CHAPTER 10

IT was in a narrow street, in one of the most squalid quarters of Vienna, that the fiaker stopped, after some ten minutes' rattle over the cobbled streets of the city.

Serjeant Meyer jumped out, followed by Iván and the other police officer, and casting a quick, searching glance along the apparently deserted street, he walked unhesitatingly under one of the wide porticoes in front of him. The house was one of a row of tall buildings, ugly, square, and straight, with a balcony running along outside the first-floor fronts the whole length of the street, and a wide, open porte cochère, leading, through a square courtyard, to the lodgings at the back of the buildings. There was a lodge for the concierge on the right, at the foot of the wide stone staircase that leads up to the front of the house, but no one guarded the apartments that overlooked the courtyard; there was nothing there worth guarding, the inhabitants belonging mostly to the very poorest classes of Vienna, who had nothing worth stealing.

A group of women, with untidy hair and dirty aprons, stopped their chatter and nudged each other significantly with great, coarse, bare elbows, as they caught sight of the police uniform; and one or two heads appeared at some of the windows, as the heavy steps of Serjeant Meyer and his followers echoed on the stone pavement of the courtyard.

Having reached the dark and narrow staircase leading to the floors above, Serjeant Meyer turned to Iván.

"I do not see either of our fellows anywhere about, so I conclude the woman has gone out."

"So much the better," said Volenski; "we need have no disturbance, then; I suppose the people of the house are used to this sort of thing, for they took very little heed of your uniform or our presence."

The serjeant shrugged his shoulders, intimating that he cared little for any disturbance that might arise, and he added:

"This house is one of the worst famed in this part of Vienna; it is almost entirely tenanted by women of Grete Ottlinger's class. A police inspection of their premises is a very frequent occurence, and the inhabitants have, I think, one and all, spent some time in prison or hospital."

The three men now began cautiously ascending the dark stone stairs, guiding themselves by the narrow, iron hand-rail, and feeling their way with utmost care. Serjeant Meyer, who was in front, seemed to be very sure of where he was going, for it was without any hesitation that he stopped somewhere about the fifth floor, and, crossing a dark passage, tried the handle of one of the doors that opened thereon.

The door, however, seemed to be locked, and after one or two repeated loud knocks, the serjeant applied his broad shoulders to the feebly resisting timber, and broke it open without any difficulty.

The room, in which the three men now found themselves, was but dimly illumined by a glimmer of light that came in through the window from the courtyard below. The serjeant struck a match and lighted his lantern; the aspect of that room then presented itself in all its squalor and hideousness; an iron bedstead, covered with a ragged, coloured counterpane, stood out from the centre of the wall opposite; to the right as they entered, an earthenware stove with the tiles mostly cracked and loose; then a coarsely painted chest, the drawers of which were mostly open, displaying a medley of dirty laces and faded ribbons; two or three chairs in a rickety condition propped against the walls, and a table with a broken ewer and cracked basin, completed the furniture of this abode of misery and degradation; the floor was bare, the boards unwashed and rough; on the window-sill stood a mirror and two or three pots of powder and cosmetics, while on the chest of drawers lay a litter of papers and two or three faded photographs.

Iván stood gazing round in horror. It had never been his misfortune to witness the type of misery, sordid and abject, that was depicted by this bare room, by the tawdry scraps of ribbon, the half-empty, evil-smelling pots of cosmetics, and his mind reverted to the exalted notion he and his comrades had of the "people," of the poor, who were in the future to frame laws and rule empires, the "people" about whom they talked so much, and knew so little, the "people" whose men and women lived like this.

Then, pulling himself together, he gazed blankly round him. Save for that chest of drawers, which appeared half empty, he could see nothing wherein the Emperor's candlesticks could have been hidden, and a cold perspiration stood on his forehead as he turned to Meyer and asked him what course he intended to pursue.

The serjeant once more shrugged his shoulders; then, pointing to the bed, he ordered his man to turn the paillasse over.

"Would you like to search that chest of drawers?" he smiled, sarcastically addressing Volenski. "My impression is that the bird has flown and taken her treasures with her."

Iván waited not for a second offer; he was already emptying the drawers, throwing ribbons and rags in a confused heap on the floor. Hope was fast dwindling away; this golden opportunity, from which he had expected so much, was proving futile. The splendid chance he would have had in this dark room, if only the candlesticks were to fall in his hands, was not to be his after all. Half fainting with the closeness of the atmosphere, and the nerve-strain consequent on the bitter disappointment he was experiencing, Iván dared not let the serjeant see his face, frightened lest the astute detective should notice his strange agitation, and jump at conclusions, which he might afterwards communicate to his chief.

"It seems to me," said Meyer at last, "that we are wasting our time here; the woman has evidently taken with her what valuables she had stolen, either because she is always prepared for a police raid during her absence, or she may actually have gone to dispose of them. Anyhow, monsieur," he added, "with your permission, we will leave the matter for the present, and report proceedings to the chief."

Iván had completely emptied the drawers, and was now impatiently turning over the letters and papers that were lying in a confused heap on the top of the chest. A half-torn, almost wholly faded photograph had riveted his attention. A somewhat coarse, large featured woman's face, with dark, provoking eyes, and a wide, laughing mouth. He wondered, as he looked at it, whether this was the woman who held his fate and that of his comrades in one of those clumsy, low-bred hands, and whether he would ask Serjeant Meyer if this was Grete Ottlinger.

"Is this the woman?" he asked at last, with sudden determination, turning towards the police officer and holding out the photograph.

"Yes! it is," replied Meyer, after a hasty glance. "No beauty, is she?" he added, with a laugh.

Then the other man having opened the door, the serjeant stood, evidently impatient to be gone, his lantern in his hand dimly lighting the dark passage beyond. Volenski with a sudden impulse slipped the photograph into his pocket, and throwing a last hopeless look at the squalid abode he had entered so full of hope, followed Meyer down the narrow stairs.

He was loth to give up all hope; his was a sanguine and buoyant disposition, that refused to give way to despair. A plan had already formed in his brain, a confused idea that would require the quietness of the deserted streets to order and to organise.

"As we have not found anything belonging to me up there," he said to Serjeant Meyer, as the latter prepared to step into the cab that was waiting for them outside, "I don't think there is any necessity for me to follow you to His Excellency's office. What do you think?"

"You know best, monsieur, of course," replied Meyer. "I have a very short report to make about the woman's absence, together with every article of stolen property; also the fact that our two fellows are no doubt on her track, as I do not see them anywhere about. His Excellency must then decide, if it is worth while going to the 'Kaiser Franz' to-night on the chance of finding her there, or leave the matter alone till her return."

"I should think the latter is by far the wisest course," said Iván hastily; "however, that is none of my business. Will you tell His Excellency that, as my property has not been found, I will call on him again to-morrow morning, and in the meanwhile will communicate with Madame Demidoff?"

Serjeant Meyer and his assistant bowed to Iván as they stepped into the fiaker. Volenski waited a few moments till the sound of the wheels died out in the distance, then, taking a cigarette from his case, he lighted it with great deliberation and sauntered off towards the Ringstrasse with an anxious but determined look on his young face.