CHAPTER 20

A great crowd had already assembled in the dining-room, where the auction was to be held, when Volenski arrived upon the scene.

A number of dealers, mostly Jews, who all seemed to know each other, were quietly arranging among themselves as to which particular lot they each intended to purchase. The sale began punctually at eleven o'clock. Volenski looked round anxiously--the crowd in the room was very dense. He could not see Madame Demidoff. The larger pieces of furniture were first put up, and rapidly knocked down at varying prices to different dealers, who mostly got their purchases very cheaply. The only times that the prices ran at all high were when some unfortunate outsider or private bidder attempted to compete against teh clique of dealers, who stood closely packed near the desk of the auctioneer, and hurriedly ran the prices up till the poor, misguided, private bidder retired discomfited.

It was very late in the day when the curios and valuable knick-knacks were at last in their turn put up for sale. Jewellery, gold and silver plate, Egyptian and other antiquities, and at last:

"A pair of unique, gold-mounted, china candlesticks," shouted the auctioneer; "what shall we say, fifty pounds the pair?"

"Guineas," said a voice.

"Sixty," said another.

"Seventy," "Eighty," "Five," came in rapid, successive bids from the various dealers.

In this preliminary skirmish Volenski had not joined. He waited till most bidders had fallen back, knowing full well that it had been arranged previously who should have the last bid for the candlesticks.

But when another voice had said "Ninety," there was a pause, and the auctioneer began his customary:

"Now then, gentlemen. A pair of unique--"

"One hundred," said Volenski, in a voice he hardly recognised as his own, so excited was it.

"And fifty," came from a nasal tone in the front ranks.

"Two hundred," said Volenski.

"And fifty," said the nasal tones.

"Three hundred," said Volenski, who, having recognised his antagonist as one of the dealers who had purchased a large collection of other things, knew that, though the man might run him up to a pretty stiff price, he would certainly not buy bibelots at what might prove a loss to himself. He had therefore quite recovered himself, and his intense excitement was somewhat subsiding; and when the nasal tones said again:

"And fifty,"

"Five hundred pounds," said Volenski quietly.

The owner of the nasal tones thereupon shrugged his shoulders, and looked up at the ceiling, as if he expected it to give him some sign as to what his next course of action should be. He murmured once more, "And fifty," but mechanically and without conviction. And when Volenski said "Six hundred" the nasal tones were heard no more.

"Now then, gentlemen," said the auctioneer, "this pair of unique candlesticks going for the sum of six hundred pounds--six hundred pounds, gentlemen--going--"

"Seven hundred," came from a musical voice--a lady's.

All heads were turned in the direction whence the voice had come, and curious eyes were scanning the new bidder. Volenski did not turn round; he knew well enough whose voice it was--the soft voice with a soupçon of Russian intonation in the pronunciation of the consonants. He had turned deathly pale; his tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of his mouth; his knees began to tremble under him; but in a second all this cowardice was over. Lashing himself into sudden energy, he drew himself bolt upright, and in almost defiant tones shouted to the auctioneer, "One thousand pounds."

"And five hundred," came in equally defiant tones from his fair antagonist in the rear.

"Two thousand," said Volenski.

"And five hundred," was the reply.

"Three thousand," "Four," "Five," "Six," "Ten thousand pounds."

The crowd, breathless, excited, listened and alternately gazed at the two bidders, who from opposite ends of the room, with dry feverish voices, shouted defiance at each other. Everyone felt that there was some mystery here, some tragedy, the last act of which was being enactetd before their eyes.

At this point the auctioneer leant forward, and addressing himself more particularly to Volenski, said:

"Unless some arrangement is very soon entered into I cannot keep all these gentlemen waiting. We shall have to proceed with the sale."

"Do you hold my bid?" said Volenski. "I said 'Ten thousand pounds.'"

"Twenty thousand," said Madame Demidoff quietly, as if she were talking of so many pence.

"Twenty thousand pounds," said the auctioneer, "for a pair of candlesticks. Both this gentleman and this lady are quite unknown to me. I shall have to have some guarantee from both that the money will be paid when the articles are ultimately knocked down, otherwise I must refuse to have the valuable time of these gentlemen taken up any longer. I think some arrangement should be entered into," he repeated again. "In the meanwhile the last bid of twenty thousand holds good."

Volenski was about to make an angry retort, for he was boiling over with suppressed excitement, when he felt a hand gently laid on his arm. He turned like an animal at bay and faced the enemy, who certainly at that moment did not seem very formidable. The enemy was beautifully dressed--all in black; it had dark eyes, which looked almost pleadingly into Volenski's wild ones, as if they meant to read what was passing in his thoughts, and it had a voice which spoke with the softest Russian accent he had ever heard; it had, moreover, a tiny hand, exquisitely gloved, which was resting, like a timid bird, on Volenski's coat-sleeve. At last the enemy spoke.

"Monsieur," it said in Russian, "we seem to be fighting a terribly fierce battle, you and I. Suppose we have a few moments' armistice; will you accept the white flag?"

Volenski gave a faint nod of acquiescence.

"We have, monsieur, you and I, evidently both set our hearts on being possessed of those candlesticks. I wonder if your motive is as pure as my own? Those candlesticks, monsieur, were confided to me by a friend; they were lost while under my charge. I wish to be the one to restore them to him, even if it is to cost me half my fortune."

"Madame," replied Volenski, "I honour your motive, but these candlesticks were originally entrusted to my master, the Cardinal, by His Majesty the Emperor himself. They shall be restored to His Eminence, but it shall be through my hands."

"Ah!" said Madame Demidoff sneeringly, "you wish to claim a reward."

"Yes, madame, that is my intention."

"Qu'à cela ne tienne! I will promise you as boundless a reward as His Eminence's munificence could never dream of, if you will grant me this whim."

"Madame, were you to hold in your tiny hand the privy purse of the Shah of Persia I would not give up those candlesticks to you."

"Thirty thousand for that pair of candlesticks," he shouted to the auctioneer, who, with the crowd, was eyeing the antagonists, curiously straining their ears to catch the meaning of their conversation.

"Monsieur," said Madame Demidoff excitedly, "could we not share those candlesticks? Must you have them both?"

So extraordinary was this proposal that for a moment Volenski hardly realised its full meaning. He looked half dazed at the fair Russian, who continued eagerly:

"Monsieur, there are two candlesticks there; one is slightly damaged, the other quite whole. I will abandon you the one if you will let me have the other. Thus we shall share the honour and glory of presenting the recovered treasures to His Eminence. I suppose, being the lady, I might have the undamaged, therefore superior, article?"

What was she saying? The undamaged candlestick? He to have the broken one. Why, that was the one that held his papers, and she wished for the other. But then he was saved! saved! He could not speak, he was too excited; but, taking Madame Demidoff's hand, he dragged her through the crowd, who made way for them, to the auctioneer's desk, where the candlesticks were displayed. He said:

"Yes, yes; I agree. You shall have the one, the best one of the two; leave me the broken one--I am satisfied. Why don't you take it? I will pay for them both," he added feverishly, taking a large bundle of bank-notes from his pocket-book and forcing them into the hand of the astonished auctioneer.

But Madame Demidoff had thrown but one glance at the twin candlesticks, then retreated, her eyes nearly starting out of her head with fear and dismay. The candlesticks were twins indeed, for, in the various vicissitudes through which they had passed in the last few weeks, the arm of the undamaged Cupid had, like its fellow, been chipped from the wrist to the elbow.

Madame Demidoff, vainly striving to appear calm, feverishly seized one of the two candlesticks, wildly hoping that luck would favour her in her choice, and left the room, followed by the astonished stare of the spectators, who instinctively made way to allow her to pass with her precious burden.

Volenski, who had not noticed the lady's look of dismay, nor realised the cause of it, only saw what he thought was the identical candlestick that contained his secret papers standing there before his very eyes. Hardly crediting his senses, alternating between fear and hope, he took it up, and carried it away with him.