Anthony Hope.

Sophy of Kravonia: A Novel



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"Who'll tell her so?" asked Basil Williamson.

"We must get her across the frontier," said Dunstanbury. "There – by St. Peter's Pass – the way we came, Basil. It's an easy journey, and I don't suppose they'll try to intercept us. You can send twenty or thirty well-mounted men with us, can't you, Lukovitch? A small party well mounted is what we shall want."

Lukovitch waved his hands sadly. "With the guns against us it would be a mere massacre! If it must be, let it be as you say, my lord." His heart was very heavy; after generations of defiance, Volseni must bow to Slavna, and his dead Lord's will go for nothing! All this was the doing of the great guns.

Dunstanbury's argument was sound, but he argued from his heart as well as his head. He was convinced that the best service he could render to Sophy was to get her safely out of the country; his heart urged that her safety was the one and only thing to consider. As she went to and fro among them now, pale and silent, yet always accessible, always ready to listen, to consider, and to answer, she moved him with an infinite pity and a growing attraction. Her life was as though dead or frozen; it seemed to him as though all Kravonia must be to her the tomb of him whose grave in the little hill-side church of Volseni she visited so often. An ardent and overpowering desire rose in him to rescue her, to drag her forth from these dim cold shades into the sunlight of life again. Then the spell of this frozen grief might be broken; then should her drooping glories revive and bloom again. Kravonia and who ruled there – ay, in his heart, even the fate of the gallant little city which harbored them, and whose interest he pleaded – were nothing to him beside Sophy. On her his thoughts were centred.

Sophy's own mind in these days can be gathered only from what others saw. She made no record of it. Fallen in an hour from heights of love and hope and exaltation, she lay stunned in the abyss. In intellect calm and collected, she seems to have been as one numbed in feeling, too maimed for pain, suffering as though from a mortification of the heart. The simple men and women of Volseni looked on her with awe, and chattered fearfully of the Red Star: how that its wearer had been predestined to high enterprise, but foredoomed to mighty reverses of fortune. Amidst all their pity for her, they spoke of the Evil Eye; some whispered that she had come to bring ruin on Volseni: had not the man who loved her lost both Crown and life?

And it was she through whom the guns had come! The meaning of the guns had spread now to every hearth; what had once been hailed as an achievement second only to her exploit in the Street of the Fountain served now to point more finely the sharpening fears of superstition. The men held by her still, but their wives were grumbling at them in their homes. Was she not, after all, a stranger? Must Volseni lie in the dust for her sake, for the sake of her who wore that ominous, inexplicable Star?

Dunstanbury knew all this; Lukovitch hardly sought to deny it, though he was full of scorn for it; and Marie Zerkovitch had by heart the tales of many wise old beldams who had prophesied this and that from the first moment that they saw the Red Star.

Surely and not slowly the enthusiasm which had crowned Sophy was turning into a fear which made the people shrink from her even while they pitied, even while they did not cease to love. The hand of heaven was against her and against those who were near her, said the women. The men still feigned not to hear; had they not taken Heaven to witness that they would serve her and avenge the King? Alas, their simple vow was too primitive for days like these – too primitive for the days of the great guns which lay on the bosom of the Krath!

Dunstanbury had an interview with Sophy early on the Tuesday morning, the day after Stafnitz had started for Kolsko?. He put his case with the bluntness and honesty native to him. In his devotion to her safety he did not spare her the truth. She listened with the smile devoid of happiness which her face now wore so often.

"I know it all," she said. "They begin to look differently at me as I walk through the street – when I go to the church. If I stay here long enough, they'll all call me a witch! But didn't they swear? And I – haven't I sworn? Are we to do nothing for Monseigneur's memory?"

"What can we do against the guns? The men can die, and the walls be tumbled down! And there are the women and children!"

"Yes, I suppose we can do nothing. But it goes to my heart that they should have Monseigneur's guns."

"Your guns!" Dunstanbury reminded her with a smile of whimsical sympathy.

"That's what they say in the city, too?" she asked.

"The old hags, who are clever at the weather and other mysteries. And, of course, Madame Zerkovitch!"

Sophy's smile broadened a little. "Oh, of course, poor little Marie Zerkovitch!" she exclaimed. "She's been sure I'm a witch ever since she's known me."

"I want you to come over the frontier with me – and Basil Williamson. I've some influence, and I can insure your getting through all right."

"And then?"

"Whatever you like. I shall be utterly at your orders."

She leaned her head against the high chair in which she sat, a chair of old oak, black as her hair; she fixed her profound eyes on his.

"I wish I could stay here – in the little church – with Monseigneur," she said.

"By Heavens, no!" he cried, startled into sudden and untimely vehemence.

"All my life is there," she went on, paying no heed to his outburst.

"Give life another chance. You're very young."

"You can't count life by years, any more than hours by minutes. You reckon the journey not by the clock, but by the stages you have passed. Once before I loved a man – and he was killed in battle. But that was different. I was very hurt, but I wasn't maimed. I'm maimed now by the death of Monseigneur."

"You can't bring ruin on these folk, and you can't give yourself up to Stenovics." He could not trust himself to speak more of her feelings nor of the future; he came back to the present needs of the case.

"It's true – and yet we swore!" She leaned forward to him. "And you – aren't you afraid of the Red Star?"

"We Essex men aren't afraid, we haven't enough imagination," he answered, smiling again.

She threw herself back, crying low: "Ah, if we could strike one blow – just one – for the oath we swore and for Monseigneur! Then perhaps I should be content."

"To go with me?"

"Perhaps – if, in striking it, what I should think best didn't come to me."

"You must run no danger, anyhow," he cried, hastily and eagerly.

"My friend," she said, gently, "for such as I am to-day there's no such thing as danger. Don't think I value my position here or the title they've given me, poor men! I have loved titles" – for a moment she smiled – "and I should have loved this one, if Monseigneur had lived. I should have been proud as a child of it. If I could have borne it by his side for even a few weeks, a few days! But now it's barren and bitter – bitter and barren to me."

He followed the thoughts at which her words hinted; they seemed to him infinitely piteous.

"Now, as things have fallen out, what am I in this country? A waif and stray! I belong to nobody, and nobody to me."

"Then come away!" he burst out again.

Her deep eyes were set on his face once more. "Yes, that's the conclusion," she said, very mournfully. "We Essex people are sensible, aren't we? And we have no imagination. Did you laugh when you saw me proclaimed and heard us swear?"

"Good Heavens, no!"

"Then think how my oath and my love call me to strike one blow for Monseigneur!" She hid her eyes behind her hand for a moment. "Aren't there fifty – thirty – twenty, who would count their lives well risked? For what are men's lives given them?"

"There's one at least, if you will have it so," Dunstanbury answered.

There was a knock on the door, and without waiting for a bidding Zerkovitch came quickly in; Lukovitch was behind, and with him Lepage. Ten minutes before, the valet had ridden up to the city gates, waving his handkerchief above his head.

Sophy gave a cry of pleasure at seeing him. "A brave man, who loved his King and served Monseigneur!" she said, as she darted forward and clasped his hand.

Zerkovitch was as excited and hurried as ever. He thrust a letter into her hand. "From Stenovics, madame, for you to read," he said.

She took it, saying to Lepage with a touch of reproach: "Are you General Stenovics's messenger now, Monsieur Lepage?"

"Read it, madame," said he.

She obeyed, and then signed to Lukovitch to take it, and to Dunstanbury to read it also. "It's just what you've been saying," she told him with a faint smile, as she sank back in the high oaken seat.

"I am to add, madame," said Lepage, "that you will be treated with every consideration – any title in reason, any provision in reason, too."

"So the General's letter says."

"But I was told to repeat it," persisted the little man. He looked round on them. Lukovitch and Dunstanbury had finished reading the letter and were listening, too. "If you still hesitated, I was to impress upon you that the guns would certainly be in Slavna in less than a week – almost certainly on Sunday. You know the course of the river well, madame?"

"Not very well above Slavna, no."

"In that case, which General Stenovics didn't omit to consider, I was to remind you that Captain Lukovitch probably knew every inch of it."

"I know it intimately," said Lukovitch. "I spent two years on the timber-barges of the Krath."

"Then you, sir, will understand that the guns will certainly reach Slavna not later than Sunday." He paused for a moment, seeming to collect his memory. "By Wednesday evening Colonel Stafnitz will be at Kolsko?. On Thursday morning he'll start back. On that evening he ought to reach Evena, on Friday Rapska." Lukovitch nodded at each name. Lepage went on methodically. "On Saturday the lock at Miklevni. Yes, on Saturday the lock at Miklevni!" He paused again and looked straight at Lukovitch.

"Exactly – the lock at Miklevni," said that officer, with another nod.

"Yes, the lock at Miklevni on Saturday. You see, it's not as if the Colonel had a large force to move. That might take longer. He'll be able to move his company as quick as the barges travel."

"The stream's very strong, they travel pretty well," said Lukovitch.

"But a hundred men – it's nothing to move, Captain Lukovitch." He looked round on them again, and then turned back to Sophy. "That's all my message, madame," he said.

There was a silence.

"So it's evident the guns will be in Slavna by Sunday," Lepage concluded.

"If they reach Miklevni on Saturday – any time on Saturday – they will," said Lukovitch. "And up here very soon after!"

"The General intimated that also, Captain Lukovitch."

"The General gives us very careful information," observed Dunstanbury, looking rather puzzled. He was not so well versed in Stenovics's methods as the rest. Lukovitch smiled broadly, and even Zerkovitch gave a little laugh.

"How are things in Slavna, Monsieur Lepage?" the last named asked.

Lepage smiled a little, too. "General Stenovics is in full control of the city – during Colonel Stafnitz's absence, sir," he answered.

"They've quarrelled?" cried Lukovitch.

"Oh no, sir. Possibly General Stenovics is afraid they might." He spoke again to Sophy. "Madame, do you still blame me for being the General's messenger?"

"No, Monsieur Lepage; but there's much to consider in the message. Captain Lukovitch, if Monseigneur had read this message, what would he have thought the General meant?"

Lukovitch's face was full of excitement as he answered her:

"The Prince wouldn't have cared what General Stenovics meant. He would have said that the guns would be three days on the river before they came to Slavna, that the barges would take the best part of an hour to get through Miklevni lock, that there was good cover within a quarter of a mile of the lock – "

Sophy leaned forward eagerly. "Yes, yes?" she whispered.

"And that an escort of a hundred men was – well, might be – not enough!"

"And that riding from Volseni – ?"

"One might easily be at Miklevni before Colonel Stafnitz and the guns could arrive there!"

Dunstanbury gave a start, Zerkovitch a chuckle, Lepage a quiet smile. Sophy rose to her feet; the Star glowed, there was even color in her cheeks besides.

"If there are fifty, or thirty, or twenty," she said, her eyes set on Dunstanbury, "who would count their lives well risked, we may yet strike one blow for Monseigneur and for the guns he loved."

Dunstanbury looked round. "There are three here," he said.

"Four!" called Basil Williamson from the doorway, where he had stood unobserved.

"Five!" cried Sophy, and, for the first time since Monseigneur died, she laughed.

"Five times five, and more, if we can get good horses enough!" said Captain Lukovitch.

"I should like to join you, but I must go back and tell General Stenovics that you will consider his message, madame," smiled Lepage.

XXII
JEALOUS OF DEATH

In the end they started thirty strong, including Sophy herself. There were the three Englishmen, Dunstanbury, Basil Williamson, and Henry Brown, Dunstanbury's servant, an old soldier, a good rider and shot. The rest were sturdy young men of Volseni, once destined for the ranks of the Prince of Slavna's artillery; Lukovitch and Peter Vassip led them. Not a married man was among them, for, to his intense indignation, Zerkovitch was left behind in command of the city. Sophy would have this so, and nothing would move her; she would not risk causing Marie Zerkovitch to weep more and to harbor fresh fears of her. So they rode, "without encumbrances," as Dunstanbury said, laughing – his spirits rose inexpressibly as the moment of action came.

Their horses were all that could be mustered in Volseni of a mettle equal to the dash. The little band paraded in the market-place on Friday afternoon; there they were joined by Sophy, who had been to pay a last visit to Monseigneur's grave; she came among them sad, yet seeming more serene. Her spirit was the happier for striking a blow in Monseigneur's name. The rest of them were in high feather; the prospect of the expedition went far to blot out the tragedy of the past and to veil the threatening face of the future. As dusk fell, they rode out of the city gate.

Miklevni lies twenty miles up the course of the river from Slavna; but the river flows there nearly from north to south, turning to the east only four or five miles above the capital. You ride, then, from Volseni to Miklevni almost in a straight line, leaving Slavna away on the left. It is a distance of no more than thirty-five miles or thereabouts, but the first ten consist of a precipitous and rugged descent by a bridle-path from the hills to the valley of the Krath. No pace beyond a walk was possible at any point here, and for the greater part of the way it was necessary to lead the horses. When once the plain was reached, there was good going, sometimes over country roads, sometimes over grass, to Miklevni.

It was plain that the expedition could easily be intercepted by a force issuing from Slavna and placing itself astride the route; but then they did not expect a force to issue from Slavna. That would be done only by the orders of General Stenovics, and Lepage had gone back to Slavna to tell the General that his message was being considered – very carefully considered – in Volseni. General Stenovics, if they understood him rightly, would not move till he heard more. For the rest, risks must be run. If all went well, they hoped to reach Miklevni before dawn on Saturday. There they were to lie in wait for Stafnitz – and for the big guns which were coming down the Krath from Kolsko? to Slavna.

Lukovitch was the guide, and had no lack of counsel from lads who knew the hills as well as their sweethearts' faces. He rode first, and, while they were on the bridle-path, they followed in single file, walking their horses or leading them. Sophy and Dunstanbury rode behind, with Basil Williamson and Henry Brown just in front of them. In advance, some hundreds of yards, Peter Vassip acted as scout, coming back from time to time to advise Lukovitch that the way was clear. The night fell fine and fresh, but it was very dark. That did not matter; the men of Volseni were like cats for seeing in the dark.

The first ten miles passed slowly and tediously, but without mistake or mishap. They halted on the edge of the plain an hour before midnight and took rest and food – each man carried provisions for two days. Behind them now rose the steep hills whence they had come, before them stretched the wide plain; away on their left was Slavna, straight ahead Miklevni, the goal of their pilgrimage. Lukovitch moved about, seeing that every man gave heed to his horse and had his equipment and his weapons in good order. Then came the word to remount, and between twelve and one, with a cheer hastily suppressed, the troop set forth at a good trot over the level ground. Now Williamson and Henry Brown fell to the rear with three or four Volsenians, lest by any chance or accident Sophy should lose or be cut off from the main body. Lukovitch and Peter Vassip rode together at the head.

To Dunstanbury that ride by night, through the spreading plain, was wonderful – a thing sufficient in itself, without regard to its object or its issue. He had seen some service before – and there was the joy of that. He had known the comradeship of a bold enterprise – there was the exaltation of that. He had taken great risks before – there was the excitement of that. The night had ere now called him to the saddle – and it called now with all its fascination. His blood tingled and burned with all these things. But there was more. Beside him all the way was the figure of Sophy dim in the darkness, and the dim silhouette of her face – dim, yet, as it seemed, hardly blurred; its pallor stood out even in the night. She engrossed his thoughts and spurred his speculations.

What thoughts dwelt in her? Did she ride to death, and was it a death she herself courted? If so, he was sworn in his soul to thwart her, even to his own death. She was not food for death, his soul cried, passionately protesting against that loss, that impoverishment of the world. Why had they let her come? She was not a woman of whom that could be asked; therefore it was that his mind so hung on her, with an attraction, a fascination, an overbearing curiosity. The men of Volseni seemed to think it natural that she should come. They knew her, then, better than he did!

Save for the exchange of a few words now and then about the road, they had not talked; he had respected her silence. But she spoke now, and to his great pleasure less sadly than he had expected. Her tone was light, and witnessed to a whimsical enjoyment which not even memory could altogether quench.

"This is my first war, Lord Dunstanbury," she said. "The first time I've taken the field in person at the head of my men!"

"Yes, your Majesty's first campaign. May it be glorious!" he answered, suiting his tone to hers.

"My first and my last, I suppose. Well, I could hardly have looked to have even one – in those old days you know of – could I?"

"Frankly, I never expected to hold my commission as an officer from you," he laughed. "As it is, I'm breaking all the laws in the world, I suppose. Perhaps they'll never hear of it in England, though."

"Where there are no laws left, you can break none," she said. "There are none left in Kravonia now. There's but one crime – to be weak; and but one penalty – death."

"Neither the crime nor the penalty for us to-night!" he cried, gayly. "Queen Sophia's star shines to-night!"

"Can you see it?" she asked, touching her cheek a moment.

"No, I can't," he laughed. "I forgot – I spoke metaphorically."

"When people speak of my star, I always think of this. So my star shines to-night? Yes, I think so – shines brightly before it sets! I wonder if Kravonia's star, too, will have a setting soon – a stormy setting!"

"Well, we're not helping to make it more tranquil," said Dunstanbury.

He saw her turn her head suddenly and sharply towards him; she spoke quickly and low.

"I'm seeking a man's life in this expedition," she said. "It's his or mine before we part."

"I don't blame you for that."

"Oh no!" The reply sounded almost contemptuous; at least it showed plainly that her conscience was not troubled. "And he won't blame me either. When he sees me, he'll know what it means."

"And, in fact, I intend to help. So do we all, I think."

"It was our oath in Volseni," she answered. "They think Monseigneur will sleep the better for it. But I know well that nothing troubles Monseigneur's sleep. And I'm so selfish that I wish he could be troubled – yes, troubled about me; that he could be riding in the spirit with us to-night, hoping for our victory; yet very anxious, very anxious about me; that I could still bring him joy and sorrow, grief and delight. I can't desire that Monseigneur should sleep so well. They're kinder to him – his own folk of Volseni. They aren't jealous of his sleep – not jealous of the peace of death. But I'm very jealous of it. I'm to him now just as all the rest are; I, too, am nothing to Monseigneur now."



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