If it hadn’t been for Mary Elise’s good deed, the chain of events that changed her life would never have begun.
This particular day, she was out in the fields, helping a fellow servant. Catherine really should not have been doing the work of a shepherdess. She had a very hard time getting around, being lame, but the girl’s father had taken sick. They would both be turned out if somebody didn’t continue on with the daily tasks.
When Mary Elise took the cows out that morning, she found Catherine searching everywhere for a wayward lamb.
“I’ll help you as soon as I get these cows to pasture.”
“Thank you, Lisie,” panted the girl, sinking down on a rock. “I’ve been all over. He’s the one that’s always running away. He probably headed for the cliffs. It’s been so warm that Papa didn’t bring them in to bed down for the winter. I guess he should have. This one wouldn’t have escaped–again!”
Mary Elise managed to get the dawdling cows to pasture, and hurried back to the sheep. “You stay here. I’ll go.”
Catherine nodded gratefully, and gave her the shepherd’s crook—just in case she needed it.
Mary Elise watched her friend limp painfully back to her flock, then she headed in the direction Catherine had suggested.
That’s how she happened to be looking down upon the narrow cliff road.
Sure enough, there was the lamb, stuck in a crevice, bleating pitifully. Would he ever learn?
This would mean a difficult climb. But she managed the rescue and as she let him go at the top of the cliff, the lamb ran off towards the fields.
“It’s coming! There’s the signal! Everybody ready? Go!”
At the sudden shout, her gaze turned downward, and she noticed shadows moving far below.
As she scanned the area, however, she realized that they were not shadows—they were men, moving from one rocky embankment to another, A half dozen or more. She looked further back—and saw several figures closer to the road, hiding in the brush.
Suddenly…a carriage rounded a curve!
“Quite fancy,” Mary Elise thought. “I wonder if they’re coming to visit the Englewoods.”
She could hear the jangling harness from where she crouched. The horses were magnificent.
The bandits lithely made their way down the slope, still hiding behind boulders and brush. They were nearing the road.
“It’s the royal carriage!” she suddenly realized in horror. The white horses, the red and gold crest…. Then guards on the other side of the carriage came into view and a guard bringing up the rear.
She noticed the men who had given the signal a moment ago. They were gathering their horses from behind some trees, leaping onto their mounts, and following at a distance.
“It’s an ambush! But how can I warn them?”
It was too late to do anything. There was nothing to be done from way up here. Even if she shouted, her voice wouldn’t be heard over the horses hooves.
In broad daylight! How dare they! For pistols and short swords were in evidence now. The horsemen in back had sped up.
Suddenly the bandits sprang out from among the rocks below. The four guards swung into action! Then the men on horseback reached them, leaping from their steeds and joining in the fight!
The guards were down. The men were pulling open the carriage door!
Mary Elise didn’t know what she was going to do when she got there, but she impulsively moved into action. She hurried down by a circuitous route—slipping and sliding, jumping from rock to rock.
Pistol shots rang out! The carriage wobbled from side to side and finally toppled and overturned, coming to rest against a large boulder.
Two horses fell, the others were neighing in fright. One of the bandits slashed the harnesses, and others took charge of the sleek animals. The guards were up now, and fighting furiously. Two people emerged from the carriage.
One, a man in elegant clothes, struck at the bandits with his sword, but was subdued quickly.
The other, a woman, was pulled down from the carriage and held tightly.
But in all the commotion, Mary Elise, from her position, saw something no one else did, A young girl, slipping out from under the carriage and hiding behind the big rock on which it rested. She clawed her way under some brush, and started making her way up the cliff.
Mary Elise dashed across the road and started climbing. The girl was in plain view. Mary Elise reached her and grabbed her arm, pushing her down.
“You can be seen if they happen to look up. Come on!” She crawled beneath a mossy log, and the girl followed. They were hidden by brush for the moment—and a good thing, too, for the bandits had discovered her absence. They moved about, searching the area.
Then it struck Mary Elise who the captives were. The crown prince! And his sister, Princess Susanna!
Suddenly Mary Elise took in the clothes of her companion. The golden, curly hair!
“Your Highness,” she gasped. “I beg your forgiveness!”
“What for?” asked the girl.
“For pushing you—for laying hands on you….”
The girl gave a laugh. “It’s quite all right, I’m sure. Here they come!”
They lay silent and still as boots passed by their noses. Men searched through the brush, looked up, and all around, then stood shaking their heads in desperation.
“She’s got to be here!”
“Look! The prince!’”
Prince William had gotten the upper hand again, for just a moment, fighting valiantly, but as the bandits rushed back, he was quickly subdued again.
Mary Elise took the moment to crawl into a better hiding place—a grove of firs. The princess followed, slithering in the dirt after her.
“Come on! We’ll find her! She can’t go far!’ shouted one of the bandits.
“No, let’s get away from here and back to the hideout before he tries something else!” another shouted, though the prince and princess were tied tightly now with hands behind their backs.
“You will die for this!” Mary Elise heard the prince’s words.
“They’ll never find you! Not where you’re going. And we’ll find the other one, too!” the man lifted his voice as if wanting the little princess to hear.
The royal pair were lifted up onto two of the horses, with a bandit guarding each, and the group headed back the way the carriage had come. The royal guards were led on foot and the horses were gathered and herded along.
The two girls waited for some time, finally emerging cautiously from the grove.
Mary Elise curtsied, “Your Highness….” She introduced herself.
“Princess Juliana,” the girl nodded politely, “Now. Let’s get away from here before they come back! But where?”
“Home…with me!” Mary Elise decided quickly.
The girl nodded and they started climbing the cliff as fast as they could.
They knew that they must get out of sight before the bandits returned!
Mary Elise liked to do kind things for people, which had endeared her to the sweet old matriarch of the family. The elderly Mistress Maria Englewood and her granddaughter were the only ones who made life tolerable for the young slave.
Mistress Maria lived in “the cottage” by her own choice. The duke and duchess thought it far beneath her station, and felt that she was becoming quite daft. But she was too rich and powerful to cross. The granddaughter, Charlotte, chose to live there because she couldn’t stand life in the big house either.
Of course the “cottage” was no hovel. It was quite grand, but small enough to make everyone feel at home. Mistress Maria had her favorite portraits and pretty furniture, and was content.
The fact that she had befriended the little milkmaid was only one generous act that she indulged in. Mary Elise, in her spare time, which was little, and the granddaughter, were continually being sent on benevolent errands. Now, during the Christmas season, they were especially busy.
“You two deserve each other!” snorted the duchess, during one of the few times she condescended to visit the cottage. “You and Charlotte care nothing about family honor or our money. Giving it all to those paupers does no good–they’re quite incapable of using it for anything sensible!”
“Many of them have nothing. The children are sick and hungry, and the weather will be changing soon. They’ll need warm clothes. Kindness is not a bad thing, Margarite. God tells us to help the poor. It pleases Him.”
The duchess waved off such a thought. She was quite sure she knew what everyone else should be doing, and exactly what God thought about things, as well. “It’s their own fault,” she insisted.
The duchess did put her foot down about slaves, however. “They were bought with our money. She is not your personal property. You can have her when she’s not busy with her regular duties.”
Mary Elise was the milkmaid –her main job was to milk the cows and carry the heavy buckets of milk to the kitchen twice a day. In between, she ran errands, washed mounds of dishes, and did all manner of odd jobs around the scullery kitchen and barn.
But late at night, after her tasks were done, came the happiest times. She would creep into the cottage, and sit by the fire, and have cakes and tea, and listen to stories of the old lady’s life, accounts from the Bible, tales of olden times…
Sometimes she would even fall asleep before the fire. The old lady would smile and go on to bed, with Charlotte and an old trusted servant to help her. This was especially welcome in the winter, when Mary Elisa’s tiny quarters over the storeroom were freezing.
Now, Mary Elise knew that this was the only logical place to take the princess. Mistress Maria would know what to do.
As they climbed the cliff, she led the way, grasping Juliana’s hand in the rough places and pulling her up, sometimes even using the shepherd’s crook. She was glad she had brought it along. Finally they reached the top.
“Look!” gasped the princess. “They’re coming back already!”
Sure enough, as Mary Elise looked down to the road and beyond. Men on horseback were approaching rapidly.
“Come on, let’s go!”
The girl sped across the field toward the flock of peacefully grazing sheep.
Catherine looked up, startled. Mary Elise was soon pouring out the story, as the lame servant girl stared in astonishment at Princess Juliana, then struggled to curtsy.
But suddenly more galloping horses! Coming down the lane were more bandits!
“We won’t make it to the house!” gasped Mary Elise.
Juliana gazed at the shepherdess. “We’re trapped. They must have sent more men. They’re coming from both directions looking for me! Can you hide us somewhere?”
“Of course,” said Catherine. “Our hut! My father’s sick. but you’re welcome to go there—right at the edge of the forest.”
The girls ran for the woods, hoping to escape the evil men who were coming from both directions.
But would they make it?
To Be Continued…
By Carol Bennett