Sir William Magnay.

Count Zarka: a romance online

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" Come I " he said gently.

But she shrank away from him with an ex-
clamation of repugnance. He Ufted his finger
to the priest, who left his place and came towards
them. The two men exchanged significant glances,
then the priest approached the miserable girl and
laid hie hand hghtly on her shoulder.

" Come, my dear," he said blandly. " Every-
thing is in order."

But she clung to the arm of the great chair.

" Are you, a minister of God, going to abet this
man in committing an awful villainy ? " she cried,
looking up at the unctuous, placid face, in strong
contrast to her own features, working with the
tiunult of her feelings.

"You are mistaken," he replied soothingly.
" I am here to ally you in the sacred bond of wedlock
with Count Zarka. Surely that "

"Will be a monstrous crime," she broke in.
" It is you who are mistaken, deceived by this
vilely dishonourable man, who has lured me here
and now proposes to marry me against my will."

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" I cannot believe it," the priest responded,
while Zarka stood impassive a little way off with
folded arms. " How can so illustrious an alliance
be a crime ? You are labouring under some de-
lusion — ^perhaps imagining that, by this private
ceremony, he means to act dishonourably. Let
me give you my sacred word as a priest that this
is not so. You will be his acknowledged wife,
a title to which no other woman has the sUghtest

" Oh, I know, I know," moaned Philippa, hope-
lessly struggling. " But when I tell you that from
the very depths of my soul I hate this man, to
whom you think to wed me, that I would rather
you stabbed me to the heart this instant than

gave me his hated name, and him the right to .

Oh, sir, by the God you serve, save me from him,
from misery worse than death, and refuse to utter
one word of that office which must be now most
awful blasphemy ! "

She had sunk on her knees to him, and was clutch-
ing his gown in her agony. But her appeal had
no effect on him — at least none that was apparent.
Probably he judged her as a man of the world,
and easily silenced his scruples by the reflection that,
although she in her inexperience might not think
so, he was doing her a rare good turn. Whatever
his private opinion of his patron may have been,

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he could hardly conceive a girl could be in her right
senses to refuse his alliance. As well might he
refuse the preferment which Zarka had taken care
to dangle before his eyes. And then he had his
own ideas of women.

" My dear young lady," he said, taking her arm
to Uft her, "you will thank me one day for this
night's work. Come I In a few minutes you will
hold one of the most enviable positions in Europe,
in the world." .

As she did not rise Zarka came quickly forward
and took her other arm. Between them they raised
her, and half led, half dragged her into the chapel,
and along the broad space up to the altar rails.

" Let me die ! " she moaned, struggling against
a great faintness. Then, though she felt that both
her arms were held, the priest appeared in front of
her before the altar he was desecrating. Turning
her head she saw by her side the cmming-faced
servant who had ushered her into the castle. He
was to be the witness of this diabohcal sacrilege.

As the priest began to read the marriage office
the words, soimding in Philippa's ears, gave warn-
ing of the imminence of her hateful doom. In
a few seconds she would be irrevocably tied to
Zarka. Crying out in her desperation, she made
one last convulsive struggle to escape — to death,
if she could only lay her hands on the means. By

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a supreme effort she freed herself from her captors
and made a wild rush towards the sacristy, hoping
in her despair to find a weapon to turn against them
ol: herself. But the servant, hthe and alert, was
after her like a greyhound. Closely followed by his
master, he caught her as she reached the door ;
they stopped her, and began to force her back to
the altar. She struggled desperately and screamed,
but it was of no avail ; Zarka was a man of immense
strength, and having gone so far, he was bound to
carry his project through by undisguised force since
persuasion was futile. Philippa was helpless in
his arms, and as they reached the altar rails again
she hung still in his hold, but leaning away from
him, utterly exhausted.

The priest, with no more concern on his face
than if he were marrying a couple of peasants at
Easter, lifted his book at a nod from Zarka and
resumed the recital of the office. Philippa heard
him pronounce Zarka's name, and then her own.

" No, no ! " she almost shrieked, desperately

" PhiUppa I "

If she did not hear her name shouted the three
men did. The priest suddenly stopped in his
unctuous monotone, and his expression was not
so bland as usual as he glanced inquiringly at the
bridegroom. Before Zarka had recovered his sur-

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prise sufficiently to take action the cry was repeated,
this time close at hand. " Philippa I " and in
another instant as the servant sprang to the sacristy
door, it was flung open and, thrusting the man
aside, Von Tressen rushed into the chapel followed
by Galabin.

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In a moment the two men had taken in the scene,
and Von Tressen strode quickly towards Zarka.
" You rufl&an ! " he cried. " What is the meaning
of this?"

" Stand away ! " was the Count's defiant reply.
" This lady is my wife, and you interfere at your

" It is a he ! " Phihppa gasped, recovering from
her half faint, and struggling to free herself from
Zarka's grasp. "This man is a villain. I have
been lured to this place by a trick. Osbert, I hate
and loathe the man. I am not his wife ; I would
rather die than marry him. Will you not ? "

Before she could say more. Von Tressen's arm
was round her, and his disengaged hand dealt the
Count a blow such as he had never felt before,
a square, well-placed hit, worthy of an Enghshman,
which broke his hold of Phihppa and sent him
staggering back, falling over the chairs ranged behind


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He recovered himself quickly and, facing them,
white with rage and pain, seemed to be meditating
a rush. But he thought better of it, seeing that
the odds were against him. Von Tressen and
Galabin supported Philippa to a seat, where she
sank down overcome by fear and excitement.

In the few seconds this occupied Zarka had re*
gained the mastery over himself and a certain
amount of composure,

" You will answer for this outrage. Lieutenant
Von Tressen," he said, speaking in a loud harsh
voice. " It is you who are the ruffian ; this is
my private chapel in which you are brawling, and
that lady is my wife."

" I think not," Von Tressen returned quietly.

" I have witnesses to prove it," cried Zarka.

" Witnesses ! Who are they ? " Von Tressen
demanded contemptuously.

"This man is your servant," Galabin put in,
pointing to the valet.

"And this," pursued Von Tressen, indicating
the priest who had laid down his book, and was
sitting in one of the altar chairs with as much
dignity as he could retain, " Is this another of your
servants ? Cowardly villain ! I will proclaim you
from one end of Europe to the other."

The priest, taking his cue to speak, rose and
stepped towards Von Tressen.

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" You are mistaken, sir," he said blandly. " I
am not a suborned domestic masquerading as a
priest. This is no mock marriage. I am Desider
Homthal, a graduate of the University of Buda,
and priest of the parish of Lilienberg."

" Then," Von Tressen retorted, " if you are privy
to this precious piece of viUiany you are a disgrace
to your cloth."

" Will you leave my chapel ? " cried Zarka.

" I will not," Von Tressen answered. " Neither
shall any man, till we have got to the bottom of
this vile business. Galabin, make fast that door,
there's a good fellow. Now, sir," he went on,
turning again to Homthal, " accepting your state-
ment about yourself, have you the audacity to tell
me and my friend that the Fraulein is that man's
wife ? Stop ! Before you answer I warn you.
I am Lieutenant Von Tressen of the Second Regi-
ment of Cavalry; my uncle is Staatssecretar Von
Tressen. This gentleman," he pointed to Galabin,
" is Herr Galabin, in the Bureau of his Excellency
Baron Gersdorfl, and we intend this matter shall
be fully brought to light. The reply you give us
you will have to repeat before a tribunal of justice."

"Of course she is my wife," exclaimed Zarka
angrily, as the priest hesitated. "The cere-
mony "

" No, no ! A thousand times no ! " cried Philippa*

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" I swear I am not his wife. Osbert, it was by force
and fraud, and they know it. Even if "

" Yes, yes, dear," said. Von Tressen reassuringly.
"You need have no fear. You, father, do you
confirm Count Zarka, or this lady ? "

The priest had begun to fear he was on the brink
of an ugly scandal. But he was astute enough to
see in a moment on which side his bread was but-
tered, and that his line was stoutly to support his

" The marriage is undoubtedly duly performed,"
he answered, unctuously decisive. "The lady,
although a httle hysterical, was quite a willing
party, until she heard you coming, when her manner
altogether changed."

" Do you, a professor of religion, standing at the
altar, mean to tell me," demanded Galabin sternly,
" that this lady gave her consent to become Coimt
Zarka's wife ? "

Homthal was not troubled either by nerves or
superstition, consequently his position, professional
or local, made no difference to his answer.

"Certainly. That was my impression before
you came upon the scene."

But he looked scared as he had never been before,
and all his suavity seemed to vanish in a guilty
start as a voice, coming behind from the very
depths of the altar, cried, " It is a lie ! "

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The priest turned involuntarily, and all looked
wonderingly towards the spot whence the voice
proceeded. The altar-cloth, stiff and heavy with
its elaborate embroidery, was disturbed, then
lifted, and from beneath it appeared a figure at
sight of which Zarka uttered an oath, and PhiUppa,
transfixed by the apparition, gave a cry of mingled
astonishment and fear.

" Prince Rod ! »

Pale and with hollow, sunken eyes, he looked
a weird apparition to their startled imaginations.
For a few moments no one could speak, as the
figure of the Prince stood clutching one comer
of the altar and glaring at them, half fearful, half

*• A lie I An impious lie ! " he repeated. " I
atn a witness. It is no marriage."

" Bah ! Mad feUow ! " cried Zarka. " What trick
is this. He is mad ; pay no heed to his raving ! "

The Prince made a spring forward but stopped
half way, and stood glaring at him, unable to speak
through the working of his passion.

" You call me mad ! " he gasped. " Yes ; you
have tried to make me so. But I h^ve escaped
from your diabolical trap."

" I think," said Galabin coolly to Zarka, " this
is Prince Rod of Rapsburg, whom you, as a creature
of the Russian, have kept here secretly a prisoner — ^*

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"That you might accuse Fraulein Harlberg
of his death," Von Tressen cried fiercely, "and,
by working upon her fears, force her into a marriage
with you. It was the act of a contemptible coward
and a villain I Come, Phihppa. We have had
enough of this."

He put out his arm half caressingly, half pro-
tectingly to lead her away. But as they made a
move towards the door, Zarka came quickly for-
ward and planted himself to intercept them, with
an ugly, determined set to his face.

" You do not think I shall let you go like this,"
he said* " She is my wife, and you touch her at
your peril."

" I can prove she is not his wife," Prince Roel cried

" I intend," Von Tressen said quietly, " to take
Fraulein Harlberg home to her father. If your
assertion be true, you will have ample opportunity
for claiming her."

"You shall not dictate to me. Lieutenant,"
2arka cried in fury* " In any case you will answer
to me for this insolent intrusion. Now, stand away,
or take the consequences ! "

For reply Von Tressen handed Philippa to Gala-
bin and advanced towards the door in front of
which Zarka was standing hke a tiger at bay.

" Do you mean to let us pass. Count ? "

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" Certairiy not."

In another moment Von Tressen had seized hold
of him, and the two men were struggling fiercely.
Strong and well-knit as Zarka was, he was hardly
a match for his yomiger and more athletic opponent.
A very few seconds* time sufficed for the Lieutenant
to get the upper hand. He forced Zarka from the
door and then flung him heavily away.

Galabin and PhiKppa had by this already passed
through the sacristy and out into the hall beyond.
The valet had followed close upon them without
showing any sign of what his intention might be,
and as Von Tressen turned from Zarka to cover
thefr retreat the Prince sprang before him and
rushed after the man.

" Quick ! " cried Galabin, seeing Von Tressen
coming after them. "The sooner we are out of
this place the better. Ah ! "

The valet had rushed to the door for which they
were making and locked it. Next moment Prince
Rod's fingers were roimd his throat from behind ;
he was pulled backwards and flung, half-throttled,
to the floor.

" Good ! " Galabin exclaimed, throwing open the
door for Philippa. " Come with us, Prince ; we
must get you away from here."

Philippa, passing out, drew back with a startled
cry. In the doorway stood Zarka, with two swords

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in his hand. He entered and shut the door behind

"You have reckoned without your host, Lieu-
tenant," he said. " You shall not leave my house
without paying for this outrage, or at least till we
have adjusted our differences. We have a score to
settle. You are imdeniable as a wrestler ; now
let us see if you are equally admirable with edged

" If you think I am going to fight a duel with you,
Coimt, you are greatly mistaken," answered Von

" But you will have to fight me before you leave
this place," Zarka returned. " It is not the custom
among Hungarian gentlemen to maul one another
like drunken fishwives. We leave that to the
tiunblers at our fairs and the dancing dogs. The
world is too small to hold us both. There is your

He threw one of the duelling swords down at
Von Tressen's feet.

" I am not in the least afraid of you," the Lieu-
tenant said, "and should be quite content to
settle our quarrel according to your code. But
I presume not even the custom among Himgarian
gentlemen would sanction my crossing swords
with a man who has flung away all right to be looked
upon as a man of honour."

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Zarka's eyes blazed with fury.

"You swagger well, soldier-boy! But it shall
not serve you. No man ever yet insulted me with
impunity, nor shall you be the first. Pick up that
sword and defend yourself, or take the conse-

" I must protest against anything of the sort,"
interposed Galabin, leaving Philippa and coming
forward. " The Lieutenant has a perfect right to
refuse your challenge, and you touch an unarmed
man at your peril.**

" I accept that,** Zarka retorted.

"You ignore the presence of the lady about
whom you affect such interest——**

But Zarka would not listen.

"Take that sword and fight me. Lieutenant,
or I swear 1*11 run you through.**

"Have you not given proof enough of your
cowardice ? ** returned Von Tressen, folding his

Zarka sprang forward and slashed at him
furiously with his sword. Von Tressen caught the
blow on his arm, and tried to grapple with him,
but Zarka was too alert, and stepping quickly back,
kept him off at the sword*s point.

" Take your sword ! " he cried, " or 1*11 kill you I '*

The situation was serious, for the man was mad
with fury. Galabin reached for the sword and

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put it into Von Tressen's hand — ^with the warning —
" Take care of yourself ! **

He had hardly caught hold of it when Zarka

set upon him furiously. Von Tressen had no time

to get on his guard or even to grasp the weapon

properly, and in an instant a pass from Zarka had

sent it from his hand. With a cry of tritmiphant

execration Zarka went forward to lunge at him ;

Philippa and Galabin both by a conmion impulse

rushed towards them, but at the same moment

Prince Rod caught up a massive silver candlestick

from a stand by the wall, and flung it with all his

might at Zarka. It struck him full in the face, and

hurled him senseless to the floor.

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Little doubt remaining in the minds of the three
men as to the identity of the masked prisoner, it
had been agreed that a determined attempt to
release him should be made that night. Accordingly,
in pursuance of a carefully devised plan, they set
out together after dark, and making their way to
Rozsnyo climbed the wall, and crawled along the
roof until they reached the barred skyUght. As they
approached they saw that the Ught, without which
their plan would have been frustrated, was there,
and when they came to the grating and looked down,
the figure of the masked man was sitting at the
table reading. So absorbed did he seem in his book
that for some time a tapping on the glass failed to
rouse his attention. At length, however, he looked
up with a start, listened eagerly, they could tell
that, but whether in fear or joy the hideous mask
effectually concealed. Without delay the three
above began to unscrew the bolts of the bars with
tools they had brought with them. This was


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effected without difl&culty, and three of the bars
displaced. The more serious obstacle now was the
glass ; the only way to remove this was by breaking
it. This was a business which required great care,
and took what, to their impatience, seemed a long
time, but at length a large piece was broken out,
leaving an aperture large enough for the passage
of a man.

With the removal of the glass it was at last possible
to hold communication with the prisoner.

" Roel ! '* D'Alquen called, in a loud whisper.

The masked one threw out his hands in an im-
patient gesture.

" Ah ! " he cried, in a voice trembUng with
excitement, " it is you, Abele D'Alquen, or am I
dreaming ? Heaven be thanked ! You have come
to release me."

" If we can manage it," his kinsman returned.
" At least, if we do not my hfe shall pay for our

" Ah, you have others with you ? " the Prince

" Yes ; two friends who have been working for
your release."

"Thanks, thanks," he cried, and the fervour
of his tone contrasted oddly with the hideous
stolidity of the mask. " You are good fellows to
save a man from torture worse than death."

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A hurried consultation was held and a plan
decided upon. As the height of the room made
escape by the skyUght practically impossible,
at least by such means as they could command,
another and far more daring method of rescue had
been hit upon. And this they now proceeded to
put into execution. By the aid of the long stout
strap D'Alquen was lowered into the room. At
once after a quick hand-shake he began with a file
to cut through the steel fastening of the mask.
To impatient men it was a long operation, but at
last the irksome covering was loose, and Prince
Rod could pull it off with an action of eager rdief .
As he did so, the two, watching from above, saw
D'Alquen start back with a look and an exclamation
of horror. The face which was disclosed was, it
seemed, almost that of a corpse. It was deadly
pale, even livid, wasted and shrunken; the eyes
in their great blue sockets blazed with a feverish
light ; it had never been a handsome face ; now,
in the tale it told of the unutterable torture of a
living death, it was absolutely appalling.

" Poor wretch I " Galabin exclaimed involimtarily,
averting his eyes. But there was no time for com-
ment. After that one gasp of horror D'Alquen,
according to their pre-arranged plan, took the mask
and fitted it to his own head, then he changed coats
with the Prince, telling him the while the details

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of their scheme. The exchange of attire having
been made, D'Alquen hastily removed the traces
of the broken glass, and took his seat at the table
in the prisoner's usual attitude of reading. At
the same time the Prince took his station behind
the curtains near the door. The positions were
assumed only just in time ; indeed, the disturbed
ctirtain was still moving when the door opened,
and the man who acted as gaoler came in. For
an instant, until he had satisfied himself of his
prisoner's whereabouts, he did not leave the door ;
then, closing it, he crossed the room with a surly
nod to the mask. For the watchers it was an
anxious moment, but the man's casual glance,
though keen enough, did not seem to detect any
differ^ce in the man who sat by the lamp, and in-
deed there was not much to be seen. The figures
of the two men were not very dissimilar, and
although D'Alquen was taller than his kinsman,
this was not observable as he sat leaning over his

The gaoler had a flask of wine in his hand, and
this he set down upon the table. D'Alquen bad
raised his head, and the two men above could tell
that he was watching the fellow, who now crossed
to the screen by the concealed window, and ex-
amined it as though to see whether it had been
tampered with. It was impossible to tell what

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made him do so, but suddenly the man looked up,
and saw the great hole in the skylight. Simul-
taneously D'Alquen rose with the word " Now ! '*
and swiftly moved to the door, before which he took
his stand, covering the gaoler with a pistol. Before
the astonished man could quite realize the situation.
Prince Rod had sUpped from his hiding place and
out of the door, which D'Alquen shut and held,
pistol in hand.

" If you call out or move I'll shoot you dead,'*
was his warning to the gaoler, and the last view
that Tressen and Galabin had of the scene was the
sturdy rufl&an standing paralyzed before the gleam-
ing weapon with an ugly grin of discomfiture on his

For no time was to be lost, now that the first
step in the rescue was safely accomplished, in being
ready to help the Prince through its other and more
perilous stages. So Von Tressen and Galabin,
seeing all had gone well so far, made their way
with aU haste down from the roof and round to the
door leading from the chapel, which in the plan they
had worked out seemed the shortest and least
hazardous way from the prison-room to open air
and liberty.

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zarka's prayer and its answer

To return to the chapel. When Zarka went down
from Prince Roel's blow the way of escape seemed
cleared, but no time was to be lost. Leaving
the Count to recover as best he might under the
care of his servant, the party, keeping together for
safety, made their way along a passage which they
judged would lead them in the direction of the
prison-room, where D'Alquen had been left. But
to find this proved no easy business, and as it turned
out, they might have sought the room for hours
without finding it, had not a lucky circumstance
shown it to them.

Galabin had, as well as he was able from the
information he possessed, made a plan of the
bearings of the room in relation to its position
from the vestibule which led to the chapel and,
on the other side, to the principal entrance of the
castle. He had carefully calculated the distance
as well as the direction, and although in that in-
tricately constructed building it was far from easy

806 jj

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to make practical use of the plan, he judged after
they had gone a considerable distance, and had
found themselves in a dark stone corridor, that they

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Online LibrarySir William MagnayCount Zarka: a romance → online text (page 15 of 17)