CHAPTER 4

IVÁN VOLENSKI has spoken gaily, reassuringly to them all. But what did he know of his own chances of safety across the Russian frontier? Practically nothing.

Suspect? Bah! Anybody might at the moment become "suspect" to the Russian police. And then,that anybody's name is placed on the listAfter that let him try to get across with papers, valuables, secrets, and he will soon find what it means to be a "suspect."

What did Volenski know of how he stood in the eyes of the Russian police? Living mostly abroad and consorting in a great measure with his own exiled countrymen, some small degree of suspicion was bound to remain attached to his name. He was a Pole, and, being a pole, he conspired, not because he believed in all the Utopian theories set forth by his brother conspirators, but because it was in his blood to plot and plan against the existing government.

Whether these plots and plans ever resulted in anything tangible, any great reform out there in Russia, he never troubled his mind much to think. He was too young to think of the future; the present was the only important factor in his existence.

He usually shrank from extreme measures. Mirkovitch's bloodthirsty speeches grated upon his nerves, and having spent some time a miracle of ingenuity in combining some deadly plot that would annihilate the tyrant and his brood, Ivàn would have preferred that it should not be carried out at all, but left as a record of what a Pole's mind can devise against his hated conquers.

It was not indecision; it was horror of a refined and even plucky nature, of deeds that would not brook the light of day. He would have liked to lead a Polish insurrection, but feared to handle an assassin's dagger.

He had vague theories about the "People," lofty notions of their immense brain power, down-trodden by powerful officialism, and he looked forward to the days when that somewhat undefinable quality would frame its own laws, appoint its own rulers. How that great object was to be accomplished he had no practical notions; Mirkovitch said by killing those in power; Lobkovitch, their much decorated president, said, by careful diplomacy and an occasional wholesome fright. The younger men dreamed, and the older ones plotted, and still the throne of the Romanoffs was far from tottering.

And Ivàn dreamed with the dreamers and plotted with the plotters, eager to help, yet shrinking from decisive action.

He had discovered the Tsarevitch's proposed incognito journey to Vienna and the opera ball. He was a young man of fashion in society, invaluable to the Socialists, for he went everywhere, heard all the gossip, and repeated to them what they wished to hear.

He planned out the abduction in all its details. Mirkovitch was to lend his house, in which to receive the captive, and his daughter was to entice him therein. Baloukine and his brother were to watch the proceedings. After that, he, Ivàn, would do something perilous, all alone, he cared not what, as long as he did not have to lend a hand in abducting a helpless youth into a dangerous trap.

Nicolas Alexandrovitch had fallen into that trap, with his eyes shut, wholly unsuspecting. It had been well set at the time and place where most young men, be they prince or peasant, are eager for adventures, and the Tsarevitch was barely twenty, and had come the Vienna to enjoy himself.

The bright eyes of the odalisque, as seen through her black velvet mask; seemed full of promise of enjoyment to come; her manners essentially Viennese, were provoking to the verge of distraction, and human nature, ever disguised in the garb of the heir to an empire, would have to undergo very radical changes, ere at twenty years of age it could resist the blandishments of so enterprising an odalisque.

He had jumped into the fiaker after her, only thinking of those bright eyes and provoking ways, and the short journey between the opera house and Huemarkt only ended in more complete turning that young head, and subjugating the inflammable heart; for, during those five minutes, Nicolas had succeeded in dislodging the black velvet mask, and in ascertaining that the charms that it held hidden were equally enchanting as those it had revealed. Perhaps had been less young, and therefore more observant, he would not have failed to notice that a slightly sarcastic hovered round the dainty, childlike mouth and a look ­ was it of pity? ­ gave those bright eyes an added charm.

The fiaker had stopped under a portico, that would have seemed dreary and desolate, beyond description, to the most casual observer, but Nicolas Alexandrovitch flew up the great, dark, stone staircase with no thought save for the dainty figure that ran swiftly up some few metres in front of him. He followed her threw a massive door, behind which he had seen her disappear, and found himself in a brilliantly-lighted, dome-like hall, where a well-laden supper-table occupied the centre, looking most tempting, whilst a valet, in irreproachable attitude, mute and expectant, stood by.

As the heavy door fell to behind him, with a loud and reverberating crash, Nicolas Alexandrovitch, looking around him, realised that the fair odalisque had once more disappeared.

A door at the opposite end of the hall was open; Nicolas passed through it, to find himself in a comfortably furnished bedroom, obviously arranged for a bachelor's wants. It seemed to have no other egress but the door at which the Tsarevitch stood still, amazed, wondering where that bewitching houri had given him the slip. Somewhere on that dark, stone staircase no doubt, and Nicolas pondered as to whether he should endeavour to follow her in that game of hide-and-seek which she appeared to have at her fingers' ends, or calmly await her return, which could, obviously, not be long delayed.

The valet still stood, correct in attitude and dress, mute and expectant. His intense impassiveness grated on the young prince's turbulent nerves, strung to aching point whilst waiting for the odalisque who did not reappear.

Then it began to strike him as strange, that though the supper appeared sumptuous and plentiful, it had only been laid for one; for the unknown odalisque no doubt; but then, the bedroom adjoining was obviously not a lady's room. Nicolas frowned, and forced his nerves to be still, and his brains to recommence to act; a breath of suspicion ­ the first ­ seemed to have crossed his mind. He walked deliberately to the door ­ it was locked. It did not surprise him, the breath of suspicion had suddenly developed into a hurricane of doubt.

"Where am I?" he asked the valet.

The latter bowed very humbly and pointed to his own ears and mouth, shaking his head the while.

"Real or assumed?" was the Tsarevitch's mental query.

Obviously it was no use to try and force that door, it looked solid enough to resist an assault. Nicolas understood that he had been trapped, for what purpose remained yet to be proven.

A few moments elapsed, then the door was gently open from without; the deaf-mute valet went up towards it. The thought of making a rush for that same door may have presented itself to Nicolas' mind then, but fortunately the humiliation of an unsuccessful attempt was spared him, for behind the door stood two stalwart moujiks, equally mute as their comrade, and equally correct in bearing; one of them stepped forward, and with deep obeisance presented a letter to the Tsarevitch, who tore it open impatiently.

A few words only, to tell him what he already knew, that he was a helpless prisoner without hope of escape. His life inviolate, but held as hostage, pending negotiations with his exalted father, which no doubt would soon terminate in a most satisfactory way. And in the meanwhile the lodgings, poor as they were, were entirely at the august prisoner's disposal, as well as three deaf-mute moujiks told off to do his bidding.

Nicolas Alexandrovitch called himself a fool, then tried to become a philosopher. He had every confidence in the far-seeing, far-reaching police of his country, trusted to Lavrovski to use every effort and every dispatch, and resigned himself to the inevitable with the character placidity of his race. One last tribute to youth and folly he paid, when he felt an aching pang at the thought that the provoking odalisque had only used her blandishments for purposes so far removed from his poetic imagination. The next half-hour saw the heir of the Tsar of all the Russias eating a sumptuous supper all alone ­ and a prisoner ­ with a youthful appetite, and no thoughts for the morrow.

As for Count Lavrovski, in attendance upon his Imperial Highness, he, no doubt, was in a worst position then his abducted charge.

To have allowed the Tsarevitch, for whom he was, so to speak, responsible, to so completely slip through his fingers, was an event unparalleled in the history of a Russian courtier. No doubt, the case being unprecedented, the punishment would be equally so, and Lavrovski already, half an hour after the Tsarevitch's disappearance, could, when shutting his eyes, see visions of convicts, of prisons, of mines, and Siberia.

Half an hour is a long time for the son of the Tsar to remain unattended, and when two or three hours had slipped by, and the crowds of mummers had begun to thin, Lavrovski began to enduring mental tortures he had up to that time had no conception of. And when presently, at some small hour of the morning, the last of the giddy throng were preparing to depart, the old Russian still sat staring into the crowd, cramped in body, and with mental faculties rendered numb with nameless terrors.

The officials asked him to leave; the lights were being turned out, and Lavrovski had perforce to leave his box and find his way into the streets. One or two discreet questions form porters and attendants about an odalisque and a domino brought only mirth for an answer. Fifty odalisques, two thousand dominoes, had passed up and down the opera-house steps during the last few hours.

At the Hotel Imperial, the sleepy hall porter had not seen the young stranger, and the Russian valet, the only attendant to the young Tsarevitch, made a mute inquiry as to his master, which he dared not put into words.

The man would have to be told something; he was trustworthy; he might be of help. Lavrovski told him half a truth.

The Tsarevitch had thought fit to go on a young man's escapade. They two must keep that a secret; Nicolas Alexandrovitch might return to-morrow, he might be away some days. Count Lavrovski could not say; he relied on Stephán to be discreet.

The next day, when no news came, the old Russian began to look longingly at a tiny revolver, he always carried with him. Better that, than to be dragged home to Russia, arraigned for high treason, and sent to Irkutsk to dig salt for the Imperial Exchequer, for having neglected his duties as keeper and caretaker of the young heir to the throne.

But Lavrovski was over sixty, and at that age life seems very sweet, a dear friend we have known for so long, and therefore from whom we are loth to part. He replaced the pistol in his dressing-bag, and looked elsewhere for counsel and guidance.

A good detective ­ private, not official ­ might save matter sand unearth the truant, if he was still alive. Well! if he were not, Lavrovski life was in any case not worth an hour's purchase, and the revolver would always be handy.

Stephán asked no questions. Lavrovski looked harassed and anxious; and that was sufficient information for the stolid Russian.

The morning papers had no account of mysterious dead bodies found looted in the streets, and Lavrovski sallied forth to seek a detective.

They recommended him one at one of the news paper offices ­ M. Furet, a Frenchman, a man of wide experience and good connections.

Lavrovski went to him. He had tried so far not to think too much; the thoughts to which he did not allow coherence, would have led him to a lunatic asylum, and he wished to keep his mind clear of all things, save his duty to his missing charge and to the honour of his own name.

M. Furet was astute, wise, but not omnipotent. Lavrovski told him too little; he felt it as he spoke. The detective, a Frenchman, guessed there was some mystery, and tried to probe the Russian's secrets.

But Lavrovski was obdurate. When the time came for throwing himself on the detective's discretion he shrank for the task, dared not avow to him the identity of the missing stranger, and only spoke vaguely of him as a young foreigner of distinction.

The matter was hopeless, and M. Furet was waxing inpatient.

"Monsieur," he said at last, "it seems to me that you have come here to-day with the idea no doubt of enlisting my services in a cause which you have at heart, but also with the firm determination to keep your secrets to yourself. You will, I am sure, on thinking the matter over, see how impossible you have made it for me to be of much service to you."

"Can you do nothing then?" asked Lavrovski in despair.

He seemed so dejected, so broken-hearted, that the detective glanced up at him with a certain amount of pity, and said ­-

"Will you go home, monsieur, and give the matter your full consideration, quietly and deliberately? Read the police news carefully to ascertain that no mysterious death had occurred, or unknown dead body found. I, in the meanwhile, will make what exhaustive enquiries I can, both at the opera house, the fiaker stations, and at the different railways. Your truant may, after all, re-appear in the next day or two. Young men are often led into adventures, that last longer then two or three days. Then come back and see me on a Saturday afternoon, but come back armed with the determination to tell me all. If you cannot bring yourself to do that, do not come at all, and in that case, if I, in the meanwhile, have not found the slightest clue, I will consider the matter dropped as far as I am concerned. And now will monsieur excuse me, my time is valuable, and I have many clients to see."

M. Furet rose, the interview was over. Lavrovski felt there was nothing more to be done unless he fully made up his mind whether he could confide in a third person or not, and that, for the present, he was not prepared to do. The Frenchman might after all be speaking truly, there was every chance that the Tsarevitch was but perusing a young man's adventure, and nothing further could be lost by waiting. If those who had abducted him had meant any harm to him, the harm would by now be accomplished, and the three days Lavrovski gave himself as a respite ­ either for the return of the prodigal, if he was alive and unharmed, or for throwing himself on the Tsar's doubtful mercy, if evil had come to Nicolas Alexandrovitch ­ could matter little.

He took up his hat, and promising M. Furet to think he case over, in the light he had suggested, bowed to the old detective, and soon found himself in the streets once more.

He had determined to wait till Saturday, therefore wait he would, without confiding in anyone, still trusting that this terrible adventure would end happily before then, and in the meanwhile bearing his own burden of anxiety alone.

The only person that would of necessity require some sort of explanation ­ humble in position though he was ­ was Nicolas' valet. However little intelligence the man might possess, it would yet strike him as suspicious that his master should leave the hotel, and stay with friends so unexpectedly, that he did not even arrange for the most ordinary necessities of his toilet to be brought to him. Lavrovski, therefore, determined to tell him the partial truth; the truth, that is to say, such as he himself would wish it to be.

"You must understand, Stephán," he explained, "that his Imperial Highness has thought it fit to absent himself from this hotel for two or three days. But before leaving he gave me the strictest injunctions that we are to keep his absence the most profound secret form everybody, both here and at home. It is not for you, or even I, to question the Tsarevitch's right to do as he pleases, all we can do is to obey his orders as accurately as we can. To everybody, therefore, his Imperial Highness is confined to his bed with an attack of German measles, which is not serious but might last some days. Now do you quite understand me? and can his Imperial Highness entirely rely upon you fidelity and discretion, both now and in the future?"

"Nicolas Alexandrovitch is my master," said the Russian simply; "he has always found me faithful when he wanted my help, silent when he required my silence. The words I speak are as much at his commands as the deeds I do; I will say what he wishes, or hold my tongue as he desires."

"That is well, Stephán," said Count Lavrovski; "be sure his Imperial Highness will remember what you do for him to-day."

Lavrovski knew he could, rely on this man, all was well then for the next two days. After that ­ in God's hands, he thought, with characteristic oriental fatalism.