CHAPTER 16

IT had been a weary, an anxious time of waiting for Count Lavrovski, while forced to sit patiently at the hotel, watching for news of the truant, and sending reports of the Tsarevitch's imaginary attack of measles to the authorities at home.

But obviously the deception could not be carried on much longer. Already the Tsaritsa had spoken of coming herself to Vienna and nursing her son, and one or two imperious demands had been made through the ambassadors for bulletins, signed by the great physicians, who no doubt had been called in to attend upon the illustrious patient. A day or two more would see the catastrophe, all the more terrible as Lavrovski's deceit would be taken as a sure sign of complicity; and the old Russian now cursed his own weakness in not having immediately shifted the responsibility of this fearful calamity from his own shoulders, which would have been, as events proved, by far the wisest course to pursue. Disgrace would have been the result then--perhaps an order to spend a couple of years abroad; but now he saw no hope before him, only a vision of Siberia, there to end the last years of his life.

He had looked, half shudderingly, half resolutely, at the tiny revolver that would be his supreme and forlorn hope. No doubt, in consideration of his long years of faithful service to the family, his Imperial master would grant him the inestimable boon of death, instead of the slow tortures of a Siberian prison.

Oh! how Count Lavrovski wished he had never consulted that French detective, or having done so, had confided the whole truth to him, for had he not led him into these additional days of deception, which he felt would prove his ruin?

While Volenski, stricken down by his persistent ill-luck, had at last found in physical prostration merciful oblivion from the harrowing anxieties of the past few days, Count Lavrovski, in no less pitiable a plight than the young Pole himself, sat meditating as to whether he would once more seek out the old detective, this time armed with the determination to tell him all, or whether he would send a wire at once to Petersburg asking for immediate help. The latter was undoubtedly the wiser course. Prudence and duty both dictated it, but human nature, ever prone to put off an evil moment to some more distant time, begged inwardly for more delay.

It was, therefore, with a mixture of buoyant hope and surprise that Count Lavrovski heard that a lady desired to speak with him on a matter of urgent business. She had refused to give her name, the waiter said, but had asked him to tell the Count that she was the bearer of a message from M. Furet.

"Show her up at once," said Lavrovski eagerly.

What could it be but good news? Something of importance the detective had heard and wished to communicate with him at once. Count Lavrovski rose as M. Furet's purported messenger entered the room, and bowed instinctively as he beheld a lady of refined bearing--so different from the usual female detective's aid he had expected to see. Her face was closely veiled, but her figure and general appearance bespoke youth as well as refinement.

She took the chair which the old Count was offering her, and dexterously placed it so that her back was against the window, while Lavrovski's face remained in full light.

"Monsieur le Comte," she began courteously, "I must first tender you my humble apologies for the slight deception I have been forced to practise upon you. I wished to make sure of being allowed to see you without delay, and used M. Furet's name as an introduction to your presence. I am not his messenger."

"But, madame--mademoiselle--" stammered Lavrovski, bewildered at this strange preamble, "I--"

"You are at a loss to understand," rejoined the stranger, "how I knew that M. Furet's name would be a passport to you. I will tell you that presently, when I have delivered you the message with which I am entrusted, and for which I will venture to ask your kind attention."

Count Lavrovski was too bewildered to reply. There was a slight pause whilst the mysterious stranger was evidently collecting her thoughts, and Lavrovski instinctively felt some dread he could not account for, some undefinable fear that he would hear a message of life and death.

"I think I am right in stating, monsieur," she resumed, "that you are at this moment in grave anxiety concerning the disappearance of an august personage whom I need not name. That is so, is it not?"

Lavrovski had half expected this, and yet he turned pale with emotion when he heard this stranger so calmly talking of this dreaded subject. He did not reply; the lady seemed not to expect it, for she proceeded at once.

"Let me assure you first of all, monsieur, that that august personage is well in health, and for the present in no personal danger."

She emphasised the words "for the present," watching the effect on Lavrovski's face.

"True," she continued, "he is a prisoner at this moment, in a prison at once luxurious and comfortable. But he is in the power of persons--those whose emissary you see before you--who will be only too glad to give him back his freedom."

A look of relief crossed the old Russian's face. He thought he understood it all now. In spite of her sex, her well-cut clothes, and refined appearance this woman was one of a gang of desperadoes, who lived by abducting persons, instead of stealing goods, demanding high ransoms, like wayside brigands. Well! thank God! there was no great harm done, and money in Russia is always plentiful when needed. Count Lavrovski without another word took out his pocket-book, and, laying it down on the table, said simply:

"Name the price."

"It is my object, in coming here to-day, to do so," said the stranger imperturbably; "but I will ask you, Count Lavrovski, to put back that pocket-book--the price of the Tsarevitch's liberty is not contained therein."

Lavrovski stared in mute surprise; every minute of this strange interview plunged him into ever-growing mazes of astonishment.

Then, rapidly and to the point, Maria Stefanowna plunged into her subject. She hardly paused to take breath, she had arranged the whole interview so thoroughly in her mind during those long, harrowing hours she had spent pacing up and down her room last night. She explained to the now almost bewildered old courtier the daring plot that had placed the heir to the Russian throne a helpless prisoner in the hands of a few young enthusiasts. She explained to him her own share in the matter, recalled to his mind the mysterious odalisque, and assured him that the august prisoner's comforts were attended to by herself with the utmost care.

She spoke in clear, well-defined tones, with a briskness that fairly took Count Lavrovski's breath away. The old Russian listened, horror-struck, to the open allusions or covert threats of His Imperial Highness' dangerous position. He heard with amazement how so monstrous a thing had been planned and executed on so sacred and august a personage by a gang of young men whose very existence he had been ignorant of, and he realised at once how futile would have been any effort on his part, or M. Furet's, to fight so many enemies in the dark.

"I think, monsieur, I have now made it clear to you that the Tsarevitch's life is entirely in the hands of those who hold him prisoner, and my purpose in coming here to-day is to tell you on what conditions Nicholas Alexandrovitch shall be restored to life and liberty."

"Conditions, madame? I will hear no conditions," exclaimed Count Lavrovski, who at last recovered his speech at this outrageous audacity. "Death, swift and sudden, shall overtake you, one and all, and those who have sent you. Thank God, the Russian police are far-seeing, far-reaching enough to reach the son of its beloved Emperor, without having to listen to conditions dictated by such as you."

He had jumped up full of wrath, and his hand was already on the bell-pull, in order to summon Stepán to guard this villainous emissary of evil tidings, while he himself sent forthwith to Petersburg for the wherewithal to punish this daring crew.

Maria Stefanowna had sat there unmoved; her foot tapping rapidly on the ground was the only sign of impatience she gave.

"Monsieur, remember," she said quietly, "that if you pull that bell your young master will be dead before another night has passed over his head."

The old Russian understood. What a fool he was! The woman spoke truly. What could he do but wait patiently, meekly, to hear the manifesto of these wretches who held the dagger against a Tsarevitch's heart?

Later, perhaps, revenge might come, but now they must negotiate, treat with them, however galling it might be.

"You are right, madame! No doubt you and your companions know how completely we are in your power, or they would never have dared to send you to me."

Then with a violent effort at self-control he added:

"I will listen to what you have to say."

Maria Stefanowna gave a sigh of satisfaction. She had gained his undivided attention, as well as his confession of the power she held in her hand. The plan she had formed in her mind needed now but propounding; she was sure at least of undivided hearing.

"Monsieur," she said, "although I own that the prisoner we hold in our power is one whose safety and liberty are of vast importance to--shall we say?--one section of the Russian Empire, at the same time, perhaps, it has never struck you that he, in the person of his adherents and officials, holds captive many a one whose life and liberty are also of infinite value. Have you ever heard the name of Dunajewski mentioned before now?"

The old courtier knew it well, the ardent, unforgiving Nihilist, whose capture, together with a score of his comrades, a month ago, had been the triumph of the Third Section. He guessed now what this woman's object was in coming to him. An interchange of prisoners it was to be. Great heavens! What mattered it if the world was populated with thousands of liberated convicts, as long as that one precious life was safe?

"I have here, monsieur," Maria Stefanowna was saying, "a letter which we propose you should lay before your master the Tsar. In it we tell him that his son is in the hands of persons who hold him as hostage under certain conditions. These conditions are--complete pardon for Dunajewski and his comrades now in prison, together with a free pass out of the country. On the day that they have crossed the frontier Nicholas Alexandrovitch will find his prison doors open, and a fiaker ready to drive him to his hotel."

The old Count shuddered a little at the thought that he was to be the bearer of these fearful tidings; that he it was who would have to tell the anxious parents that their son was even now a captive within range of an assassin's dagger. Visions of the terrible revenge the Caesars were wont to wreak on the messengers of evil news rose before his mind, and he thought of that momentous question the sorely tried mother and father would put to him, "What has thou done with our son?"

"Is that all that is contained in the letter?" he asked, with an effort.

"Not quite all," she said. "In it we repeat to the Tsar what I here solemnly declare to you."

"And that is?"

"That we wish you to remember, monsieur, that you have no cause for the fear that Nicholas Alexandrovitch is in danger of his life. Give us back our comrades, and we will hand you over our hostage as well in health as enforced captivity will allow. But also bear always in mind this one all-important fact, that the other side of the wall, where the Tsarevitch lives, breathes, and sleeps, stands a guardian grim, determined, ever wakeful. He needs nought but some confirmed fear, perhaps the sound of an alien footstep on the stairs, and the dagger even held in his unerring hand will be plunged straightway in the prisoner's heart."

The old courtier bowed his head, and sat for some time mute, horror-stricken. It all seemed like the most terrible nightmare, this daring plot, these fanatics, and he the unjust steward who had betrayed his trust, and now was being, oh! --so cruelly punished for the wrongs he had committed. Who knows? had he been less cowardly, had he trusted to the great system of Russian police, they might have succeeded in dealing the return blow to these miscreants before they had had time to realise that they themselves were in danger. Alas! it was too late to mourn now. He, Lavrovski, the Russian police, ay, the Tsar and Tsaritsa themselves, were in these villains' hands, and nothing could be done to crush them, to torture them, to annihilate this young messenger, who came to him with a smile on her lips and the threat of death in her hands.

He read the letter through that was to be laid before the Tsar, then he looked up at the young figure before him, and vainly tried to read behind the closely drawn veil all that there was of enthusiasm, of eagerness, of mistaken sense of the rights of man.

"Madame," he said at last, "I have no doubt that when your friends sent you to me to-day they knew that my consent to their demands was a foregone conclusion. The hostage you all hold is so precious a one that it is not for me to take vigorous measures unaided, for coercing you into submission. If my young master's life is, as you say, in danger--and whilst he is in your hands I doubt not but that it is--no action of mine shall increase that danger. It is for His Imperial Majesty the Tsar to decide what shall be your fate, for, believe me, a crime such as you have perpetrated will not remain unpunished long. Sooner or later it will bring its own doom, even though you may seemingly obtain your wishes now. I will take your letter to my Imperial master, and he shall decide what course he will wish to pursue."

He had said this with much dignity. Maria Stefanowna rose. There was nothing more for her to do; her self-imposed task was accomplished. Once alone she would feel able to think of it as such, and try to realise whether she had gained a great victory or delivered herself, her father, and her friends, bound hand and foot, into the hands of the enemy.

She rose, and Lavrovski accompanied her to the door, courteous as ever, though in his heart he would have wished to crush this emissary of evil tidings. For some time he sat, his head buried in his hands, then he rang the bell and ordered the Russian valet to pack his valise and bag, and be ready to leave the city by the evening express. The latter, schooled to unquestioning obedience, manifested no surprise, asked for no explanations, and was ready at the time appointed to take the journey to Petersburg with Count Lavrovski.

The old Count started with a heavy heart; the terrible adventure into which the Tsarevitch's impetuosity had led them both was, as he feared, threatening to end tragically, not for the heir to the throne probably--though who could trust these murderous Socialists?--but to himself, the innocent one, who would be made the scapegoat, the whipping-boy, on whom the Imperial wrath would be free to vent itself.