THAT same night His Eminence, as he had told Iván, was not dining at his hotel; he was spending an evening--the last of a series--in the company of Madame Demidoff, the most charming, the most mysterious, the most dangerous, of those Russian grandes dames who haunt the societies of Vienna, Paris, and London, live on apparently boundless means, are received everywhere, admired by the men, envied by the women, and feared by the staff and even the head of the respective Russian embassies.
Why the beautiful Madame Demidoff should be feared by her own compatriots it were difficult for an Englishman or a Frenchman to say; she was always affable, equally so to everyone whom she meet in society, and appeared not to take the slightest interest in matters political; true, there had been a rumour a year ago that at the Austrian frontier one day an over-zealous custom-house official, in inspecting the luggage of Madame Demidoff, who was going across to Russia, is said to have found some papers, wherein the lady gave a curiously minute account of all the sayings and doings of the Tsar's subjects residing in Vienna, including one or two intimate conversations between "Monsieur l'ambassadeur" and Madame his wife, that had actually taken place in their own bedroom; but this never got beyond a rumour, and the fact that "Monsieur l'ambassadeur" was shortly afterwards asked to retire from the diplomatic service may have had nothing to do with that intimate conversation which, after all, he had had with his wife between four walls and one or two doors. Anyhow, His Excellency, the present ambassador, and all his staff, also "Madame l'ambassadrice," are always particularly amiable with Madame Demidoff, and ask her to all their most select parties--but, the moment she leaves they sigh a sigh of relief, and when her name is mentioned before His Excellency he invariably says, "Do not name her to me; it gives me a cold shiver down the back."
However, all this was rumour pure and simple; nothing definite had ever been said that might throw suspicion of an ignoble calling on so fair an addition to Viennese smart society, and all uncharitable whispers were invariably suppressed by Madame Demidoff's numerous friends and admirers. Moreover, she entertained so superbly--her little dinners were worthy of an ode by the court poet, and her balls were counted among the great functions of the season.
One of these charming little dinners she proposed giving to-night to one of her most ardent, most valued friends, His Eminence Cardinal d'Orsay, who never shamed his high ecclesiastical office by avoiding any pretty woman that was willing to help him to while away the tediousness of diplomatic negotiations.
But she meant to leave for Petersburg that very evening by the midnight express, for it seemed to her beyond a doubt that some mystery was connected with the Tsarevitch's chase after the odalisque at the opera ball last night; and this mystery, unless more power were placed in her hands, she knew herself incapable of solving.
She had seen nothing of Eugen during the day, and the evening was drawing on rapidly; she had but little hope of learning any very important facts from him. The plot--if plot there were--once successfully carried through, proved how well all plans must have been laid; time and place were in its favour, and the information gleaned by inquiries outside the opera house, where the crowd at the time of the abduction numbered hundreds of thousands, was sure to be of very meagre character.
But at present she was actually ignorant as to whether the Tsarevitch had, after all, returned to the hotel and the whole mystery burst as a soap bubble. Then Lavrovski's attitude would be interesting and important to note.
there was a discreet rap at the door of the boudoir, where she had been waiting for the last half-hour, nervously pacing up and down the room, and at times sitting at her desk and covering sheets of paper with rapid scribbling.
"Ah! it is you, Eugen," she said, as, in answer to her impatient "Come in," the moujik's stolid figure appeared at the door. "Well! have you learnt anything? Tell me as briefly as you can all the important points while I make notes; you must be quick, for I can only spare a few minutes."
"According to your Excellency's instructions," began the Russian, "I went at once to the opera house, where the last of the masks were then departing, and the lights were being put out; I had conversations with most of the attendants and some of the commissionaires who had been stationed there, but no one seems to have taken much notice of the odalisque, the black domino, or the fiaker. They all, however, recollect an elderly gentleman, also in a black domino, making similar inquiries to mine, who seemed very agitated and disappointed when he could learn nothing."
"Lavrovski, of course! Well?"
"At the hotel this morning, I gathered that the Tsarevitch has up to this moment not reappeared, for Count Lavrovski, whom I followed at about two o'clock this afternoon, went off to the business house of a certain M. Furet, who, as I learnt from his concierge, is a very well-known and much-thought-of detective in this city."
"H'm! I wonder what his hopes were in that quarter!" mused Madame Demidoff. "You are sure he did not send a telegram across to Petersburg first?"
"Quite sure, your Excellency; I am coming to that presently. What happened at the interview I, of course, cannot say, but what struck me was, that when Count Lavrovski left M. Furet's office half an hour later, he seemed, if possible, more hopelessly dejected than before. I concluded from that--"
"Never mind conclusions and surmises, my friend; it is facts we want to get hold of," said Madame Demidoff reflectively. "No doubt Lavrovski did not dare to fully confide in this Furet, and the detective, thereupon, would refuse to spend his time on a wild-goose-chase. What happened after that?"
"There is very little more to tell, Excellency. Count Lavrovski went straight back to the hotel, from whence he has not stirred all day. Stepán, the Russian valet, however, went out about five o'clock. I noticed he carried a piece of paper in his hand. I followed him to a telegraph office, and was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the contents, as he handed it across the counter."
"It contained only a few words: 'Nicholas confined to his bed; doctors say German measles; not the last serious; will be up in less than a week. --Lavrovski.'"
Madame Demidoff sat still awhile now, reflecting on what she had heard, her brows knit, buried in thought.
"To whom was the telegram addressed?" was the last question she asked.
"I could not see, Excellency," answered the man. "I could only get one glance at it, and have told you the words that struck me."
She had taken up a sheet of paper, and was making rapid notes of what she had heard. Little enough it seemed as she read them over, and she was tapping her foot with impatience and impotent energy.
"It seems pretty clear that Lavrovski has made up his mind to wait," she said, "and is trying as best he can to keep ignorant at headquarters of the Tsarevitch's disappearance. This is, no doubt, Furet's advice to him, who wants probably to have all the credit of discovering Nicholas' whereabouts, and the liberal reward that is sure in that case to be his.
"I care nothing for the reward, but this mystery alarms me. Lavrovski! Bah! an incompetent personage at best, now a coward, who thinks more of his own safety than of hte dangers that at this moment surround the Tsarevitch in his unknown prison. Pray to God," she added fervently, "that it remain a prison, and not become a grave."
"Amen!" said Eugen.
"Now, Eugen, that is, I think, all that you have to tell me. Your work, after I have left, will not be very difficult. Follow this man Furet wherever he goes, glean every scrap of information you can; remember, if anyone discovers the Tsarevitch it must be I and you, not they. You understand?"
A rumble of carriage wheels was now distinctly audible under the portico. Madame Demidoff hastily finished what writing she had to do, then locked her desk, and dismissed Eugen, who disappeared, silent and stolid as he had come.
Then it was that the consummate histrionic art, which this fascinating woman had at her fingers' ends, ,showed itself in a way that, to a hidden observer, would have seemed almost weird; in the space of less than a minute, she seemed to have thrown off every vestige of anxiety and agitation. Her face was calm and smiling; the words of welcome to her exalted guest seemed ready to bubble forth; the hand that was cordially stretched forward was neither cold nor trembling.
The lackey had thrown open the door and announced:
"His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Beauvaix, Papal Nuncio."
"Your Eminence does my poor house too much honour," she said, with a gracious smile, while the Cardinal, with the gallantry peculiar to his calling, kissed the tips of the dainty fingers that had been placed between his own.
No wonder her countrymen were afraid of her; no wonder it was a slight shiver she occasioned at times, in those who guessed what lay hidden behind hte impassive mask of the Russian grande dame, the friend of princes, of kings and cardinals; perhaps it was the terror of the unknown, a vague fear caused by this beautiful, impenetrable, and certainly dangerous sphinx.
As for His Eminence, not being a Russian he had no cause to fear Madame Demidoff, but every reason to admire her, and sharpen his diplomatic wit against hers; as for shivers, they certainly were not cold ones she gave him down the back. He saw in her a most brilliant and agreeable conversationalist, who knew everybody that was worth knowing, had been everywhere that was worth visiting; her taste in matters artistic was unerring, her knowledge of interesting objets d'art the most complete on record. She had once written a most interesting pamphlet on the thimibles of Catherine II., another on the spurs of Peter the Great; she professed an ardent enthusiasm for the Roman Catholic Church, and showed an equally genuine one for its high dignitaries. Failing a trip to the Austrian Tyrol, His Eminence thought the recherché little dinners, en tête-à-tête with Madame Demidoff, the most consoling, most exhilarating holiday for his much harassed mind.
"And your Eminence is really leaving us to-morrow?" said the fair Russian with a sigh, when, having adjourned to her dainty boudoir after dinner, she sat lazily reclining in an armchair, a gold-tipped cigarette between her fingers, and a pair of arch black eyes fixed coquettishly on the reserved, impassive face of her vis-à-vis.
"It is unkind to speak of it at this early hour, madame, and embitter the last pleasing moments I shall spend in this delightful capital," replied the Cardinal.
"Come, come," she added coquettishly, "I did not know that diplomacy completely precluded truthfulness, even at the shrine of gallantry. If rumour speak correctly, your Eminence is only leaving us for newer, and therefore more enjoyable, scenes."
"Alas! chère madame, rumour, which spoke truly at morn, now talks falsely at even. I certainly had intended to go to Carlsbad for a fortnight's relaxation among the beautiful mountains--"
"Incognito?" she asked mischievously.
"Incognito," he smiled in reply. "But, alas! unforeseen duties have since called me elsewhere."
"Why, that is very sudden," she said; "M. Volenski, whom I met last night, told me that your Eminence had completed your work, and were going on leave of absence for three weeks at least."
"Iván Volenski told you what was quite correct last night, but alas! has ceased to be so to-day," sighed His Eminence, with angry impatience.
"And your Eminence is going--?" she asked, with truly feminine curiosity.
He looked at her and smiled; she was bewitchingly pretty, smoking her cigarette with that infinite grace so peculiar to Russian women.
"Elsewhere," he said at last, as if in a vain attempt to check any further questions.
But experienced diplomatist as, no doubt, the Papal Nuncio was, this was a false move, for the word, as used by him, obviously hid a mystery. Madame Demidoff bit her lip; she disliked secrets, until they became her own. His Eminence had, quite unwittingly, aroused her curiosity, and she had decided in her mind, in the space of a few seconds, that the Cardinal should not leave her house to-night before having told her where he was going the next day.
"Elsewhere is a vague word," she said poutingly, "not to say ungallant. Your Eminence has not accustomed me to such brusque answers."
Her annoyance, real or assumed, upset the inflammable cleric even more than her archness.
"Believe me, chère madame," he said, full of contrition, "that were the secret mine I would confide it you immediately, and not attempt to fence with words with you, which proceeding, I own, seems shockingly ungallant."
"Ah! then you admit that there is a secret connected with your change of plans?"
"Nay! I never denied that, but the secret is not my own."
"Would it be the first time, then, that your Eminence will have entrusted me with a secret which was not wholly yours?" she asked.
Evidently the shaft told truly, for the Cardinal did not reply. She saw she had gained a point. She was now burning with curiosity, and, womanlike, was more determined than ever to pierce His Eminence's last attempts at mystery.
"I thought," she added, with real reproach in her voice, "that when your Eminence did me the honour to employ my poor services to aid you in some of your delicate diplomatic missions, that we had both agreed to share all political secrets with each other."
"This is not a political secret, chère madame," protested the Cardinal.
"Private, then? Ah! take care! my jealousy might prove more serious than my curiosity."
"Not my own, I repeat," hastily corrected the Cardinal.
"Whose, then?" she persisted. "Your Eminence told me that you had seen no one this Ash Wednesday save M. Volenski, and---"
She paused. In a moment she had guessed, and, more than that, had guessed correctly. His Eminence's conscious look spoke volumes.
"So your Eminence is taking a secret private message from His Majesty to some remote place elsewhere," she said, delighted at her first success. "Ah! now you cannot damp my curiosity any more. You must tell me all about it. For whom is the message? . . . A lady, of course . . . The Emperor's newest chère amie. . . I have it! . . . The Princess Marïonoff!. . . Your Eminence is going to Petersburg with a billet doux from the Emperor to the beautiful Princess Marïonoff!"
"Chère madame!" still feebly protested the Cardinal.
"Ah, your Eminence deserves that, after your want of confidence in me, I should publish the fact in the Viennese papers to-morrow. What a delightful paragraph it would make: 'A cardinal as Cupid's messenger.' Truly the secret is now mine. Mine by right of conquest. Your Eminence should have trusted a tried friend, and might have guessed that a mystery which baffles Madame Demidoff has yet to be invented, and is none of your or His Majesty's making."
The Cardinal was now truly distressed. His much-boasted-of discretion had received a very severe blow, and he was not at all confident but that this enigmatical woman would not take some unpleasant small revenge, such as she threatened.
"Believe me, chère madame," he ventured to say at last, "that nothing but the most solemn promise to His Majesty prevented my telling you from the first all that you wished to know. Madame Demidoff's powers of guessing riddles are too widely known for any poor diplomat like myself to attempt to battle against them. I can but throw myself, conquered as I am, entirely at your mercy."
"I will be generous to your Eminence," she said, once more captivating and coquettish; "now that my whim is gratified, I can afford to be merciful, but on one condition only--"
"And that is?"
"That you tell me what it is you are taking over to the Princess as a gift from her exalted admirer; it cannot be merely a billet doux, for the post would have been almost as safe as your Eminence. Is it some rare and valuable gift? Diamonds? Pearls? or objets d'art?"
"It is, indeed, a most rare, not to say unique, gift," said the Cardinal, now completely subjugated and resigned; "so absolutely valuable that no diamonds or pearls could ever have purchased them."
"Madame, remember I am at your mercy; you will consider this in the light of a State secret."
"Have I ever been known to betray any secrets?" she asked impatiently.
"So long as I have your promise---"
"No need of a fresh promise; surely your Eminence knows me. Come, you have gone too far now to beat a retreat."
"Voilà! It appears that last year the beautiful Princess, in admiring the beauties of the Hofburg, thought fit to cast longing eyes on the celebrated candlesticks of gold and vieux Vienne that had belonged to Marie Antoinette."
"Ah, yes, I have heard of them; they are said to be most exquisite works of art, and I believe many a member of the Hapsburg family has longed in vain to possess them."
"Until the said pair of Russian eyes were cast on them with a pleading look, and an Imperial heart was unable to resist," assented the Cardinal.
"And His Majesty?"
"Has asked me to lay these same candlesticks, together with the Imperial and Royal homage, at the dainty feet of his chère amie."
"And your Eminence has accepted the task?"
"With great reluctance, I assure you, chère madame; but what would you? His Majesty has the faculty of opening even an old diplomatist's heart, as easily as he does the secret springs of his candlesticks."
"The secret springs?"
"Yes! did you not know the candlesticks contained secret springs, with mysterious receptacles, that, according to history, contained many a time Marie Antoinette's private missives to her brother in Vienna? Oh! they are most interesting heirlooms, most fascinating bibelots."
Madame Demidoff said nothing more; for a while she sat pensively watching the clouds of smoke as they rose form her cigarette, and her eyes wandered from time to time towards the Cardinal, who sat absorbed in reflections, probably of that Bohemian trip he was forced to abandon.
"Ah! how I wish I could see those candlesticks!" said madame at last, with an impatient little sigh.
"Have you never seen them? They are certainly the most exquisite works of art it has ever been my good fortune to see."
"Your Eminence, it is truly cruel to torture the soul of a humble collector, like myself, by telling me of treasures I shall now never behold."
"Would that be so great a hardship?" he asked, smiling.
"Oh! do not laugh; I am simply burning with curiosity; all night I shall dream of vieux Vienne candlesticks, of gold mounts, of secret springs. How can I imagine a thing that I know must surpass anything of the kind I have ever seen? It will be a nightmare surely."
"Do not say that, chère madame; think of the tortures of remorse I shall have to endure, knowing that my momentary indiscretion, in speaking of these bibelots, has caused you a restless night."
"Why not avoid the remorse for yourself and the nightmare for me by gratifying my burning curiosity?"
"With all the pleasure in life," said His Eminence, with alacrity, "if madame will honour me by stepping into my carriage and paying my dreary abode a visit, the candlesticks will but need unpacking--"
"Oh, mon Dieu! your Eminence! What you propose would be très compromettant for me; think of your servants, of M. Volenski."
"Pardon me, madame!" said His Eminence. "I am an old diplomatist, and I ceased to be compromising to a pretty woman many years ago."
"Diplomatists are always compromising, your Eminence! and I really would not dare venture, for fear I should be punished by being forced to take the veil of a Carmelite. But oh!" she added, with a pretty gesture of entreaty, "will your Eminence allow me to send my confidential maid to M. Volenski and ask him to give her the candlesticks? I assure you, I shall not sleep a wink to-night, and to-morrow look as old as Madame l'ambassadrice, unless your Eminence will satisfy my curiosity."
"Madame, among my numerous sins, which, alas! the Recording Angel but too faithfully marks against me, there has often occurred the sin of giving a lady a sleepless night, but never that of causing her to look a day older than her years. I feel sure such a sin would be beyond forgiveness; so, if you will allow me, I will ring for my carriage and drive to my hotel at once, in order to bring you the objects of your curiosity myself. I doubt if Volenski is at home at this moment; moreover, I have the key of my valise in which I know they are locked."
"Oh, your Eminence is too kind!" said Madame Demidoff, with almost childish delight; "you will gauge the extent of my curiosity by the fact that it has completely annihilated my courtesy, inasmuch as I find it impossible to refuse your kind proposition."
And, as if fearing that the Cardinal might change his mind, she rang the bell, and ordered His Eminence's carriage to be brought round immediately. The Cardinal, very much amused at this old yet ever new trait of feminine curiosity, promised not to tarry a moment, and ten minutes later he took a temporary leave, and the roll of his carriage soon died away in the distance.
Madame Demidoff sat for some moments quite still, unable to move--perhaps from sheer intensity of excitement--till the very last sound of those carriage wheels could be heard no more. A torpor, akin to a trance, seemed to have mastered this woman, usually so full of energy and vitality.
But this did not last; soon the reaction set in. How astonished would her urbane guest have been, had he been gifted with second sight, and now beheld the elegant, nonchalant grande dame whom he had left lazily lounging in an arm-chair, toying idly with a cigarette.
All eagerness and excitement, she feverishly opened her desk, and ran through the few notes she had taken of Eugen's report as to the Tsarevitch's disappearance, and Count Lavrovski's pusillanimous behaviour. Every now and then short, jerky sentences found their way, half audibly, through her tightly clenched teeth; they were, as it were, the safety-valves of this intense, inward excitement.
For what a chance of complete secrecy had fate thus placed in her way. She shuddered as she recollected that hateful moment on the Austrian frontier, when, through blunder or over-officiousness, alien hands had come across her reports. Oh! the humiliation of it, the mockery of obsequious civility, palpably directed towards a dangerous enemy, a spy of the Russian government. Then, the heavy hush-money, paid with a liberal hand, and yet evidently wholly inadequate to stop chattering tongues from propagating--oh! a mere whisper--the interesting fact, that Madame Demidoff, the élite of Viennese society, the friend of princes, kings, and cardinals, derived her great wealth from money paid to her for spying on her countrymen abroad. Some such news did get about, there was no doubt of that; she had felt vaguely conscious of it sometimes, or was it the merest fancy? At any rate there had been no certainty, and certainty there must not be, for Madame Demidoff loved her life, the gay, glittering court life, with the admiration her beauty and wealth aroused, and the friendships her bright wit and fascinating manner attracted around her.
Her profession? Ah! as to that, English readers, try not to be too severe. Russia is a great, but hard mistress, who demands of all her children work according to their means and ability. The word spy has an ugly meaning with us, we loathe it, if applied to a man, and cannot even conceive it as an attribute to a young and gifted woman. But in Russia, where all round an absolute monarchy a web of intrigue and conspiracy is woven, where blows are aimed and dealt at the head of the State from every quarter of the Empire, from every class of society, and always from the dark, these blows must be met with counter-blows of the same nature, secret, swift, and dark. An enemy, hidden behind every pillar of a palace, can but be fought by means as secret as his own. Russia employs them to protect herself and her autocratic ruler: blame the system if you will, and then try to pity its often unwilling servants.
Madame Demidoff never allowed herself to reflect as to whether her calling was worthy of praise or blame, she served her country to the best of her ability, and continued coquetting with the world, whilst daily risking its contempt.
However, on this occasion, fate evidently meant to be kind; the moment she heard His Eminence recount the interesting history of the Emperor's candlesticks, her bright wit had laid itself out for a means to obtain possession of those mysterious receptacles. In a few moments the Cardinal would be back with his precious burden, and surely she had carried through more difficult bits of diplomacy, than that of inducing the Nuncio to entrust her with the mission of conveying the candlesticks across to Petersburg.
This report, merely a matter of a few notes, taken by herself from Eugen's scanty account of the Tsarevitch's disappearance, woud lie easily concealed in the secret receptacle. It was not much, but as, no doubt, it would reach the government sooner than any communication from the conspirators, it might be of some value. Madame Demidoff, well versed as she was in matters of this sort, felt convinced taht the Tsarevitch's abduction must have been carried through with a view to making some imperious demands, whilst he was a hostage in the conspirator's hands. She arrived very near the truth, whilst thinking the matter over, and felt at the same time how helpless the Russian police, nay, the Tsar himself, would be, whilst Nicholas was a hidden prisoner.
That Count Lavrovski, who had been--perhaps innocently--very much to blame in allowing his charge to slip through his fingers, would endeavour to recover his traces, by every possible and impossible means, there was certainly no doubt. Viennese detectives were known throughout Europe for their astuteness, and, moreover, a man like this Furet would not arouse the suspicions of the plotters in the way that an agent of the Russian government would. But Madame Demidoff had set her resolute mind the task of being the chief instrument in unmasking the daring conspiracy. She knew what high value her government set on her powers, and this was the greatest opportunity she had ever had of showing how worthy she was of their trust.
She was an absolutely fearless woman. while engaged in the fulfilment of her duties, any danger to her personal safety at the hands of revengeful plotters held no place in her thoughts; but there was the weak point in her armour--was there ever human nature without such a point?--and that weakness lay in her intense dread of being branded before the world, before all the friends she ahd made, as a spy.
The name gave her a shudder, when, as it were, it stood up and rose before her, as it had done that terrible time on the frontier, when the catastrophe seemed imminent, and the bare thought of hearing it whispered round her, by those who had held it an honour to be counted among her guests, was at times overpoweringly intolerable.
Perhaps in the pride of the woman of society, dreading to be forced to step down from her pedestal, there was much of that deeply hidden sentiment, that changed this worldly politician into a mere woman at times; the sentiment that invariably brought into her eyes that look of wistful tenderness, which she so rarely allowed to dwell therein. Perhaps when she thought of the exalted and high-born friends, who would turn their backs with scorn on the paid spy of the Russian police, did she dwell lingeringly on the one friend, the dreamy, aristocratic young Pole, who thought, alas! so little of her now, but who would scorn her, oh! so completely, then.
But now, if only fate favoured her but a little longer, if she succeeded in inducing the Cardinal to allow her to take the candlesticks over herself to Petersburg, she need not have the slightest fear of discovery. She had looked through the papers, the reports she wished to take; if the secrete receptacles were as His Eminence had described them, she could defy the most meddlesome officials on her perilous journey across the frontier.
She heard once more the rumble of wheels; His Eminence's carriage was stopping under the portico. A hasty glance at her mirror reassured her that no trace of either agitation or sentiment was visible on her face. Relighting a cigarette, she once more lounged back in her causeuse, and when three minutes later His Eminence entered, carrying his precious burden, he could read naught but ardent curiosity in his fascinating hostess' expressive eyes.
With her dainty fingers she helped him to undo the numerous wrappings which Iván Volenski, so little while ago, had so trustingly wrapped round the valuable bibelots.
The enthusiasm of the connoisseur was apparently boundless, and Madame Demidoff was untiring in the praises she bestowed on the charming bibelots.
"But, oh dear me!" she sighed, "how brittle!"
"Not so brittle as you may imagine," said His Eminence, "for, after all, these candlesticks are some three hundred years old, and they must have been handled by scores of hands, and are still in perfect condition."
"Not quite perfect, I think," she replied, "for see! this one little Cupid has his arm sadly chipped from wrist to elbow."
"Oh, mon Dieu!" said His Eminence, "I do hope this has been done before, and not since I have had charge of these inconvenient things. I assure you, chère madame, they are a source of constant anxieety to me, ever since His Majesty forced them into my hands. Pray, do allow me to place the damaged candlestick on one side, or perhaps you will extend your kindness by wrapping it up once more in its coverings. I dare not touch it for fear of damaging it further, and can show you the secret spring in the other, for they are both alike."
Tenderly, as if it were a child, His Eminence, with Madame Demidoff's help, had wrapped the damaged candlestick up in its many coverings once more, and had carefully placed it on one side. And now the fair Russian was eagerly watching the Cardinal's fingers as he pressed on the tiny gold leaf, and explained to her the mysteries of the secret spring and the hidden receptacle, so complete, so perfect, so absolutely free from any possibility of detection. Madame Demidoff could ill conceal her excitement, and she nerved herself now to the task, the intricate bit of diplomacy that still lay before her.
"Ah!" she said at last, "no wonder your Eminence feels nervous and ill at ease with such fragile things in your keeping. You have no idea how careless the custom-house officials and railway porters are in Austria, with boxes and valises belonging to men. With ladies' things, I notice, they are much more careful, for they fear the consequences of a crushed gown, or a torn piece of lace."
"You absolutely give me the shudders, chère madame," said His Eminence. "I declare my life will be a perfect misery until the happy moment when they are safe in the Princess Marïonoff's hands, let alone the fact of my bitter disappointment in having to forego my long-projected holiday."
Madame Demidoff was still attentively examining the pretty bibelots as she said playfully:
"Would your Eminence really care to give up the chance of being Cupid's messenger?"
"If I only knew the way to do that, chère madame?" he said, with an unmistakable sigh of relief, as he finally gave in to her kind persuasion.
"By telling me all the latest scandals about my best friends," she said laughingly, settling herself once more comfortably in her luxurious armchair.
The victory was gained, and for the next half-hour His Eminence's sprightly conversation helped her to forget the agitations of the evening. He finally took his leave, leaving the bibelots that had caused him so much annoyance safely in her charge; and it was agreed that Madame Demidoff would take care of them until His Eminence's return from Carlsbad, when he would hand them over himself to the Princess Marïonoff.
Thus it was that her diplomatic gifts had once more stood her in good stead; and, what she considered the safest possible hiding-place for her reports, was now in her possession to make use of as she wished.
It was getting late, and she was more resolved than ever to leave Vienna this very night, lest His Eminence might change his mind on the morrow and rob her once more of her precious charge. She collected the notes she had recently made, together with a few other papers, containing her various reports to the Third Section; and, unconsciously imitating Volenski's actions, she touched the secret spring and slipped the documents into the velvet-lined receptacle within the shaft of the candlestick. Safe they were, of that there was no doubt. She carefully packed up the precious bibelots in their numerous wrappings, wrote on the outside covering in bold letters: "The property of His Eminence Cardinal d'Orsay--China--Very fragile," then took the parcel up with her, and put it away in her valise.
An hour later, accompanied by her maid who carried the fateful burden, she drove away to the Nordbahn, en route for St. Petersburg.
At about the same time Iván Volenski, hearing the Cardinal's footsteps in the rooms below, knocked at His Eminence's door to inquire if he would require his services again that night.
"Come in, Iván," said the Cardinal in highly elated tones; "this time it is good news I have to impart to you. We shall both have our holiday, my son; and I start for Carlsbad to-morrow."
Iván stared at His Eminence in complete astonishment.
"But . . .what about the candlesticks?" he asked breathlessly.
"Ah! that is the delightful piece of luck that has happened," explained His Eminence. "Madame Demidoff, who is herself going to Petersburg to-morrow, has consented to take the tiresome things over for me, and to keep them in her charge until my return from Carlsbad. I fetched them away myself this evening, and I am thankful to say the responsibility of travelling with those brittle things is safely off my shoulders."
Volenski had become deathly pale.
"Madame Demidoff . . . the candlesticks. . ." he gasped. "I do not understand--"
"Why, my friend, don't look so scared. I was showing the bibelots to madame, and quite casually mentioned that I was somewhat disappointed at having, on their account, to give up a long-expected holiday: so she very kindly offered to take the candlesticks over to Petersburg for me, which offer I gladly accepted; and you see me with a burden less on my mind."
Volenski was vainly trying to regain his composure.
"And did your Eminence show Madame Demidoff the secrets of the candlesticks?" he asked breathlessly.
"I really do not remember," said His Eminence. "I dare say I did; but you seem very anxious about the matter. I don't understand the reason."
"My anxiety is entirely in your Eminence's interest; my fear is lest the candlesticks are really safe in a lady's keeping."
"Is that all?" said His Eminence somewhat drily, and darting a quick glance from his penetrating eyes at Volenski, who bore the scrutiny bravely. "You may set your mind at rest, then; I consider the candlesticks quite safe, my dear Volenski. So now good-night. I start early to-morrow morning. You will, I am afraid, have to stay another day longer, in order to see to the correspondence; but after that your time is your own, till we meet at Petersburg on the 3rd of next month. Good-night, my son."
Volenski bowed low before the Cardinal, and, more dead than alive, he reached the quietness of his own room, where he could collect his thoughts and view the immediate future.
That the peril was deadly, that after this at any hour, any moment, the blow might fall, he realised in one moment.
All the papers relating to their plot--so carefully planned, so daringly executed--the draft of their manifesto to be placed by Taranïew in the Tsar's hands, documents which in most cases bore the names of the conspirators, and which would send them, one and all, if discovered, to Siberia or to death, all were contained in the secret receptacle of one of the candlesticks, that even now were in Madame Demidoff's hands. All that required no reflection; they were hard, undeniable facts.
What did need serious thinking--as the catastrophe had by some extraordinary stroke of good luck so far been averted--was how to ward it off successfully.
In the first place, it was quite evident that so far the papers were safe.
The Cardinal and Madame Demidoff had seen nothing; either His Eminence forgot or forebore to show the lady the secret spring, or, having done so, he happened to have used the candlestick that did not contain the secret papers. But women are naturally curious, fond of toying with trifles, and any moment-- Volenski's thoughts refused to travel further; the consequences were too appalling. And then again, should he warn his comrades at once of the catastrophe? own to them that the trust they had placed in him he had even the first day betrayed? Would that serve any purpose? What could they do, even if they knew the worst, but calmly await events? For wherever they went, however they hid, it would be impossible to escape the far-reaching arm of the Russian police. No; far better let them remain in blissful ignorance for a time; if the blow was to fall they would know their fate soon enough.
Hour after hour the young Pole sat, his head buried in his hands, trying to think of some plan, some means of intercepting those candlesticks, of robbing Madame Demidoff; but how?--how?
All night he paced up and down his room; it was broad daylight before he fell into a troubled sleep, and in his dream chains were on his wrists, he and most of his comrades were tramping through a dreary desert of snow towards the distant mines of Eastern Siberia, where death awaits the exile--certain, creeping death, a lingering torture that sometimes lasts three entire years.