SERGIUS KOUSMENSKI had unconsciously walked toward the Casino. What led him there that evening he never afterward could say. He was no gambler, never had been so, even in his younger days, and now that he was about to finally settle down in life he certainly felt no inclination for the card-table. He was so happy to-night! Olga Kriwenko had at last definitely allowed him to fix their wedding-day. Yes, he was going to marry Olga, the beautiful Pole—he, Sergius Kousmenski, Governor of Warsaw, whose severe rigor against the conquered race had been so much commented upon and so highly commended in St. Petersburg. No doubt, when his impending marriage would become known, he would be asked to resign the governorship. But what of that? Olga loved him; she was young, and would transform his gloomy castle, far out there beyond the steppes, into an enchanted palace of love and beauty.
It was thus, dreaming, that His Excellency had wandered through the streets of Warsaw toward the gaily lighted Casino. The brilliancy of the place, mingled with lively music, heard faintly from within, seemed to harmonize with his pleasant frame of mind. Somebody, he forgot whom, had advised him in the morning to have a look at the gamblers, male and female, who nightly filled the rooms. Sergius Kousmenski went in. The porters and attendants bowed respectfully to His Excellency, and a good many astonished looks followed the dreaded governor as he ascended the wide, carpeted stairs.
In the gaming-room at first all seemed noise, bustle, and agitation. A confusion of tongues greeted Sergius’ ears as he entered, while a military band stationed at one end was playing Russian patriotic songs. Men and women alike were crowding around the tables, where every description of games of chance was being carried on.
Sergius Kousmenski watched the players nearest to him for some little time, then his attention was drawn toward the farther end of the room where “va banque” was being played.
“Va banque” is the simplest means of parting with money, and is much favored in Russia. The banquier merely deals to each player and to himself a card. Each player then stakes; the cards are turned up, and those whose cards are of lesser value than the banquier’s lose their stakes to him, while he in his turn pays those whose cards turn out to be of greater value than his own.
A flat-faced Russian was holding the bank. He seemed excited and anxious. Probably he was losing heavily, Sergius thought, for a lady, whose face he could not see (her back was turned toward him), had a large heap of gold and notes by her side, while the banquier’s pile seemed sadly diminished. Sergius caught himself wondering who the lucky winner was. He saw very little of her, only an exquisitely gloved hand from time to time.
The banquier had started a fresh deal, while Sergius, full of curiosity, endeavored to get a closer view of the lady.
“Six hundred roubles,” she said in a melodious voice that made Sergius Kousmenski start, and set his pulses throbbing violently.
It was Olga’s voice! What was she doing here in this gambling den? His fiancée, his would-be wife!
He had turned very pale, and made strenuous efforts to get a nearer view of the woman over there, who was a gambler and yet had Olga’s voice. He stood close behind her now, so close he might have touched her shoulder, and he could distinctly see the card she was holding, and the pile of gold, 600 roubles, lying in front of her.
It all seemed like a dream that the beautiful girl he loved, the one whose rigid devotions so often had caused him to smile, should be sitting in the Casino, gambling among the roués and demi-mondaines of Warsaw.
The dealer now turned up an ace, the highest card possible; the players had lost, and all the piles of gold, Olga’s included, were swept away in favor of the banquier. Sergius could not see her face, but the hand that once more put up the stake, a heavier one this time, trembled slightly. Every one had been very astonished when the unknown lady lost. “She always wins,” was whispered among the crowd.
“Always!” She often came here, then, and her presence at the tables was a familiar one to this rabble!
The game proceeded—Olga lost again. Sergius could not help being glad; perhaps if she lost all she would go away, and he would beg of her never to return again. Her manner had become a little more excited, and her hand was now trembling visibly as she again and again put up sum after sum of money, only to see it each time gathered up by the dealer’s indiscriminating rake.
Her luck had obviously turned—she was losing hard. The crowd was becoming deeply interested, and many a comment, not wholly sympathetic, was passed upon Olga’s ill-luck. Sergius heard them, and it made his heart ache and his cheeks flush with shame.
“Some luck in love,” said one of the bystanders, laughingly; “that’s why the cards are playing her false.”
Olga had now only a pile of bank notes in front of her. Most of the other players had stopped; some were leaving the table, and she remained for the time almost isolated. One man—her immediate neighbor—had just risen, and as he did so, Sergius, whose very soul was in his eyes, caught sight of a card—the ace of hearts —lying just underneath her chair; it had dropped there, probably by accident. Sergius wondered that nobody else saw it; he wondered if Olga did. No! for she apparently did not, either, notice her handkerchief, which also at that moment dropped to the floor. She was evidently too excited and too much intent upon the game. She seemed to have resolved to place all the remnant of her wealth upon this last chance; after she had staked, she stood to lose or win some 90,000 roubles. Sergius did not take his eyes off her. She was very pale, and her eyes looked hard and set. He had noticed the card that had been dealt to her; it was a “seven,” a comparatively low one, and the chances of her winning seemed to Sergius very remote.
The bystanders had transferred their attention to the dealer, only Sergius was looking with a certain amount of sympathy at Olga’s hand, which was twitching nervously. She looked for her hand-kerchief, noticed she had dropped it, and stooped slightly to pick it up. The next moment the banquier turned up his card: it was a queen.
“I pay king or ace,” he said.
“You pay me,” said Olga quietly, as she turned up her card—the ace of hearts.
Sergius looked at her; she seemed ready to faint as the dealer, with a muttered curse, counted out 90,000 roubles to her. He did not at first understand it all, for he had distinctly seen that she held a “seven;” till presently he chanced to look upon the floor—the card from there had disappeared.
When he looked up again, Olga had collected her money, her gloves, her handkerchief, and had risen to go. Then she turned and faced him, and their eyes met.
She knew he had seen all; he met her look of terror with one of such unutterable contempt that she closed her eyes to shut out the fearful vision.
When she opened them again he was gone.
YES, he had gone, fled he knew not whither, to hide his desolation and shame even from those who knew it not. Instinctively he had directed his steps toward the outer gates of the city, and having passed them, he was walking through the fields that led to the Trappist monastery, yonder by the hillside. The small cemetery belonging to the convent was lying peaceably in the moonlight, and the little chapel stood quite close, with its stained-glass windows illumined from within by the perpetual lamp that is forever kept burning before the high altar.
As Sergius looked before him, he suddenly saw Olga at the farther end of the field. She was walking very briskly, and a few moments afterward had disappeared into the chapel.
Sergius hesitated a moment. Should he follow her? Ah, yes, and speak to her, and perhaps dispel this horrid dream, and wake up to find reality, to find her once more pure, true, and honorable.
He ran across the field, and pushed open the heavy, panelled oak door. All within the chapel seemed love and peace. A monk in his quaint, pointed hood and gown was absorbed in devotions before the high altar, and another figure—a woman’s—was there, on her knees, laying bare her soul before God and sobbing bitterly. Ah, how Sergius’ heart went out to her then! How he longed the next moment to take her in his arms! But she rose, and touched the kneeling monk on the shoulder.
He walked up to the small sacristy door, and beckoned to an unknown person within, who then stepped out, while the monk, waiting, stood like one of the statues carved in stone upon the altar.
The newcomer appeared to be a young man. He held out both his hands to Olga, who took them in both hers.
Forgotten seemed her grief, her remorse. She talked excitedly to him for a few moments, then she poured into his hand the bag of gold and notes she had won at the gaming table.
The young man kissed her affectionately, whilst the monk’s hand was placed on her head in token of a blessing.
Sergius saw it all. He tottered as if intoxicated. He would have rushed forward and killed them all on the spot, but his feet refused to move and red clouds rolled before his eves.
The next moment all three had disappeared within the sacristy, and he found his way out and across the fields toward the city—the city of Warsaw, of which he was the governor. His Excellency, Sergius Kousmenski!— bah! what a mockery!—he, a broken-hearted man who had given his life to a wanton and a cheat!
He waited about in the fields. Was it in the hope of seeing her again? If so, what would he say to her—what questions would he ask?
She came out of the chapel some two or three hours later, the hooded monk closing the heavy doors after her, and walked rapidly in the direction of the city. It was almost broad daylight, and presently from the monastery chapel a soft-toned bell began to toll the Angelus.
Olga paused; like all Poles, she was a devout Catholic, and she stood in the middle of the field to say her morning prayer to the Virgin Mary, while, from within the chapel, now distant, came faintly the monotonous chant of the monks:
“Hail, Mary, full of grace.”
“Olga,” said Sergius Kousmenski. He had walked rapidly up to her. He would speak to her just this once, find out the truth, and then, if she be unworthy, strive to blot out her image from his memory.
She did not move; perhaps she had not heard his heart-breaking appeal; she stood with her hands clasped, a rosary between her fingers.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,” she murmured devoutly. He might have been miles away for aught she heeded, her superstitious devotions seemed of so much greater moment to her than this heart-broken man, who only longed to forgive.
“Olga,” he begged once more, “have you nothing to say to me?”
Her face was hard and set; she would not look at him; she would have fled only he held her hands tightly, so tightly that the beads of the rosary made deep impressions into her flesh.
One moment he almost hoped she would speak, and a look of entreaty—an entreaty for faith and trust—for an instant softened the set expression in her eyes. She seemed to listen in the distance to the monks still chanting and praying to her who never sinned.
“I have nothing to say,” she said; “it you would be best if you would leave me now.”
Then Sergius let go her hand and walked away.
But she, now left alone, for a while watched his retreating figure.
She had forgotten her devotions; the rosary had dropped from between her fingers. Far away in the convent chapel the monks were chanting the last “Ave Maria.”
“Pray for us sinners,” they sang, and the little bell had ceased tolling, the sound of the organ was dying away—a look of unutterable, hopeless despair softened the lonely woman’s face. “Now and at the hour of death,” she prayed; and, falling on her knees, she sobbed bitterly.
HOW Sergius Kousmenski spent the remainder of that day he scarcely knew. He found his servants anxious about him, wondering where His Excellency could thus have spent a whole night.
His harsh severity against the inhabitants had rendered him an object of fear and almost hatred in the Polish city, and it was a very likely thing, if he chanced to be out alone at night, that some desperate patriot might succeed in ridding Poland of her dreaded governor.
But, even with an aching heart and a throbbing brain, duty must be gone through, and Sergius lived through that weary day—and waited for the night. The Trappist monastery lay two or three miles distant from the governor’s palace, and yet in Sergius’ ears, during that long day, there incessantly tolled the soft-toned bell of the Angelus.
When all was dark and quiet again within the city walls, Sergius Kousmenski went out—out through the gates, across the fields beyond which lay that convent chapel bathed in the moonlight.
The night was far advanced, and it was with a thrill of satisfaction that Sergius saw that the stained-glass windows were lighted up from within.
He pushed open the heavy panelled door, which was never closed on those who wished to enter for rest, meditation, or prayer. The little chapel at first seemed quite deserted, and Sergius paused, wondering, till presently at the foot of the altar to the Virgin he spied the Trappist kneeling.
He was a middle-aged man, his face worn, thin, and pale from long fasts and vigils. Sergius looked at him long; at him who must know all. Would he speak?
The convent rules are rigid, Sergius knew. From the day that the final vows are taken, the Trappist monks’ lips are sealed forever; complete silence shuts them out from all intercourse with man-kind, and that silence may only be broken in order to give the prescribed greeting to each other as they pass: “Memento mori.” All other words may only be addressed to God or his saints, in prayer.
Sergius knew this, and yet he crossed the chapel aisle, and touching the kneeling monk on the shoulder he said:
“Father, I would speak with you.”
The monk looked toward him, and for an instant a look of wonder crossed his impassive features; but it was a mere flash; he turned his eyes again heavenward, and continued counting his beads.
“Father, a broken-hearted man seeks comfort at your hands; won’t you speak to him?”
“Memento mori,” muttered the monk half audibly.
“Aye! I remember!” said Sergius, drearily. “But before I die I will know the truth. Is it wrong to seek for truth?”
The monk seemed to have forgotten his presence; he was saying his beads devoutly, all absorbed.
“Father,” again said Sergius, “I wish to speak about Olga Kriwenko. What was she doing in this chapel last night?”
The monk once more turned toward Sergius. There was a wistful tenderness in his sunken eyes, but he was still fingering his beads, and his lips still murmured endless Ave Marias.
“Monk, whoever thou art,” said Sergius, “if thou art a man, answer me. What dost thou know of Olga?”
He might as well have been talking to one of the stone images round the chapel walls. The monk remained silent and prayed.
Then the untamed Tartar blood rushed wildly to Sergius’ head. He looked with eyes of hatred at the fanatic monk, and, drawing a short dagger from his belt, he let it glimmer in the low lamp-light.
“What did Olga do in this chapel last night?” he hissed in the monk’s ear. “Remember, man, thy life is in my hands.”
The monk looked at the knife with contempt, at Sergius with pity. “Memento mori,” was his sole answer.
He made no attempt to defend his life, but, when he felt the stab and felt his blood beginning to flow, with his hands and his robe he tried to staunch the wound, so that he should not pollute the Virgin’s altar. But his lips remained sealed to the end. To the end the Trappist had kept his vow.
Sergius took him up in his arms, horror-struck at what he had done, and carried him out of the chapel to the little cemetery beyond. He laid the monk in one of the graves, and, being a devout Catholic, he knelt by its side and recited some prayers for the dead. Then he left him, and walked away across the fields.
IT was a cruel time that now followed. A fresh Polish conspiracy had been discovered, and His Excellency, Sergius Kousmenski, the governor, was more pitiless than ever toward those that fell into the clutches of the Russian police.
A woman, one Olga Kriwenko by name, was implicated in the plot. The governor heard that she was young and beautiful, and that she even succeeded in softening the hearts of her jailers. Many an influential person pleaded for her life, but the governor refused to listen, and ordered that she should be shot the next morning, along with the others; and he also ordered that the Angelus should be rung from the Trappist convent chapel at the hour of their death.
People heard this curious decision, and wondered if His Excellency was really sane. He hardly knew himself, but he thought that if he once heard the Angelus sound together with that volley of musketry it would cease to haunt him as it had done for all these long days.
And when night came he wandered once more toward the convent chapel. Nothing seemed altered in the peaceful little house of God. A monk—was it the same?—was kneeling before the altar. Sergius sat in the chapel he knew not how long. The hours seemed so wearying. Would dawn never come? Dawn, when she would die, she who had broken his heart while quietly telling her beads.
The chapel seemed oppressive. He wandered out and into the little cemetery toward the spot where that open grave had been that night, which now held the body of the Trappist who would not speak. Sergius had some difficulty in finding the exact spot; it had been levelled in this short while, and no crosses or stones mark the graves of the Trappists. Suddenly he paused; at his feet, over some newly trodden earth, something white was gleaming; it was a piece of paper pinned to the earth by a dagger. Sergius stooped to look. He could read the words, stained by mud and rain though they were:
Feverishly Sergius pulled out the knife and unfolded the paper. It contained a few scribbled lines written by a feeble hand:
“Sergius Kousmenski. I could not speak to thee in life, let me speak in death. My moments are numbered; thy dagger did its work well, but not quite so well as thou hadst thought. I forgive thee my death. Forgive Olga Kriwenko; her sins were not against thee. Poland needed money; she undertook to find it. She alone knows how she succeeded. The man she saw here was her brother. To him she gave the money. Go thou, and on thy knees ask her pardon for having suspected her purity.”
The paper dropped from Sergius’ hand. A look of joy and hope illumined his face. All was not yet lost. Thank God! Thank God! She still lived.
At that moment the first sound of the Angelus came from within the convent chapel, and the monks once more began to chant “Ave Maria!”
“No! no! Stop! stop! in the name of God, wait!”
Wait! Who should wait? Time or eternity?
“Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death!”
And a distant volley of musketry rent the still night air.
Sergius Kousmenski fell forward on his face, and buried his head in the dust.
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