to the Altstrasse? And another question came to him, a question that set his pulse beating faster for a moment. Was this De Froilette an emissary of the Princess Maritza? Might she not be in Sturatzberg now? Might he not see her to-night? "I would risk anything for that," he said, as he swung himself from the saddle, "and whatever the adventure is, so that it has a spice of danger in it, it is welcome. I shall know how to take care of myself if the price asked be too heavy."
A big, bearded man came forward to take the horse, and the manner in which he drew the back of his hand across his mouth suggested that he had left the tankard hastily.
"Has anyone inquired for me, Stefan?"
"No, Captain, I have been undisturbed until now," the man answered in a deep voice well suited to his frame, as he led the horse away. Knowing his soldier-servant's weakness and his capacity for indulging in it with impunity, Ellerey wondered how long a time he would require undisturbed before signs of his potations showed themselves. Drink heavily he certainly did, but since he never exhibited any ill effects from it, at night or morning, it would have been unjust to call him a drunkard.
The Altstrasse was of the old town, a narrow thoroughfare of gaunt houses which now sheltered a dozen families in rooms where the wealthy had once lived, and in which Ministers and Ambassadors had entertained the wit, beauty, and bravery of nations. These glories had departed to the palatial buildings which had grown up round the citadel, leaving the Altstrasse as misfortune may leave a gentleman, the marks of breeding evident though he be clad in rusty garments. Over the doorways, through which tatterdemalions, men, women, and children, flocked in and out, were handsome carvings, deep-cut crests and coats-of-arms; ragged garments were hung to dry over handsome balustrades and wrought-iron railings; while in the rough and broken roadway garbage, cast there days since, lay rotting where it had fallen. Poverty had seized upon the place, flaunting poverty, seeking no concealment. Ellerey had passed through the Altstrasse before to-night, but the surroundings had had no particular interest for him then. Now they arrested his attention. What plots might not have birth and grow to dangerous maturity in such surroundings, among such people as these? The rabble had overrun these deserted mansions; might it not one day hammer at the doors of the palaces by the citadel yonder with demands not to be gainsaid? What manner of man was this De Froilette, what ends had he in view, that he should live in such a place?
Number 12 looked as faded as its neighbors, showed even fewer lights in its windows, and, except that no small crowd hung about the closed door, was no whit more attractive than ever. Ellerey's summons was answered immediately, however, and he entered a large bare stone hall, the dim light which hung in the centre disclosing many fast-closed doors on either side.
"Monsieur is expected," said the man deferentially, leading the way down a stone passage and up a flight of stairs to a landing corresponding with the hall below. But how different! Here was luxury. A deep carpet deadened the footfall, rich curtains hung over windows and doorways, and ancient arms were upon the walls. Ellerey had little time to appreciate more than the general effect, for the man, drawing back a heavy curtain, opened a door, and without making any announcement stood aside for him to enter.
"Welcome, mon ami, welcome," said De Froilette, coming forward to meet him. "Confidences are easier here than on the highway."
The room was perfect, the abode of a man of taste with the means to gratify it to the full. It was costly and unique, a collector's room, discriminately arranged, and the owner, motioning his guest to a chair, was worthy of his surroundings. In the afternoon he had been muffled in a cloak, and Ellerey had noticed little of his appearance beyond the fact that his eyes were dark and restless. Now he saw a man courtly and distinguished in a manner, with a clever, earnest face, at once attractive and inviting confidence. His hair, cut short, and his beard trimmed to a fine point, were black with a few streaks of white in them, but his face was young looking, the lines few and faint. His fifty years sat lightly upon him. One would have judged him a student, or a traveller, rather than a politician, or a man fighting life strenuously.
"My surroundings surprise you?" he said, with a smile.
"Such things are hardly looked for in the Altstrasse," Ellerey answered.
"They are a part of myself, Captain Ellerey, but I wish to remain in privacy. Your elect of the city do not naturally visit in the Altstrasse, and I have rooms below bare enough to impress uninteresting people with the fact that I am a poor sort of fellow, and likely to be an unprofitable acquaintance. For my friends—well, you see, I have other apartments."
"I thank you for the preference shown me," said Ellerey, with a bow.
"And since we parted have been speculating on the reason, is it not so?"
"I think I can help you; I believe you can assist me. There is the position in a nutshell. I am honest. I make no pretence of liking unprofitable friends myself. But we will talk afterward, monsieur," he added, as a servant announced supper, and De Froilette led the way into an adjoining room. The meal was faultlessly served at a round table lighted by candles in quaint silver candlesticks. Although not exactly an epicure, De Froilette understood a supper of this description as perhaps only a Frenchman can, and his taste in wines was excellent. He led the conversation into general topics, talked of Paris and London with equal ease and knowledge, and of Berlin, Vienna, and St. Petersburg only a little less intimately.
"I have said I am cosmopolitan," he explained. "After all, it is the greatest nationality to which a man can belong. Coffee in the library, Francois."
De Froilette ushered his guest into another room, which from floor to ceiling was lined with books—books on all subjects and in many languages. A huge writing-table, littered with letters and foreign newspapers, occupied the centre of the apartment, which was evidently a working room, though luxurious in all its appointments. De Froilette did not speak until the servant had placed the coffee on a side table and had left the room, when he turned suddenly toward Ellerey.
"I followed you to-day, monsieur; it was not a chance meeting."
"I am not surprised," said Ellery. "Twice before you overtook me I heard the sound of galloping horses, and was prepared for an enemy."
"And instead, behold a friend," De Froilette laughed, pushing a silver box of cigarettes across the table. "You must bear with me if I am prosy for a time. I can promise you that the end of the story is better than the beginning."
Ellerey settled himself to listen attentively.
"The history of this country, monsieur, is composed, as it were, of the rough ends and edges of the histories of other countries. Every crisis in Europe causes trouble of some kind here, and first one family and then another have become paramount in Sturatzberg. All the Powers have recognized one fact, however, that Wallaria must be kept inviolate; so it is that this is an independent kingdom to-day. The position is unique, and gives the King, within his own realm, a power more autocratic than the Czar's should he care to use it, since he has only to play off one great Power against another to preserve himself from attack. You follow me?"
Ellerey murmured an assent, wondering what this recital was to lead to.
"It is clear that his Majesty does not use this power," De Froilette went on. "He may be timid, he may lack ambition, we will speak no treachery; but in times past there have been ambitious monarchs, and still little has happened. Why? Because, monsieur, recognizing that this country is one of the chief factors in preserving the peace of Europe, the nations have sent the ablest men they possess as their Ambassadors to Sturatzberg. Your British Minister is a case in point. The result is that to the present time no monarch has risen with courage enough, allied to sufficient political acumen, to take his own course, carry it to success. Have you ever realized, monsieur, that Sturatzberg might play with the nations of Europe as a gambler plays his hand of cards?"
"I am no diplomatist," Ellerey answered.
De Froilette shrugged his shoulders as though the point were immaterial to him, and went on:
"To all appearance, the facts are to-day as they have always been, with one great and important exception—the people. The people are awaking to the sensation that they are ruled and oppressed, for so they consider it, by foreigners. They have had secretly preached to them, and they understand, what possibilities there are; and a wave of national enthusiasm is silently stealing through the length and breadth of the land. The bolder spirits have already declared against law and order, as it exists, by flying to the hills and associating themselves with the brigands there. The forces under the outlaw Vasilici, I am told, increase daily. You have heard of him, Captain Ellerey?"
"And have tried to find him," Ellerey answered, with a smile. "But his fastness in the mountains was always deserted when we got there."
"Some day it will not be. A leader worthy of the cause will be found. The people will remember that there are others with an equal, or better, right to the throne than his Majesty, and then you will have the revolution."
"I presume, monsieur, the leader is found, and only awaits the opportunity?" said Ellerey.
"You are right, Captain, she is found," De Froilette answered slowly.
"A woman!" Ellerey exclaimed, and he felt the color flush to his face as he spoke. He forgot for a moment that his sword was pledged to the King. His thoughts went back to that breezy morning on the downs, and the tall, straight girl with her bright hair streaming in the wind.
De Froilette laughed.
"A woman, Captain Ellerey, who destines you for high service. Let her plead for herself," and as he spoke he opened the door, and stood aside with bowed head.
A woman entered. Tall she was, and of imperial mien. Diamonds glistened in the coils of her raven hair. Her face was beautiful, her smiling lips and deep, soft eyes, full of sympathy and tenderness, seemed incapable of any stern expression of anger. A woman born to rule, born to lead, but not the woman Ellerey had expected to see.
It was the Queen, and Ellerey bowed low before her.
"You have not been unnoticed by us, Captain Ellerey," she said in a low voice, "and we would have you more constantly at Court."
"I shall obey your Majesty," Ellerey answered.
"There are stirring times at hand," she went on; "times in which men may strive and win. His majesty, the King, is fettered, politically bound, by conflicting interests, watched, carefully nursed by this Power and by that. He is unable to move as his people would have him. It is for me to act for him in this matter, secretly until the appointed hour strikes. Remember, Captain Ellerey, I am Queen as his Majesty is King, with equal rights, not as consort merely. Your sword is pledged to me as to the King. Therefore I can demand your service. I prefer to ask it."
"Your Majesty is gracious."
"It will be secret service, for the present secret even from the King. I may require it to-morrow, a week hence, or it may be in a month's time. I cannot tell. It is perilous service, but that will not deter Captain Desmond Ellerey. May I claim your full and perfect allegiance?"
"I hold myself entirely at your Majesty's disposal."
"You shall not find me ungrateful," she said, giving him her hand. "Choose you a dozen stout men on whom you can rely. Good pay you may promise them. Have them in readiness to set out at an hour's notice. Then wait and watch. We shall call you into private audience on some occasion, either personally or by Monsieur De Froilette, and now that we have found the man, may the time be quick in coming."
There was delicate flattery in her words and manner, yet withal perfect consciousness of her own power, the power that beauty gives. Ellerey felt the magic of her influence, and his eyes looked unflinchingly into hers for a moment; the woman in her understood what manner of man he was in whom she trusted. "If I read you aright, Captain Ellerey," she said, with a radiant smile, "it is not your nature to be frivolous, to catch pleasure as it flies and play with it while the bubble lasts; yet must you school yourself to do so. The light-hearted cavalier and careless lover will not be suspected of any deep design, and it would be well that that should seem your character at Court. More easily will you keep the nearer to our person, for love of pleasure and the gratification of the moment is thought to be our end and aim also. Even his Majesty is deceived in this, and knows not that under the surface we are working night and day in his cause. Monsieur De Froilette shall see to it that you have ample opportunity to be merry, and I promise you active, hazardous service, work after your own heart, in the near future."
"In the one as in the other, I shall hope to win your Majesty's approval," Ellerey answered.
The Queen turned, and retired as quickly as she had come. De Froilette bowed low as she passed out, but exchanged no word with her, nor did he attempt to follow her. Her coming and her going had evidently been prearranged for Ellerey's benefit.
"I surprise you for the second time to-night," said De Froilette, as he closed the door.
"Yes, I expected another woman—Princess Maritza."
De Froilette started at the name, and looked keenly at his companion. For an instant he showed surprise, perhaps annoyance, but he was quickly himself again, and asked quietly:
"What do you know of the Princess Maritza?"
"I have studied something of the history of this country in my leisure, monsieur, that is all; and I fancied you might be interested yourself in the fortunes of the exile. You spoke of others with an equal or better right than his Majesty."
"I was thinking of the Queen. The Princess is impossible. Her fathers sat upon the throne, it is true, and by their misplaced ambition and folly not only lost the support of every foreign Power, but alienated the love of the people besides. Her father barely escaped assassination. The Princess is known to me, as her father was. At present she is in England."
"Does she make no claim for herself?"
"She might were the throne vacant, but she could not succeed. The people would never accept her. In two days will you do me the honor of accompanying me to Court, as her Majesty desires?"
"The honor will be mine. I thank you for bringing me into notice," Ellerey answered.
"I will come for you at your lodging," said De Froilette, and then a servant entered, apparently without being summoned, and in silence conducted Ellerey to the bare hall again. All the doors were fast closed as before, but the air seemed to vibrate with life and the silence to be ready to break into a hoarse roar of voices at a moment's notice. Yet only in a window here and there was there a dim light when Ellerey looked up at the gloomy house as he stood alone in the Altstrasse.
THE WOMAN IN THE SILK MASK
Once alone, there were many questions which Ellerey regretted he had not put to his host, and some misgivings arose in his mind whether he had not been led to promise service which might be contrary to the oath which he had taken to the King. The scheme to enlist his help had evidently been carefully considered and prepared, with the result that he had pledged himself to some hazardous task of the nature of which he was entirely ignorant. Not a clue had been given him, and were he desirous of turning traitor, he realized that it was not within his power to do so. Not a word of information could he speak, and who would believe that alone, and apparently unattended, the Queen had visited the Altstrasse at midnight? That she had done so for the purpose of speaking to him proved to Ellerey that her need for him was urgent; that she had explained nothing pointed to the fact that she was not inclined to trust him fully at present.
"I judge there is work for my sword," he said, as he drew his cloak closer round him. "It would seem there is employment for my wits also. At least, I have my wish: a part to play which holds possibilities. A Queen, a designing Frenchman, and an ambitious Captain of Horse, who may be a fool. Well, the drama may prove exciting. We shall see!"
Desmond Ellerey was, after all, an adventurer, of the better sort, perhaps; driven to the life by force of circumstances—yet still an adventurer. His position proclaimed him one. He looked for reward from the country which had purchased his sword, and had no inclination to fritter away his chances of espousing any cause but the winning one. At the same time he was an Englishman: a birth privilege carrying with it weighty responsibilities, which he could not away with as easily as he had cast aside his country. There were few ties to bind him to England. He had become that unenviable member of a family—the black sheep. He had run deeply into debt; a fact that had grievously told against him when he had to face the accusations which had ruined his career. In withdrawing from England he had probably left only two friends, Sir Charles and Lady Martin, who would ever trouble to send a kindly thought after him. His going had aroused the keenest satisfaction in the breast of his brother, Sir Ralph Ellerey, tenth baronet of the name, who was quite ready to believe the very worst that was said of Desmond, remarking that it was little more than he expected. Sir Ralph's cast of mind was perhaps narrow and ungenerous, but, since the sympathy so usually shown to the open-handed spendthrift was not forthcoming in this case, it must be assumed that popular opinion condemned Desmond Ellerey, and sympathized with Sir Ralph. It had been easy, therefore, for Desmond to become a stranger to his native land; it was impossible for him to forget that he was an Englishman: that a peculiar code of honor was demanded of him by the fact.
The Altstrasse was deserted as he passed through it; the lights were out in most of the houses, and silence was over the whole city. The sky was black with clouds, giving promise of heavy rain before morning if the wind dropped. Ellerey walked quickly, his ears alert, and his eyes keenly searching every shadow on either side of him. Attacks in the street for the purpose of plunder were of too general occurrence to make a lonely walk in Sturatzberg safe or desirable at night, and in this quarter of the city help would be slow in coming.
As he turned out of the Altstrasse, a woman, coming hastily in the opposite direction, ran against him, and, with a faint cry, started back in fear. A cloak was gathered tightly round her, showing nothing of her dress and little of her figure, and the hood of it was pulled so low down that little of her face was visible.
"Help, monsieur!" she cried, striving for breath, which came in spasmodic pants after her running. "Help, monsieur, if you be a man!"
"How can I serve you?"
"Ah, a soldier!" she cried, seeing the cloak he wore. "Quick! There is no time to delay. While we speak, murder is being done."
"Come. It is a house yonder. Are you armed? Ah, but they are cowards, and only attack defenceless women!" And she plucked him by the arm to compel him to follow her. She did not appeal in vain.
"Show me," Ellerey said, and taking her hand, that he might help her pace, he ran with her, their footsteps resounding along the silent street.
As they ran, he tried to get a better view of her face, but in vain. He noticed that her cloak, which flapped outward with every step she took, revealed a rich white skirt beneath, and there was the rustle of silk. She kept up bravely with him, seeming to gain new courage in his company. She led him round two corners, across a dark square, and to the open door of a house in a small street beyond. "Quick! They are within. Straight up the stairs to the first floor."
Ellerey released his hold of the girl; indeed, she pulled her hand away that she might not detain him from dashing to the rescue, and, as he touched the stairs, he heard the door close with a loud reverberating slam behind him.
"Quickly!" she cried after him.
The house was dark and quiet, doubly quiet it seemed now that the door had closed. Not a sound came from the rooms above, as Ellerey went up the stairs. If murder were here to-night, he had surely come too late.
He had reached the top of the stairs, had stretched out his hand to feel his way by the wall, and had paused to listen for a sound or to discern a glimmer of light to guide him, when suddenly the air about him seemed to break into life, and before he had time to turn and throw his back against the wall, strong arms were about his shoulders and legs. In an instant Ellerey had grasped one man in the darkness, and kicked himself free from a second, who went rolling down the stairs, uttering curses as he struck the balustrade heavily, making it crack to breaking point. Another received his heel squarely in the face, and dropped with a thud upon the floor, a thud that almost had the sound of finality in it. Meanwhile the man he had seized wrenched himself free, and another pair of arms were flung round Ellerey's waist, obviously to prevent his getting at any weapon he might carry. Ellerey strained every nerve to free himself from this assailant and to get his back to the wall, striking out right and left, now hitting a man's neck or shoulder, now landing a heavy blow between eyes he could not see, anon beating the air only. How many his adversaries were he could not determine. The air was full of panting breaths and growling imprecations, of swaying bodies, and heavy blows, which were, for the most part, wide of the mark. Every moment Ellerey expected to be his last; expected to feel the sharp thrust of a blade, or to fall into sudden oblivion before the sound of the revolver shot had time to reach his ears. Yet he still lived; fighting, struggling, being slowly spent by the odds against him. Why did these murderers not end it? Were they fearful of injuring a comrade in the darkness, or were they desirous of not injuring him too severely? Indeed, it seemed so. Had he fallen into a trap, baited with the frightened woman who had petitioned him for help? The thought that he could have been such a fool, that so transparent a device should have deceived him, maddened him, and he redoubled his exertions to free himself, trying to drag his assailants with him to the head of the stairs, so that he might fling himself and them down, and chance regaining his liberty in the shock of the fall. But the men appeared to perceive his motive, and redoubled their efforts, too, straining every nerve to end the struggle. The man who held him round the waist was dragged this way and that, yet never for a moment relaxed his hold. Other hands were upon his legs now, and Ellerey suddenly felt his feet drawn together with a snap. The next instant he was thrown backward, knees were pressed upon his chest, his arms were twisted and caught with a rope, his ankles bound together, and he was helpless.
"I'd like to bury this knife in your cursed carcass," whispered a voice in his ear.
"I've been expecting you to do so," said Ellerey, panting for breath. "Why don't you?"
"I don't know. By Heaven, I don't know why not."
"Well, I'm sure I don't," panted Ellerey.
"Is he secure?" said another voice.
"Yes," at least half a dozen voices answered. "Then drag him in. Perhaps we'll have leave to despatch him presently."
A door was opened, and, with scant ceremony, Ellerey was dragged by his feet across the floor into a room. The door was shut again, and someone produced a lantern.
Ellerey found himself lying in a bare room with seven or eight men standing in a circle round him, regarding him with sullen and angry looks, yet with curiosity and some respect; and on more than one face there were marks of the struggle, savage flushes that would blacken to-morrow, and blood on lips. He looked from one to the other, but saw no face he recognized, yet they were not such a murderous set of scoundrels as he had expected to see, and although more than one of them, perhaps, would have taken the keenest pleasure in burying a knife-blade in him to revenge the hurt he had received, it appeared evident that some consideration held them back. Whatever they contemplated doing, murder was not their intention.
"It takes a lot to knock the sense out of you," said one man, and Ellerey thought he recognized the voice which had ordered him to be dragged into the room: "and there are one or two of us who have something to settle. That must wait for a more convenient season."
"If I am to make a fight for it, it certainly must," said Ellerey, with a smile. "I suppose it's no use asking you to loosen my wrist a little. The cord is very tight."
"Not a bit of use."
"May I know why you have trapped me in this way? I should like to see the little hussy who deceived me."
The men laughed.
"She's a safe bait, is a woman, all the world over," said the spokesman, "and this one's finished her part of the business well enough. Now our parts have got to be done. Some time to-night you received a token. We want it."
"You are welcome to any token I received," Ellerey answered.
"Give it me, then."
"Because I received none," Ellerey added.
"That's a lie," said one man.
"It is well for you that I am bound hand and foot," said Ellerey quietly. "If I remember your face, I may ask you to repeat that some day."
"I ask you again to give me the token you received to-night. Once it is in my hands, you are free to depart," said the spokesman.
"And I repeat that I received no token to-night," answered Ellerey.
"Search him!" cried several voices, and at a gesture from their leader, they fell on their knees beside him.
It was rough handling Ellerey received for the next few minutes. His coat was torn open; rough hands were thrust into his pockets, and even his under-garments were rent apart lest by any means he should have secured the token next his skin.
"There is nothing," they said, rising to their feet one by one. The last man knelt a moment longer, and turned an evil eye toward his chief.
"May it not happen by an accident?" he said. "An accident would be forgiven, and it would be so much safer."
The dim light shone on the keen blade the man had ripped eagerly from his girdle, and Ellerey doubted whether the chief's word would have power to save him; whether, indeed, it would be spoken. His salvation came from quite an unexpected quarter.
"Why that knife, Nicolai?" said a voice which caused the man to spring to his feet, and made Ellerey turn his head. "You would dare to disobey my commands, Nicolai? Stand aside. I have no faith in you."
The ruffian slunk back into the shadows of the room without a word. Ellerey was astonished that so mild a reprimand should have so great an effect. He looked at the dim figure, which the mean light of the lantern revealed; a woman's figure, closely cloaked from head to foot, while an ample scarf was wound round her head, and her face hidden by a silken mask. She had entered by a door somewhat behind him, and he and the man who was so desirous of killing him were the last to become aware of her presence.
"Have you found it?" she demanded, after a pause.
"No; he declares no token was given. At any rate, it is not upon him," answered the man who was in charge of the ruffians.
The woman took the lantern from the man who carried it, and, as she held it up, saw more distinctly the faces of the men about her.
"He has given you trouble, it seems. You bear marks of the conflict. Eight of you."
"And two on the stairs who have not yet recovered," said one.
"He should be a good man, then, for a hazardous enterprise," and the woman bent down, holding the lantern low to look into Ellerey's face.
Ellerey could see the eyes through the holes in the silk mask, but they told him nothing. He had hardly noticed the eyes of the woman who had stopped him at the corner of the Altstrasse; he did not know whether they were the same. This woman seemed taller; yet there was a familiar ring in her voice. She gazed at him for some moments in silence, and then, standing erect, handed the lantern to one of the men. Behind the mask she smiled. "Your cut-throats, madam, have made a mistake. I have no token," said Ellerey.
"Do any of you know this man?" she asked, turning to her followers.
"A foreigner," growled one. "A soldier," said another.
"A King's man," said a third, "and better put out of the way, if I may advise."
"You would be as Nicolai yonder, under my displeasure," she answered sharply. "Have a care. I shall know how to deal with the first man who disobeys me."
Was this the Queen? Ellerey thought she must be, half-believing he recognized something familiar in her manner. Was this her method of proving his daring before she fully trusted him?
"You have no token?" she said, addressing Ellerey.
"Yet you went on a secret mission to the Altstrasse to-night?"
"I went openly."
"Openly! To visit whom?"
"Surely, one who lives in the Altstrasse," Ellerey answered.
"And were graciously entertained?"
"I ate and drank, madam, and both food and drink seemed to me of excellent quality."
"Monsieur De Froilette, you, and—"
"Yes, madam, we talked, and smoked, but the matter of the token surprises me. I heard no word of such a thing mentioned."
"I am inclined to believe you," she answered. "You have not yet been sufficiently proved."
"I would bow my thanks for your compliment, were I able. I make but a sorry picture at the moment, I fear, but my ragged and hardly respectable appearance you will excuse. May I know to whom I am indebted for this adventure?"
"Not yet. I may have need of you again."
"An invitation less hastily devised would please me better," said Ellery. "I am not rich enough to adventure such good garments as these often."
"A bullet would certainly have made less havoc with them, Captain Ellerey," she returned.
The mention of his name startled him.
"A word of warning," she went on. "Beware of Monsieur De Froilette, and of any enterprise he may handle. There will be specious promises, but small fulfilment. Beware of the lady who visited the Altstrasse to-night. Hesitate to do her bidding. Unless I mistake not, you will thank me for the warning one day," and then, turning to the men about her, she said, "Unloose him."
They hesitated, and did not move.
"Unloose him, I say," and she stamped her foot sharply.
Two or three fell on their knees beside Ellerey and unfastened the cords, and, stretching his limbs to take some of the ache out of them, he rose to his feet.
"You are free," she said; "but for the safety of these men, you must consent to be blindfolded, and led to the place you came from."
"By the same lady who brought me here?" Ellerey inquired.
"That might hardly be to her liking," was the answer.
At a sign from her, Ellerey's eyes were bound with a scarf, and in a few minutes he was being guided along the streets.
"One moment, monsieur," said one of his guides, presently. "There are footsteps, surely!"
Ellerey stood still and waited, listening. He heard no footsteps, and presently did not perceive the breathing of the man beside him. Then he understood the ruse, and tore the bandage from his eyes. He was alone at the corner of the Altstrasse, and the rain was beating slantwise into his face.
THE COURT OF STURATZBERG
Ellerey's servant had fallen asleep on a settle, partly induced, perhaps, by the liquor the empty tankard beside him had held, but he started, wide awake on the instant, as his master entered. Ellery expected him to remark upon his sorry condition, as he threw off his cloak, but the man did not do so.
"There has been some rough handling in my neighborhood to-night, Stefan."
"That's plain enough, Captain," was the answer. "They were good clothes, too."
"And interest you more than the man inside them," said Ellerey, grimly.
"For the moment, yes. The man is unhurt, while the clothes are only fit for the rag-shop or to be given to me."
"And, for choice, you would sooner have a corpse to deal with, so that the clothes were untorn?"
Stefan shrugged his shoulders.
"I could spare most of my acquaintances to be made corpses of, for acquaintances are easier come by than good clothes. It was a street attack, Captain, I suppose?"
"They are common enough in Sturatzberg," Ellerey answered lightly.
"The tale will serve as well as another," Stefan returned. "If I tell it, I am not compelled to believe it, and if I chance to be lying, it is no sin of mine."
"Why, rascal, what else should it be?"
"It might be a friend turned enemy, or the pursuit of a woman, or the touching of one of the many intrigues in Sturatzberg; but let it be a street attack. Was any man left sobbing out his life in the corner of the wall? It is well to have the story complete."
"No; it was an encounter of blows and bruises only."
"In such a plight as yours most men would have had some boast to make, pointing to their own condition to prove their statements. I have heard of half a dozen men lying dead, or dying, at a street corner, victims to a single sword, yet was there never a corpse to be found in the morning. Your easy boaster is ever a ready liar."
"Patch up the clothes and wear them, Stefan, if you can persuade your bulk into them," laughed Ellerey. "Some day, perhaps, when I am certain of your affection, I may tell you more of the adventure, and ask your help."
The man took up the tankard, looked into its emptiness, and put it down again. Then he turned round suddenly: "Some time since I was offered higher pay to serve another master, Captain."
"Why didn't you go?"
"I'm beginning to think I was a fool, since you trust me so little," Stefan answered; "but I may yet prove a better comrade in a tight place than many. Good-night."
A soldier, one of his own troop of Horse, Stefan had drifted into Ellerey's service, perhaps because he was a lonely man like his master. He appeared to have no ties whatever, nor wanted any, and declared that the first man he met in the street who was old enough might be his father, for anything he knew to the contrary. His mother, he knew, had died bringing him into the world; a wasted sacrifice, he called it, since the world could have done very well without him and he without it. Being in it, he took all the good he could find, and if he held his own life cheaply, he was even less interested in the lives of others. Women he hated, and his good opinion could be purchased by a man for a brimming tankard, and lasted, as a rule, so long as any liquor remained.
It was hardly wonderful that Ellerey should not trust such a man with any secret of his. Yet the soldier's parting words, and the look on his face as he spoke, made him thoughtful.
"I shall want at least one stout companion on whom I can rely," he mused. "I might choose a worse man than Stefan."
He spoke of his adventure to no one else. He did not even attempt to locate the house into which he had been decoyed. To show too much interest in the affair would only be to attract attention to himself and his movements, which was undesirable, whether it were her Majesty who had taken occasion to test his courage, or others who, knowing the Queen's schemes, sought to defeat them. One thing appeared certain. Some token was to come into his possession, and was to bring peril with it.
On the second evening, Ellerey accompanied Monsieur De Froilette to Court.
"You are prepared to be frivolous, monsieur, as her Majesty wishes?" said De Froilette, as they went. "You will find it tolerably easy, but, pardon the advice, make few friends; they are a danger to one with a secret mission."
"Do you speak of men, monsieur, or women?" Ellerey asked.
"I spoke generally, but perhaps I was thinking of women," was the answer. "Of one man, however, beware. There is a little, ferret-eyed devil at Court who can spy out secrets almost before they are conceived—the English Ambassador, Lord Cloverton. He is a great man, and I hate him."
Ellerey had no time to ask questions, for the carriage stopped, and the next moment he was following De Froilette up the wide staircase which many people, men and women, were ascending. His companion spoke to no one as he went up, nor did anyone address him. To the casual observer, he might have passed for an unimportant personage in that gay throng, but Ellerey, who had every reason to be interested in the Frenchman, noticed that many people turned to look after him, whispering together when he had passed. Ellerey himself attracted some little attention, due, he imagined, to the fact that he was in De Froilette's company, until he chanced to be left alone for a few moments at the head of the grand staircase. Some half-dozen paces from him four men were engaged in earnest conversation. From their position they could scrutinize every one who ascended the stairs or crossed the vestibule, and it seemed to Ellerey they were there of set purpose; more, that his arrival had been expected and waited for. One of the four was a man of about his own age, richly dressed, and of distinguished bearing. He appeared chief among his companions, who addressed him with a certain deference, and followed his movements, so that when he turned to look at the newcomer, Ellerey found himself the focus of four pairs of eyes. He met their searching looks with equal inquiry, but experienced a certain attraction toward the man who led the scrutiny. He might be an enemy, but he looked as though he would prove an honest and open one, incapable of anything mean or underhand. Presently he made some remark to his companions, who nodded acquiescence, and then they separated, and were lost in the crowd crossing the vestibule, just as De Froilette returned.
"Pardon me for leaving you, monsieur; shall we seek her Majesty?"
Ellerey passed with the Frenchman into a magnificent room, brilliantly lighted from a domed roof, one of a suite of rooms which were all of splendid proportions. From the distance came soft, dreamy music, hushed in the murmur of voices. There were a great many people present, and dancing had commenced in the ball-room. It was a brave assembly, men wearing brilliant uniforms and the decorations of every nation in Europe, and women beautiful in themselves, glorious in sheen of satin, rustle of silk, and flash of jewels. Women's light laughter answered men's jests—on every side were gayety and careless acceptance of the pleasures of the passing hour. It was difficult to believe that under it all lay deceit and treachery. Ellerey was inclined to doubt it, as he followed his companion.
In one of the rooms, surrounded by a group of men and women, with whom she turned to speak and laugh between the welcome she extended to each new arrival, sat her Majesty. She was even more beautiful to-night than when she had come to the Altstrasse, and, surrounded as she was by beautiful women, seemed to hold by right the central position of the group. Jewels glistened at her throat and in her hair, and across her breast she wore the scarlet ribbon of the Golden Lion of Sturatzberg.
"Ah, Monsieur De Froilette, you are welcome," she said. "I was just saying that your countrywomen are the most accomplished, the most fascinating, in Europe, and Count von Heinnen laughs at my opinion."
"Your Majesty will not understand," said Von Heinnen, in guttural tones which ill agreed with a compliment; "I loved the women of France until I arrived in Sturatzberg."
"I would narrow the Count's limit, and say the palace of Sturatzberg," said De Froilette, bending over the Queen's hand.
"No word for the women of their own country," laughed the Queen. "Are we so unpatriotic, Baron Petrescu?" and she turned to a man who was standing close behind her.
"I fear so, your Majesty. I have been in England, and, for my part, I think the English women are the most beautiful in the world."
Baron Petrescu was the man who had looked so searchingly at Ellerey in the vestibule. He looked at him now, as though his answer had some reference to him; and the Queen, who did not seem too pleased with the frankly spoken answer, following the direction of the Baron's glance, let her eyes rest on Ellerey for the first time.
"Captain Ellerey, you, too, are welcome," she said. "You come but seldom to Court. As an Englishman, you will doubtless support the Baron's opinion."
"I find something to contemplate in all women, your Majesty, but, as yet, I have placed none above all others."
"That confession should fire feminine ambition in Sturatzberg," laughed the Queen. "Spread the report of it, Monsieur De Froilette, and we shall witness excellent comedy, or tragedy—I hardly know which love may be. Oh, you are doubly welcome, Captain Ellerey, for the sport you shall give us, and we will ask for a repetition of that confession constantly. The first time you look down before our questioning eyes, and stammer in your answer, we shall know that love has laid siege to the citadel of indifference, and captured it." Ellerey smiled, as he moved aside to make room for others. He would have approached Baron Petrescu had he been able to do so, but he was prevented; first, because someone who knew him slightly spoke to him, and, secondly, by a general movement in the room occasioned by the King's entrance.
When the history of Ferdinand IV. comes to be written, the King will probably have as many characters as he has biographers. The character given him will so entirely depend upon the point of view. As he walked slowly across the room, his manner was not without dignity, but had little graciousness in it. There were a few who feared him; many who despised him; some who hated him; and from east to west of his kingdom it is doubtful whether a dozen loved or admired him. In appearance he was cadaverous-looking, tall and thin, with a stoop in his shoulders. His skin was parchment-colored, and his eyes heavy and slow of movement.
Europe's plaything, a witty Frenchman had once called him; but those about him found it hard work often to make him dance to their piping. Perhaps no one understood him better, or had greater influence with him, than the man who now walked a pace or two behind him, and was so small that, beside the King, he looked almost ridiculous. His mincing gait, and his apparently nervous deference to everyone about him, would have amused those who did not know the man, or until they had made a more careful study of his face. Nature seemed to have tried her hand at a caricature, and had placed upon this diminutive body a leonine head. The face was a network of lines, as though wind, rain, and sunshine had worked their will upon it for years. The hair was white as driven snow, and thick, shaggy, and long, while, set deeply under heavy brows, his small eyes were never still. For a fraction of time they seemed to rest on everyone in turn, and to note something about them which would be stored up in the memory.
"A ferret-eyed devil, monsieur, is it not so?" whispered De Froilette in Ellerey's ear after the Ambassador had passed. "He has already noted your presence, and will know all about you before he sleeps—if he ever does sleep. We must be very frivolous to escape detection."
To be frivolous at the Court of Sturatzberg was no difficult matter. Whether it was the report of what he had said to the Queen had made him especially interesting to women, or whether those steady blue eyes of his were the attraction, Ellerey found it easy to make friends. He studied to catch the trick of pleasing with a light compliment or pleasant jest, and before many days had gone had earned a reputation as an irresponsible cavalier; one whom it would be dangerous to take too seriously or believe in too thoroughly. Such a man was, for the most part, after the heart of the feminine portion of the Sturatzberg Court, and that he played the part well the Queen's smile constantly assured him. In one point, however, Ellerey was peculiarly unsuccessful. He had been attracted to Baron Petrescu, and went to some trouble to become acquainted with him, but to no purpose. Either the Baron avoided him intentionally, or a train of adverse circumstances intervened. Not a single word passed between them.
On several occasions the Queen made Ellerey repeat his confession, and he did so with a smile upon his lips.
"I expected downcast eyes and a stammering tongue to-night," she said one evening, and as Ellerey looked at her, she glanced swiftly across the room toward a small group, of which a woman was the centre—a beautiful woman, with a silvery laugh which had the spirit and joy of youth in it. By common consent, her beauty had no rival in the Court of Sturatzberg. Men whose tastes on all else were as wide asunder as the poles were at one in praise of her, and even women were content to let her reign supreme. Her dark eyes, fringed with long lashes, were, perhaps, the most perfect feature of a perfect face. They could persuade, they could reprove, and it was dangerous to look into them too constantly if one would not be a slave. Her hair, which had a wave in it, and was rich nut-brown in color, was gathered in loose coils about her head, a veritable crown to her, and her voice was low, as if compelling you to listen to some sweet secret it had to tell, a secret that was only for you.
"I can still make my confession, your Majesty," said Ellerey, wondering whether his words were quite true, for he had looked into this woman's eyes many times. Then he went toward the group, quick to observe that Baron Petrescu left it at his coming.
Ellerey understood that the Queen must have watched him carefully. To this woman he had certainly paid more attention than to any other. She was in close attendance upon the Queen, was treated by her with marked favor, and many envious and angry glances had been cast upon Ellerey, because she seemed to find pleasure in being with him. Ellerey could not deny that the time spent in her company sped faster than all other hours, but he had another reason for seeking her so persistently. He had seen little of the face of the woman who had cried to him for help that night at the corner of the Altstrasse, being more concerned with what was required of him than with her who petitioned, but somehow this woman always reminded him of that night. Whenever she walked beside him, he recalled that other woman who had run hand-in-hand with him through the deserted streets. Was she the woman, or, at least, was she aware of what had occurred that night? Why had she so easily given him her friendship? Why should she so obviously prefer his company to that of others? There was some reason, and yet she had made no confession, had stepped into none of his carefully prepared traps. Did she know Maritza? Were those Maritza's eyes which had looked through the silken mask?
"You will dance with me, Countess?"
She placed her hand upon his arm at once.
"You are ever generous to me," he said, as they went toward the ball-room. "I wonder why?"
She looked up at him. He might have been laughed at for not understanding such a look.
"A Captain of Horse is a small person in Sturatzberg," he said carelessly.
"Even if he is honored with her Majesty's friendship?" she asked.
"Well, are you not? I can judge by what I see, and you seem welcome always."
"I have noticed that, Countess, and have thought sometimes that you might tell me the reason."
"Of her Majesty's welcome, do you mean?"
"Of her welcome, and of your own kindness to me," Ellerey answered.
The woman laughed.
"I think Englishmen are slow of comprehension," she said.
"But a Captain of Horse, Countess?"
"Who may be of much higher rank to-morrow, and in his own country may be—Ah! you know, so many come to Sturatzberg."
"Many vagabonds, Countess."
"Oh, yes, and others," and then she made a gesture that they should dance, and they floated gracefully out among the couples gliding over the floor of the ballroom to the strains of a sensuous German waltz. Ellerey danced well. He had earned the reputation in many a London ball-room, and the Countess Frina danced as few English women can, with the soul of the music in her feet.
"Those others are sometimes difficult to distinguish," Ellerey said presently.
"Not to a woman," was the answer. "She has an intuition which is denied to most men. Indeed, I only know one man who has it in the fullest sense, in greater measure even than most women, and he is an Englishman, curiously enough. Yonder!"
With a touch she directed Ellerey's attention to one side of the room, where Lord Cloverton was standing talking to two men. He seemed to be interested in the conversation, but at the same time took notice of every couple which glided by him. Ellerey thought the Ambassador's eyes rested upon him for a moment, although he did not go near him.
"He, too, has noted you," the Countess whispered, "and if you have aught to conceal, Captain Ellerey, take care that the secret be well buried, or those small eyes will spy it out."
"You do not like the Ambassador?" said Ellerey, as he guided his partner to a deserted seat in an alcove.
"I admire him. It is not the same thing, but admiration I cannot help. There would have been desperate work for you soldiers long since had it not been for Lord Cloverton."
"And that would have pleased you?"
"It would have given my friends a chance of distinction," she answered. "And turned some friends into enemies, Countess. Surely you must know that. There are such conflicting interests in Sturatzberg."
"I have taken great care in choosing my friends," she answered.
"Ah, then, you have a very definite idea to which interest you are attached."
"And which is it?" he asked in a whisper, leaning toward her.
"The same as monsieur's," she said.
Ellerey was baffled. He had expected to surprise her into a confession. He did not suppose he had subjugated this woman so completely that she would make her interests identical with his own, and he could only explain her answer by presuming that she was sufficiently in the Queen's confidence to know something of the mission to which he stood pledged.
"You seem very certain of me, Countess."
"Have I not said that I take great care in choosing my friends?"
"I cannot conceive any reason for your faith in me, unless—-"
"Well, you may question me."
"I had lately a strange adventure, Countess, in which a woman was concerned. She found me after midnight at the corner of the Altstrasse, and—-"
"Monsieur! monsieur!" she exclaimed, holding up her hand. "Do you imagine I should visit the Altstrasse for my politics, and after midnight, too?"
"I confess that was in my mind."
"It pleases you to jest, Captain Ellerey, and I am in no mood for such jesting."
She rose, and he was forced to take her from the ballroom. He had succeeded in making her angry, and had gained nothing. He had been ill-advised to question her.
"You must pardon me," he said.
"You must earn your pardon, monsieur," was her answer, as she turned away with another partner who had approached, leaving Ellerey perplexed.
"A love quarrel, monsieur? I have noted several; they are frequent here."
At the slight touch on his arm Ellerey turned to face Lord Cloverton.
"Hardly a quarrel, my lord; certainly not a love one," he said.
"I was mistaken then, or you think so, Captain Ellerey. Love is a curious disease at all times, and in all places, difficult to diagnose sometimes. In the Court of Sturatzberg one has ample opportunity of studying it. I may be right after all, Captain Ellerey. I have more knowledge of this Court than you have; I have spent a longer time in it."
Lord Cloverton moved forward smiling, evidently expecting Ellerey to walk beside him across the room.
"I endeavor to fit myself to my surroundings," Ellerey said, as he walked slowly by the Ambassador's side, striving in vain to accommodate his step to the mincing gait of his companion.
"Quite so, but it is hardly the best atmosphere for a young man to develop himself in."
"You interest me, Captain Ellerey."
"Since when, my lord?"
The small, deep-set eyes were turned upon him for a moment, as though to gauge the full meaning of the question, and they looked into steady blue eyes, which, perhaps, made Lord Cloverton more interested than ever, although he did not say so. "You are thinking that I might have taken notice of a countryman before this," he replied. "Well, perhaps there is something in the thought. Still, you were not brought to my notice at the Embassy. I heard no mention of Desmond Ellerey as a friend of anyone connected with the Embassy, nor, indeed, any remark that an English officer was serving his Majesty the King of Wallaria."
"No, my lord, my friendships are few, and, in truth, I have no great desire to increase the number."
"I might, indeed, repeat your question—since when?" laughed Lord Cloverton, "for lately surely you have made many new acquaintances, and move in the sunshine of Royal favor."
"I am afraid I have not been conscious of the fact," Ellerey returned. "I must be more careful to study his Majesty."
"I was speaking of the Queen."
Ellerey looked at Lord Cloverton in astonishment.
"Indeed, I think you are mistaken. Her Majesty is very gracious to all. I do not think she has been especially so to me."
"Another mistake of mine," said the Ambassador, with a smile. "I am full of them to-night. They began immediately after dinner. I dropped two lumps of sugar into my coffee, instead of one. It made it abominable, and I had to leave it. But there is another reason why I have become interested in you lately. I heard that you were the brother of Sir Ralph Ellerey. I know Sir Ralph."
"We are certainly sons of the same father; our relationship has got no further than that. If you know my brother well enough to accept his opinion about me, you have, doubtless, accorded me a very low place in your estimation."
"I am supposed never to accept another man's opinion about anything," the Ambassador replied; "certainly, I seldom do in judging men I come in contact with. Sir Ralph, however, gives some prominence to the name of Ellerey, and his brother can hardly hope to pass through the world unnoticed."
"I am succeeding beyond my expectations," said Ellerey.
"Believe me, my lord, I am."
They were standing apart in a corner of one of the rooms. There was no one near enough to overhear their conversation. Lord Cloverton glanced over his shoulder to make sure of this before he went on quietly:
"I have heard that Desmond Ellerey was obliged to leave a crack cavalry regiment on account of his cheating at cards and for other dishonorable practices. I took you to be this same Desmond Ellerey."
"Yet another mistake to-night, my lord," Ellerey answered, looking the Ambassador unflinchingly in the eye. "The Desmond Ellerey you speak of was an unfortunate English gentleman and honorable soldier, whose services his King and country had no further need of. He was foully murdered by a lie. The Desmond Ellerey who has the honor to speak to you is a Captain of Horse in the service of his Majesty Ferdinand IV. of Wallaria, and looks for favor and reward only from the King and country he serves."
He turned on his heel as he spoke, and the Ambassador stood looking after him until his figure was lost in the moving crowd.
Lord Cloverton sat in his private room at the Embassy, a knitted brow and tightly-closed lips showing that he was deeply occupied in a problem which either baffled him altogether, or which, having been solved, gave him considerable anxiety. He had pushed his chair back from the table, and his attention was concentrated on the papers he held in his hand. They had come during the past few days, and although he had read each one carefully on its arrival, he had put them aside until he could study them together. They were all before him now, and he had spent the greater part of the morning reading them, and in piecing together the information they contained into one complete and intelligible story. It was not an easy task, and the result he arrived at gave him little satisfaction.
"This pestilential fellow will make trouble for us," he said to himself, and then he went systematically through the letters again.
"Absolutely no doubt of his guilt," he read slowly from one of them. "He denied everything, of course, but the evidence was exceedingly strong against him. That he accepted the verdict and disappeared in the manner he did, would seem to confirm the truth. That is what I cannot understand," said the Ambassador, arguing the point to the empty room. "Why did he accept it and disappear? Why didn't he stand and face the frowning world and beat it? That is what I should have expected from such a man, and with such eyes, too."
He took up another paper.
"The question can hardly be reopened, my lord, and since it was closed nothing has transpired to suggest that there was any error of justice in the matter. Of course he might bring an action for slander in the civil courts, and for this purpose be persuaded to return to England."
The Ambassador shook his head; he had not much faith in persuasion in this case. Then he turned to another letter and read one paragraph in it more than once. It impressed him.
"'I feel convinced that Desmond Ellerey is an innocent man. One has such convictions without being able to explain them. That he accepted the inevitable I think I can understand, considering the weight of evidence against him; and although I endeavored to persuade him against his determination to offer his sword to another country, I can appreciate his point of view since his career had been ruined in his own. If you think any good will come of my writing to him, making on my own account the suggestion contained in your letter, I will certainly do so, and shall, of course, not mention that I have heard from you, or that we are known to each other.'" The Ambassador looked at the signature—"'Charles Martin.' An excellent man to have for a friend, and I believe he is right."
He turned over another paper signed Ralph Ellerey.
"He does not count," said the Ambassador with a gesture of contempt, and threw the letter aside without troubling to read it again. Then he rang a bell upon his table, and a man entered.
"Ask Captain Ward to come to me."
The Ambassador was pacing the room with little short steps when the Captain entered. "Do you know a Desmond Ellerey, who lodges by the Western Gate, Ward?"
"I know there is such a man, but I know nothing about him."
"He is likely to be dangerous. I want you to keep an eye upon his movements. He is friendly with Monsieur De Froilette, and is in her Majesty's favor. I do not want you to make Ellerey's acquaintance. I don't want him to know who you are, for the present at any rate."
"I should be glad to see him turn his back upon Wallaria; failing that, I am uncharitable enough to hope he may meet with an accident," said Lord Cloverton.
"That might be arranged," was the answer.
"Sturatzberg is having a bad effect upon your moral sense. At least we will try persuasion first," and it was difficult to tell from the Ambassador's smiling face whether a sinister thought had entered his head or not. After a moment's pause he added: "Will you also have a telegram sent to Sir Charles Martin? Just say, 'Please write, Cloverton.' He will understand."
The extent of the Ambassador's interest in him would have surprised Ellerey considerably had he known of it. After his interview with Lord Cloverton he had half-expected that he would seek to question him further, or, if he had any reason to suppose he was in his way, might bring pressure to bear upon the King to dismiss him from the army. He certainly did not do the one, and Ellerey had no reason to think he had attempted to do the other. At Court the Ambassador had bowed slightly as he passed him, and the flicker of a smile had been on his face for a moment when he saw him crossing the room with Countess Mavrodin, almost as though he wished him to remember what he had said about a lovers' quarrel. Ellerey had made his peace with the Countess as speedily as possible. He was likely to make so many enemies that he could not afford to lose a friend, and he felt that this woman was a friend. He had duly humbled himself and had been forgiven, and even when she questioned him about his adventure in the Altstrasse, he refused to speak of it lest he should again offend. He succeeded, as he hoped to do, in raising her curiosity.
"But if this woman so resembled me, surely it would be a satisfaction to me to know something more about her," she said.
"It was dark, Countess, but she seemed to be pretty. That misled me perhaps. I was foolish to imagine for a moment that it could have been you."
Ellerey knew that such an explanation would not content her. Would it satisfy any woman? He had only to wait and she would ply him with further questions, and, if she were not the woman, would not rest until she had discovered who the other woman was. She would probably help him to some explanation of his adventure in the long run, her curiosity leading her to play the part of a useful ally.
The days passed and no message came from the Queen, neither did he see nor hear anything of De Froilette. The Frenchman was not at Court, and Ellerey did not meet him in the streets of Sturatzberg. He did not go to visit him in the Altstrasse; it had been agreed that he should not do so.
After consideration Ellerey had taken Stefan into his confidence. He believed the rough soldier had some affection for him, so had told him something of his adventure in the Altstrasse, and of the mysterious mission he might be called upon at any moment to perform. Such men as Ellerey wished to enlist in the enterprise were not easy to find. There were plenty of adventurous spirits ready for any service so they were well paid, but such men were quite likely to desert him at the critical moment if they saw any benefit to themselves in doing so.
"Now, Stefan, can we find the men we want?" Ellerey asked.
"A dozen of them?" queried the soldier, thoughtfully. "Twelve trusty comrades? It's a large order in a world where it's safest to trust nobody."
"There is adventure, there is good pay, two attractions to the soldier of fortune."
"Yes, Captain; but the soldier of fortune in Sturatzberg is a scurvy sort of rascal. He's not over fond of his trade when there's any danger in it. But I'll sound one or two I know of, and you can see what you think of them. And mark this, Captain, don't pay them too much until they've earned it. A few coins to oil their courage is enough to begin with."
The choosing of the men became Stefan's work, but only half a dozen had been determined on when Ellerey received an unexpected letter from Sir Charles Martin.
It was a pleasant letter of friendship, such a letter as brings forcibly to the senses of the mind the sunlight and shadow dappling an English lane, and the familiar sounds and refreshing fragrances which linger about an English home. Toward the end Sir Charles turned to a painful subject, but wrote hopefully. "Let me urge you," he said, "to return home. I am convinced that the time has come for you to begin to slowly prove that you are innocent. While the affair was fresh in people's minds you were at a disadvantage, but that time is past. One thing I may tell you. A person very highly placed has expressed his complete belief in you. Come home, Desmond."
Ellerey was musing over this letter and the remembrance it brought with it, when Stefan entered. "A gentleman to see you, Captain."
Ellerey rose hastily. The one or two brother officers who visited him stood on no such ceremony as this. He bowed in silence as Lord Cloverton came in. Neither of them spoke until Stefan had closed the door.
"You will pardon the intrusion, Captain Ellerey."
"I am honored, my lord," said Ellerey as he placed a chair for his visitor.
"I am still interested in you, you see," said the Ambassador, "but have not considered it wise to draw attention to ourselves at Court. A man in my position labors under a disadvantage of never being supposed to speak a word that has not weighty matter behind it. Some people will find a mystery in my simple utterance of 'Good-evening.' You and I are both Englishmen, and to be seen often in intimate conversation would start a small army of rumors on the march."
Ellerey bowed. He intended to let the Ambassador lead the conversation.
"Do you mind looking at me, Captain Ellerey?"
Ellerey did so, and for the space of thirty seconds the two men gazed into each other's eyes.
"No, I do not believe it."
"To what do you refer?" Ellerey asked.
"To that card scandal of yours. I believe you are an innocent man. Why don't you prove it?"
Ellerey took up the letter which he had thrown on the table when Lord Cloverton entered.
"Do you know Sir Charles Martin?" he asked, holding the letter out to him.
"I have heard of him. Who that is interested in English politics has not? I may live to see him Prime Minister. What, do you wish me to read this?"
"If you please." Lord Cloverton read the letter through.
"Evidently an intimate friend of yours. You could not have a better sponsor for your character. I think he gives you excellent advice."
"You would give me the same, Lord Cloverton?"
"Because you are an innocent man. It is your duty to fight for your character to the last ditch."
"Why should you suppose I am not fighting for my character?" Ellerey asked.
"Here in Sturatzberg?"
"Why not? Words will never mend a broken reputation; deeds may."
"Deeds done here will not count in England."
"And in England, or for England, I am debarred from doing anything. A sorry position, is it not, my lord?"
"I am advising you to alter it."
"But you have not told me why," said Ellerey. "Shall I tell you the reason, Lord Cloverton? You wish me to leave Sturatzberg."
"Why should I?"
"That you must tell me."
"There is a candor about you, Captain Ellerey, that compels straightforward treatment in return, and you shall have it. I have a misgiving that your presence here will tend to hamper my work, and by my work I mean England's interests. I do not pretend to know exactly in what direction you will hinder me, but I can guess, and you are too good a man to be crushed while striving against your own country. Go back to England. I thoroughly believe in you, and you shall have my hearty support in your endeavor to establish your innocency."
"You are very good, my lord, and I thank you; but I regret that I cannot comply with your wishes. I shall not leave Sturatzberg."
"You prefer to be crushed?"
"Yes, in the service of my adopted country. We fight with different weapons, Lord Cloverton."
"Then it is to be war between us?"
"You seem to say so. I cannot leave Sturatzberg."
"Is it not possible that some sense of honor may exist here, that officers here may not care to associate with one who has been convicted of cheating, even though he be a foreigner?"
"I am not afraid that Lord Cloverton will spread such a report of me."
"My country stands first with me, Captain Ellerey."
"But not to make you dishonorable. You are attempting to do yourself an injustice. Besides if I were driven to use such weapons in self-defence, is it not possible that Lord Cloverton has some enemies in Sturatzberg?"
"Many, no doubt."
"I might suggest, for instance, that he had secretly sought to alienate the loyalty of one of his Majesty's officers."
"Enough, Captain Ellerey," said Lord Cloverton rising. "I see that we must unfortunately be enemies. It is a pity. You will be crushed under the Juggernaut of international politics."
"It may be so, it may not," said Ellerey. "Believe me, I am not unmindful of your kindness; but as I have said, we fight with different weapons. You wield the power of the politician; I have only my sword. We cannot therefore meet in hand-to-hand encounter. I should hesitate to use my sword against my countrymen, but until British soldiers hold the heights above Sturatzberg there is no need to consider that question; and your work, I presume, lies in preventing any chance of such a contingency. If you could forget that I am an Englishman, and remember only that I am a Captain of Horse, subject to the commands of my superior officer, you would understand my position better."
"You are a difficult man to deal with, but I rather like you," said the Ambassador, holding out his hand. "I regret that Fate makes us enemies, and if at the last moment I can save you from being entirely crushed, I will."
"Thank you. I, too, may find an opportunity of rendering you a service, my lord."
As Lord Cloverton went quickly away, a man who had been sitting at a small table in a cafe opposite, who had sipped two glasses of absinthe and smoked innumerable cigarettes, rose hastily and crossed the street. His dress was travel-stained, and he had evidently ridden through dirty weather, for his boots were thickly cased with mud. Ellerey was almost as surprised to see De Froilette as he had been to see the Ambassador.
"You have been away from Sturatzberg," he said.
"I have only just returned," De Froilette answered, throwing out his arms to draw attention to his clothes, "and before going to the Altstrasse came to prepare you. I have been waiting at the cafe opposite until Lord Cloverton came out."