“MUST I sign this?” asked the poor wretch, as Count Blöwitz pointed to pen, ink, and paper, and bade him sit down, and write.
“It is absolutely imperative that you should,” replied the banker. “Do you suppose,” he added drily, “that I intend to pay you a million francs without any acknowledgment for the money?”
“You have the plans,” retorted the other doggedly.
“Quite so,” said Count Blöwitz sardonically, “but, as I have already explained to you, I do not buy plans of fortifications for my own private use; and, suppose in after years, when I offer them for sale, I should be accused of having stolen them?”
“You would denounce me?” said the traitor, in a trembling voice.
“Not unless I were compelled to do so. After all,” added the banker, after a slight pause, “it is not too late yet. There are your plans, sign nothing, take them back—and go.”
The wretched man hesitated; every conflicting passion was imprinted upon his haggard countenance. With hungering eyes, he watched Count Blöwitz, who, with one hand, was idly toying with a pile of bank notes that lay upon his desk, and with the other held out a bundle of papers—the plans of the fortifications of Odessa, which the traitor had offered him for sale.
“I will sign,” the Russian said at last, and with feverish hands wrote his name, one of the noblest in the empire, at the foot of the receipt that consummated his dishonour.
A contemptuous smile lurked round the corner of Count Blöwitz’ mouth as he proceeded, slowly and deliberately, to count out the money, which he then tossed on the table.
The Russian picked up the notes one by one; his hand was trembling violently but his hesitation had ceased, his lips were tightly set; evidently he was satisfied, and thought the crisp bits of paper sufficient compensation for the infamy.
“One word more before you leave,” said Count Blöwitz, after he had examined the plans and receipt, and locked them up in his bureau; “in the ordinary course of events, I shall probably still meet you in St. Petersburg society. As I have pledged my word to you that no indiscretion on my part shall ever betray you, and it might arouse suspicion that my well-known friendship towards you should so suddenly cease, I am quite willing to shake hands with you when we meet, and even exchange a few words, whenever my abstaining from so doing is likely to create comment. At the same time, I need not remind you that all intercourse with other members of my family must immediately cease; my niece shall herself explain to her friends and acquaintances, that her mind had not been fully made up when she became engaged to you, and that her marriage therefore, has been broken off by mutual consent. You understand?”
The young man who had listened to the early part of the banker’s speech, with head bent, almost annihilated with shame, now looked up, and an absolutely touching glance of appeal, so yearning was it, came into his dark eyes.
“You will not tell her—all?” he said, in tones so pleading, so heart-broken, that the older man stared at him in some astonishment.
“I shall be compelled to tell her all,” he said, “for I am sorry to say she is very much in love with you, and I know that nothing would make her give you up—save knowledge of the truth.”
“It was because I was too poor to marry her that I did—this,” said the young man, in a voice almost broken with despair.
“You did not imagine, I presume,” said Count Blöwitz haughtily, “that, after all that has passed between us, I could ever allow you to approach my niece with a view to marriage?”
“But you—yourself——” gasped the unfortunate young man.
“My dear Constantin, that is altogether a different matter,” rejoined the banker calmly. “To commence with, though my banking house is established in Russia, and I have carried on business at St. Petersburg for thirty years, I am not a Russian. My wife was a Russian, my niece and nephew are Russian, but I am an Austrian, and as such owe no allegiance to this country. I shall offer these plans for sale to the Austrian Government; they will, no doubt, give me a fair price for them. I have your receipt to prove that I was not the thief. A man offers me wares to sell, I buy them from him—at his own figure—with a view to selling them again at a profit; there is no disgrace in that, it is merely a matter of speculation ; and I repeat again, these plans are of Odessa, and I am no Russian.”
“You pushed me to it,” retorted the young man doggedly. “Was it not you who first in my hearing spoke of the large sum that could be obtained for correct traceries of the plans of Odessa? you afterwards who, to goad me to the deed, spoke of Maria’s love of luxury, and probable marriage with a man wealthier than I? you who encouraged me to know her, to love her, acquiesced in our engagement, then threatened to break it off unless my position was very much improved? Then, when my soul was prepared for the poison, was it not you, again, who told me of these speculations your cursed banking-house made in traitors’ deeds?
“Aye, Count Blöwitz, yours was the coward’s part; you wished to run no risk, only reap the reward; you throw me a million, and will probably pocket three times that amount, while with a bland smile you show me the door, call me a vile traitor, unworthy to become a member of your family, and still style yourself the noble and wealthy Count Blöwitz, the head of the great banking-house whom everybody delights to call friend. No! it shall not be! traffic with my honour and your own, if you will, but let there be loyalty among thieves—you shall swear to hold your cursed tongue before Maria, or, by Heaven, I will kill you.”
The banker had at first listened to the young man’s raving speech as he would to the wanderings of a lunatic, but now the Russian’s eyes glared with so fierce, so deadly a hatred, that Count Blöwitz, realising his own probable danger, rose in order to ring for a valet that would rid him of this ranting maniac, who now stood before him with hands tightly clenched and knees bent ready for a spring. There was a moment’s pause and the banker’s hand was already on the bell pull, but whether the fright had been too great, or whether the young Russian’s hands had really grasped his throat, it were impossible to say, for the next instant he staggered back, his hands tried vainly to grasp something for support, he gave one short gasp and fell forward on his face.
The traitor looked round him in bewilderment. What did it mean? What had happened? He knelt down by the side of the banker, whose eyes, still turned upwards, wore that last agonised look of terror, the heart was still, the mouth convulsed, as if in a final fruitless endeavour to shriek for help. Was Count Blöwitz dead? Had fate removed the only witness to the treacherous deed? But then—those plans—that receipt—they were still in that bureau—and the key, there it was, grasped tightly in the dead man’s hand—one effort—it dropped out—no one was coming—the house was still—five minutes more.
An icy perspiration stood on his forehead; his knees were trembling so that he could hardly rise from the position in which he still was. The banker had not stirred; only a more ashen look had spread over his features. The young man closed his eyes; he could not bear to look at them. Then he picked up the key.
“For Heaven’s sake, what is the matter?” said a frightened voice, a girl’s, close at his elbow. The young man shuddered. He did not move; he knew it was too late. The key dropped from his hand on to the floor.
“My uncle!—what has happened? Constantin, why don’t you speak?
“She had fallen on her knees by the side of the dead man, and, taking his head in her arms, turned to the young man.
“Call Antoine at once. He must run for a doctor. But, for Heaven’s sake, tell me what has happened?”
With a superhuman effort, Constantin roused himself, and mechanically began telling her how her uncle had been chatting pleasantly; that suddenly he had got up, not feeling well, and—had fallen forward; Constantin thought he was dead.
Two or three lacqueys had now come in. One of them sent for a doctor, and M. Antoine, the valet, with the help of another, was lifting his master from the floor, to carry him to his room.
Maria Alexandrowna had sunk broken-hearted into a chair, while Constantin still stood there transfixed, his eyes riveted on the floor, where that key—that fatal key—was still lying.
He stooped forward to pick it up, but Maria Alexandrowna saw it, too, for she said: “Give me that key, Constantin; it is that of my dear uncle’s desk. All his private papers are in there, and nobody must touch them till my brother Stefan comes home from Okhotsk. He is my uncle’s nearest male relative, and he will dispose of them as he thinks best.”
Mechanically, and as if in a dream, the young man gave her the key, and she took it from him, little guessing what terrible secrets concerning the man she loved were thus placed in her keeping.
WHEN the official organs confirmed the news that had been current as a rumour for some considerable time, namely, that Prince Constantin Lubomirski had been appointed Chancellor of the Russian Empire, nobody was in the least astonished. He was one of those men born to rule, and his rapid advancement in the last two years, from an Under-Secretary in the War Department to the absolute leadership of the empire, was but a natural outcome of his indomitable will and powerful, unscrupulous mind.
He might, however, in spite of both those stern qualities, have remained in subordinate positions all his life, but for his sudden accession to wealth, the origin of which was not absolutely known, but which came to him about a couple of years ago, and which enabled him to throw himself body and soul into the vortex of political life. From that hour his attainment of the highest position in Russia became but a question of time, and now his rapidly approaching marriage with Maria Alexandrowna Barteniew, and his appointment to the Chancellorship, added the long expected finishing touch to his brilliant career.
Maria Barteniew, the handsomest girl in St. Petersburg, had, it was said, been in love with him for over two years, in fact, long before his sudden accession to wealth and pre-eminence, but the death of her uncle and guardian, the rich banker, Count Blöwitz, under exceptionally sad circumstances, had plunged her into mourning, and delayed her marriage for some time. But now all preparations were completed, and the wedding, which was the talk of St. Petersburg society, was to take place in the spring.
Aye! it had been a brilliant, a glorious time, that followed those fearful weeks of suspense and intermittent remorse, before the fatal plunge was taken, and Constantin Lubomirski became a traitor. But fate had fought his battle for him. The only witness to his crime was dead, and the papers were locked up, hidden away in a desk that no one —Maria Alexandrowna had said it—had the right to touch. No one—except Stefan Barteniew, who was so far away, in Okhotsk in Eastern Siberia, and surely Prime Lubomirski, with his new wealth, and rapidly growing influence, could find it no hard matter to keep him there. And Stefan, who was secretary to the governor of Okhotsk, though he begged for and was entitled to leave of absence, found month after month elapse, and his petitions put aside, and worse than all, his letters to his sister at home unanswered ; it seemed as if some powerful agency were at work to keep the young man an exile from his country.
The newly-appointed Chancellor sat in his sumptuously furnished study, pondering over these things. At last his ambition was satisfied; he had risen so high that not one unfulfilled wish was left to him now, and Maria Alexandrowna, the beautiful girl for whose sake he had risked so much, and sinned so deeply, was in less than six weeks to become his wife.
And then, with Stefan still away—who knows ?—he might even persuade her to let him open that desk, to destroy those papers—that terrible receipt—and then he would be free from this ceaseless, racking torture that night and day haunted him as a spectre, the spectre of his treachery, of his lost honour, the dread of discovery that any moment through chance, or a young girl’s curiosity, might hurl him from his exalted position to the worst degradations a country can impose on its citizens.
“Will your Excellency receive Lord Ellaby?”
The valet’s official voice broke upon Constantin’s meditations, and he rose to greet Her Britannic Majesty’s ambassador, as his lordship, apparently too excited to remember any formalities, rushed into the room at the heels of the lacquey.
“Your Excellency,” he said, “a terrible blunder has been committed by your infernal bloodhounds in Siberia. But I can tell you my government will put up with nothing of that character, and, if any of you dare to harm one hair of that boy’s head, I warn you that it may lead to most disastrous consequences.”
Prince Lubomirski was aghast at the usually so impassive Englishman’s demeanour; moreover, he had not the slightest idea of what the ambassador was talking about.
“Would it not be better, your Excellency,” he said with a slightly sarcastic smile, :if you were to tell me the facts of the case!”
“H’m, certainly, certainly,” said Lord Ellaby, suddenly recollecting the unseemliness of his conduct, “I venture to hope your Excellency knows nothing of this confounded business. Perhaps this letter will explain; it comes from my son, sir, at present detained in one of your infernal prisons.”
Prince Lubomirski took the letter from the irate ambassador; it ran as follows:—
When you receive this, I shall no doubt be under arrest, for I am going to throw myself wilfully into the jaws of the bear, knowing full well that you can easily get me out of the scrape. As you know, I sailed round to Okhotsk in the Arethusa, intending to ask Barteniew to join me in some big game shooting; I thought, of course, he would have no difficulty in obtaining leave of absence for a month or so, and was perfectly aghast when he told me that not only would he be quite unable to accompany me, but that he had been the subject of most mysterious conspiracies from headquarters, and had not been allowed to leave his post now for two years.
He was looking terribly anxious and worried, moreover the climate was beginning to tell on his lungs; to make a long story short the Arethusa is as fast a yacht as was ever built on the Clyde, and I persuaded him to take French leave on her, see his friends at home, and find out what games his enemies, if he has any, are up to.
Briefly, then, we are going to make a bolt of it—Stefan and I—having previously exchanged our respective identities, namely, he will wear my clothes and use my passports and papers, while I don his uniform and become Stefan Barteniew for the time being. If we are suspected and stopped on our way, I shall allow myself to be meekly led back to Okhotsk, leaving it to you, my dear old Dad, to get me home again; while Barteniew, in the guise of the Hon. Winter Ellaby, will proceed on his way, get on board the Arethusa, and remit you this letter as soon as he arrives in St. Petersburg.
So on receiving this, please take the necessary steps at once to get me out of the hole, for I am sure these beastly Russians won’t treat me any too well when they find out their mistake.
WINTER S. ELLABY
The letter dropped from Prince Lubomirski’s hand. During the few moments that it had taken him to read it, he had fully realised its deadly import. Stefan Barteniew was in St. Petersburg at this moment, that was absolutely clear from the fact that Lord Ellaby had received this letter. Perhaps at this very moment he was with his sister; she was giving him the key ; his hands were on the fatal papers——
“I trust Prince Lubomirski,” said the English ambassador, interrupting the Chancellor’s protracted reflections, “that your government does not intend to pursue this matter any further. Whatever grievance you may have against young Barteniew I have nothing to do with. My boy has helped him to get out of your clutches, as any Englishman who had the chance would. I am willing privately to indemnify Russia to what extent she may choose to impose. I should not even mind my son sitting in a Christian prison for a week or so, by way of punishment for his escapade; he has no cause to blush for what he has done, and——”
“Pray, your Excellency, say no more,” said the Chancellor, who mastered himself with a mighty effort; “the whole thing evidently originated from a mistake made by Stefan Barteniew, whose conscience could not have been quite clear, or he never would have taken fright so easily. No doubt there was some good reason why he was refused leave of absence, and your son has acted very foolishly in persuading him to defy his superiors. Nevertheless, I shall immediately wire to Okhotsk, and your Excellency may rest assured that no harm shall come to Mr. Winter Ellaby, who seems a most chivalrous and plucky young man.”
Her Britannic Majesty’s ambassador, fully satisfied, thereupon tendered a graceful apology for his son’s hot-headed escapade, and his own anxiety, that had made him almost forget himself, and took his leave five minutes after, leaving Constantin Lubomirski almost broken down with the strain of the last half-hour.
The blow had been hard, all the more terrible as it was so wholly unexpected. Fate that had been so persistently his ally, had suddenly turned against him.
Surely something could yet be done to avert the terrible catastrophe. The Russian police were so prompt, and he, Constantin, so powerful. But no! no! it was too late, Stefan was with his sister even now, and a vision rose before the proud man’s eyes of the lad sitting at the desk, with his sister close to his elbow. “Maria, look at these,” he was saying, “careful plans of the citadel of Odessa! How came they in our uncle’s bureau? Sold to him, no doubt, by some traitor. Here is the receipt for one million francs, and signed Constantin Lubomirski.”
Oh! the horrible vision, it would not be chased away. The subsequent exposure, the terrible disgrace, and, worst of all, the vision of a young girl’s eyes rose before him—a girl’s eyes wherein he had been wont to see the light of true confiding love, now distorted by a look of loathing and contempt for that vile abject thing that had been her lover.
“Pity, Maria, pity! I was poor then. It was for your sake, and I have suffered so. Pity! Pity!”
And Prince Lubomirski with a loud groan fell forward on his desk, and he lay there for awhile in merciful oblivion of his crime and its punishment.
HOW long Constantin Lubomirski remained in this state of unconsciousness he did not know, but when he awoke the evening was drawing in. He roused himself wearily; then, as the events of the past came back to him, he buried his head in his arms. At first he seemed powerless to think; the situation seemed so absolutely hopeless that his eyes, as if unconsciously, fixed themselves on the panoply of rare and costly arms, swords, guns, and revolvers that adorned his wall.
To die—to rest! Oh! he felt so weary of this pomp, this glory earned at such a bitter price. He took a dainty revolver in his hand, so light and fragile, and thought how one moment’s determination would put him beyond all strife, all remorse. Then the fair vision of Maria rose before him once more, and of the boy Stefan, who would then inevitably know all; perhaps proclaim it to all who chose to hear that Prince Lubomirski was a traitor, and died to avoid discovery. No, no; that should not be. He had fought so long, so valiantly, surely something could be done; all was not yet lost.
Stefan was in St. Petersburg, true; but, harassed by anxiety, and almost a fugitive, he probably had not yet had the time or inclination to trouble with the dead man’s papers. If so, all would be well. Then Constantin resolved that he himself would tell Maria Alexandrowna all, throw himself on her mercy, beg from her those compromising papers, then trust to her boundless, long-enduring love for him, to obtain her forgiveness in exchange for his confession.
Calling to his valet for his hat and stick, he sallied forth into the street, and rapidly found his way to the little house on the banks of the Neva, where his fate would be decided. It lay quiet and still in the moonlight, and Constantin hardly dared to touch the bell and ask if Mademoiselle was alone. The lacquey who opened the door told him that Maria Alexandrowna had not gone to bed, although her duenna had done so for some time. She was expecting a gentleman, no doubt she meant his Excellency. and if his Excellency would step inside he would find Maria Alexandrowna in the boudoir.
All was safe then so far; Constantin questioned the lacquey closely as to what visitors his mistress had received during the day, and no one apparently had called who could possibly have been Stefan.
Constantin found the young girl sitting alone in semi-darkness, save for a small lamp with a soft pink shade, which stood in one of the window recesses.
She jumped up, pleased, if somewhat astonished at the unusual lateness of his visit, and he took her hand gently in his, and drawing her near him on the sofa, he watched for awhile her sweet profile outlined against the pink lamp, and thought what a difficult task he had set himself. How could he talk of such evil to an angel so pure and good?
“Maria Alexandrowna,” he said at last, with an effort, “I wish to speak to you upon a very serious matter to-night; will you listen to me for a moment?”
“Yes, Constantin,” she said abstractedly, but he could see that her mind was far away; she seemed anxious, very restless; her eyes wandered to the lamp at the window, and she bent her head once or twice as if listening.
“Maria,” he continued, “you have often assured me that your love for me is very great, and playfully asked me to put it to the test. I am going to put that love to a very severe test to-night.”
She looked up at him, and in her clear blue eyes he saw such a depth of love that he hesitated no longer, and rapidly in short, jerky sentences, he began to tell her all that had happened.
The young girl’s eyes at first opened in wonder and softened with pity at the sad tale, gradually dilated with horror, then, as the conviction slowly arose in her that what he was telling her was a confession of a crime so fearful, so degrading, so low that the most abject moujik would shun its perpetration as he would the pestilence, she drew herself away from him.
“Why do you tell me this now?” said Maria Alexandrowna at last. “Why not rather have never sought me out, or left me to know nothing?”
Why. indeed? Aye! there was yet the most difficult part to tell. How was he to ask this pure, innocent girl to become his accomplice and help him to escape from the punishment that was even now at his door? Constantin’s throat was parched, his face was ashy pale. But nerve himself to the task he must, and, rising from his seat, he was about to approach her, when his ear caught the sound of a soft footstep outside, and a discreet knock at the door.
Maria Alexandrowna heard it, too, for a startled look came into her face, and, putting a finger to her lips, she somewhat lowered the lamp and pointed towards a dark corner of the room.
Constantin understood the gesture and retired into the shadow. Scarcely had he done so when the door opened and a young man came in. His face and manner and general appearance were so like Maria’s that Constantin knew at once that it was her brother Stefan.
Stefan Barteniew was evidently expected, for Maria had shown no surprise at his entrance. Constantin heard her ask him anxious questions, and Stefan began telling her of the dangers he had passed and his fortunate escape, thanks to the devotion of his young English friend.
Once Maria Alexandrowna turned her head towards the dark corner of the room; that was when Stefan told her that some unknown, powerful foe must have been at work to keep him wilfully so far away from home. Her eyes, as she searched the gloom, wore, Constantin thought, almost a look of hatred then.
“I must not stay in Russia, Maria darling,” Stefan added, “and have just come to see you and collect some papers and money, as it will be obviously wiser for me to remain abroad until I know that I am safe. I shall leave for England to-night, and half hope that you may delay your marriage and join me there for a little while. Perhaps even you could start with me now; you would have two hours in which to pack some things.”
“I should like to go with you, Stefan,” Maria said gently, “and we will leave Anoushka to shut up and take care of the house. Two hours is more than I want to pack my immediate requirements.”
“I will wait for you here, and while you are gone I can look through my uncle’s private papers that you told me had never been touched since his death, and which might be of importance. Have you the key of the bureau?”
“Yes, here it is,” said Maria Alexandrowna, taking the chain from her neck, and handing the key to Stefan. Then she crossed the room and once more found herself face to face with Constantin.
In his eyes dilated with horror, in his hand pointing with trembling finger towards Stefan now engaged in opening the bureau drawer, she read in one instant the sequel to the terrible story he had been telling her. The proof, in some shape or form, of his guilt lay in the drawer of that bureau, on which her brother Stefan’s hand was even now resting.
“Maria, my darling, can you give me a little more light? I can’t see what I am doing.”
She walked across the floor and mechanically took the lamp from its stand, and holding it with both hands, she stood behind her brother, who sat with his back turned towards Constantin, and was busying himself with the bundles of papers that lay in the drawer.
Not a sound save the rustle of paper was heard for two or three minutes, whilst Maria Alexandrowna stood as if turned to stone, her eyes, dilated with terror, seeming to try and read through the wrappers before her brother opened them. So far, he had only come across a number of private memoranda of more or less value, which he classified and put on one side. Suddenly Constantin Lubomirski guessed by something in Maria Alexandrowna’s expression of face that the fatal papers were under Stefan’s hand. He made a sudden, unconscious movement forward, whilst a halt-smothered exclamation escaped his lips. Stefan Barteniew, startled, threw all the papers back into the drawer, and, jumping up, turned towards Constantin, whom he vaguely discerned in the gloom.
“Who goes there?” he said, springing forward and ready to jump at the intruder.
Maria Alexandrowna was still standing lamp in hand, her eyes fixed on the drawer, where all the papers lay in a tangled mass; one minute’s hesitation, and, before her brother or Constantin had time to see what she was doing, she had thrown the lamp violently down, and it fell crashing on to the bureau, wrapping all the papers scattered therein in a sea of flames.
Constantin, with the instinct of self-preservation and forgetting all, save Maria’s danger, tore down the curtains from the window and threw them on the flaming desk, quickly smothering the fire. When all danger was passed and the curtains removed, the papers in the desk were but a heap of ashes.
“I thank you, Monsieur,” said Stefan Barteniew, “for the coolness with which you helped to preserve all our lives, and my sister’s property, though I fear that many valuable papers have been destroyed. May I not have the pleasure of knowing your name?”
“My name is Constantin Lubomirski,” he said.
“The Imperial Chancellor and my sister’s fiancé,” said Stefan cordially, stepping forward and offering Constantin his hand.
“His Excellency is no longer my fiancé, Stefan,” said Maria Alexandrowna, taking hold of her brother’s hand, and thus preventing Constantin from grasping it. “When you came, I was just telling him that I was too young to know my own mind when I became engaged to him, and I have asked him to set me free. Prince Lubomirski has so many great interests to occupy his life; all Russia looks to him for guidance and future glory; I will watch his brilliant career with eager interest, but love, such as a wife should feel for her husband, I have none to give….”
She seemed calm and impassive, there was not the slightest tremor in her voice, but a stern, irrevocable determination. Constantin Lubomirski threw a last look at the girl who had so deeply loved, so nobly saved him, and, bowing his head before her, he passed out of her life for ever.
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