ALL this had excited little or no attention among the bystanders. How should it? An opera ball teems with such episodes. Two young people, one in pursuit of the other a signal - a handy faiker, et voila! Who cares? Everybody is busy with his own affairs, his own little bits of adventure and intrigue.
Surely that grey domino over there, standing under one of the
fine electric light chandeliers, could have no interest in the
unknown odalisque and her ardent swain, for he made not the slightest
attempt at pursuit; yet his eyes followed the fast disappearing
faiker, as long as it was recognisable amidst the crowd
of vehicles and mummers. A young man he was; evidently not anxious
to remain incognito, for he had thrown back the hood of his domino,
and held the mask in his hand.
Yet though he thus, as it were, courted recognition, he visibly started as a soft musical voice, with the faintest vestige of foreign intonation, addressed him merrily.
"Why so moody, M. Volenski? Have Strauss' waltzes tired out your spirits, or has your donna eloped with a hated rival?"
The young man pulled himself together, and forced open his eyes and thoughts to wander away from the faiker, which now appeared as a mere speck, to the graceful figure in front of him, who owned that musical voice and had called him by name.
"Madam Demidoff!" he said, evidently not pleasantly surprised.
"Herself," she replied, laughingly; "do not assume an astonishment, so badly justified. I am not a Viennese grande dame, and coming to an opera ball is not the most unpardonable of my eccentricities."
"Yes! but alone?"
"Not alone," she rejoined, still merry, "since you are here to protect me from my worst perils, and lend me a helping hand in the most dire difficulties."
"Allow me to start on these most enviable functions by finding your carriage for you," he said, a trifle absently.
She bit her lip, and tried a laugh, but this time there was a soupçon of harshness in the soft foreign notes.
"Ah, Ivàn, how you must reckon on my indulgence, that you venture so unguardedly on so ungallant a speech!"
"Was it ungallant?"
"Come, what would your judgement be on a young man, one of our jeunesse dorée-, who, meeting a lady at the opera ball, offers, after the first two minutes, to find her carriage for her."
"I should deem it to be an unpardonable sin, and punishable by some nameless tortures, if that lady happens to be Madam Demidoff," he said, striving to make banal speeches to hide his evident desire for immediate retreat.
She looked at his keenly for a minute, then sighed a quick, impatient little sigh.
"Well, call my carriage, Ivàn; I will not keep you, you obviously have some pressing engagement."
"The Cardinal -" he began clumsily.
"Ah! his Eminence requires your attention at so late an hour?" she said, still a little bitterly.
"His Eminence is leaving Vienna to-morrow and there are still many letters to answer. I shall probably be writing most of the night through."
She appeared content with this explanation, and while Volenski gave directions to one of the gorgeous attendants stationed outside the house to call Madam Demidoff's carriage, she resumed the conversation in a more matter-of-fact tone.
"His Eminence will be glad of a holiday after the trying diplomatic business of the past few weeks; and you, M. Volenski, I feel sure have also earned a few days repose.
"The Cardinal certainly has given me two or three weeks' respite, while he himself goes to Tyrol for the benefit of his health."
"And after that?"
"We meet at Petersburg, where his Eminence has an important memorial to submit to his Majesty the Tsar."
"You yourself, madame -"
"Yes, I shall probably be there before you both arrive, and thus have the honour of welcoming his Eminence in person. But here is my carriage. It is 'au revior,' then, M. Volenski, not 'adieu,' luckily for you," she added once more coquettishly, "for had it been a longer parting I should have found it hard to forgive your not even calling to leave a bit of pasteboard with my concierge."
He had given her his arm, and was leading her down the wide stone stairs, trying all the while not to appear relieved that the interview was at last over, and his faro companion on the way to leaving him alone with his anxieties and agitation.
"Good-night, Ivàn," she said, after her had helped her into her carriage, and wrapped her furs round her.
Long after her coachman had started she leant her head out of the window, and watched him, as long as she could distinguish his grey domino among the crowd; there was a wistful look on her face, also a frown, perhaps of self contempt. Then, when the carriage had left the opera house, with all its gaiety and tumult, behind, and she no longer could see Ivàn Volenski's figure at the foot of the wide stone stairs, she seemed to dismiss with an impatient sigh and a shrug any little touch of sentiment that may have lurked in her thoughts, and it was an impassive, slightly irritable grande dame who alighted out of the little elegant coupé, under the portico of one of the finest houses on the Kolowràtring.
"Send Eugen to me in my boudoir at once," she said to the footmen, who preceded her upstairs. "If he is from home, one of you sit up till he comes in; if he is asleep, he must be wakened forthwith."
She seemed too agitated to sit down, though the arm-chairs in her luxurious boudoir stood most invitingly by. She was pacing up and down the room, listening for every footstep. Far from her was all touch of sentiment, all recollection of the figure in the grey domino whom she had called Ivàn, and who seemed all but too eager to be rid of her.
What she had seen to-night, not half hour ago, had mystified her beyond expression. She (and of this she felt convinced), was the only person, with the exception of old Count Lavrovski, and the one confidential valet, who, in this city, knew that in the guise of that black domino was the heir to the Russian throne.
He had been spoken to by a forward masque, disguised as an odalisque; that was neither surprising nor unusual at carnival time, when every description of forwardness is not only permissible, but encouraged. The Tsarevitch, with youthful impetuosity, had followed, forgetting his rank and the dangers that always surround his position, and both he and the odalisque had disappeared into a faiker, which Madame Demidoff felt convinced had been there ready waiting for them, and driven off, without apparently any directions being given to the coachman.
"Come in,! she said, much relieved, as a discreet footstep, and a rap at the door caught her ear, still on the alert. She took up a cigarette from a little case that lay close to her hand; she felt it would calm her nerves, and steady her voice.
A man entered - flat-nosed, high cheek-boned Russian of the lower classes, whose low forehead betokened an absence of what is usually called intellectuality, but whose piercing, cold, grey eyes, deeply sunk between the thinnest of lids, spoke of cunning and alacrity. A useful man, no doubt. Madame Demidoff seemed more calm the moment she spoke to him.
"Eugen," she said, "listen to me, for something very mysterious has happened at the opera ball to-night, and there is some work you must do for me now, at once, and also during the course of to-morrow.
"The Tsarevitch went to the opera ball to-night disguised as a black domino...Yes! he was in Vienna...Incognito...No one knew it...The whole thing was foolish in the extreme, and I am beginning to fear some foul agency must have been at work, he was decoyed from his opera-box by a woman dressed as an odalisque...in red and gold, I think...no matter the description...There were hundreds in that guise at the opera. Nicholas Alexandrovitch followed her; a faiker was waiting for them; he jumped in, and it drove off at great rapidity towards the old town."
For she had paused a moment to collect her thoughts before giving him her final instructions.
"You must find out for me first whether the Tsarevitch has returned to his hotel, and if not, what steps Count Lavrovski is taking to discover the key to the mystery. You must dog the old man's every footstep, and if her goes to the police, or sends any telegraphic message across to Petersburg, you must apprise me of it at once. Moreover, both outside the opera house, at the faiker stations, ands at the various railways, you must glean what scraps of information you can relating to the flying odalisque and domino, or the faiker that drove them. I leave by the express for Petersburg to-morrow at midnight; you must come and tell me what you have learnt in the early part of the evening."
She dismissed him now, and when once more alone she sat and thought over the occurrences of to-night. Then it was that and anon the wistful look almost of yearning, that rendered her aristocratic face so sweet and tender crept into her eyes; but when it came, the impatient little sigh and self-contemptuous frown invariably accompanied it. Surely this worldly woman, this elegant grande dame, would not allow even the faintest vestige of sentiment to creep up among her recollections of the gay carnival ball, more especially as that sentiment was evidently directed towards one who --
"Ah me!" Madame Demidoff sighed again, threw away her
cigarette, and rang for her maid, all with the idea of putting
an end to any more thinking that night.