IT had already been settled, some little time ago, that His Eminence Cardinal d'Orsay would leave Vienna on the day following--Thursday--to take two or three weeks' relaxation from his diplomatic duties, under the strictest incognito, somewhere among the mountains of Bohemia. He had terminated his mission from His Holiness Leo XIII. to His Catholic and Apostolic Majesty Franz Jozef I. with that ease and tact which characterised all His Eminence's methods of procedure, whether diplomatic or otherwise, and would presently be going to St. Petersburg also on a diplomatic mission, but one of a most intricate character, which would require all His Eminence's skill and knowledge of the world and of that Imperial enigma--the Tsar.
Iván Volenski had been kept incessantly at work all that day, ever since His Eminence had returned from Low Mass, classifying and arranging the diplomatic correspondence relating to the concluded mission, and preparing the documents that the Nuncio would require when, having returned from his well-earned holiday, he would be ready to start for St. Petersburg.
Iván had worked hard, chiefly to calm his agitation and force his mind to wander away from visions of various possible occurences on the dreaded Russian frontier, which had haunted him during the night. Also he was anxious to conclude all his duties connected with the Legation; he was eager to start as soon as possible, to hand over the terrible responsibility of the papers, which already was weighing him down heavily.
It was late in the afternoon when His Eminence returned from his final leave-taking of His Majesty. Iván, who was waiting for him, noticed at once the look of annoyance that seemed to ruffle the Cardinal's placid features.
"Cardinal proposes and Emperor disposes!" said His Eminence wearily, after he had with the greatest care deposited his precious burden on the table. "Iván, my son, I have bad news to tell you."
"Bad news, your Eminence?"
"Don't look so scared, my son; it is merely a matter of a great inconvenience and of a bitter disappointment. I shall not be able to go to Carlsbad to-morrow."
"No; I am to be Cupid's messenger instead. Truly a novel form of diplomacy, even after my years of experience. And this," added His Eminence, pointing to the bulky parcel on the table, "is the message I am to take."
"But I do not understand. Where is the message to go to?" asked Volenski, somewhat amused at the clerical diplomat's ruffled composure.
"All the way to St. Petersburg, my son, to be laid at the most beautiful feet in the world--those of the Princess Marïonoff--on behalf of His Catholic and Apostolic Majesty Franz Jozef I."
"And your Eminence has undertaken to convey this unwieldy parcel all the way to St. Petersburg, and are giving up your holiday in order to satisfy the Emperor's caprice?" asked Volenski in astonishment.
"What could I do?" said the Cardinal impatiently. "You know how insinuating the Hapsburg family can be--its respected chief more so than anyone in the world. His Majesty had extracted a promise from me and forced these things into my hand before I had fully recovered from the astonishment in which his request had plunged me."
"So now your Eminence intends putting off your trip to Carlsbad indefinitely and delivering the Emperor's message, first of all?" asked Iván, who suddenly became nervous as to how these altered plans would affect his own movements.
"Yes! I am anxiouos to get rid of these brittle things--for brittle they are to an alarming degree--I should never know a moment's peace till they were out of my hands, and safe in those of the fair sorceress, who has succeeded in inveigling Franz Jozef into giving her so precious an heirloom. We will start for St. Petersburg to-morrow."
"Yes, my son! I am afraid you must, like myself, find your holiday indefinitely postponed. Having once got so far, I shall push on to Peterhof at once, and see His Majesty the Tsar, for whom His Holiness has entrusted me with a memorial, and settle all my work in Russia, with your help, as quickly as possible."
Volenski did not reply. In his mind there arose the fact of the great additional safety to his own secret mission, if he were actually travelling in attendance upon His Eminence. Clearly this change of plans was for the good of the cause.
"I shall be quite ready to start to-morrow," he said at last, with ill-concealed alacrity and an involuntary sigh of relief.
"Well! you take it more philosophically than I do, my son," said the Cardinal sadly.
"After all, your Eminence," said Volenski, with an attempt at consolation, "your holiday and mine are only postponed; in a month's time the spring will be upon us--the weather altogether more propitious for pleasure trips."
"In a month's time, my son," said the Cardinal, whose gloom could not so easily be dispelled, "there will no doubt have cropped up some work, that again will brook no delay. There was no time like the present."
"In the meanwhile," said Iván, "will your Eminence allow me to give the parcel to Antoine that he may pack it in one of the boxes?"
"Gently, my son, gently; ah! you do not know the double annoyance these things are causing me; for not only do they necessitate the postponement of our holiday, but they are of such brittle nature that the conveying of them all the way to Petersburg will be one prolonged anxiety to two bachelors like ourselves."
"Yes; cut the string, my son, and look at the bibelots; you can feast your eyes on the most charming works of art it has ever been my good fortune to see, truly a fitting gift of an Emperor to a Princess."
Volenski had already opened the parcel, and, with the eyes of a connoisseur, was admiring the exquisite workmanship, the grace of design, of these truly unique bibelots.
"Their history," added His Eminence, "as His Majesty told me, is as interesting as the works of art themselves. The candlesticks are not entirely what they seem, and there is a charming secret about them."
"See," said His Eminence, explaining to Iván the intricacies of the hidden spring, "history has it that Queen Marie Antoinette used these candlesticks as a means of sending private messages to her relatives in Vienna. The secret, apparently, has been well kept, for until now the Hapsburgs never allowed these treasures to stand anywhere but in the Hofburg chapel, an no one, I believe, until this day, has ever seen these mysterious receptacles."
Volenski had turned pale with suppressed excitement; his hand slightly trembled as, with unwonted eagerness, he now once more examined the Emperor's candlesticks. He listened to His Eminence with an earnestness which was not wholly that of a mere connoisseur. A wild, a grand idea had suddenly surged in his brain. Here was safety at last: complete, unassailable. A place wherein to deposit the valuable papers that not the most far-seeing Russian official could dream of; moreover, the candlesticks themselves would be in His Eminence's keeping, and who would dare to touch the belongings of the Papal Nuncio? Now for a little simple diplomacy, and then peace, comfort, freedom from anxiety, till, arrived at St. Petersburg, the papers safely across the frontier, he will have exercised the finest stroke of strategy ever done by any member of the secret society.
"Well, Iván, and what do you think of them?" His Eminence's voice broke in, on Volenski's meditations.
"They are certainly most exquisite works of art," said the young man, pulling himself together, "but I do not wonder that your Eminence is anxious about them; they seem so brittle, so fragile, that one fears damage even in the packing."
"That is why I dare not trust them to Antoine, and had hoped, Iván, that you would see to the packing for me yourself; my own fingers are old and clumsy: it really requires a woman's hand."
"No woman's hands can be more careful than mine shall be," said Iván eagerly; "I will see about these things at once. They will be safest, I think, in your Eminence's own valise, which can then be placed in the coupé, and remain under our own eyes the whole length of the journey."
"You certainly will be relieving my anxiety very considerably, my dear son, by taking charge of these candlesticks for me. I can assure you, that no diplomatic burden has ever weighed so heavily on my shoulders as these fragile bibelots."
Fate seemed definitely to have placed herself in league with Volenski's project. Being a Pole, he was superstitious, and sought for the mysterious workings of some supernatural agency, in this most ordinary event.
He was brave in danger, with control over his nerves and fears, but this was an eager kind of emotion--that of joy, relief, triumph--and his arms shook, as he carried the precious candlesticks up to his own private room.
He wished to be alone, to think quietly over the matter, not to allow his eagerness to run away with his reason. His comrades' safety was the important fact to bear in mind, and that he would undoubtedly be furthering by concealing the papers in the secret receptacle.
He was excited, enthusiastic!
"God's hand," he thought, "protects the cause. He placed this secret within my reach. And now, in two days, Taranïew can have the papers. His Eminence will have charge of them. The Papal Nuncio himself will unwittingly convey them across the frontier."
His Eminence could not be "a suspect," that was clear; if he declared a parcel to contain works of art belonging to himself, not the chief of the Third Section in person would dare to lay hands on the Cardinal's property.
And feverishly he touched the secret spring of one of the candlesticks, and gazed, almost lovingly, into the velvet-lined receptacle within. Once more assuring himself that his door was safely locked, he took, from out of his breast-pocket, the papers entrusted to him yesterday by the committee, slipped them inside the hollow of the tree-trunk, and carefully closed the spring again. He then minutely examined the two candlesticks, and ascertained that the china Cupid, who was now guarding the papers, had a slightly damaged arm, from wrist to elbow, which made it easily recognisable from its twin. He then wrapped them up carefully in many layers of cotton wool, and multitudinous soft papers, and, taking the precious parcel to the Cardinal's room, he locked it up in His Eminence's valise, side by side with the episcopal ring and other insignia of his sacred calling.
"Yes, your Eminence, you shall take our papers to St. Petersburg for us, hidden in the gift of an Emperor to a Princess; they will be safe enough there, I think."
Five minute later Iván, calm once more, sought out the Cardinal in his study; he handed him over the key to his valise, and gave him the assurance that the Emperor's candlesticks were quite safely packed, without fear of the slightest damage.
"I am infinitely grateful to you, my son," said His Eminence; "and now, as I am myself dining out, I think I may safely give you this, your last evening in Vienna, to dispose of, and say goodbye to any friends you may wish to see. You will have to leave instructions about our intended departure by the morning's express, and be ready yourself for the journey. Good-night, Iván, and thank you."
Volenski retired with a low bow, glad to think that he was off duty for the rest of the day. He hoped that some time during the evening he would meet one or the other of his comrades, and be able to tell him to communicate with the others that, owing to the most propitious circumstances, he would start for Petersburg twenty-four hours sooner than was anticipated. They might, therefore, rest fully assured that the papers would be safe in Taranïew's hands by the Saturday morning at latest, more especially as he would now be travelling actually with His Eminence the Nuncio, and that, therefore, there was not the slightest fear of his being asked unpleasant questions, or having his papers examined. Those, belonging to the brotherhood, he had placed in a hiding-place that was unparalleled for safety and defied the eyes of the keenest-sighted Russian official in the Empire.