CHAPTER 3

As soon as Ivàn Volenski lost sight completely of Madame Demidoff's carriage, he, with a sigh of relief, retraced his steps up the wide stairs of the opera house, and joined a couple of dominoes, who, dressed like himself in uniform grey, stood isolated among the groups of masks that encumbered the entrance to the foyer. Together all three began sauntering in the direction of the Kolowàtring.

They walked on in silence for some time, smoking cigarettes and pushing their way through the crowd as best they could.

On the Ringstrasse the scene was as gay as ever; laughing groups of masks in bands of a score or so occupying the whole width of the street made progress somewhat difficult. But the three grey dominoes seemed in no great hurry; they exchanged jests where repartee was expected of them, and mixed with the crowd where it was impossible to avoid it.

The sumptuous houses and gorgeously decorated shops on either side were illuminated with many coloured lights, changing this midnight hour into light as broad as day. On the balconies, gaily festooned with flowers, groups of onlookers gazed on the animated scene below, whilst every now and then, from some opened windows, dreamy waltzes and weird csárdás mingled with the noisy street cries and laughter, telling of aristocratic balls and parties, where the King Carnival was courted with equal mirth if somewhat less exuberance and noise. Sometimes the groups of mummers would stop beneath some of these windows and watch the bejewelled figures flitting to-and-fro, and listen to the soft cadences of the gipsy music ­ the one thing Hungarian, the Viennese cannot bring themselves to despise.

But the three dominoes did not pause long, amidst this gay and bustling scene, nor did the brilliant lighted Ring appear to have any attraction for them, for presently they turned into a side street, uninviting and dark though it seemed; and being free to walk more rapidly, soon left the sounds of merry laughter and revelry far behind them.

Still they walked on in silence, not heeding now the few muffled masks that passed them with a laugh and jest, on their way towards the gayer part of the city.

With these few exceptions the streets they now crossed were completely deserted; no illuminations from the windows proclaimed the reign of King Carnival, no sound of dreamy waltz music lent a touch of merriment to the dismal, stone-paved courtyards that yawned drearily on either side.

Into one of these the three dominoes presently turned, and, with out waiting to reply to the concierges' challenge as to whom they were seeking at so late an hour, they found their way to the back stone staircase, which was but dimly lighted by a hanging lamp, that flickered in the draught, and threw weird shadows on the steps. Having reached the second flight, one of the dominoes gave a peculiar rhythmic knock on one of the doors facing him, which after a few moments was thrown open, while an anxious voice asked -

"Is that you, Baloukine?"

"Yes," replied the domino, "with Ivàn and Serge; let us in."

The room which they had now entered, furnished with an attempt at comfort, half as an office, and half as a smoking lounge, was filled with some twelve or fourteen men, of all ages, and apparently, judging from their clothes, of very mixed social positions; while four or five of them, collarless, and probably shirtless, wore working jackets and clumsy boots; some wore beautifully cut dress-clothes and spotless linen, with a flower in the button-hole, and one elderly man, with a pointed grey beard, and handsome, aristocratic features, wore two or three decorations fastened to his coat. All, however, whether peer or peasant, seemed on the best of terms together, and smoking pipes and cigarettes of peace and fraternity.

"What news?" asked half a dozen voices, as the new arrivals divested themselves of their grey dominoes, and shook hands with those sitting around.

"The best."

"Where is he?" asked a voice.

"In Mirkovitch's fiaker with Maria Stefanowna."

"And presently?"

"Mirkovitch's guest at No 21, Heumarkt."

The questions and answers followed each other in rapid succession; the tension of suspense had evidently been great, the relief at the news most obviously welcome, for a sigh of satisfaction seemed to rise in unison from a dozen heaving, oppressed chests.

"And Mirkovitch?" asked one of the older men.

"He will be here anon."

"As soon as he is safe under lock and key."

"Then he is in our power?"

"Absolutely."

"Did Lavrovski attempt to follow him?

"Not till it was too late, and the fiaker out of sight. He fell into the trap, without a shadow of suspicion."

There was a pause now; evidently much had to be thought of and serious points considered, for during the next ten minutes not a sound disturbed the stillness of the room, save the crackling of burning logs in the wide chimney, and one or two whispered questions and rapidly given answers.

Then a heavy tread was heard in the passage outside, the same rhythmical knock on the door, while a gruff voice said-
"Mirkovitch."

A herculean man, some six foot three in height, with long grey hair thrown back from a massive forehead, and piecing grey eyes, half-hidden under a pair of bushy eyebrows, now joined the group of smokers, greeting them all but with two words-
"All safe."

"Prisoner?"

"Safely in my house; no windows, only a skylight. No chance of discovery, and less of escape."

"And Maria Stefenowna?"

"Did her part splendidly; he suspected nothing till he heard the door locked behind him."

"Did he speak?"

"Only to call himself a fool, which remark was obvious."

"He asked no questions?"

"None."

"The deaf-mute valet was there to receive him?"

"Yes, and waited on him, while he took some of the supper we has prepared for him."

"What about Lavrovski?" asked a voice from the further end of the room.

"He went back to his box, and is waiting there now, I should imagine."

"In the meanwhile, Mirkovitch, you have promised us the best treatment for our prisoner."

"Yes," said Mirkovitch grimly. "I hate him, but I will treat him well. The deaf-mute is a skilled valet, the rooms are comfortable, the bad is luxurious, the food will be choice and plentiful. Very different," he added sullenly, "from what Denajewski and the others are enduring at this moment."

"They are practically free now," said a young voice enthusiastically; "we can demand their liberty; let them refuse it, if they dare."

"Yes," added Mirkovitch with a smile, "it would go hard with Nicolas Alexandrovitch now if they refused to let our comrades go."

"To business, friends, there is no time for talk," said the authoritative voice of the elderly man who wore decoration.

The cigarettes and pipes were with one accord put aside, and all chairs turned towards to the table placed in the centre of the room, on which stood a tempered with a green shade, and scattered all about, loose bundles of paper, covered with writings and signatures.

"There are many points to decide," resumed he, who appeared to be a leader amongst them; "the deed, accomplished to-night, thanks to those heads who planned, and those arms who executed it, great as it is, has still a greater object in view. This, we over here cannot attain; the turn of Taranïew and the brothers in Petersburg has now come, to do their share of the work."

The chairman paused, all heads nodded in acquiescence, then he resumed-

"We have been obliged to act very hurriedly and on our own initiative. Taranïew and the others, so far, know absolutely nothing."

"They must hear of it at once," said one voice.

"And cease any plotting of their own," assented another.

"It could only now lead to certain disaster," agreed the chairman, "if they were in any sort of way to draw the attention of the Third Section on themselves."

"Or us!" grimly added Mirkovitch.

"Obviously, therefore, our messenger's duty to them will be twofold," said the president. "The bringing of great news, as it now stands, and our instructions as to the next course they must follow to attain the noble object we all have in view."

"Yes, the letter to Alexander III.," said a young voice eagerly.

This was the important point; more eagerness in the listeners, more enthusiasm among the younger men was, if possible, discernible.

"I have here," said the president, taking a document from the table, "with the help of the committee, embodied our idea as to how that letter should be framed."

"It will be an appetising breakfast relish for the autocrat of all the Russians when he finds it, as he does all our written warnings, underneath his cup of morning coffee," sneered Mirkovitch, who had been sitting all this while smoking grimly, and muttering at intervals short sentences between his teeth, which boded no good to the prisoner he had under his charge.

"Our letter," said the president, "this time will contain the information that the Tsarevitch is, at the present moment, in the hands of some persons unknown, and that those persons will continue to hold him a hostage till certain conditions are complied with."

"Those conditions being?" queried one of the bystanders.

"Complete pardon for Dunajewski, and all those who are in prison with him in connection with that lat plot, together with a free pass out of the country."

"Nicolas Alexandrovitch to be set free the day they have crossed the frontier," added a member of the committee.

"If in answer to this he simply sets the Third Section on our track?" queried a voice diffidently.

"The message shall also contain a warning," said Mirkovitch grimly.

"That in case the police are mixed up in the matter-?"

"They would not even find a dead body."

A pause followed this ominous speech. This was the dark side of this daring plot; the possible murder of a helpless prisoner. Yet they all knew it might become inevitable; the hostage's life might have to be weighed against theirs in case of discovery, and, instead of barter, there might be need for revenge.

"They will never dare refuse," said the president, endeavouring to dispel the gloom cast over most of these young people by the suggestion of a cold-blooded murder; "there will be no need for measures so unworthy of us."

"They know completely the Tsarevitch's life is in our hands," said Mirkovitch authoritatively. "They cannot defy us, they are bound to treat and bargain with us. We might demand the freedom of every convict now languishing in Siberia, and they would have to remember that the heir of all the Russias sleeps with a dagger held over his heart, and be bound to grant what we ask."

"But let them be just and merciful, and we will be so likewise," added the president's more gentle voice; "let Dunajewski and all those concerned cross the frontier with a free pass, and that day the Tsarevitch will be restored to liberty. But let Alexander understand that at the slightest suspicion of police intervention, the life of the hostage will from that hour be considered forfeit."

There was no reply to this; the president has been putting into words the decision of all those assembled. Mirkovitch still sat, his powerful fist clutched on the table, in his eyes a dark, lurid fire that told of dangerous thoughts.

"There is one person whom, I think, the committee have omitted to consider," said a voice at last, breaking the silence, that had lasted some minutes, "and that is Lavrovski."

"Pardon me," said the president, "we have, I think, all thought of that incompetent, though, at the present moment, important personage, and all reflected as to what his possible attitude would be throughout."

"I have not the slightest doubt," said a voice from the further end of the table, "that it will take Lavrovski some days before he will make up his mind to communicate with his own government."

"Yes," assented another, "I have met him in Petersburg once or twice, and he always given me the idea being a weak and irresolute man."

"Whose first feeling, when he realises - and it will take him some days to do that ­ that the Tsarevitch has effectually disappeared, will be one of intense terror, lest the blame for the disappearance be primarily laid on him, and he be dispatched to Siberia to expiate his negligence."

"And the fool puts up with being treated a mere valet to a dynasty who would treat him with such baseness and serving a government which, at the first opportunity, would turn on him and whip him like a cur," muttered Mirkovitch wrathfully.

"We have, therefore, every chance that in our favour," resumed the president, "that Lavrovski will not communicate with Petersburg, at any rate for the first few days, whilst he will be busying himself in trying to obtain some clue or idea as to his charge's whereabouts."

"He may probably," suggested someone, "employ some private detective in this city, and, until that hope has failed him, endeavour to keep the Tsarevitch's disappearance a secret from the Russian government."

"Be that as it may," concluded the president. "I think we may safely presume that our messenger will get a few day's start on that slowly moving courtier, and that three days is all he will need to seek out Taranïew, who will lose no time in seeing that the letter reaches its proper destination."

"You are, of course, presuming all the time," now said a voice- an elderly man's voice, sober and sedate- "that Lavrovski, thinking only of his own safety, will at first merely endeavour to keep the matter of the disappearance of his charge's much of a secret as possible; those of our friends who know him best, seem, by judging his pretty well known dilatoriness, to have arrived at this conclusion, which no doubt is the right one. But we must all remember that there is one other person- shall I say enemy- whom Lavrovski may, in spite of his fears, choose for a confidant, and that person is neither dilatory nor timorous, and has moreover an army of allies of every rank in Vienna to help he speedily and secretly ­ you all know who I mean."

The question was not answered. What need was there of it? They all knew her by reputation, the beautiful Madame Demidoff, and all suspected and feared her; yet who dared to say she was a spy or worse, this grande dame who was one of the ornaments of Viennese society.

"I spoke to her at the opera ball to-night," said Ivàn Volenski, who up to this point had taken very little part in the discussion.
"She was there then?" queried an anxious voice.

"She is everywhere there is a brilliant function," replied Ivàn, "and it is just possible that she may have had instructions to keep her dainty ears open, whenever she came across any of her compatriots; when I met her, it was just after Maria Stefanowa had driven off in the fiaker, Madame Demidoff was wanting her carriage, and asked me to help her in finding it."

"No doubt she is our greatest danger," said the president, "for if anything did rouse her suspicions to-night, she certainly would not hesitate to employ a whole army of private and police detectives, and may force our hand before our brothers in Petersburg have had time to play the trump card."

"After all," said Mirkovitch, "if we find that she is exerting her powers too much, it is always within our means to give her a warning, that the Tsarevitch's life is in actual danger through her interference."

"Anyhow, my friends," now concluded the president, "it is well that, knowing our foes, we keep a strict watch on them. After all, let us always remember that, though we risk our lives and liberties, they, in their turn, must first see that the Tsarevitch is quite safe. We hold the most precious of hostages; for once we are absolute masters of the situation. I don't think we gain anything by discussing any further what Lavrovski and Madame Demidoff may or may not do. They must be strictly watched, that is evident, but the message to Taranïew is the most important; we can include as many conditions in our letter as we like, and leave them at Petersburg to do the rest."

"Yes, the message, the papers," was the unanimous assent to the president's last decision.

He took up the papers one by one that were lying on the table, and divided them into two bundles.

"These," he said, handing one of the packets to his neighbour, "are not of much value, and in view of the approaching crisis, in my opinion had better be destroyed. Will you glance through them and decide?"

The papers were handed round, carefully examined by most of the present and the president's decision being endorsed, they were consigned to the flames.

"This," said the president, with a certain amount of solemnity, "is our account of the Tsarevitch's abduction, as planned and executed by us; and this is the letter, which Taranïew must find means of conveying into Alexander III's own hands; these two papers, together with this small bundle of notes and plans, relating to our brotherhood, are the vital things that we will entrust to our messenger for safe delivery into Taranïew's keeping. We are thus not giving into his hands, not only our own lives and liberty, who are assembled here to-night, but the last hopes of Dunajewski and our unfortunate companions who are in prison. Would to God there were no such necessity for so much written matter- hopelessly compromising so many of us- to be taken across the frontier, but unfortunately that necessity is an imperative one, and we must remember that we all may trust our messenger implicitly."

All eyes now turned towards Ivàn Volenski, as, almost trembling with emotion, he had received, from the president's hands, the letters and papers which were held out towards him.

Descended from an ancient and once glorious family, Ivàn Volenski was now the private secretary and confidant to his Eminence cardinal d'Orsay, the Papal Nuncio, accredited to the courts of Paris, Vienna and Petersburg. But the polish blood within him could not rest peacefully in the midst of comfortable surroundings. The spirit of plotting peculiar to his countrymen ­ fanatical, hot-headed and enthusiastic - had thrown him into the arms of this Socialistic brotherhood, for whose sake he daily risked his position, his liberty, his very life.

In the midst as it were of diplomatic and social life, Ivàn Volenski was a priceless ally to these plotters, who needed men of his stamp, that mixed in with the very society they wished to annihilate, and could keep them well informed of the comings and goings of the exalted personages whom that wished to attack.

It was Volenski who found out for his comrades that the Tsarevitch was in Vienna under the strictest incognito, attended only by an elderly court functionary, and a confidential Russian valet, and staying at the Hotel Imperial under an assumed name, and in the guise of a private gentleman, remaining in town to view the Carnival.

Then is was that the daring plan was conceived by some of these fanatics, to obtain possession of so august a hostage, and then barter his liberty against that of some comrades in Russia, who, implicated an abortive intrigue, were awaiting condemnation, languishing in a Moscow prison.

Ivàn Volenski now leaned across the table and said, turning towards the president ­

"I am happy and proud to feel that it is my power to render the brotherhood so great a service. I will convey the letter, the news, and the papers, safely to Petersburg."

Many hands were stretched across the table towards the young Pole, who grasped them warmly.

"When can you start?" asked Mirkovitch.

"In about two days," replied Ivàn.

"Too late, cannot you go before?"

"Impossible! The Nuncio leaves Vienna the day after to-morrow. I shall be forced to remain twenty-four hours longer to finish and classify his correspondence, after that I am free and can start immediately."

"Let Ivàn act as he thinks best," said the president; "not one of us could cross the fr0ontier as safely as he, and a delay of three days is so dangerous as the entrusting of the papers to anyone else."

"So far I have never been suspected," said Volenski reassuringly; "true, those brutes on the frontier did seize and search all my papers once," he added sullenly; "that was after Dunajewski's arrest, when every Pole was an object of that type of tyranny. Fortunately I was not carrying anything compromising then."

"And this time?" asked an anxious voice.

"I shall take the precaution of wrapping our papers in an envelope which I shall stamp with the seal of the Papal Legation. My position is well known, and the papers will be safe enough."

"Fairly safe, shall we say?" retorted a grim voice from the further end of the room.

"Anyhow, it is obvious that we can have no safer messenger then Ivàn," decided the president; "his is the only plan that promises the slightest measure of safety."

A general murmur of approval confirmed his decision.

"In four days, then, from now, I pledge to you my word that these papers will be handed over by me to Taranïew and the Petersburg committee," said the young Pole with fervour, "together with the news of the glorious act we have accomplished to-night, which is to result in the freedom of Dunajewski and our other comrades, whom we had looked on as lost. And will you tell me now, as my duties with his Eminence may prevent my seeing you before I start, what you propose to do in the meanwhile?"

"There is very little we can do," said the president; "some of us will watch Lavrovski; others, Madame Demidoff. If there is the slightest suspicion of them moving in the matter and calling in police aid, we will convey to them the same warning that Taranïew will submit at headquarters."

"Remember, Volenski," added another member of the committee, "that our anxiety for the safety of our papers and of you, our messenger, will have reached its culmination point on the fourth day from this; and that if you can do so with prudence, try to communicate with us as soon as you have seen Taranïew."

"I will certainly do so," said Ivàn. "Never fear, the papers will be quite safe; as soon as I have delivered them I shall find my way towards the frontier, where I shall await Dunajewski and our comrades with the money, the committee has entrusted me with, for them. They will be in need of that, moreover, I shall be very happy to shake hands with them and tell them ­ for they shall be ignorant of it - how we effected there release."

The discussion was closed now; cigarettes and pipes appeared once more, and with a quiet hum of conversation, where no mention of plot or Tsar was made, took the place of enthusiastic discussion. The president was chatting quietly with Volenski, who had slipped the precious papers into his breast pocket.

Ivàn was the first to rise.

"I must leave you all now," he said. "When we meet again it will be on my return from Petersburg, when our great work is all complete, and Dunajewski with our comrades are free once more to join us in studying how best to accomplish the weal of Russia and of her people. Good-night, all."

"Good-night!"

"God-speed!"

A score of hands were stretched out towards him, their friend, their comrade. In the minds of some of them, perhaps, there rose the thought that they might never see their daring messenger again; but these, who had these thoughts, were the older men ­ those who knew that no scrap of paper is ever really safe in Russia. Inwardly they called forth a blessing, and perhaps a prayer for his safety, as he shook hands with all his friends.

They were all preparing to depart, as they obviously could discuss nothing further that evening, and most of them, though Socialist at heart, were also young besides, and longed to take a last glance at the merrily lighted streets of the city, the gay festivities of the Carnival.

And ten minutes later these men who had so daringly organised, so successfully carried through, one of the most audacious plots in the annals of secret societies, were mixing gaily with the mad throng, bandying jests with merry masks, and seemingly forgetting that there were such things as princely hostages and secret missions, or that one of their comrades, their chosen messenger, would soon ­ holding all of their lives in his hands ­ have to convey their secrets to Petersburg, in the very teeth of the most astute police in the world.