MADAME OLGA BORGENSKY would never, I am sure, of her own accord, have resumed her duties as political agent to the Russian Government.
When, two years ago, she had married Eugen Borgensky, a Pole, she had made both to herself and to him a solemn promise to renounce once for all a métier which, after all, most honest-minded persons would undoubtedly call that of a spy. And when, on the occasion of His Imperial Majesty the Tsar's visit to Vienna, Count Gulohoff approached her on the subject of her returning to the service of her country, she gave him a most emphatic refusal. I have it on the surest authority that this refusal annoyed and disappointed Count Gulohoff very considerably. He was at the time head of the third section of the Russian police, and had been specially ordered to watch over his Imperial master during the latter's stay in Vienna, and there was in his mind a suspicion, almost amounting to a certainty, that some plot was being brewed by the young Poles—chiefly wealthy and of noble parentage—who lived in Vienna, and had already given the home government one or two unpleasant nuts to crack.
Madame Olga Borgensky was just the person to help him to discover the headquarters of these young fire-eaters—she went everywhere, knew everybody—and if Count Gulohoff could have succeeded in dispatching one or two of them to cool in Siberia, he certainly would have been happier. But Madame Borgensky was obdurate—at any rate, at first.
During the early part of the evening at Princess Leminoff's ball, the indefatigable and diplomatic Count Gulohoff had made many an attack on her firmness of purpose, but she had an army of excuses and reasons at her command, and yet one little incident caused her suddenly to change her resolution.
It was after supper, during the czimbalom solo so exquisitely played by Derék Miksa, the czigány. Madame Borgensky was standing close to the band with her partner, young Prince Leminoff, and round her she noticed most of the young Poles that were such a thorn in the flesh to the Russian Government. She found herself wondering, while listening to Prince Leminoff's softly whispered nothings, whether it was mere coincidence that they each wore a red carnation in their buttonhole. The next moment she distinctly caught sight of a scrap of blue paper being slipped from the hand of Count Zamoisky into that of Dimitri Golowine, and then on to young Natcheff. I suppose it must have been that slip of paper that did the mischief, for one may as well expect a spaniel not to take to the water after a wild duck than ask Madame Olga Borgensky not to follow up a political intrigue when she had by chance caught one thread.
In an instant the old instinct was aroused. Forgotten were her promises to her husband, the dangers she so often had to pass, the odiousness attached to her former calling. She saw but one thing; that was the slip of blue paper which, undercover of the pathetic Magyar love-songs, was being passed from hand to hand, and the contents of which she felt bound to know, in the interests of Russia, of the Tsar, whose life perhaps was being endangered by the plans of these fanatical plotters.
"Prince Leminoff, I feel hot and faint; please take me into the next room at once," she sighed, half closing her eyes, and tottering as if about to fall.
The young man started and turned a little pale. His fingers closed tightly over a scrap of blue paper that had just been thrust into his hand; but his tremor was only momentary. The next instant he was leading the now almost fainting lady into the smoking-room, where a bright blaze was burning in the hearth. Madame Borgensky sank back into an armchair close to the fire.
"Now light a cigarette, Prince," she said, when she had recovered a little; "the smell of the smoke would do me good. Really that music had got on my nerves." And she pushed the gold étui of cigarettes, that stood invitingly near, towards her young partner, who, without a moment's hesitation, and with the greatest sang-froid, folded the compromising paper he was still clutching into a long narrow spill, and after holding it to the fire one moment, was proceeding to light a cigarette with it, when:
"Allow me, Prince; thank you," said Madame Borgensky, gently taking it from between his fingers, and, with an apologetic smile, she lighted her own cigarette. To blow out the flame, throw the paper on the floor, and place her foot on it was the work of but a second, and the young Pole had barely realized what had actually happened when a cheery voice spoke to him from the door.
"Prince Leminoff, the last quadrille is about to commence. Everybody is waiting for you. Are you dancing it with Madame Borgensky?" And the Abbé Rouget, smiling and rubbing his little white hands, trotted briskly into the room.
"Shall we go, Madame?" said the young Prince after a slight hesitation, and offering the lady his arm.
"Please let me stay here a little while longer and finish my cigarette in peace. I really do not feel up to dancing just at this moment. I will give you an extra valse later on if you like."
"If Madame Borgensky will grant me the much sought for privilege," said the Abbé, "I should deem myself very lucky to be allowed to keep her company for half-an-hour."
"At any other time, Monsieur l'Abbé, I should only be too happy," said Madame Borgenky, "but just now I really would prefer to be alone. Five minutes' quiet will set me up for the rest of the evening."
"Your wishes are my commands, Madame; I will read my breviary till the sound of your voice calls me to your side."
And taking Prince Leminoff's arm, the Abbé led him towards the door. As soon as they were out of earshot:
"There is something amiss," said the Abbé. "What is it?"
"Only this," replied the young Pole. "A scrap of blue paper, containing our final arrangements for to-morrow night, is at the present moment under Madame Borgensky's foot. It is partly burnt. Can your Reverence find out how much of it has remained, and if there is any danger in proceeding to-morrow?"
"Easily, my son, quite easily; and if there is, I will find means to warn you—but if all is safe, I will wear the red carnation, as usual, at Madame Borgensky's ball. Say nothing to the others till then."
And the Abbé turned on his heel, and taking a breviary out of his pocket, sat down in a chair opposite Madame Borgensky, and proceeded to read the Latin text in a half-audible voice, apparently not taking the slightest notice of the lady. Olga Borgensky, however, had not yet succeeded in picking up the paper from under her foot; she was burning with impatience to know the contents, and her excitement became such that she could only with the greatest difficulty conceal it from the Abbé.
At length she could endure the suspense no longer, and she was just stooping forward to pick up the paper at all hazards, when the voice of Count Gulohoff startled her. He drew a stool close to her, and said in a low whisper:
"Eh bien, Madame? You see, I come back, an unvanquished enemy, to renew the attack."
"I may be able to serve Russia and help you, Monsieur," Madame Borgensky said excitedly from behind her fan. "Come to my ball to-morrow, and if I find no means of speaking to you privately before then, I will slip a letter for you inside the pink Sèvres vase that, as you know, stands in the centre of the mantelpiece in the ballroom. And now take the Abbé away if you can." Then she said in a louder tone of voice: "What a gay and animated dance this has been, even M. l'Abbé there has been reading his prayers with holy joy and vigorous piety, but l confess I am getting very tired, and would be so grateful if somebody will find out for me if Eugen Borgensky is in the ballroom and ready to take me home."
"I will go and find him at once," said Count Gulohoff rising, "and will your Reverence," he added, turning to the Abbé, "give me my revenge at piquet? "
"Oh! ah! yes! Did your Excellency speak to me?" said his Reverence, as if waking from a dream. "Forgive me, I was enjoying half-an-hour's communion with the saints, which is most refreshing during the turmoil of a mundane gathering. What did your Excellency say? "
"I merely asked if you would care now to give me my revenge at piquet; if so, we had better go at once and secure a table before there is a rush for the cardroom."
"With all the pleasure in life," said the cheerful little Abbé, and putting his breviary into his pocket, he followed Count Gulohoff into the ballroom.
AT LAST! She was alone! Olga Borgensky drew from under her foot the scrap of paper, and feverishly unfolded and smoothed it. It had been more than half burnt, but the contents, such as they were, fully compensated her for all the difficulties she had encountered.
This is what she read:
At her ball then, in her home, which had been so hospitably opened to these young plotters, their infamous schemes were to be consummated.
No doubt existed in her mind. His Majesty the Tsar, as was well known, meant to honor her by appearing at her ball for an hour or so on the following evening.
When he re-entered "his carriage," a bomb would be " thrown without much" risk of detection, as the crowd would be sure to be very dense. In the meanwhile the conspirators meant to draw "lots as to who" should be the actual assassin, and this they meant tn do during the "czimbalom solo," probably in the card or billiard-room, and those that were willing to perpetrate this dastardly deed, and thus to sacrifice themselves as well as their family, were to wear a "red carnation," which was evidently the badge of the fraternity.
The terrible part of the whole thing in Madame Borgensky's mind was that, as the infamous plot was to be carried through in her house, she, and especially her husband, were certain to be suspected of some sort of connivance, and might thereby lose their liberty, probably their lives.
Ah! how she hated these plotters now, with a bitter, deadly hatred, the hatred of the Russian against the Pole, the hatred born of fear! How thankful she was that Count Gulohoff had induced her to spy on them; she did not regret her action now, as at one moment she feared she would do.
"Why, my darling, how pale and agitated you look," said a loving voice, close to her elbow. "Count Gulohoff told me you had not been well, and I have ordered the carriage to take you home."
And Eugen Borgensky bent anxiously over his young wife, and scanned her wan-looking features and wild eyes.
"It is nothing, dear," she said; "a little too much excitement, I think. I will make my adieux to Princess Leminoff, and we will go home at once." When she joined him again a moment later, all her wonted composure had returned.
THE BORGENSKY'S BALL was to be one of the most brilliant functions of the season. Everybody had said so, for weeks past, ever since it had become generally known that his Imperial Majesty, the Tsar, meant to honor Olga Borgensky by being her guest for that evening. Everything the fair Russian did, she did well. The giving of entertainments she had studied and cultivated till she had brought it to the level of high art. She had been the Queen of Vienna society for some years now, ever since she had married Eugen Bongensky, the friend and confidant of his Eminence the Cardinal Primate of Hungary. All the doors of the most exclusive Vienna cliques had been widely thrown open for her, and tout le monde flocked to her soirées.
It was ten o'clock, and Madame Borgensky, exquisitely dressed and covered with diamonds, was ready to receive her guests, with the calm and grace that characterizes the "grande dame." A very careful observer, such as her husband probably, might, perhaps, notice that her hand shook slightly as she held it out to each fresh arrival, that her cheeks were unusually pale, and her lips quivered from time to time; also, that whenever she looked away from the door that gave access to her guests, it was to glance at the fine Italian marble mantelpiece at the furthest end of the ballroom, where a magnificent pale pink Sèvres vase of beautiful proportions and graceful lines stood in the centre among a multitude of other equally beautiful knick-knacks and silver trinkets of all kinds.
"Ah, M. l'Abbé, I am charmed to see you," said Madame Borgensky, as the Abbé Rouget, his breviary between his fingers, his fat face beaming with promises of enjoyment, arrived at the top of the stairs and greeted his hostess. "You will find Eugen in the cardroom, I think. I really have not seen him since I took up my post at the top of the stairs, but he was asking me whether we should have the pleasure of seeing you to-night."
"Ah, Madame! Eugen Borgensky is too kind. The archbishop, as you know, has allowed me innocent recreation from time to time-with the exception of dancing," he added with a half-regretful little sigh.
"Besides which, M. l'Abbé, you know you can always have half-an-hour's peace in the smoking-room during which to tell your beads," said Madame Bongensky a little sarcastically, remembering in what an agonizing plight the holy man had placed her the evening before by his persistent devotions.
"I find when I have the pleasure of coming to this house, Madame, that I can always have the billiard-room to myself for a quiet meditation some time during the evening. It is necessary for the soul not to entirely lose sight of spiritual things in the brilliancy and gaiety of a mundane function. But I must not monopolize your kind attention so long," said the jovial Abbé, as he bowed to his hostess and began working his way through the now rapidly filling ballrooms.
Madame Borgensky looked anxiously after him, a puzzled expression on her face. Was it mere coincidence that the Abbé had in the buttonhole of his soutane a red carnation, exactly similar to the one worn by Prince Leminoff and three or four other young men she had noticed in the course of the evening, and the meaning of which was now clear to her? Surely he would not risk such a pleasant, assured position as he possessed for the sake of the destinies of a country that was not even his own.
Madame Borgensky caught herself now scanning the young men's buttonholes very curiously; there were at most only about ten or twelve of them that wore the red flower; the Abbé was certainly one, Prince Leminoff—foolish youth!—another, and . . . Ah! no! no! it is impossible, her eyes are deceiving her, her overwrought imagination is playing her own sight a cruel trick. She closed her eyes once or twice to chase away the fearful vision, but it would not go. It was true then? There, standing with his back to the pink Sèvres vase, a red carnation in his buttonhole, was Eugen Borgensky, her husband!
Ah! how could she have guessed? How could she know what a terrible deed she had done? She, Olga Borgensky, a happy, loving, and loved wife, had actually spied upon and betrayed her own husband into the hands of a police that knows of no pardon. But, no; all was not lost yet, thank God! she had so far told Count Gulohoff nothing. She had devised a means of communicating with him, that she had felt would be a safe one, in case she found no chance of speaking to him privately, and now it would prove her salvation.
Feverishly she turned to go into the ballroom, heedless if any one should notice her. What matter what people thought of her actions, as long as the terrible catastrophe is averted in time——
"His Imperial Majesty, the Tsar, "thundered the voice of the usher. All conversations ceased, and all necks were stretched forward to catch a glimpse of Alexander III., as he ascended the stairs, chatting pleasantly to Count Gulohoff.
Madame Borgensky, forced to pause, felt as if the whole room, the Tsar, her guests, were all changed into weird spectres that seemed to dance a wild fantastic dance around her; one moment she thought her senses would leave her . . .the next instant she had bowed after the approved Court fashion, and was thanking Alexander III. for the honor he was doing her, while his Majesty, with his usual affability, was conversing pleasantly with her and Eugen Borgensky. She had lost sight of Count Gulohoff, who, exchanging handshakes, nods, and smiles, worked his way through the ballroom towards the mantelpiece, where the gay little Abbé was being monopolized by a group of pious mondaines, and seemed to be enjoying himself thoroughly.
"Ah, your Excellency is just in time," said his Reverence, "to settle a most knotty point. We are having, mesdames and I, a very animated discussion on pottery and china, namely, the superiority (which I call very exaggerated) of antique over modern manufacture, and I was contending that many a connoisseur is not guided, when buying a piece of china, by the actual quality of the ware, but merely by the mark upon it."
"Ah! M. l'Abbé is terribly sceptical of feminine knowledge," said the Countess Zichy, " but I am sure that in this instance he wrongs us grievously. I, myself (and I have no pretensions at being much of a connoisseur), need never look at the mark of a piece of china; I can always locate its origin, sometimes even its date. Does your Excellency doubt me?" she added, turning to Count Gulohoff, who had assumed a somewhat incredulous attitude.
"I would not do so for worlds," said the courtly Russian, "but I confess that I would feel very interested to test your knowledge, Comtesse; this room, for instance, is full of bibelots. Olga Borgensky has some rare and beautiful pieces; shall we experiment now, to commence with, on this exquisite pink vase?" And Count Gulohoff, inwardly thankful at the turn the conversation had taken, stretched out his hand towards the vase, from the inside of which he had already noticed protruding the corner of an envelope.
"Allow me, your Excellency," said the Abbé, "to lift the vase up for you."
"No! no! I have it quite safely," said Count Gulohoff, who, hearing the faint, crisp rustle of paper inside the vase, was tilting it towards him, in the hope that he could obtain the letter unperceived.
At that moment the Abbé, who was short and somewhat round, apparently in trying to reach the vase must have lost his footing, for he fell forward, and, in steadying himself, jerked the arm of Count Gulohoff so violently that the latter lost the grip he had on the vase, which fell crashing to the floor.
There was general consternation among the little group of male and female connoisseurs who had gathered round to see the end of the debate: the poor little Abbé especially seemed terribly distressed, trying to pick up the pieces, and wondering whether the valuable vase could by any possibility be repaired. Count Gulohoff was for one moment terribly disconcerted, when, in the crash, he lost sight of the letter; his mind was, however, soon set at rest, for he quickly noticed it lying on the floor, close to the priest's soutane, and he was able to pick it up unperceived.
MADAME BORGENSKY, forced in her capacity as hostess to be constantly attentive to His Imperial Majesty, doing the necessary presentations, and having to appear as gay and entertaining as possible, had not, from the end of the room where she was, noticed the little scene that was being enacted close to the mantelpiece. Had Count Gulohoff possessed himself of the letter, she wondered?—the letter that denounced her husband, as well as his friends. She endured most excruciating tortures of mind, all the more unendurable as she was, for the moment, at least, perfectly powerless to do anything. She was gaily chatting the while, gradually leading Alexander III. towards the further end of the ballroom in the hope that she might yet ward off this fearful, monstrous thing.
Ah! it was too late. She had caught sight of Count Gulohoff coming towards her, and she felt, more than she actually saw, that the fatal letter was in his hand.
"Will your Majesty, and also my fair hostess, deign to allow me to take my leave?" said the Count, bowing before the Tsar, while he threw a quick glance of intelligence at Madame Borgensky, who had now become deathly pale; "serious duties call me away."
"Yes, dear Count!" said his Majesty laughing. "I bet you he has discovered some conspiracy against my life, and is going to save me. I assure you, Madame, last year he discovered 365 plots, each one of which would inevitably have ended my days, were it not for the devotion and fidelity of Count Gulohoff."
"The devotion and fidelity of all your Majesty's right-minded subjects," said Count Gulohoff. "Madame Borgensky, I feel sure, would do what I have done, and more, were she but given the opportunity, which, after all, may arise any day."
"Indeed, your Majesty, and so would my husband, than whom your Majesty has no more faithful subject," said Madame Borgensky, vainly trying to master her emotion.
"I thank you, Madame," said the Tsar, with the charming cordiality so peculiar to him, "and I can assure you that in coming here I quite forget that I am the guest of a Pole. Well, au revoir, cher Comte. I shall leave soon after one o'clock, and I hope Madame Borgensky will allow me, for the moment, to monopolize her society and let me escort her to the supper-room."
And offering his fair hostess his arm, Alexander Nicolaïevitch led her across the room and down the stairs, followed by the respectful salutes of all, and the glances of admiration levelled at his beautiful partner, who, with eyes open wide with agonized fear, and cheeks blanched with terror, was making superhuman efforts to appear calm and self-possessed.
THE SUPPER was very gay. Alexander III., always a valiant trencherman, and notoriously as fond of a good glass of Tokay as of the society of a pretty woman, was graciousness itself, and deigned to enjoy himself vastly. As for the czigány who were playing during supper, he declared he had never heard more entrancing music, and when, after the feast, the traditional czimbalom solo was to be played, his Majesty declared his desire to listen to it, and afterwards watch the czárdás before he left.
It was while the gipsies, with all that peculiarly pathetic weirdness with which they play the Magyar folksongs, played that exquisite tune so dear to all Hungarian ears, "There is but one beautiful girl in all the world," that Madame Borgensky first realized that something after all might be done, if God would but help her, and allow her to think. Ah! how she prayed at that moment; inspiration such as she needed could but come from above.
She looked round at her guests; her husband, the Abbé Rouget, Prince Leminoff, and the dozen or so that wore the red carnation were absent. She knew where they were, and—oh! how terrible—knew what at that moment they were doing. Drawing lots as to who should do the assassin's deed. Oh! if it should be her husband. "Not that! not that, oh my God, direct his hand! he does not know! he does not understand!" she pleaded. "The Tsar is his guest! no! no! even they would think that deed too horrible."
"Ah! that music was indeed divine," said Alexander Nicolaïevitch, half dreaming, as the last chords of the czimbalom died away, "and it will long haunt my memory after I leave Vienna to-morrow. And now, my dear Madame Borgensky, I must reluctantly bid you farewell, thanking you for your kind hospitality. Believe me," his Majesty added, looking admiringly at his beautiful hostess, " that the remembrance of to-night will long dwell in my heart." And the tall figure of Alexander III. bent low to kiss gallantly the tips of Olga Borgensky's fingers that lay cold as ice in his hand.
"Ah! here comes our kind host," said his Majesty, as Eugen Borgensky, very pale, approached him. "My dear Borgensky, may I express a hope that next winter will see you and Madame at St. Petersburg? 1 can assure you she has left many friends and admirers there."
"Your Majesty's wishes are commands," said Eugen Borgensky, bowing coldly.
The Tsar shot an amused glance at him. "Jealous?" he asked Madame Borgensky sotto voce.
"No doubt," she answered, trying to smile.
And Alexander III., followed by his host, and two or three gentlemen of his suite, turned his steps towards the stairway, still having on his arm Olga Borgensky, from whom he seemed loath to part, and bowing cordially to those whom he recognized among the guests, while the gipsy band struck up the Russian national hymn: "God Save the Tsar."
The poor unfortunate woman walked by his side as if in a dream; her movements were those of an automaton. Now, if in the next five minutes something did not happen—something stupendous, immense—the terrible deed would be accomplished, Heaven only knew by whose hands.
Once in the hall, while two or three of the gentlemen in attendance busied themselves round their Imperial master, helping him with his furs and gloves, and the brilliant equipage drew up under the portico, Madame Borgensky shot a quick glance into the street outside. The crowd was very dense; she recognized no one. Then, as if moved by sudden inspiration, when Alexander III. began at last an evidently reluctant leave taking, she walked up to one of the large banks of palms and cut flowers that had been erected on each side of the hall, and gathering a huge arm-full, she turned to the Tsar and said:
"These are for remembrance; let me place them in your carriage in memory of to-night." And she threw him one of those glances she alone had the secret of, which quite finished turning an Imperial head and subjugating an Imperial heart. Carrying her sweet-smelling burden, burying her head among the blossoms, she walked through the doorway to the Imperial carriage, closely followed by the Tsar. With her own hands she opened the carriage door, standing there, beautiful and defiant, daring them, the unknown assassins, to throw the bomb that would annihilate her, their hostess, the wife of their comrade, as well as him.
Then, when the Tsar had at last entered the carriage, she lingered on the steps, arranging the flowers, still chatting gaily, and when she herself had closed the carriage door, she stood, her hand in that of Alexander III. She meant to stand there till the coachman, whipping up the horses, had borne his Imperial master out of any danger. At last the lackeys were mounted, the Tsar gave her a last military salute, the coachman gathered the reins . . .At that moment Olga Borgensky felt two vigorous arms encircling her waist, and she was thrown more than carried violently to one side, while a second later a terrific crash rent the still night air.
There was a tremendous rush and tumult; something appeared to be smouldering some yards away in the middle of the road; while the Emperor's carriage, with its small escort of mounted cossacks disappeared, in a cloud of dust, along the brilliant road.
"Come in, Olga, you will catch cold," said her husband's voice close to her, as soon as she had partially realized the situation.
There seemed to be a great commotion both outside and in. She allowed Eugen Bongensky to lead her, past her astonished and frightened guests, into a small boudoir, where she saw the Abbé Rouget sitting in a huge armchair, with eyes raised heavenwards, softly murmuring: Mater Dei, ora pro nobis." He seemed sublimely unconscious of any disturbance, and rose with alacrity to offer the half-fainting lady his seat.
At a knowing wink from the little Abbé's sparkling eyes, Eugen Borgensky, gently kissing his wife on the half-closed lids, left the two alone together. Olga Borgensky looked pleadingly at the Abbé; she was dying for an explanation, longing to know what had happened.
"Madame," at last said the jovial priest very earnestly, "your brave attitude tonight has averted a terrible catastrophe. You have no sympathies with our plots and plans, you do not understand them; but you well understood that, at any cost, any risk, your life with us would be sacred.
"One of us, the one who drew the fatal number, was stationed outside your gates, to rid Russia of her autocrat. On seeing you, his heart failed him, he threw the bomb in the middle of the road, where it could not reach you, even if it hit the Tsar. Both of you, however, are safe."
"But Count Gulohoff," she said—" he knew, he and the police must have been there; did they arrest any one? Was my husband seen? "
"No, Madame, Count Gulohoff was not present. I succeeded, by substituting a letter of my own for the one you had placed for him in the pink Sèvres vase, in inducing him to go with his minions to the other end of Vienna to seek for conspirators who will not be there. To-morrow the Tsar and Count Gulohoff will have left Vienna. It is true our plans have utterly failed, but we are also quite safe, and not even suspected."
"And Eugen Borgensky, my husband, M. l'Abbé?"
"I pledge you my word, Madame, that whilst I can do anything to prevent it, and I can do a great deal, he shall never again wear the red carnation."
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