WHILE their comrade was undergoing the various vicissitudes into which his over-anxious zeal had led him, the members of the Socialist brotherhood in Vienna had been going through a very bitter time of anxiety and dread for the future.
A week had now elapsed since Iván Volenski should have, according to his own statement, left Vienna for Petersburg with the papers entrusted to him, and up to this day no message had come from him.
He had promised to give them some definite news of himself as soon as he had reached Petersburg. If all had been well he should have been there three days ago, and must by now have given the papers over to Taranïew. Why, then, did he not wire, or give some account of himself, to reassure them at least that he and the fateful papers were safe?
The night before they had met in their committee-room in the Franzgasse, and it had been a gloomy and agitated meeting. The conviction had first begun to take root in their minds that the usual fate had overtaken their daring messenger, and that after this any day, at any hour, the crushing blow might fall upon them all.
Once their papers were in the hands of the Third Section, probably not one of them could hope to escape. And what was more galling, more bitter even than the fear of death, was the fact that their plot, so magnificently planned, so daringly carried out, would end but in their own perdition, with nothing gained save a gang of convicts tramping to Siberia.
Yes! there was an "unless," a grim and great alternative that, in spite of the president's almost entreating speeches, in spite of the better, more fined nature in most of them, had gradually but surely forced itself upon their minds. Mirkovitch had put it to them five days ago, when flushed with their triumphs they thought of nothing but the great ends they could gain by their success. Now that this success seemed like bubbles, to be bursting before their eyes, they thought once more of their old comrade's grim words, and began longing for revenge.
The president had asked them to meet again to-night, and towards ten o'clock they dropped in, one by one, anxious for news, full of eagerness.
"Has anything been heard?" were the first words uttered by each as they entered, and, on hearing the gloomy negative, pipes were brought out and smoked in sullen silence.
The president had arrived, urbane, temperate, as usual, but even on his face there sat a look of deep apprehension, which he evidently strove to hide from his younger comrades. Every now and then he glanced anxiously towards the door, where Mirkovitch's footsteps would probably soon be heard.
The latter had not yet arrived; yesterday he had seemed more grim, more sullen than ever. Unlike the other members of the brotherhood, his thoughts seemed in no way to dwell very anxiously on Iván and his probable fate; they seemed to tend with ever-growing satisfaction towards the terrible goal, the attainment of which he hoped to reach shortly. He had not yet put into words those thoughts that he knew already loomed darkly in the minds of all, and which completely overmastered him; but he meant to obtain their consent to-night, and felt, as he entered the room and noted the attitudes of them all, that his would be an easy victory. He had taken good care to sow his seeds in good time; to-night he meant to reap the harvest.
Maria Stefanowna was with him. They all trusted her with the secrets of the fraternity now. The part she had so successfully, so discreetly played at the opera ball had shown them that a woman such as she was is often a valuable adjunct in the affairs of men.
The girl came in with her father, and having greeted those she knew best among the committee, she also lighted a short cigarette and waited to hear what they all had to say.
"Mirkovitch, have you heard from Volenski?" asked a dozen eager voices.
"No," he replied; "I thought the president or some of the committee would have had some message from him by now."
There was a silence; then a sullen voice said:
"Swietlitzki declares that the Papal Nuncio did not go to Petersburg at all, but that he has been staying in the Tyrol for the last week."
"But Iván said that he was starting with him on the following day, Ash-Wednesday."
"No!" interrupted the president, "no fear of that."
"Do you mean that he may have fallen into the clutches of the police?"
"That is impossible," said the president reassuringly, "for we should not all be sitting here peaceably. By now every one of us incriminated in those fateful papers--and most of us are so, I imagine--would have been arrested. The very fact that we are still, all of us, free men proves that our papers are safe."
"Our papers might be," rejoined one of the brethren, "but what about our messenger?"
"He might, before being arrested, have succeeded in destroying the papers, you mean," said another.
"I feel sure," asserted one of the older men, "that Iván would sooner part with his life than with our secret."
There was once more silence in the room. Mirkovitch's grim eyes travelled mockingly, perhaps even contemptuously, on those assembled round him. Maria Stefanowna took no part at all in the expression of these various surmises and conjectures. She sat listening attentively to all that was said around her, but her eyes, ever and anon, were attached with a curiously anxious and restless look on her father, who sat opposite to her.
"Does it not strike you, my friends," said Mirkovitch at last, sarcastically, "that it is impossible for us, some eight hundred leagues away, to arrive at any definite conclusion as to what has or has not happened to Volenski?"
That was so, it seemed such a hard and dry fact, and yet there was some slight satisfaction, even in these vague conjectures, shared with one's neighbour, in hearing what the other comrades' thoughts and fears were, and every now and then in provoking a reassuring remark from their calm president.
"For my part," added Mirkovitch, "I think Volenski's silence is exceedingly ominous. There could have been no possible danger in his sending a wire to the president--who is known to be a great friend of his--apprising him of his arrival in Petersburg. If he had accomplished the journey safely you may be quite sure your chairman would have received such a message."
The president looked up anxiously at his comrade and stretched out his hand towards him, as if he would check him from proceeding with what he was going to say.
"Speak, Mirkovitch; you have something on your mind," said one of the committee, and "Let us hear!" came from all corners of the room.
Maria Stefanowna, like the president, made a movement as if she would have wished to stop her father, but, perhaps realising the futility of such an attempt, she resumed her cigarette and her anxious, expectant attitude.
"What I have to say will, I know, not seem pleasant to some of you," said Mirkovitch, who had now risen and looked down on his assembled brethren from his towering height with that contemptuous smile peculiar to himself. "You see, most of you have had the misfortune of having been born gentlemen. I have not, and, therefore, none of those feelings you call refined have place in my burly, low-born mind. My friends, though you may be gentlemen, you must not be weak and effete like those of your class. For God's sake, look the facts straight in the face, and try to forget yourselves and your own petty feelings for the good of our country and our people which we serve. You would not listen to me before, against my counsel you used our mighty, our successful plan for the paltry purpose of getting our comrades out of prison. I tell you," he asserted, bringing his powerful fist down on the table, "that they are all willing over there to die for the good cause. They are not, as we are, fond of life and liberty; they love the cause first, themselves not at all. Why should we care what has happened to Volenski? What is one man against the weal of millions?"
He looked inspired now, a prophet of the Utopia that dwelt in all their hearts, the Utopia at which some of them would have arrived by the most gentle of means, but which this man would conquer by fire and sword.
They all knew what htey would hear next; they knew what Mirkovitch had all through wished them to do. Most of them would willingly have stopped their ears not to hear the dreaded manifesto that this powerful man would in the next moment hurl at them.
"We have often had speeches here," resumed Mirkovitch once more, "to inflame our enthusiasm against the tyrants that hold our destinies and those of our fellow-men in the palm of their hands. I am no orator; the speeches did not come from me. Some of you, who to-night seem weakest, spoke the loudest then. But I tell you, we have a great weapon in our hands against them, the one weapon that must, sooner or later, lay them prostrate at our feet, asking for the mercy they have never granted us.
"That weapon is fear. Let us strike terror in their hearts, my friends; they have no other vulnerable points. When we can, let us strike in the dark, at all times swiftly and surely, so that in days to come, very soon, they will look at each other with blanched faces and trembling lips, and murmur what they dare not say out loud, 'My turn next, perhaps.' It is then, and then only, that we shall be the masters, when cowardly fear will place them grovelling at our feet. Then we can dictate, then we can negotiate, and before then what matter Dunajewski or Volenski, or a hundred such? What are their lives that we should hesitate for a moment to wield the weapon our own efforts have placed in our hands?"
He sat down once more, and a dead silence followed this speech. Enthusiasm was once more kindling in the gloomy faces around, once more the man with the iron will had imposed it on his weaker comrades, and when his mocking eyes again travelled round the room he could read on the faces before him the result of his powerful words; he could read it in the gradual disappearance of the anxious looks, the unspoken terrors; could read it in the young, dreamy eyes, now once more burning with the glow of enthusiasm, the thirst for valiant deeds, at peril of life and freedom.
"Mirkovitch is right," ws heard on all sides.
Perhaps some of them still shuddered when they realised what his being right meant to the helpless prisoner in the Heumarkt, but they were very few now, and when the president's anxious eyes and Mirkovitch's triumphant ones scanned all the faces there, they knew that if the grim Socialists's wish was put to the vote there would be many "ayes" and very few "noes."
"After all, my friends," resumed the stalwart Russian, now laying his trump card on the table, "I am sure, if you were asked, you, none of you, would wish to see our great plot come ignominiously to grief through the liberation of our prisoner by the Russian police, and all of us convicted without having attained anything, after having dared so much. Any hour, any minute now, may see us all in the clutches of the Third Section, while Nicholas Alexandrovitch leaves my house free and unscathed. Every second heightens our peril and diminishes the chances of our triumph. At least if we fall, for there seems no likelihood of our being able to escape undetected, let us have accomplished something that will leave our names for ever glorified in the eyes of every patriot in Russia."
Thus was the doom of the prisoner sealed; very little discussion followed. Unwillingly, but still unanimously, they had given their consent to the dastardly deed which Mirkovitch but too willingly offered to do for them. One or two of them asked for a respite--twenty-four hours--during which, after all, some news of Volenski might yet arrive. The old Socialist, satisfied at having carried his point, willingly agreed to wait till the morrow, and a final meeting therefore was convened for the next day, at the same hour. The president had said nothing. What was his influence against that of his grim comrade? The tide of feeling, a mixture of mistaken duty and misguided enthusiasm, had sealed the fate of the young Tsarevitch.
The weight of indecision seemed to have been lifted from the minds of them all. Althought they neither smoked nor chatted, according to their wont, the gloom had quite given place to irrevocable determination. No more questions or surmises were put forward as to Volenski's probable fate or their own certain doom. the word "assassination" had sounded once, pronounced by many lips with a shudder. It was now called "execution"; Mirkovitch, the willing executioner; they, the judges who had arrested and condemned a prisoner just as their tyrants did with the millions over which they held sway.
Half an hour later they were all preparing to depart, sober and silent, with thoughts of the great morrow. No one had taken much notice of Maria Stefanowna, whose large dark eyes had been fixed on her father, as if he held her in a trance. When most of them had gone she also slipped out of the room, not waiting to see if Mirkovitch was accompanying her, as she brushed past him. Out in the street she hailed a fiaker, jumped in alone, and was driven rapidly in the direction of the Heumarkt.