POOR Volenski had begun to look very haggard and careworn; the mental strain of the past few days was beginning to tell upon him. He was paying less attention to his dress, there was an absence of elasticity in his step, and an almost furtive look in his usually so frank, if dreamy, eyes. He realised this, as, having reached the brilliantly lighted cafés that enliven both sides of the Opern and Kolowrátring, he caught sight of his own figure in one of the tall pier-glasses beyond the windows of the shops, and noticed the untidy look of his cravat, the dusty appearance of his clothes. He looked at his watch; it was barely nine o'clock--time enough to pay a flying visit to his hotel and remedy the obvious defects of his toilet, before he sallied forth to accomplish the task he had in a moment's resolution set himself to do.
It was with the greatest care that he proceeded to change his clothes for the conventional black and white of evening attire, not forgetting the bouquet in his buttonhole, nor the fine handkerchief peepinig from the pocket of the coat. He wished to look the perfect type of the young man about town, idle, elegant, and gay--a rôle he had played so much during the greater prat of his life that it had become second nature; and especially he wished to leave absolutely behind him all traces of the harassed conspirator, who feels himself tracked, and dreads at every turn to meet his doom.
There was no doubt that since the fatal moment when the candlesticks were stolen on the Austrian frontier, fate loomed dark against him and his friends, and he had been alone to face the dangers and difficulties, to battle against relentless chance. The most adverse coincidences had surrounded him from the first, and when luck appeared to be on the turn, some untoward, wholly unforeseen event occurred, to dash any hope he may have had to the ground. First the Cardinal's unfortunate idea of entrusting Madame Demidoff with the candlesticks, then the robbery at Oderberg, next the escape of one of the thieves wiith the very articles that were of such paramount importance; finally the one grand opportunity he would have had to-night, but for Grete Ottlinger's wonderful luck, or foresight, in taking the booty along with her.
But from all this chaos of mischance the unfortunate young man had gleaned one fresh ray of hope. He hardly dared to trust to it, but it gave him the inestimable boon of being able to act for himself, to be actually employed in trying to rescue himself and his friends from the terrible position into which his well-meant blunder had led them. It meant that with tact and diplomacy all was not lost yet, and that in the meanwhile he would at least be free from the intolerable torture of inactivity, waiting, wearily waiting, for that crushing blow that might descend at any moment.
As it was getting late, and Vienna was in the full swing of its usual evening entertainments, Volenski found his way to the "Kaiser Franz," a brilliantly lighted but tumbledown-looking hotel in the Muzeumgasse, which had been named to him by the police as the usual nightly haunt of Grete Ottlinger. Everyone who has been to Vienna, probably, has noticed this hotel, with its flashy front, decorated with masses of gilded plaster, broken and tarnished, and its showy-looking porters in threadbare knee-breeches that show signs of once having been of crimson plush, and gold-laced coats that but too plainly proclaim the second-hand wardrobe dealer's shop. It is mostly very noisy from within, especially in the small hours of the morning.
Under the portico, which is always very brilliantly lighted, usually stand half a dozen of so very young dandies about town, with their opera hats, worn at the backs of their heads, and a full-flavoured cigar between their teeth, more with a view to giving them an air of maturity than for actual enjoyment. They scan the over-dressed, over-painted, mostly somewhat faded beauties that pass up and down the street in front of them, waiting for an invitation for supper and champagne, and do so with an air of nonchalance that would fain betray the habits of a roué.
It was with this crowd of young men that Volenski mixed, though he had teh greatest horror, usually, both for the scanners and the scanned; but to-night he stood under the gaudy portico, watching the very unattractive bevy of yellow-haired beauties that passed in front of him, as if he expected to find the idol of his heart among that crew.
He had taken the precaution to inquire of one of the porters if Grete Ottlinger had gone within, and being answered in the negative, he also cocked his hat at the back of his head and proceeded to light a cigar, trying to look as unconcerned as he could, while he waited for her, the original of the photograph he had so providentially found in that uninviting garret--her, whose confidence at that moment he would have purchased with her weight in gold. Would champagne, or unlimited cognac loosen her tongue, he wondered.
Still they passed; some of them were accosted and taken in to supper, others tried by a smile to encourage the diffident. They all looked very much alike, Volenski thought; they might all be sisters, in fact, as they were sisters in shame and misery.
But her he would recognise. He knew it, he would know her among a thousand. He had only looked at her photograph one minute, but her face danced before his eyes; ugly, commonplace as it was, was it not the face of his destiny?
Ah! there she comes at last. Iván seemed to feel her presence even before he actually heard her harsh, ill-bred voice, and recognised her coarse, low-cast features under the shadow of a cheap, gaudy hat.
Even before he had time to speak to her she was close up to him; no doubt she had noticed how intently he had been watching her. He threw away his cigar, and trying to look amiably at the poor wretch, he beckoned to her to follow him.
She surveyed him up and down, took in at a glance that the cloth of his coat was of the finest, his linen irreproachable, and his cigar fragrant; this evidently leading her to the conclusion that there would be plenty of money spent on the supper, she nodded a careless adieu at her less fortunate companions and followed Volenski into the hall.
Iván was at the bureau ordering a private room, and the most recherché supper, and choicest champagne the "Kaiser Franz" could boast of. The waiters, obsequious and attentive, were addressing congratulatory nods to Grete at the gold-mine she had evidently come across, and very soon Volenski and his companion were ushered into a gaudy, showy apartment on the first floor.
The windows opened on to the Muzeumgasse, and Volenski leaned out into the cold night air, trying to cool his throbbing temples and calm his quivering nerves.
The presence of that common, showily-dressed woman made him feel uncomfortable. He could not chase from his mind the vision of that garret, up a squalid stair, with its bare floor, rickety bed, and drawers full of dirty, tawdry knick-knacks. He tried to think of her only as the one being who could, if she would, if he set the right way to work, save him from his perilous position.
She had evidently hidden the candlesticks in some secure spot, away from the eyes of the police, or, maybe, had already sold them to an accomplice. To find this out was his self-imposed task, and the few moments that elapsed before the waiter returned with the supper, Iván spent in steeling himself to the ordeal.
For a trying ordeal it would surlely be to a young and refined man, unaccustomed to the coarser pleasures of the gay city. Iván in turning round caught the woman's eyes fixed with an amused, half-pitying expresesion upon him. Clearly she thought him a young, shy fool, anxious to taste the cup of dissipation, but with a lingering awkwardness when brought face to face with it. The part suited Iván; he determined to play it, and hide his nervous irritability under the cloak of intense shyness. He did not even know what type of conversation was expected of him, but he trusted that the champagne, which he had ordered dry and plentiful, would loosen his own tongue as well as hers.
Grete had employed the last few moments in divesting herself of her cloak and hat, and she now appeared in a gaudy evening dress, displaying charms that, like the Emperor's candlesticks, had the value of antiquity.
"Leave everything on the sideboard," she said to the waiter; "we will wait on ourselves, and you need not come till we ring for you."
The waiter, well trained, arranged the supper-table as directed; then, taking a last look round to see that everything was in order, he discreetly withdrew.
"I hope you will like what I have ordered," said Iván awkwardly; "if not, please ask for anything you want, anything that will make you lively, you know," he added, with a forced laugh; "we must enjoy ourselves, Grete, mustn't we?"
The ice was broken. Grete burst into a merry peal of laughter.
"Well, you are the funniest creature I have ever come across," she said, shaking with merriment. "Are you afraid of me? You have not opened your mouth since you brought me here. No, not there," she said, as Iván solemnly sat down opposite her at the table; "I call that most unsociable, and I give you my word I won't eat you up. Ach! Herr Je!" she added, with a sigh, "the things on the table are much more appetising than you, and you are not the first young gentleman I have supped with. Come and sit here, little booby," and she placed a chair close to her own.
Iván, glad that she started a conversation--which she was evidently well able to conduct by herself--changed his seat as she wished, and poured himself and her a full glass of champagne.
Poor soul! she was enjoying the recherché supper thoroughly, and, after the first glass of Perrier Jouët, began telling him anecdotes of her chequered career; a quarter of an hour later she sidled up to him, looking somewhat amused the while.
"You funny booby," she laughed, "you may, you know," and she stretched out a very red cheek towards him.
"Look out! the waiter is coming," said Iván pushing back his chair and hastily jumping up from the table.
The bare idea of having to kiss that ugly, elderly woman sent a cold shiver down his spine.
"What if he is, booby mine?" she replied, giving way to an uncontrollable fit of laughter--the idea seemed so amusing. "Do you think he has never seen me kissed before? Come, cheer up, sit down again; your mammy shan't know. There now, this is much more comfortable," she added, for Volenski, on whom the importance of the present situation flashed again in an instant, had offered his feelings as holocaust on the altar of the great cause, and resumed his seat beside the donna--with an arm round her antiquated waist. She placed her yellow head languishingly on his shoulder.
"Do you know, little booby, that, as a rule, I don't much care for young gentlemen like yourself?"
"No?" he asked indifferently.
"Well, you see," she said, with a pout, "it is difficult to get any fun out of them; they are so mortally afraid of being seen in our company that they won't take us anywhere."
Iván could not help smiling to himself at the idea of taking this beauty--say, to the opera--and meeting His Eminence on the way, and did not wonder that Grete was not very often taken to the theatre by "young gentlemen" like himself.
"Who are the people you like best then, Grete?" he asked, in order to keep up the conversation.
"Oh! I have many friends--real friends," she said. "But that's a fine ring you are wearing, booby!"
Volenski felt at this moment that it was of the most vital importance that he should hear something of Grete's real friends; he must get her to tell him about them; surely the accomplice, the one who was arrested at Oderberg, was one, and, who knows, another might at this moment be actually in possession of the fateful candlesticks!
Taking the ring off his finger, he slipped it into Grete's hand, and said with an effort at cordiality:
"Pray accept it; it will adorn your pretty hand. But do tell me some more about your friends--the real friends that were not young gentlemen?"
"One of them was an actor, and earned quite a lot of money--he used to play all kinds of parts--and, Lord! sometimes now, he makes me laugh with the clever way in which he can disguise his handsome features. Never mind, my pretty one," she added coaxingly, "you have got a nice little face of your own too, and--"
"Never mind about my face; tell me about his."
"Now you are angry," she said, with a pout. "I shan't talk any more about him, though he is a clever chap! I could tell you one or two of his tricks. But there, that's nothing to do with you."
Volenski felt the conversation was becoming interesting. He swallowed the last vestige of repulsion he felt for this coarse, now decidedly intoxicated, woman, and pouring her out a large tumblerful of champagne, "Drink this, my girl," he said, "and tell me some of your friend's tricks. I should like to hear something that will make me laugh."
She drank the champagne and said nothing for a few moments, then burst into a loud laugh.
"Ah! but I did the best trick of all to-day; I tricked them all, every one of them; they thought themselves mighty clever, they did, but Grete Ottlinger was one too many for them. Booby, don't look so scared; give me another glass of champagne, and I'll tell you all about it. Another glass, booby; fill it to the top. I don't often get champagne; men mostly only give me beer or spirits. You see, I am not so young as I was. But champagne--I love champagne--"
She was getting very tipsy and very noisy. Volenski, no less excited than herself, tossed down a couple of glasses. He felt nothing, he was conscious of nothing, except that in five minutes he would know his fate, and that this woman held it in her hands.
"Oh! it was funny," she laughed again; "I knew they were after me. I am no fool. They let me come back to Vienna; they meant to search my rooms while I was out; they thought I wouldn't know.
"Booby," she whispered, "old Moses Grünebaum was waiting at the station for me. He had the things already in his shop, while the crew were following me round the town and turning out my rooms; and they will find nothing. Ha! ha! ha! what a lark, booby! Eh, booby? What's the matter with you? Here! I say, booby, what on earth are you after?"
For Volenski was fumbling for his hat, his gloves, his coat, and, tossing a hundred guldens to the woman, he had fled from the hotel, past the astonished waiters into the streets, leaving Grete to pay for the supper, and still muttering to herself: "Booby--well I never! Gott in Himmel! Ach, Herr Je!"