IN the meanwhile Iván Volenski had suffered terribly. His was a peculiar position at that moment. Anxious as he had been to serve the great cause, he had imperilled it--unwittingly--almost beyond recall. His comrades had trustingly placed their lives, their freedom in his hands, lured by his promises of immunity, and twenty-four hours later he had placed them all in the hands of an agent of that very police they so justly dreaded.
And yet the Nuncio, in the morning following that eventful night, had succeeded in somewhat reassuring him. Perhaps His Eminence felt a trifle guilty in the matter of those candlesticks, and thought his secretary was blaming him for allowing them to pass out of his hands. He took great care to explain to Iván the accident to one of the Cupid's arms, which both he and Madame Demidoff had noticed, and which finally decided him to accept her kind offer. Little by little Volenski gleaned from the Cardinal a minute account of all that passed between him and the fair Russian, on the subject of the Emperor's candlesticks. He heard that madame had, with her own hands, packed the damaged bibelot and placed it on one side, and had herself professed to take the utmost care that not the slightest accident should happen further.
Here was a reason, clearly, for once more thanking Providence that it should have guided his hand towards the damaged candlestick, when secreting the fateful papers.
Madame Demidoff so far knew nothing, that was a reasonable hope, and as soon as His Eminence had left Vienna, which unfortunately would not be till the evening, Iván meant to travel to Petersburg without delay, and on behalf of his absent master ask Madame Demidoff to remit the candlesticks to him, for safe custody within the walls of the Papal Legation.
In the meanwhile not a word to his comrades. He had seen the president the evening before and told him of the alteration in the Cardinal's plan, which would enable him, Volenski, to deliver the papers in Taranïew's hands two days before the anticipated time. To tell them all of the dangers they were in would be unnecessary cruelty. What could they do but wait for the blow, if it was destined to fall? Mirkovitch would wish to kill the Tsarevitch. It would be revolting to murder a defenceless prisoner.
Now His Eminence had quieted his anxieties. There was no fear, no hurry. After the Cardinal left, Volenski's peace of mind enabled him to sleep quietly, without harassing dreams of prisons and Siberia.
He felt alert and well the next morning, read to take the express through Oderberg to Petersburg, little more than twenty-four hours after Madame Demidoff, following closely on her footsteps.
He breakfasted cheerfully, as one free from care, and with mechanical hands opened the morning paper to glance at the news. And when he read it, there was that in the paper that crushed all his hopes, and for the first time led him to doubt that it was Providence who watched over the Socialist cause.
"ANOTHER DARING ROBBERY ON THE FRONTIER
"Yesterday, during the examination of passengers' luggage at Oderberg, at six o'clock in the morning, a daring robbery was committed.
"As Madame Demidoff, a lady well known in our aristocratic circles, was alighting from her coupé, a man, disguised in the uniform of our customs officials, offered to carry her dressing-bag and valise. He appeared to be following her with her belongings, and it was not till nearly a quarter of an hour later that Madame Demidoff realised that the man and all her belongings had disappeared. It is stated by the lady herself, that the valise contained some valuable articles; her extraordinary agitation on hearing of her loss was much commented upon. The matter is in the hands of the police, who already have an important clue."
What this announcement in the paper meant to Volenski the reader will easily imagine. After the comparative peace and security of the last few hours, the blow seemed to fall on him with almost stunning vigour. The paper fell from his hand, and for fully ten minutes he sat there staring into vacancy, unable to think, to plan, his brain almost refusing to take in the fact and all the terrors it conveyed. But a few hours ago those papers, which he had with so light a heart confided to what he felt sure was the safest hiding-place he could devise, had, by some mysterious help of Providence, escaped the eyes of the most astute woman in Russia--unknown to herself she was carrying the secrets of a band of young Nihilists safely across the Russian frontier in the teeth of the police--she, an agent, a spy herself.
The situation was hazardous. Volenski had trembled that some remote chance might at the eleventh hour play him false, but the chance was so slight a one, that he had even the heart to laugh inwardly at the curious coincidence that caused a police agent to be the means of conveying Nihilistic papers across the border. Moreover, in two days at most, he would once more have regained the papers, hand them over to his comrades, and, when all was safe again, laugh at his own terrors. But now how terribly was the situation altered. The fateful papers at this moment were at the mercy of thieves or receivers of stolen goods, who were sure to make the most profitable use of their find; for the secret of the candlesticks could not remain one for long, once they fell into the hand of bric-à-brac dealers, so expert in these matters. And Iván shuddered as he thought how completely in the power of scoundrels he and his comrades would presently be. Would the papers be used for blackmailing, denunciation, or what?
The valet had come in some little while ago, to warn the secretary that it was fully time to start, if he wished to catch the Kassa-Oderberg express, but Iván had impatiently said that his plans were changed; he was not starting that morning.
When the man had left him, and he was once more alone, he again took up the Fremdenblatt, and read the fateful article through and through, till his aching temples bbegan to throb and the letters dance before his burning eyes, till he felt dizzy and faint with that most awful terror--the terror of the unknown.
"The police have an important clue," he muttered. "What clue? and what would happen if they did discover the stolen goods?"
The valise, of course, would be opened, and all the articles identified and handed back to Madame Demidoff, who would after that probably only be too glad to give the candlesticks back to Volenski, and shift all further responsibilities from her shoulders; but in the meanwhile they would be handled by dozens of pairs of hands: the thieves first, then the police, then the officials, any one of whom might chance upon the secret spring; and then---?
Volenski tried to persuade himself that this chance was very remote, the secret receptacles very ingeniously hidden, the springs very stiff, and only liable to yield after a great deal of pressure; but still a restlessness now seized him, he felt unable to sit still, the crowded streets seemed to lure him, and vaguely he had a hope, that from the groups at the cafés he might hear fresh news new developments of this robbery, that was sure to set all tongues wagging and discussing.
He took his hat and made his way down the Kolowrátring towards the opera house. Instinct--the instinct of self-preservation--whispered to him to control himself, not to let any passing stranger notice his curious agitation, his wild, haggard look. He sauntered into one of the larger cafés, exchanging handshakes and greetings here and there. It seemed strange that not one of those he met referred to the robbery at Oderberg. Volenski could not understand that an event of such immense magnitude to himself should seem one of such utter indifference to others. The new opera, the expected cabinet crisis, Gallmeyer's latest success, were all discussed around and with him, but no one seemed to think the theft of Madame Demidoff's valise of the slightest importance, and Volenski dared not bring the subject up himself; he feared lest his voice would tremble, his anxious eyes betray his agitation.
Hungrily he listened for news, for comments, and went from one café to another, but only once did he hear an illusion made to the robbery; one young fellow said to another that no doubt Madame Demidoff had already succeeded in putting the police on the track of the thieves: she was so expert in police matters herself. The other young man laughed, and the subject was dropped.
The hours passed slowly on; the enforced inactivity weighed heavily on Volenski's mind. The strain of weary waiting for some unknown catastrophe that might be close at hand was beginning to tell on him, and he left the busy streets of the city for some more remote, less frequented spots, where he might allow himself a little more freedom, his agitation a little more scope.
Thus his wanderings had led him towards the publishing offices of the Fremdenblatt, outside which a great amount of bustle and noise proclaimed the sending out of the first afternoon edition. Inwardly thanking the chance that had led his footsteps in this direction. Volenski purchased a copy of the paper and eagerly scanned its contents.
Ah! there it was! some news evidently!
"THE ROBBERY AT ODERBERG
"Our frontier police have once more displayed the wonderful insight and promptness of action for which they are justly noted. The actual thief who stole the dressing-bag and valise of Madame Demidoff at Oderberg yesterday morning was arrested in a private room of the 'Heinrich Marshall' public-house in that same town, where he had taken refuge with his accomplice, in order to divide the booty. As the police forced their way into the room the two thieves were apparently quarrelling loudly over some of the trinkets, which were scattered all over the place. The man, a notorious character, who has long been 'wanted' by the police, seemed in too high a passion, or else too scared, to attempt to flee, but his accomplice, who by the way is a woman, succeeded in gathering a few articles together and effecting an escape through the window. She was, however, recognised by one of the police, and no doubt by now is also under arrest.
"The police were greatly aided in their discovery by two or three of the porters at the station, who, it is said, were stimulated by the large sum of money offered by Madame Demidoff as a reward. Great, therefore, was the dissatisfaction and indignation amongst them when the lady, under the pretence that one or two valuable articles were missing, refused to give any reward till those articles were found. She appeared much agitated on giving her evidence before the magistrate, and explained this agitation on the grounds that one of the missing articles was a pair of very valuable antique gold and china candlesticks, which were not her property, but which were entrusted to her special care by a friend, whose name she refused to disclose. The lady's singular excitement throughout the hearing of the case is causing much comment."
The paper dropped from Volenski's hand, and he stood in the street staring into vacancy, almost staggering, as though he were intoxicated. The terrible thing about this whole drama that was being enacted around him was the fact that, though he was the person most concerned in its developments, it was absolutely futile, nay, dangerous, for him to take the slightest part in it; and not the least of his sufferings was this feeling of utter powerlessness to do aught that could tend to save his comrades and himself from the terrible, crushing blow that might at any moment annihilate them all. But the time for serious deliberation had now arrived; it became absolutely imperative--Iván felt this--that he should trace himself a line of conduct, adopt some plan, decide how far he would warn his comrades, and perhaps seek their help and advice. But for this, quiet was needed, and Volenski now retraced his steps towards his hotel, feeling, moreover, that he had no right to neglect His Eminence's business and correspondence, as, alas! he had but too long done. On his way home many a conflicting thought chased another, many a surmise, a problem, the solution of which might mean life or death to his friends and himself.
Having locked the door of his study, Iván set himself resolutely to the task of chasing away all thoughts of his worries, and devoting himself to his master's work. He wrote what letters were necessary, sorted those that would require to be forwarded to His Eminence, arranged the papers that related to work done, and it was not till late in the afternoon, when the valet brought him a light, that he allowed himself the leisure of once more reverting to the all-engrossing subject of the missing papers, and gave himself the time for thinking over his plans.
The strict adherence to his duties had done him good, both mentally and physically; his brain seemed more clear, his nerves less on the quiver, than during those hours he had spent wandering idly and restlessly in the streets.
Clearly, the situation at this moment was no worse than it had been in the morning, and there was, as yet, no occasion to alarm his fellow-conspirators by telling them the facts of the case, and turning their wrath upon himself, who already had so much to bear.
No, it was better they should remain in ignorance a little longer, for Iván had not abandoned the hope that the papers were still undiscovered, and that he could, after the terrible fright she had had, induce Madame Demidoff to give the candlesticks back to him as soon as she had recovered them from the police. The danger, the sole danger throughout, lay in the fact that papers so terribly compromising should be, if only for a short time, so hopelessly out of his reach, that so deadly a secret should lie at the mercy of so mere a chance.
As for His Eminence, Volenski well knew that, as soon as he was free from diplomatic duties, he never even glanced at a newspaper; his name, so far, had not been mentioned, and--- But here a fresh, a curious train of thought arose in Iván's mind, and the darker side of the picture--he had vainly tried to look upon as bright--presented itself before his mind. Why had the Cardinal's name been so studiously kept back by Madame Demidoff? Was it merely that, very naturally, she did not wish him to know how badly she had failed in her trust, or was there--and Iván paled at the thought--some reason for her wishing that His Eminence should not hear of her loss, some reason for the curious excitement into which, woman of the world as she was, she had betrayed herself, to the extent of arousing the comments of the magistrate and the reporters?
Had she, perchance, already discovered the dreaded secret, and, wishing to claim the honour and glory of her find, was she anxious to recover the papers, and, with them in her hands, denounce the conspirators and claim her reward? Was her agitation the outcome of her terror lest she should lose the precious proofs, without which, perhaps, her memory might be at fault in naming the perpetrators of the daring plot? Ay, all that was possible. Iván knew it all the time, strive though he might to lure himself into the false belief that all was sure to be quite safe so far. Madame Demidoff was evidently staying at Oderberg, ready to claim her property at once. Iván pondered if he should communicate with her; a sensible proceeding enough, if she had not discovered the papers, but worse than useless if she already had done so. One more chance now lay open to Iván, and that was to approach the police himself--now that the candlesticks had actually been mentioned as part of the missing property--and find out if they would allow him to claim them, on behalf of His Eminence the Papal Nuncio.
With that object in view, late as it was, he ordered a fiaker, and drove off to the headquarters of the Detective Department. The chief of the police, Baron de Hermansthal, he knew well, having frequently met him in society, while in attendance on Cardinal d'Orsay. The baron was a busy man, very busy, and he kept Volenski waiting three-quarters of an hour in his ante-room; Iván had plenty of leisure, therefore, to decide what line of diplomacy it were best to adopt.
He would tell Baron de Hermansthal, under an official seal of secrecy, that the candlesticks alluded to by Madame Demidoff, in her account of her missing property, were none other than those entrusted to her by his master, Cardinal d'Orsay; that these antique candlesticks were to be unofficially presented to a lady resident in Petersburg, by the Papal Nuncio, on behalf of an exalted personage whom Volenski would not name, but would leave Baron de Hermansthal to guess. Finally, he would add that His Eminence completely relied on Baron de Hermansthal's well-known tact and discretion, and that both the Cardinal and the exalted personage would desire that the matter be kept as far as possible from further publicity, the candlesticks not pass through any hands that were not absolutely necessary, and that it was to further this object that Volenski, on behalf of His Eminence, now claimed Baron de Hermansthal's powerful assistance.
This plan and speech well formed in his head, Iván, feeling more calm, was able to enter the private room of the chief of the Austrian police, even without a tremor.
Baron de Hermansthal, a quiet, aristocratic-looking old man, with a charming eighteenth-century manner, listened attentively to all Volenski had to say, asked him to take a seat, while he would look over his notes relating to the case, and after a few moments:
"My dear Volenski," he said, "I should be very happy under the circumstances to help His Eminence in any way that is within my power. If you will tell me what you would wish me to do, I might see in what way I can be of most assistance to you."
"I merely want your permission to claim the candlesticks on behalf of His Eminence, without their passing through any hands, save yours and mine, and without all the formalities that usually attend the claiming of property found by the police."
"But Madame Demidoff is for the time being the person from whom these candlesticks have been robbed; she might object to their being handed over to anyone save herself."
"Madame Demidoff has declared before the magistrate that they are not her property," replied Volenski. "I will communicate with her as soon as I have your authorisation to do so, and you will find that she will be only too glad to hand over to me all responsibility in the matter."
"That will be for her to decide," rejoined the chief of the police drily; "we can discuss the matter later on; anyhow, I can promise you that I will communicate with you the moment the police have seized the missing articles."
"They have not yet been found, then?" asked Iván breathlessly.
"They are not actually in our possession," corrected the chief of the police.
"May I ask what that implies?" asked Volenski, whose parched lips and quivering nerves hardly enabled him to frame an intelligible query.
"It implies that we know where they are, and that we can lay our hands on them at any moment."
"Stay! let me explain," added the polite baron kindly, as he noted Volenski's eagerness. "The police are, as you know, well acquainted with the woman who was in the room with the thief at the time of the arrest, and who ran away through the window with a part of the booty. She is one of that class whom it is bon ton to designate as the 'unfortunate.'"
"Yes! I knew that the female thief had escaped, but I should have thought--"
"That our police, usually so active, when there is a little rough-and-tumble work to do, would not fail in overtaking and capturing her. That would have been done, no doubt, but for a very important reason, which is this: the officer in command, once having recognised the woman, knew that he could lay hands on her at any moment. She lives in Vienna, and haunts every cabaret and third-rate hotel, her favourite resort being the 'Kaiser Franz.' He therefore intends to lull her into false security, with a view--by keeping a constant watch on her movements--of discovering and bringing to justice a gang of receivers of stolen goods, who, so far, have completely baffled our vigilance, and whose tool we believe her to be."
"You think, then, that the woman brought those candlesticks to Vienna with her?"
"We know she did, for she was seen in Vienna this very morning, and is being closely watched."
"Surely your Excellency will give immediate orders to have her rooms searched this very evening?" said Iván imploringly.
"I have no objection to doing that," said Baron de Hermansthal urbanely, "as I am anxious to prove to His Eminence how willing I am to serve him."
"Your Excellency will allow me to accompany the police?" asked Volenski eagerly.
"To identify the candlesticks," he added, seeing that Baron de Hermansthal shook his head in emphatic refusal; "there may be others there."
"On one condition, then, that you do not interfere with our men in the discharge of their duty, merely pointing out the articles you claim as your property, and that you allow the officer on duty to bring them here, to my office, without opposition.
"To your office?" said Iván.
"Yes! I shall have to insist that the candlesticks remain in my charge until I hear definitely from you or Madame Demidoff herself that she wishes them handed over to you."
"And in the meanwhile?"
"I promise you faithfully that no one shall even touch them; you shall yourself see the parcel locked in my desk, and I shall be delighted to give them up to you, as soon as I am satisfied that Madame Demidoff has no objection to my doing so."
Iván reflected a moment. In his mind there at once arose the idea that chance would certainly favour him, once he actually had the candlesticks in his hands; he had but to press the spring while the police were searching another part of the room, and he could, he felt sure, extract the papers unperceived. There were so many eventualities that might happen, between the time when the candlesticks were found and the moment when Baron de Hermansthal would finally turn the key of his desk on them; so many opportunities, any one of which would find him on the alert. His hesitation, therefore, lasted but a moment; the next, he had assured the amiable baron that he would strictly adhere to his instructions, and was quite willing to wait for Madame Demidoff's decision, once his fears that the candlesticks might be too much tampered with had been allayed.
"In the name of His Eminence," he added diplomatically, "I thank your Excellency for your courtesy in the matter."
"Pray say no more," replied Baron de Hermansthal, as he touched the bell in order to give the necessary instructions.
"Tell Serjeant Meyer I wish to speak to him," he said to his valet.
"It is very late," he added, looking at his watch; "nearly eight o'clock, but that is no matter, as no doubt you will find the woman has gone out on her nightly errands and left you the coast clear."
A discreet rap at the door and the serjeant appeared, saluting his chief.
"Meyer," said His Excellency, "do I understand that the woman Grete Ottlinger has, so far, not been caught trying to sell the stolen property?"
"No, your Excellency; she has not left her rooms since this morning, when she arrived from Oderberg. Two of my men have been stationed outside her doors all day, and she has not gone out. Her concierge thinks she has been in bed all day. She drove this morning direct from the station to her room, and had then a large-sized box with her."
"Very good! I wish you now to take one other man with you and go to the woman's room, with this warrant to search all her premises. You will seize all the suspicious property you can find. If the woman is there you may arrest her, if not, your men will be having an eye on her, and she can be arrested when she comes home. Monsieur here has my permission to accompany you and to identify certain articles that belong to him, and which you must then bring back here to my office. Do you understand?"
"Yes, your Excellency!"
"Au revoir, then, my dear Volenski," said Baron de Hermansthal, turning to Iván; "I shall expect you here with the candlesticks according to your promise, on which I rely."
And His Excellency, rising from his seat and dismissing the serjeant with a nod, thereby intimated to Volenski that he had done all his duty allowed him to do, and that the audience was at an end.
Iván once more was profuse in his thanks. Fate indeed favoured him; it was now for him to seize the splendid opportunity with skill and promptitude. He felt in his pocket-book that he was well provided with money; a "douceur" to the serjeant, should he chance to see what Volenski did not intend, might be necessary.
Five minutes afterwards he was in a fiaker with Serjeant Meyer and another member of the corps, and in his heart of hearts he hoped that the next half-hour would see his precious papers transferred once more to the inner pocket of his coat.