Mary Elise and the princess burst into the shepherd’s hut, slamming the door and bolting it as they tried to catch their breath.
The man, sick in bed, looked about wildly.
“Sir,” Mary Elise said quickly. “Your daughter told us to come here. We’re being chased by bandits!”
“Do pardon the intrusion,” came the cultured voice of the princess. “There seemed to be no other place.”
Catherine’s father stared at them in the dim light. “Your…Your Highness?” He struggled to get up.
Just then, shouts and hoof-beats could be heard outside!
“We need to hide!” gasped Mary Elise.
There didn’t seem to be many possibilities. The log hut was no more than one room. A tiny table and some shelves of dishes were in the corner near the fireplace. A pallet on the floor in the opposite corner, apparently for Catherine, and a rickety old chair completed the furnishings.
“Quick! Under my bed!” said the man.
They dived under, barely able to fit in the narrow space, and scooted as far back as they could. Someone pounded on the door, then forced it open, breaking the wooden latch.
“We’ve got you now!”
The door slammed in, the hinges shuddering. But as a man burst through, he stopped short, taking in the size of the dwelling.
Another man followed and stared at the sick man. “There’s no one here!”
The shepherd sat up, trying to say with some dignity. “Sirs, surely you don’t have to knock my house down. What is it that you want?”
The first man stomped over and glanced up the chimney.
The second stood in the middle of the room and looked about. He stared at the sagging bed, but apparently decided there was no room to hide under there.
“Nothing, old man. Go back to sleep.”
They turned and strode out of the house. The door slammed, but bounced open again due to the broken latch.
“Whatever is going on?” the man asked, as he got up and closed the door as best he could. The two girls emerged. “God be praised that they didn’t find you. That was not much of a hiding place!”
“The royal coach was ambushed! They took Prince William and Princess Susanna.”
“I escaped, thanks to Mary Elise.”
“I thought I’d take her to Mistress Maria.”
The man’s eyes were wide with horror. Now, he said, “That’s good idea. But you’re shivering, Your Highness. It’s a sharp wind out there.”
“It’s gotten a bit colder than it was,” agreed Mary Elise.
“Take my daughter’s cloak,” The shepherd took a tattered woolen cloak from a hook and handed it over.
“But what will she wear?”
“We’ll find something-. My coat or a blanket. It’s our honor to serve you, Princess. I only wish it was—newer. But perhaps it will help hide your identity.”
The girl nodded her thanks and put the garment on, pulling up the hood. It completely covered her elegant, though ripped and dirty, gown.
Mary Elise peeked out the open door. The men were galloping across the far field, heading for the road.
They stayed close to the shadows of the woods and made their way around the field,
coming upon Catherine bringing the sheep into an enclosed shelter.
“I guess this is the end of going out to the fields to graze. Richard says there’s to be snow.” She noticed her own cloak on the princess, and smiled happily that she could help in such a way.
“We’ll bring it back soon!” the princess said, still troubled that the shepherdess had none.
“It’s all right. I’m heading home now. Richard will take care of the sheep so I don’t have to be out here. Go quickly. This is your chance. Those men are gone.”
Princess Juliana moved on, but Mary Elise lingered for a moment as Catherine whispered, “she’s beautiful, isn’t she? And as kindhearted as everyone says.”
Mary Elise nodded and hurried after the princess. They crossed a lane and soon came to the gate of the cottage. She had the feeling that the lingering leaves on the trees would be gone tomorrow—they were already blowing wildly and falling around them.
“Here we are! Stay here for a moment, Your Highness, and I’ll see if all is safe. I’m sure those bandits wouldn’t come here looking for you—”
Even as she said the words, however, several horses, with riders in dark cloaks, thundered around a curve. The men pulled up sharply at the gate. Mary Elise pushed her companion through the hedge, where they waited, motionless.
The men dismounted and pounded on the door.
“What is the meaning of this!” the old maid demanded, as she opened the door. “This is the home of the Lady Maria! These are the estates of the Duke and Duchess Englewood. How dare you come riding in like hoodlums!”
The men seemed undaunted. “The crown prince and Princess Susanna have been kidnapped. The Princess Juliana is missing!”
The princess peered through the hedge. “Those men were there at the attack!” she whispered. “And I recognize that voice. They’re looking for me—but not for any good reason!”
But the maid was still indignant. “Well, she isn’t here! We’ve seen no one!” She was full of questions, but the men turned and remounted. They were soon gone.
“Well, of all the uncouth…who are they?” the girls heard her mutter. “Are they helping the soldiers look? They’re not men from our town!” And the door slammed shut.
Mary Elise and the princess emerged from the bushes and hurried to the door.
The same maid answered the light knock, but her attitude was quite changed when she saw who it was. “Mary Elise. Hello, my sweet. But using the front door? And who’s your friend?”
“Quick Joanna, let us in!”
She pushed in and shut the door, turning the key.
“Mary Elise, whatever are you doing?”
“Is it safe? Are there other servants—or the duchess— about?”
“Why no. The duchess seldom comes down here, you know that. And the servants aren’t due until the noon meal. But the men are coming with the yule log soon. Safe from what?”
“Joanna is the only servant here much of the time,” Mary Elise told the princess. “Of course they come from the big house to clean and cook, but Mistress Maria likes her privacy. She doesn’t care for a lot of servants around all the time.” Mary Elise grinned. “Eccentric, they call her.”
“Ah. I have a feeling that would be nice, once in a while,” the princess replied with a smile.
Mary Elise led the way to the sitting room, where Charlotte was at the door. She could hear the Lady Maria saying, “what’s going on out there? Who was that at the door? What’s that about the crown prince and the princess?”
“Another friend, Mary Elise?” asked Charlotte, indulgently.
The princess lowered her hood and started to remove the cloak. Charlotte gaped in shock, then gave a low curtsy.
Lady Maria was coming slowly with her cane, looking to see what was happening. “Who is it, dear? Why….” She was just as stunned, taking in the bedraggled dress, the tousled hair. “Why…what is this?”
Mary Elise quickly explained. They soon had the princess settled by the fire with a hot drink and cakes. She, with Lady Maria’s quick approval, insisted that Mary Elise have some, too.
“She’s just as cold and shaken as me, I think,” the princess said.
A while later, as both girls warmed up, Mary Elise told the whole story.
“It was right to bring her here,” said Lady Maria. “We’ll get in touch with the right people… the magistrate, I think, since Frederick is away…that’s the duke of Englewood, whose estate this is,” she explained to the princess.
Princess Juliana opened her mouth to speak, when there was a sudden rattling at the front door. Then a sharp tapping, and even through the door they could hear, “whatever is this door locked for? It’s the middle of the day! Let me in!”
“The duchess!” Mary Elise sprang up not really knowing why, except that anytime the duchess got into things, they became very complicated.
The princess rose quickly, pulling her cloak about herself to hide her fancy clothes.
“It’s all right, Your Highness. It’s just my niece. She’s difficult, but she’ll help us get you to a safe place.”
“No! Please. I mustn’t be recognized! Just you four—I trust you. But no one else.” Her tone, though she was so young, was suddenly one of authority. “I—have a secret. My brother and sister and I—we were—heading for a safe place. The ambush did not surprise us. ”
Lady Maria considered this for only a second.
“All right. Mary Elise, take her out the side door and hide. She should change her clothes. One of your dresses would be best. Playing the part of a servant is a rather good idea. Quick now.”
Mary Elise nodded.
“Go to the door, Joanna, slowly….”
But the duchess was so angry that she was shaking and twisting the door latch—and she broke through, marching in haughtily.
“What is the meaning of this? Locked doors! No servant to come when I knock! You really are losing your senses, Maria!”
She caught sight of Mary Elise. “And you! There you are! Where have you been all day! And who is this? Another urchin?” This as the princess turned away to hide her face.
“Mary Elise was needed to help with the sheep this morning,” said Lady Maria.
“The sheep! Why should she be out with the sheep, Maria! She hasn’t been to the kitchen at all! I should not have to be involved with the affairs of the kitchen servants, but Clara is furious and can’t even get my tea brewed in a timely manner because of it. But be that as it may, I have grave news. The prince and princess have been taken. And Princess Juliana is missing.”
“I know,” said Lady Maria, quietly.
“You know? However do you know?”
The old lady ignored the question. “As for Mary Elise, I will need her services for the rest of the day. We have plenty of other servants to do the kitchen and barn work.” She turned to the girl. “Go and do as I told you. Then come back with the new servant—in proper attire.”
Mary Elise bobbed a curtsy. “Yes, Mistress.”And the girls escaped from the room—and the house.
Outside, they grinned at each other. “It will be all right. Mistress Maria will take care of you.”
And they headed for Mary Elise’s upper room to hide out for a while. But just then, they realized that the first flakes were starting to fall. Richard had been right.
“Maybe if we have a storm, it will slow down the men who are trying to find you.”
“I don’t think so,” said the princess. “There’s only one thing that will stop those men. We must get back to Lady Maria’s when it’s safe and I’ll tell you all my secret….”
To be continued….
By Carol Bennett