MARIA Stefanowna's position in the great Socialist brotherhood was a curious one. The only woman among so many men, she yet knew all their secrets and plans, and, though young, had often been of good counsel to them.
Mirkovitch, her father, had early in life accustomed his motherless daughter to his mysterious ways and curious, weird speeches. Maria had been born and bred in the hatred of the rulers who sat upon the Russian throne, and listened to all her father's sometimes bloodthirsty schemes, not often sharing in them, but always with silent approval.
When the brotherhood, after full deliberation, decided to entrust her with the most important rôle in the abduction of the Tsarevitch, she felt proud and happy at the thought of being for the first time of use to the great cause, which she had just as much at heart as the most enthusiastic among them. When Dunajewski and his comrades had been arrested the girl's ears were filled with horrible tales of the tortures they would undergo, both whilst in prison at Moscow and afterwards during that weary tramp across the snowy desert, with horrible intervals of so-called rest in overcrowded, evil-smelling halting places; then the mercury mines, that in three years change the hale and hearty youth into an old man, palsied and imbecile.
And the cruel fate could be spared them if she, Maria, was clever enough to play the part that had been assigned to her, could lure the Tsarevitch into a prison, not only comfortable, but luxurious, where he would only be kept until those poor martyrs at Moscow were once more restored to liberty and happiness.
She threw herself into the part of the enterprising odalisque, with the finesse and coquetry peculiar to all the daughters of the East, and the next day was able to receive with pride and delight the congratulations and thanks of the brotherhood, assembled to do her honour.
She guessed her father's dark thoughts with regard to the helpless prisoner under his charge, but so far had had no occasion to tremble for his safety. She knew most of her comrades as being of refined and temperate nature, knew the high-minded, aristocratic president, the gentle and dreamy Poles, who were in strong majority, and felt that her father's evil designs would be held well in check.
But when Volenski, the trusted messenger, gave no sign of the success of his mission, when all spirits waxed gloomy and lips began to murmur, Maria's heart began to beat anxiously, both for the safety of the young captive and for the honour of the cause.
The great cause that she revered and worshipped, to which she meant to dedicate her life, was about to be polluted by a crime so foul, so cowardly, that Maria Stefanowna's whole soul rose in rebellion, and imperiously demanded of her woman's wit to find a means of averting so terrible a catastrophe; and it had been she who had led Nicholas Alexandrovitch to what threatened to become an unknown grave. She looked shudderingly at her hands, and wondered if some of the young blood would not leave on them a lifelong stain.
All night she paced up and down her room in restlessness and terror. At times she thought she could hear her father's footsteps creeping stealthily towards the prisoner's room, and then she had to stop her ears not to hear the last agonised cry of the young man, surprised and helpless in the hands of his assassin.
It was broad daylight before her nerves and brain found a short respite from the terrible anxiety that had tortured her, since that last decisive speech of her father's at the meeting last night. Womanlike, she had obstinately pondered till she thought she saw a way out of the difficulty. Being a Russian she was very devout. She prayed long and earnestly for the success of her scheme, which was to save the prisoner from murder, and her comrades, her father, the great cause itself, from eternal shame.