WHOEVER has travelled in a first-class carriage of an Austrian State railway has learnt to know the acme of comfort and luxury that can be conveyed on wheels. True, that whilst the traveller gains in the matter of softly cushioned seats he loses in that of speed; but what would you? This is Eastern Europe, and the Oriental looks upon hurry as one of the seven deadly sins; so the railways he constructs never exceed forty miles an hour, but the springs of the carriages are balanced to a nicety, and everything is done to render the passenger's prolonged stay in the coupé a pleasant and luxurious one.
But oh! there is one great, one very great drawback to travelling in those Eastern countries! Who has not known the annoyance, the worry, the bustle attendant on the necessary custom-house examinations at the frontier? Both at Passau, at one end of the Empire, and at Oderberg on the other, the weary traveller is usually landed an hour or so before sunrise. The imperious rules of the Austrian custom-house demand that every article of luggage pass under the inspection of its officials, and that under no circumstances a passenger be allowed to remain in his or her carriage, probably lest he or she may thereby succeed in keeping concealed the very articles of contraband, most strictly taxed by the Austrian government.
"I don't think we need get out, Rôza," said Madame Demidoff in a sleepy voice from the corner of her coupé, as the express drew up at Oderberg, the frontier station. "You saw the luggage registered through to Petersburg and loaded, did you not?"
"Oui, madame!" replied the maid, looking out of the carriage window; "they are opening all the doors and making everybody get out, but they did tell me in Vienna that, if we have the luggage registered, it can go through without examination."
"Anyway, I shall not get out; put my valise and dressing-bag close to me, and go and order two cups of coffee at the buffet, to be brought here."
"I think madame will not be disturbed," said the maid as she opened the carriage; "everyone has left the platform, and I see no more officials about. I hope madame will be all right whilst I am gone; I will be back directly."
And Rôza prepared to get out of the coupé.
"Excuse me, mademoiselle," said a voice, as she alighted on the platform, "everyone must get out here."
A man, in the uniform of the custom-house officials, stood by the carriage door, respectfully lifting his cap as he peered into the coupé and saw Madame Demidoff surrounded by her luggage.
"Surely it is not necessary," said madame in a tone of annoyance; "my luggage is registered through, and they told me distinctly in Vienna that I shall not be troubled with these stupid formalities."
"I am very sorry, madame, but our orders are very strict, and we are not allowed to let anyone remain in the carriages, nor any luggage," he added emphatically, pointing to the valise, dressing-bags, and rugs that lay on the cushioned seats.
Madame Demidoff knew enough about officialdom to be well aware that it was absolutely useless to disobey or even to protest. The man was perfectly civil, nay, respectful, but at any sign of resistance he would call for help, and deposit madame's luggage, without hesitation, on the platform, or carry it away to the customs hall, where she would perforce have to follow it.
Resigning herself with an impatient sigh, she prepared to step out of the carriage, leaving Rôza and the man to follow with her things. She knew she had nothing that she need mind being handled by the most prying Austrian official; her reports and papers this time were safe in the secret receptacles of the Emperor's candlesticks; these she had placed in her valise, labelling them conspicuously: "China--Fragile--the property of His Eminence Cardinal d'Orsay." The parcel might be opened, with a view to verifying the truth of the label, but no one could guess that a Russian agent's reports were hidden inside such brittle works of art.
The whole thing was merely a matter of annoyance and weariness, and Madame Demidoff soon found her way to the customs hall, followed by her maid and the polite but tiresome official, who were carrying her things.
Her large trunks were lying in the hall; these, having been registered, were not opened, but marked with the Austrian custom-house stamp, as allowed to pass the frontier unmolested.
"Have you any bags or small luggage besides, madame?" asked an officer who had been turning over Rôza's bag, and undoing the bundle of rugs and umbrellas she had placed on the counter.
"Yes! I have a valise and a dressing-bag. Rôza," she said, "open them; here are the keys."
"I was not carrying madame's valise or her dressing-bag," said the maid; "the customs offficer was carrying them; I don't see the things just at this moment; he must have put them down somewhere."
"Find them at once. You had no right to let anyone touch them; you know I never allow anyone to carry my bag but yourself."
Madame Demidoff found it difficult to control her agitation, and Rôza peered anxiously round, trying to recognise the official who had charge of the precious bags.
"Did you say a customs official was carrying the things?" asked a porter, seeing the girl's distress; "it is such an unlikely thing for any of them to do, they are all too busy in here."
"He is not here at this moment," said Rôza; "it was a young man with a long brown beard and curly hair; he was in uniform."
"Every one of the officials connected with the custom-house is in the room at this moment, miss; I have known them all for years, not one is missing. I am beginning to be afraid you have been tricked by one of these clever robbers, who have done a deal of mischief before now at these customs stations; you see it is so easy to rob people here, especially ladies, as---"
"Rôza," gasped Madame Demidoff, who had overheard the man's last words, and now felt sick with terror, "look again! you must have been mistaken. . . . Where is my valise? . . .You are responsible for my valise . . . I shall accuse you of theft, unless you find my valise . . . I shall--"
She checked herself just in time, for an amused and interested crown of spectators began to assemble round her and her maid, eager to watch this elegantly dressed lady so completely losing her self-control over the loss of some small articles of luggage.
The second bell had already sounded; the passengers were preparing to resume their seats in the express. Madame Demidoff, seeing the piercing eyes of one or two officials fixed searchingly at her, felt the necessity of pulling herself together. Her long knowledge of the world--the official world--told her of the danger of betraying too much emotion over apparent trifles, lest those trifles became thereby an object of suspicion. Regaining her sang-froid, she turned to the porters, who stood gaping round, and said with calmness:
"My valise and dressing-bag contained some very valuable jewellery. I will give a thousand guldens for their recovery, two thousand if I have them back before dawn. In the meanwhile one of you take my luggage to a cab, and I shall be glad to know the name of the best hotel in this town, where I shall stay until my property is recovered. I must interview the police at once, that is, I suppose, as early in the morning as possible."
"Rôza," she added, turning to her poor discomfited maid, while her orders were being promptly and noiselessly carried out, "here are a month's wages, and the money to pay your fare back to Vienna; do not ever let me set eyes on you again."
After that she walked gracefully and steadily across the room, got into a cab, and was driven to the hotel, while poor Rôza was left to be consoled by the kind porter, until the next train started back for Vienna.