CHAPTER 17

ONCE out in the streets Maria Stefanowna breathed freely again, and lifted the heavy veil from her face. She was not afraid of being followed, for she well knew that in one thing at least she had completely succeeded, and that was in so absolutely terrifying that pusillanimous old courtier, that he would think of nothing save of the means of reaching Petersburg in as short a time as possible, and then shifting all responsibility as to the Tsarevitch's safety on to other shoulders.

Before she encountered the members of the brotherhood again, however, Maria Stefanowna wished to be alone with her thoughts. Her resolution to dare this great coup had been taken so suddenly, her one great anxiety as to the best means of preventing the hideous contemplated murder had been so overwhelming, that it never occurred to her to conjecture as to which view her father and the committee would take of her interference in their affairs.

She had acted from motives of justice and honour, consulting only her woman's heart, and knew that certainly the president and most of the older and more temperate men would approve of what she had done.

Probably had they been given time and opportunity to think over the whole matter themselves, they would have desired some such plan as she had carried through herself. But Mirkovitch's powerful speeches, breathing of hatred for the tyrant and all his kindred, impressive and enkindling as they were, carried all their more feeble wills before his strong personality. And they had never paused to think of the hideousness of their crime, but thirsted with Mirkovitch for vengeance when they began to realise that their messenger had somehow failed them.

As to what had actually happened to Iván Volenski, Maria Stefanowna could not conjecture; she dared not think that, perhaps, while she was striving for victory on her side, he should have fallen into the hands of the police, together with all the compromising papers he carried, and they all of them be irretrievably lost, while Dunajewski and the other comrades were made free.

Ah! if that terrible thing had happened, if she was destined to see her father and all her friends arrested and dragged to Petersburg for trial--that trial a mockery--then she would pray to God that the vengeance which had slipped from their grasp they would vent on her, and punish her for her daring interference before she was allowed to witness their sufferings.

In the Franzgasse that night the meeting had been a gloomy, a melancholy one. Twenty-four hours more had elapsed and yet no sign or sound from Volenski. That some terrible mishap had befallen him there was now no room for doubt, and the only hope that remained in the heart of some was the faint one that he had succeeded in destroying the compromising papers ere he allowed them to fall into wrong hands. For this hope they considered they had reasonable cause. The Tsarevitch was still a prisoner in the house in the Heumarkt, and they themselves were still free and unmolested. As for Volenski, much loved and esteemed as he was by all, their thirst for vengeance rose high when they thought of his probable fate.

Dunajewski and his comrades were now hopelessly lost, and Iván, no doubt, would be made to join them. Mirkovitch had said right, they none of them valued their lives and liberties; one and all of those martyrs out there in Moscow would willingly sacrifice both for the great cause, that was to free Russia for ever from the tyranny that places her in the hindmost ranks of civilisation.

Well, at least they should not remain unavenged! The last, lingering hesitation had vanished, the last feeling of honour and chivalry had died away; the refinement, to which Mirkovitch had so sneeringly alluded, was at last effectually smothered in the thrist for the annihilation of him who was one of the hated crew, of him whom at least they held in their power.

No one noticed, as she entered some time after her father, that Maria Stefanowna was paler than usual, that her attentive, respectful attitude was changed to one of courage and determination.

The usual purposeless, wearying questions were put with regard to the possible news from Volenski, the usual conjectures put forward as to his probable fate and that of the compromising papers.

Mirkovitch sat at the head of the table, drumming impatiently with his fingers, anxious evidently to hear the end of these barren conjectures and surmises.

"Too late to think of all that now," he said at last, rising abruptly, unable to control his impatience; "let us to God take it for granted that Dunajewski, Volenski, and the others are lost to us for ever, that on all of us the blow might fall at any hour, any moment, and let us give ourselves over in the meanwhile to the joy that is divine, the joy of vengeance."

"Mirkovitch, you are right," said a member of the committee; "I myself was one of those who wished to attain great ends by gentle means. I see now that we should all have been wiser to listen to your powerful counsels before; we should have saved our much-valued comrade, Volenski, from joining Dunajewski in a fate that we could not avert. There is no news of him to-day, though ten days have elapsed since he left us; he is either dead or a prisoner. I propose that sentence be passed on our captive, as, all but too soon, it will be passed on him."

A curious joy illumined Mirkovitch's stern features, a look of triumph flashed across his sunken eyes. His hands clenched, as if he already held in their grip the son of the great tyrant who ruled and oppressed the people; his tall figure seemed to grow even more majestic as he stood there, the prophet of that vengeance which is the Lord's, the vengeance that would bring all the tyrants to their knees, grovelling in abject fear.

The president took no part in the proceedings; his whole being revolted against the bloodthirsty scheme, but he was powerless to withhold the tide of feeling, and therefore remained in implied, if not actual, approval.

Mirkovitch had said, "Let us vote," and most hands were raised to give consent to the terrible deed. But Maria Stefanowna had at last gained sufficient composure, sufficient strength of mind to oppose her woman's personality against this sea of masculine will-power.

Hardly were the words:

"You all consent, then?" out of her father's mouth, than she stood up opposite to him--alone, defiant.

"No, father, they do not consent."

All heads were turned towards the young girl, whose voice they were so unaccustomed to hear in these assemblies, whose very presence they no doubt had forgotten, or they never would have discussed the dreaded topic before her. She had latterly been so much one of themselves, that her very sex had been forgotten in good-fellowship and camaraderie, and none had thought of forbidding her to come to-night when a death-sentence was to be passed, which her woman's ear had no right to hear.

"Maria," said Mirkovitch, somewhat gently, "I am sure all our friends will agree in blaming me severely for allowing you to be here to-night. The harm done, however, cannot now be undone; we must all of us only entreat of your good sense, of your patriotism, not to try to oppose your weak will against what has been decided for the good of the cause, but to endeavour to gather strength, such as is necessary, if you wish to become a useful member of the fraternity. In the meanwhile you must let me take you home. This is, indeed, no place for one so young as you."

She had listened to him somewhat impatiently, though respectfully, since he was her father, but as soon as he paused she resumed:

"My friends, my comrades, my brothers. I have no right, I know, beyond that of friendship, to force you to listen to me, but I know so well what is passing in the minds of you all at this moment. You have none of you paused to think what a dastardly crime it is that you are all meditating--"

"Maria!" thundered Mirkovitch's imperious voice.

'No, I will not stop, my father, even if you all should decide that my audacity shall be punished with the same assassin's dagger you are even now sharpening for a helpless, defenceless youth."

Mirkovitch had advanced towards his daughter; a dangerous look was in his eyes. Ten pairs of hands interposed to prevent the father from striking that audacious daughter. No one else had spoken, and Maria had repeated: "No, that hideous, that low, dastardly crime will, thank God, never be accomplished."

"And who will prevent it, Maria Stefanowna?" asked Mirkovitch, half wrathfully, half sneeringly.

"I will!" said Maria, and looked round quietly at the enthusiastic faces, all raised hopefully towards her.

Then, while silence fell on all those assembled, while Mirkovitch himself listened awestruck at what her woman's wit had imagined and carried out, she told them, in glowing words, of what she had thought and done, since twenty-four hours ago she first began to realise that these Utopian dreamers were descending the path that leads to dishonour, low, abject, and irretrievable. She told them of her horror when she thought that it had been she who had drawn an unsuspecting youth into a death-trap such as they were preparing for him; told them the misery the thought caused her, that it should be her own father's hand that was destined to strike the cowardly blow.

Then she reminded them of the worthy object they had in view, when first they thought of abducting the young prince; she spoke to them of Dunajewski, of their comrades languishing, so far, in prison.

"Remember," she said, "that that object was a noble one. Why should it ever have been abandoned? Our friend Volenski may have been arrested, stopped, it is true, but we have other means in our power still to save Dunajewski, and not to abandon Iván to his fate."

They did not understand what she was driving at, but still they listened to her glowing words, unwilling to interrupt her. Then she began to tell them of what she had actually accomplished, her interview with Lavrovski, the old courtier's attitude, his confession of impotence, the letter which she had given him to hand over to the Tsar, and which was but a replica of the one Volenski was taking across to Petersburg for them.

It seemed incredible that a young girl, who had seen so little of the world, should have been able to so cooly mature a plan of such wondrous audacity, and having matured it, should have been capable of so successfully carrying it through.

And it was wonderful to see the magical effect of the girl's words on all the gloomy spirits round; the feeling of manhood, of uprightness, temporarily smothered under the dark thoughts of vengeance, struggled for mastery once more; young faces were once more aglow with enthusiasm, that breathed of exalted patriotism and love for their fellow-men.

Mirkovitch only looked grim and sullen still, though every now and then a careful observer would have noticed in his eyes a look of pride for the daughter that had done this deed.

When she had finished a silence fell over them all, but this time it was a silence of happiness, of relief after the oppression of the past twenty-four hours.

The president was the first to break it. He rose with much dignity, and went up to Maria Stefanowna, who still stood, her cheeks aglow, her eyes aflame, watching the result of her words, trembling, yet hopeful.

"Maria Stefanowna," he said simply, "I think I speak the words of all those assembled when I say 'I thank you!'"

These few words seemed to relieve the tension. An enthusiastic vote of thanks was passed to Maria, who now, womanlike, feared she might break down through overmastering emotion.

Harmony seemed restored once more. Mirkovitch only sat smoking grimly and silently; the others were chattering gaily, and Maria was assailed with questions.

"When can we hear from Dunajewski as to whether they have crossed the frontier safely?"

Maria Stefanowna had thought of everything.

"It is to be officially announced in the Fremdenblatt," she said.

"And that very day, Mirkovitch, you will be relieved of your charge."

"I think," he said obstinately, "that all tyrants and their brood are best out of the world altogether. And in the meanwhile," he added, with his usual grimness, "we are to hope, I suppose, that Volenski and our papers are safe."

But they refused to allow their enthusiasm to be damped. Hope reigned supreme in the committee-room in the Franzgasse to-night. The papers could not be in wrong hands, for the Tsarevitch was still a prisoner in the Heumarkt, and they themselves were still free; and if their papers were safe they had, they believed, every reason to hope that their messenger was likewise.

The meeting was prolonged far into the night. Happy conjectures now took the place of the gloomy ones, and Maria Stefanowna was the heroine of the hour. As soon as she felt quite convinced that her plan had been approved of, and that there was no more danger of her father reimposing his dark views upon them, she left them, followed by their cheers and blessings, to pray quietly in her own room that the rest of her plan might turn out as successfully as the beginning.

Far away in a foreign though hospitable land, in a hotel and surrounded by strangers, this same comrade of theirs was hovering between life and death in the throes of an acute brain fever. The strain had been too great; the aching brain refused to bear any further burden. And the compromising papers--the fated candlesticks; where were they now? In whose hands would they fall? Would, after all this plucky fighting, the victory remain in other hands, and if so, would God grant that they were not the hands of deadliest enemies?