CHAPTER 21

"MONSIEUR, --I feel sure that the receipt of this letter will cause you no surprise.

"We are in each other's power. Obviously it would not answer either of our purposes to fight out this duel. Shall we exchange our pièces de conviction, monsieur, to-night at my hotel--after the walnuts and wine? I dine at 7.30. --Yours, Anna Demidoff."

Iván Volenski held the delicately scented little pink note in his hand, and read and reread it till he knew its brief contents by heart. It was such a strange ending to his terrible adventures of the last fortnight, culminating in that fierce struggle under the auctioneer's desk, and Iván, who was not thirty, and was a man before he became a Socialist, thought of that foe whom he had known and dreaded so long, as she stood imploringly by his side, with the tiny, gloved hand resting on his coat-sleeve.

Since that moment he seemed to remember every subsequent event but as a half-distinct dream. He had grasped the candlestick which he believed held the secret papers with a wild feeling of exultation, and carried it home to his hotel. Once there, and his door securely locked, he had touched the hidden spring and seen the papers resting within the depths of the receptacle. With trembling hands he took them out, and his aching eyes travelled over them feverishly.

Oh! the first feeling of nameless horror when he realised that that writing, those papers, were not the ones he had fought for so valiantly, now, after so bitter a struggle; the hopeless sensation of utter despair, that seemed to numb his faculties, and deaden them even to the extent of not realising the contents of the papers he held in his hands!

It was not till fully half an hour afterwards, when he heard Mirkovitch's heavy step on the stairs, that he succeeded in rousing himself from this strange apathy.

The old Socialist had tried Iván's door, but finding it locked, had evidently gone away again. Iván did not want to see him then; he was beginning to think, and think he must alone, in peace, without fear, and with complete calm.

Madame Demidoff, the agent of the Russian government, held the papers of the Socialistic brotherhood. True, but in exchange he, Volenski, held what would brand her before all the world as the spy of the Russian police, and for ever prevent her following that calling again. If made publicly known that her papers had fallen into wrong hands, her government would, as is customary in such cases, disown their agent, and probably wreak vengeance upon her for her carelessness.

Obviously, then, though the brotherhood was at this moment in Madame Demidoff's power, the fair Russian was equally in the power of the brotherhood, and--

It was at this point of his now calm reflections that the waiter brought Iván the pink, scented note, which had been left at the hotel for M. Volenski, while the bearer waited for an answer.

It was a triumph for Volenski. She had spoken truly; it would not serve either of their purposes to fight out so well-balanced a duel.

"Madame, --To-night at 7.30 o'clock I will wait on you as you graciously bid me, and trust that our enmity, after a mutual laying down of arms, will change into friendship over the walnuts and wine. --I am, Madame, your humble and devoted servant,

Iván Volenski."

He sent this note down, made a hasty toilet, and still purposely evaded his grim comrade, whom he did not wish to meet till he could lay the fateful papers in his hands.