CHAPTER 19

"BY ORDER OF THE EXECUTORS OF THE LATE MR. JAMES HUDSON

"Messrs. Phillips and Phillips will sell on the premises the whole of the contents of the superb mansion known as 108, Curzon Street, Mayfair, consisting of antique and modern furniture, piano, china, glass, pictures, and a rare and valuable collection of antiquities, gold and silver plate, jewels, etc. The sale will take place on Thursday next, the 12th inst., at eleven o'clock precisely. To view, by cards only, the day prior to and morning of the sale. Cards from Messrs. Gideon, Eyre, and Blackwell, Solicitors, 97, Bedford Row, W.C., or from the Auctioneers."

It was some ten days since Volenski, stricken down by illness, had had enforced rest and captivity in a London hotel, and he now sat convalescent, yet still ailing, bodily and mentally, with that day's Times, containing the above announcement, in his hand.

He had now become almost accustomed to his ill-luck, which had been pursuing him so steadily without break or respite, landing him at last on a bed of sickness in a hotel--in a strange land, far from all his friends.

The long-enforced rest the doctor had prescribed for him had enabled him to collect his energies for a final struggle, which he knew was inevitable. Matters, he knew, could not remain as they were. The sacred trust that had been placed in his charge, and which he had so unwittingly betrayed into alien hands, must become his again, if at the cost of the last remnant of energy left in him after so protracted a struggle. Vainly, during the long hours of enforced idleness, he had tried to conjecture where the scene of his next battle would be laid, the decisive battle he would yet have to fight.

And there it was, announced in the columns of The Times. The scene would be an auction room, the battle one of money. He had written to Lobkowitz, asking for his help, and now was waiting anxiously to know what the president had decided to do. He believed that Lobkowitz would continue to trust him to the last, and hoped he would not find it necessary to ask the help and counsel of some more determined members of the committee. Volenski felt that they would never forgive, and look upon his blunder as twin-brother to a crime.

In the midst of his reflections the waiter interrupted him, telling him that a gentleman, a foreigner, desired to speak with him.

"Show him up at once," said Volenski eagerly.

He hoped it would be Lobkowitz, longed to grasp his old friend's hand, tell him all he had suffered, and revel in his sympathy. But it was Mirkovitch, sullen, grim, half menacing, who refused to take his hand, and would not sit, but stood firm and silent till Iván had explained, had told him all.

And it was to this stern judge, this man whose unerring hand would inevitably punish the guilty, if guilt there be, that Iván Volenski had to tell the history of his relentless fate.

He told him of the Cardinal's mission, of the Emperor's candlesticks, with the mysterious, hidden receptacles, into which, believing he was acting for the best, he had hidden the compromising papers. Then of the Cardinal's sudden caprice in entrusting these candlesticks into the hands of a friend--a lady. He told him of the robbery at Oderberg, the escape of the thief, his own cautious interview with the chief of the police. He described his fruitless search in Grete Ottlinger's room, his loathsome experience with the coarse woman in the "Kaiser Franz," his interview with Grünebaum, his journey to London, then his visit to Davies; all fruitless, all leading to more disappointments, more hopeless entanglements. Then finally and, worst of all, the crushing of all his hopes at the door of Mr. James Hudson, who, by some fatality in which the superstitious Pole saw the hand of diabolical agency, had died suddenly that very night.

Mirkovitch had listened attentively and silently through this long narrative of misery and struggle. A kinder look had perhaps replaced the habitual grimness of his face, and when Iván paused at last exhausted he drew a chair near the sick man's couch, and said almost gently:

"My poor friend, you must have suffered much."

Iván thanked him with a look, and eagerly grasped the hand the old Socialist now held out towards him.

"I suppose you are quite aware where you committed the great, the only real fault in all this long history of misfortune?" said Mirkovitch at last, still quite kindly.

"You mean that I did not communicate with either Lobkowitz or yourself the moment those candlesticks passed out of my possession?"

Mirkovitch assented.

"Remember, I gathered from the Cardinal's speech that the lady had never touched the one which contained our papers. It was damaged, and in His Eminence's own presence she had packed it up and placed it on one side."

"I noticed, Iván, that you have not told me the name of the lady who had charge of the Emperor's candlesticks, and therefore like yourself has some right to claim them?"

Volenski paused awhile, and then the name came from his lips like a whisper:

"It was Anna Demidoff."

Mirkovitch jumped up; the gentleness, the sympathy he had assumed for a brief space was gone in a moment, and once more there stood the judge, ready to punish and to condemn.

"Iván Stefanovitch Volenski," he said, "you were then content to allow that spy, that agent of our bitterest foes, to have even for an hour our dearest secrets under her roof, close to her very hand, without sweeping her out of our path, or, if you were too faint-hearted, asking those who are strong to clear the way of such a powerful foe?"

Iván did not reply. What could he say? The reproach was true enough, but he had meant well; it was fate that had been too strong. He watched Mirkovitch now as the grim Nihilist paced up and down the narrow room, with thoughts of vengeance written on his stern, rugged face.

"If only the Tsarevitch were under my hands still," he muttered, "all might yet have been saved."

"Then . . . ?" asked Iván eagerly, "Dunajewski--?"

"Is in England safely to-day, and the Tsarevitch back in Petersburg."

"I do not understand," said Iván, bewildered. "How, then, were the negotiations conducted?"

"In the simplest way imaginable," said Mirkovitch, "by a woman, my daughter."

"Maria Stefanowna?"

"She, it appears, had some womanish scruples, shared, by the way, by many of our comrades, as to the advisability of doing away with our prisoner as I had proposed all along, and accomplishing by terror what we could not do by diplomacy. When you were not heard of, and it became clear that some untoward fate had reached you, we all voted Nicholas' death sentence.

"She, on her own initiative, thought out the daring plan of making that old fool Lavrovski be the bearer of our manifesto to the Tsar, in exactly the same terms as on the letter you were yourself taking to Taranïew. Without consulting the committee she sought him out, for we had previously ascertained that through sheer terror he had persistently put off communicating with the government at Petersburg. With the dagger, so to speak, at his master's heart, Lavrovski had no chance but to accept, and he became the bearer of our ultimatum. What passed at Petersburg between himself and the authorities we, of course, do not know, but three days ago the official papers announced the liberation of the convicted Nihilist Dunajewski, and his comrades, and their safe conduct across the frontier. Some of our committee met them there with money and clothes, and Maria went with them, as we all thought it would be safer for us all if she stayed in England for a while.

"The evening of the same day the Tsarevitch was led blindfold out of my house in the Heumarkt, and thus was terminated the finest plot ever invented by our great brotherhood."

"Thank God for that," said Iván fervently.

"Curse you for compromising us all and our cause, just after our glorious victory," retorted Mirkovitch savagely, "and curse our folly for trusting you so much."

The young Pole sprang up at the taunt.

"Your trust is not misplaced, Mirkovitch," he said quietly, "and our cause and our comrades are not compromised. Give me the necessary funds, and the right to dispose of them, and I swear to you that three days hence I will hand over our papers safely in your keeping, to act with as you please after that, both with them . . . and with me."

"You know, then, where the candlesticks are at this moment?" said Mirkovitch, somewhat pacified.

"They are to be sold by auction on Thursday next, and we can buy them easily enough."

"Yes! unless fate or Madame Demidoff interposes."

"Madame Demidoff cannot know where the candlesticks are. Grünebaum was arrested half an hour after I saw him. He is not likely to have betrayed his accomplice in London, and she was bound to lose trace of them."

"You must act as you think best, Iván," said Mirkovitch at last; "as you know, we have ample funds, those of the fraternity; and Lobkowitz has placed them all at your disposal. We must trust you yet so far--"

And he added after a slight pause:

"After that your life is in our hands."

That Iván knew full well. He knew that if harm came to the brotherhood after this, he would not be allowed to suffer or die with them. He knew that they would brand him as a traitor, disown him, revile him, and that he would die alone in the dark, stricken by the dagger of an avenger, and not be thought worthy the common death of the martyrs.

Mirkovitch handed him over the drafts and money Lobkowitz had given him. It represented a large sum, and Iván took it, feeling easy in his mind. The old Russian left him soon after, and Volenski was left alone and in peace to form what plans were needful. The interview with Mirkovitch had been very stormy, and it needed a strong effort of will to collect his faculties in the last great endeavour to save his comrades and himself from the dire catastrophe.

Obviously the first thing to do was to obtain a card to view the contents of 108, Curzon Street, and ascertain whether the Emperor's candlesticks were included among the objects put up for sale. Having assured himself of that all-important fact, his last move was to go to the auction room on Thursday, and, with the help of the funds placed at his disposal, bid for the candlesticks till they became his property.

The first part of his programme he found very easy of execution; the next morning he obtained a card from Messrs. Gideon, Eyre, and Blackwell, and ascertained that the, to him, ill-fated candlesticks were to be among the objects put up for sale on the following day. So far, so good.

There were a great many people examining the furniture and artistic bibelots, of which there were many thousands, but those people were chiefly Jews--dealers probably--and Volenski knew that the sum of money the secret society had placed at his disposal was infinitely beyond what the richest dealer could afford for a single bibelot. His mind, therefore, was perfectly at ease as to the result of next day's sale. When he left the house he stopped on the doorstep one moment to light a cigar; at that moment a carriage stopped too. A lady got out with an admission card in her hand, and, without noticing him, brushed past him and walked into the house. It was Madame Demidoff!

As a matter of fact, it had never for one moment entered Volenski's mind that either Madame Demidoff or the Cardinal could, by any possibility, hear of the whereabouts of the missing candlesticks, and the lady's presence there fell upon him like a thunder-bolt. And yet, what more natural than that she should be here? Two weeks had elapsed since the robbery; Grünebaum had in the meanwhile, as Volenski well knew, been denounced by his accomplice. His premises and books must have been searched, the name of his London accomplice discovered, and Madame Demidoff had no doubt acted in precisely the same manner as he, Volenski, had done himself; and, either through threats or bribery, traced the stolen candlesticks from Davies' shop to the house of Mr. James Hudson.

That her presence there meant the gravest danger to him, Volenski was at once aware. It was absolutely evident now that she had a secret personal interest in the recovery of the candlesticks, or she would never have come to London herself, but sent a clever agent to secure her stolen property.

If she intended to bid for them the next day Volenski felt it would mean the ruin of his hopes. He could now command a very large sum of money in an emergency like the present one, but if report spoke truly, and Madame Demidoff was a paid agent of the Russian government, then her credit would be practically unlimited, and the duel between him and her one for life and death.

Oh! for the power to look twenty-four hours ahead to know the worst at once! One moment he thought of inquiring at every hotel in London for Madame Demidoff, and hearing his fate from her own lips, but, apart from the hopelessness of such a task in a city of such magnitude as London, he felt that the lady might look upon this move as a sign of weakness, and, after all, so full of hope is the human heart, there was just a faint possibility yet that Madame Demidoff had not discovered the secret papers. In that case, the moment she recognised Volenski among the bidders, she would retire from the contest in the belief that he was acting for Cardinal d'Orsay. No! all was not yet lost, and Volenski heaved a deep sigh of relief as he thought that to-morrow would, in any case--whether for good or bad--end this terrible suspence, which, except for a few days of blissful unconsciousness, he had had to endure for two mortal weeks.

But what of Madame Demidoff? She, like Volenski, had been enduring tortures of uncertainty, fear, doubts, hopes, alternately for the last three weeks. Directly after Grünebaum's arrest she had been communicated with by the police, but, to her horror, failed to discover the candlesticks among the articles seized in the Jew's shop. with great difficulty, and only with the help of a large amount of Russian money, she obtained a private interview with the prisoner, who, deeply revengeful at what he thought was Volenski's treachery, most willingly gave her every clue as to the whereabouts of the missing candlesticks.

A great deal more Russian money was needed to induce Isaac Davies to speak about them again; he felt suspicious, and did not like the mystery that seemed to gather round them. He flatly denied, for a long time, any knowledge of them, and it was only hard bribery that induced him to name the client to whom he had sold the candlesticks.

Like Volenski, Madame Demidoff went to the house of Mr. James Hudson, relying on her own often-tried powers of fascination to induce him to give up what she meant to describe as a compromising letter; and, like Volenski, she felt unutterably hopeless on hearing that Mr. Hudson was dead.

A week after that Madame Demidoff had seen the announcement in The Times, and, quite unsuspecting that Volenski was on the same track as herself, felt quite relieved to see that the candlesticks were among the objects put up for sale at 108, Curzon Street. As far as she was concerned it would be a wonderfully easy matter to bid for them, and purchase them at any price.