CHAPTER X I SHOW MY HAND
On my return to London next day I made inquiry at the Admiralty and learned that the battleship Bulwark was lying at Palermo, therefore I telegraphed to Jack Durnford, and late the same afternoon his reply came at the Cecil:-
"Due in London twentieth. Dine with me at club that evening–Jack."
The twentieth! That meant nearly a month of inactivity. In that time I could cross to Abo, make inquiries there, and ascertain, perhaps, if Elma Heath were actually dead as Chater had declared.
Two facts struck me as remarkable: Baron Oberg was said to be Polish, while the dark-bearded proprietor of the restaurant in Westbourne Grove was also of the same nationality. Then I recollected that pretty little enameled cross that Mackenzie had found in Rannoch Wood, and it suddenly occurred to me that it might possibly be the miniature of one of the European orders of chivalry. In the club library at midnight I found a copy of Cappelletti's Storia degli Ordini Cavallereschi, the standard work on the subject, and on searching the illustrations I at length discovered a picture of it. It was a Russian order-the coveted Order of Saint Anne, bestowed by the Czar only upon persons who have rendered eminent services to the State and to the sovereign. One fact was now certain, namely, that the owner of that tiny cross, the small replica of the fine decoration, must be a person of high official standing.
Next day I spent in making inquiries with a view to discovering the house said to be occupied by Leithcourt. As it was not either in the Directory or the Blue Book, I concluded that he had perhaps rented it furnished, and after many inquiries and considerable difficulties I found that such was the fact. He had occupied the house of Lady Heathcote, a few doors from Grosvenor Square, for the previous season, although he had lived there but very little.
Where the fugitives were in hiding I had no idea. I longed to meet Muriel again and tell her what I had discovered, yet it was plain that the trio were concealing themselves from Hylton Chater, whom I supposed to be now back in London.
The autumn days were dull and rainy, and the streets were muddy and unpleasant, as they always are at the fall of the year. Compelled to remain inactive, I idled in the club with the recollection of that pictured face ever before me-the face of the unfortunate girl who wished her last message to be conveyed to Philip Hornby. What, I wondered, was her secret? What was really her fate?
This latter question troubled me until I could bear it no longer. I felt that it was my duty to go to Finland and endeavor to learn something regarding this Baron Oberg and his niece. Frank Hutcheson had written me declaring that the weather in Leghorn was now perfect, and expressing wonder that I did not return. I was his only English friend, and I knew how dull he was when alone. Even his Majesty's Consuls sometimes suffer from homesickness, and long for the smell of the London gutters and a glass of homely bitter ale.
But you, my reader, who have lived in a foreign land for any length of time, know well how wearisome becomes the life, however brilliant, and how sweet are the recollections of our dear gray old England with her green fields, her muddy lanes, and the bustling streets of her gray, grimy cities. You have but one "home," and England Is still your home, even though you may become the most bigoted of cosmopolitans and may have no opportunity of speaking your native tongue the whole year through.
Duty-the duty of a man who had learned strange facts and knew that a defenseless woman was a victim-called me to Finland. Therefore, with my passport properly viséd and my papers all in order, I one night left Hull for Stockholm by the weekly Wilson service. Four days of rough weather in the North Sea and the Baltic brought me to the Swedish capital, whence on the following day I took the small steamer which plies three times a week around the Aland Islands, and then across the Gulf of Bothnia to Korpo, and through the intricate channels and among those low-lying islands to the gray lethargic town of Abo.
It was not the first occasion on which I had trod Russian soil, and I knew too well the annoyances of the bureaucracy. Finland, however, is perhaps the most severely governed of any of the Czar's dominions, and I had my first taste of its stern, relentless officialdom at the moment of landing on the half-deserted quay.
In the wooden passport office the uniformed official, on examining my passport, discovered that at the Russian Consulate-General they had forgotten to date the visé which had been impressed with a rubber stamp. It was signed by the Consul-General, but the date was missing, whereupon the man shook his head and handed back the document curtly, saying in Russian, which I understood fairly well, although I spoke badly-
"This is not in order. It must be returned to London and dated before you can proceed."
"But it is not my fault," I protested. "It is the fault of the clerk at the Consulate-General."
"You should have examined it before leaving. You must send it to London, and return to Stockholm by to-night's boat."
"But this is outrageous!" I cried, as he had already taken the papers of a passenger behind me and was looking at them with unconcern.
"Enough!" he exclaimed, glaring at me. "You will return to-night, or if you choose to stay you will be arrested for landing without a passport."
"I shall not go back!" I declared defiantly. "Your Consul-General viséd my passport, and I claim, under international law, to be allowed to proceed without hindrance."
"The steamer leaves at six o'clock," he remarked without looking up. "If you are in Abo after that it will be at your own risk."
"I am English, recollect," I said.
"To me it does not matter what or who you are. Your passport, undated, is worthless."
"I shall complain to the Ambassador at Petersburg."
"Your Ambassador does not interest me in the least. He is not Ambassador here in Finland. There is no Czar here."
"Oh! Who is ruler in this country, pray?"
"His Excellency the Governor-General, an official who has love for neither England nor the pigs of English. So recollect that."
"Yes," I said meaningly, "I shall recollect it." And I turned and went out of the little wooden office, replacing my passport in my pocket-book.
I had already been directed to the hotel, and walked there, but as I did so I saw that I was already under the surveillance of the police, for two men in plain clothes who were lounging outside the passport-office strolled on after me, evidently to watch my movements. Truly Finland was under the iron-heel of autocracy.
After taking my rooms, I strolled about the flat, uninteresting town, wondering how best to commence my search. If I had but a photograph to show people it would give me a great advantage, but I had nothing. I had never, indeed, set eyes upon the unfortunate girl.
Six o'clock came. I heard the steam siren of the departing boat bound for Sweden, but I was determined to remain there at whatever cost, therefore I returned to the hotel, and at seven dined comfortably in company with a German who had been my fellow-passenger across from Stockholm.
At eight o'clock, however, just as we were idling over dessert, two gray-coated police officers entered and arrested me on the serious charge of landing without a passport.
I accompanied them to the police-office, where I was ushered into the presence of the big, bristly Russian who held the town of Abo in terror, the Chief of Police. The officials which Russia sends into Finland are selected for their harsh discipline and hide-bound bureaucracy, and this human machine in uniform was no exception. Had he been the Minister of the Interior himself, he could not have been more self-opinionated.
"Well?" he snapped, looking up at me as I was placed before him. "Your name is Gordon Gregg, English, from Stockholm. No passport, and decline to leave even though warned-eh?"
"I have a passport," I said firmly, producing it.
He looked at it, and pointing with his finger, said: "It has no date, and is therefore worthless."
"The fault is not mine, but that of a Russian official. If you wish it to be dated, you may send it to your Consulate-General in London."
"I shall not," he cried, glaring at me angrily. "And for your insult to the law, I shall commit you to prison for one month. Perhaps you will then learn Russian manners."
"Oh! so you will commit an Englishman to prison for a month, without trial-eh? That's very interesting! Perhaps if you attempt such a thing as that they may have something to say about it in Petersburg."
"You defy me!"
"Not in the least. I have presented my passport and demand common courtesy."
"Your passport is worthless, I tell you!" he cried. "There, that's how much it is worth to me!" And snatching it up he tore it in half and tossed the pieces of blue paper in my face.
My blood was up at this insult, yet I bit my lips and remained quite calm.
"Perhaps you will kindly tell me who you are?" I asked in as quiet a voice as I could command.
"With pleasure. I am Michael Boranski, Chief of Police of the Province of Abo-Biornebourg."
"Ah! Well, Michael Boranski, I shall trouble you to pick up my passport, stick it together again, and apologize to me."
"Apologize! Me apologize!" And the fellow laughed aloud, while the police officers on either side of me grinned from ear to ear.
"Refuse? Certainly I do!"
"Very well, then," I said, re-opening my pocket-book and taking out an open letter. "Perhaps you will kindly glance at that. It is in Russian, so you can read it."
He snatched it from me with ill-grace, but not without curiosity. And then, as he read the lines, his face changed and he went paler. Raising his head, he stood staring at me open-mouthed in amazement.
"I apologize to your Excellency!" he gasped, blanched to the lips. "I most humbly apologize. I-I did not know. You told me nothing!"
"Perhaps you will kindly mend my passport, and give it a proper visé."
In an instant he was up from his chair, and having gathered the torn paper from the floor, proceeded to paste it together. On the back he endorsed that it had been torn by accident, and then gave it the proper visé, affixing the stamps.
"I trust, Excellency," he said, bowing low as he handed it to me, "I trust that this affair will not trouble you further. I assure you I had no intention of insulting you."
"Yes, you had!" I said. "You insulted me merely because I am English. But recollect in future that the man who insults an Englishman generally pays for it, and I do not intend to let this pass. There is a higher power in Finland than even the Governor-General."
"But, Excellency," whined the fellow who only ten minutes ago had been such an insulting bully, "I shall lose my position. I have a wife and six children-my wife is delicate, and my pay here is not a large one. You will forgive, won't you, Excellency? I have apologized-I most humbly apologize."
And he took up the letter I had given him, holding it gingerly with trembling fingers. And well he might, for the document was headed:
"MINISTER OF THE IMPERIAL HOUSEHOLD, PALACE OF PETERHOF.
"The bearer of this is one Gordon Francis Gregg, British subject, whom it is Our will and command that he shall be Our guest during his journey through our dominion. And we hereby command all Governors of Provinces and minor officials to afford him all the facilities he requires and privileges and immunities as Our guest."
The above decree was in a neat copper-plate handwriting in Russian, while beneath was the sprawling signature of the ruler of one hundred and thirty millions of people, that signature that was all-powerful from the gulf of Bothnia to the Pacific-"Nicholas."
The document was the one furnished to me a year before when, at the invitation of the Russian Government, I had gone on a mission of inquiry into the state of the prisons in order to see, on behalf of the British public, whether things were as black as some writers had painted them. It had been my intention to visit the far-off penal settlements in Northern Siberia, but having gone through some twenty prisons in European Russia, my health had failed and I had been compelled to return to Italy to recuperate. The document had therefore remained in my possession because I intended to resume my journey in the following summer. It was in order that I should be permitted to go where I liked, and to see what I liked without official hindrance, that his Majesty the Emperor had, at the instigation of the Ministry of the Interior, given me that most valuable document.
Sight of it had changed the Chief of Police from a burly bully into a whining coward, for he saw that he had torn up the passport of a guest of the Czar, and the consequence was most serious if I complained. He begged of me to pardon him, urging all manner of excuses, and humbling himself before me as well as before his two inferiors, who now regarded me with awe.
"I will atone for the insult in any way your high Excellency desires," declared the official. "I will serve your Excellency in any way he may command."
His words suggested a brilliant idea. I had this man in my power; he feared me.
"Well," I said after some reluctance, "there is a little matter in which you might be of some assistance. If you will, I will reconsider my decision of complaining to Petersburg."
"And what is that, Excellency?" he gasped eagerly.
"I desire to know the whereabouts of a young English lady named Elma Heath," I said, and I wrote down the name for him upon a piece of paper. "Age about twenty, and was at school at Chichester, in England. She is a niece of a certain Baron Oberg."
"Baron Oberg!" he repeated, looking at me rather strangely, I thought.
"Yes, as she is a foreigner she will be registered in your books. She is somewhere in your province, but where I do not know. Tell me where she is, and I will say nothing more about my passport," I added.
"Then your high Excellency wishes to see the young lady?" he said reflectively, with the paper in his hand.
"In that case, it being commanded by the Emperor that I shall serve your Excellency, I will have immediate inquiries made," was his answer. "When I discover her whereabouts, I will do myself the pleasure of calling at your Excellency's hotel."
And I left the fellow, very satisfied that I had turned his officiousness and hatred of the English to very good account.
On that gray, dreary northern coast the long winter was fast setting in. Poor oppressed Finland suffers under a hard climate with August frosts, an eight months' winter in the north, and five months of frost in the south. Idling in sleepy Abo, where the public buildings were so mean and meager and the houses for the most part built of wood, I saw on every hand the disastrous result of the attempted Russification of the country. The hand of the oppressor, that official sent from Petersburg to crush and to conquer, was upon the honest Finnish nation. The Russian bureaucracy was trying to destroy its weaker but more successful neighbor, and in order to do so employed the harshest and most unscrupulous officials it could import.
My fellow-traveler from Stockholm, who represented a firm of paper-makers in Hamburg, and who paid an annual visit to Abo and Helsingfors, acted as my guide around the town, while I awaited the information from the humbled Chief of Police. My German friend pointed out to me how, since Russia placed her hand upon Finland, progress had been arrested, and certainly plain evidences were on every hand. There was growing discontent everywhere, for many of the newspapers had recently been suppressed and the remainder were under a severe censorship; agriculture had already decreased, and many of the cotton-spinning and saw mills were silent and deserted. The exploitation of those gigantic forests from which millions of trunks were floated down to the sea annually had now been suspended, the great landowners were deserting the country, and there was silence and depression everywhere. Finland had been separated for economic purposes from the more civilized countries, and bound to the poverty-stricken, artificially isolated and oppressed Russia. The double-headed eagle was everywhere, and the people sat silent and brooding beneath its black shadow.
"There will be an uprising here before long," declared the German confidentially, as we were taking tea one day on the wooden balcony of the hotel where the sea and the low-lying islands stretched out before us in the pale yellow of the autumn sundown. "The people will revolt, as they did in Poland. The Finnish Government can only appeal to the Czar through the Governor-General, and one can easily imagine that their suggestions never reach the Emperor. It is said here that the harsher and more corrupt the official, the greater honor does he receive from Petersburg. But trouble is brewing for Russia," he added. "A very serious trouble-depend upon it."
I looked upon the gray dismal scene, the empty port, the silent quay, the dark line of gloomy pine forest away beyond the town, the broken coast and the wide expanse of water glittering in the northern sunset. Yes. The very silence seemed to forbode evil and mystery. Truly what I saw of Finland impressed me even more than what I had witnessed in the far-off eastern provinces of European Russia.
My object, however, was not to inquire into the internal condition of Finland, or of her resentment of her powerful conqueror. I was there to find that unfortunate girl who had written so strangely to her old school friend and whose portrait had, for some hidden reason, been destroyed.
On the morning of the third day after my arrival at Abo, while sitting on the hotel veranda reading an old copy of the Paris Journal, many portions of which had been "blacked out" by the censor, the Chief of Police, in his dark green uniform, entered and saluted before me.
"Your Excellency, may I be permitted to speak with you in private?"
"Certainly," I responded, rising and conducting him to my bedroom, where I closed the door, invited him to a seat, and myself sat upon the edge of the bed.
"I have made various inquiries," he said, "and I think I have found the lady your Excellency is seeking. My information, however, must be furnished to you in strictest confidence," he added, "because there are reasons why I should withhold her whereabouts from you."
"What do you mean?" I inquired. "What reasons?"
"Well-the lady is living in Finland in secret."
"Then she is alive!" I exclaimed quickly. "I thought she was dead."
"To the world she is dead," responded Michael Boranski, stroking his red beard. "For that reason the information I give you must be treated as confidential."
"Why should she be in hiding? She is guilty of no offense-is she?"
The man shrugged his shoulders, but did not reply.
"And this Baron Oberg? You tell me nothing of him," I said with dissatisfaction.
"How can I when I know nothing, Excellency?" was his response.
I felt certain that the fellow was not speaking the truth, for I had noticed his surprise when I had first uttered the mysterious nobleman's name.
"As I have already said, Excellency, I am desirous of atoning for my insult, and will serve you in every manner I can. For that reason I had sought news of the young English lady-the Mademoiselle Heath."
"But you have all foreigners registered in your books," I said. "The search was surely not a difficult one. I know your police methods in Russia too well," I laughed.
"No, the lady was not registered," he said. "There was a reason."
"I have told you, Excellency. She is in hiding."
"I regret that much as I desire, I dare not appear to have any connection with your quest. But I will direct you. Indeed, I will give you instructions to a second person to take you to her."
"Is she in Abo?"
"No. Away in the country. If your Excellency will be down at the end of the quay to-morrow at noon you will find a carriage in waiting, and the driver will have full instructions how to take you to her and how to act. Follow his directions implicitly, for he is a man I can trust."
"To-morrow!" I cried anxiously. "Why not to-day? I am ready to go at any moment."
The Chief of Police remained thoughtful for a few moments, then said-
"Well, if I could find the man, you might go to-day. Yet it is a long way, and you would not return before to-morrow."
"The roads are safe, I suppose? I don't mind driving in the night."
The official glanced at the clock, and rising exclaimed-
"Very well, I will send for the man. If we find him, then the carriage will be at the same spot at the eastern end of the quay in two hours."
"At noon. Very well. I shall keep the appointment."
"And after seeing her, you will of course keep your promise of secrecy regarding our little misunderstanding?" he asked anxiously.
"I have already given my word," was the response; and the man bowed and left, much, I think, to the surprise of the hotel-proprietor and his staff. It was an unusual thing for such a high official as the Chief of Police to visit one of their guests in person. If he desired to interview any of them, he commanded them to attend at his office, or they were escorted there by his gray-coated agents.
The day was cold, with a biting wind from the icy north, when after a hasty luncheon I put on my overcoat and strolled along the deserted quay where I lounged at the further end, watching the approach of a great pontoon of pine logs that had apparently floated out of one of the rivers and was now being navigated to the port by four men who seemed every moment in imminent danger of being washed off the raft into the sea as the waves broke over and drenched them. They had, however, lashed themselves to their raft, I saw, and now slowly piloted the great floating platform towards the quay.
I think I must have waited half an hour, when my attention was suddenly attracted by the rattle of wheels over the stones, and turning I saw an old closed carriage drawn by three horses abreast, with bells upon the harness, approaching me rapidly. When it drew up, the driver, a burly-looking, fair-headed Finn in a huge sheepskin overcoat, motioned me to enter, urging in broken Russian-
"Quickly, Excellency!-quickly!-you must not be seen!"
And then the instant I was seated, and before I could close the door, the horses plunged forward and we were tearing at full gallop out of the town.
For five miles or so we skirted the sea along a level, well-made road through a barren wind-swept country whence the meager harvest had already been garnered. There were no villages. All around was a houseless land, rolling miles of brown and green, broken and checkered by bits of forest and clumps of dark melancholy pines. The road ran ever and anon right down to where the cold, green waves broke upon the rocky shore. In a few weeks that coast would be ice-bound and snow-covered, and then the silence of the God-forsaken country would be complete.
After five miles or so, the driver pulled up and descended to readjust his harness, whereupon I got out and asked him in the best Russian I could command:
"Where are we going?"
"How far is that?"
"Sixty-eight," was his reply.
I took him to imply kilometres, as being a Finn he would not speak of versts.
"The Chief of Police has given you directions?" I asked.
"His high Excellency has told me exactly what to do," was the man's answer, as he took out his huge wooden pipe and filled it. "You wish to see the young lady?"
"Yes," I answered, "to first see her, and I do not know whether it will be necessary for me to make myself known to her. Where is she?"
"Beyond Nystad," was his vague answer with a wave of his big fat hand in the direction of the dark pine forest that stretched before us. "We shall be there about an hour after sundown."
Then I re-entered the stuffy old conveyance that rocked and rolled as we dashed away over the uneven forest road, and sat wondering to what manner of place I was being conducted.
Elma Heath was in hiding. Why? I recollected her curious letter and remembered every word of it. She wished Hornby to know that she had never revealed her secret. What secret, I wondered?
I lit an abominable cigar, and tried to smoke, but I was too filled with anxiety, too bewildered by the maze of mystery in which I now found myself. Two hours later we pulled up before a long log-built post-house just beyond a small town in a hollow that faced the sea, and I alighted to watch the steaming horses being replaced by a trio of fresh ones. The place was Dadendal, I was informed, and the proprietor of the place, when I entered and tossed off a liqueur-glass of cognac, pointed out to me a row of granite buildings fallen much to decay as the ancient convent.
Then, resuming our journey, the short day quickly drew to a close, the sun sank yellow and watery over the towering pines through which we went mile after mile, a dense, interminable forest wherein the wolves lurked in winter, often rendering the road dangerous.
The temperature fell, and it froze again. Through the window in front I could see the big Finn driver throwing his arms across his shoulders to promote circulation, in the same manner as does the London "cabby."
When night drew on we changed horses again at a small, dirty post-house in the forest, at the edge of a lake, and then pushed forward again, although it was already long past the hour at which he had said we should arrive.
Time passed slowly in the darkness, for we had no light, and the horses seemed to find their way by instinct. The rolling of the lumbering old vehicle after six hours had rendered me sleepy, I think, for I recollect closing my eyes and conjuring up that strange scene on board the Lola.
Indeed, I suppose I must have slept, for I was awakened by a light shining into my face and the driver shaking me by the shoulder. When I roused myself and, naturally, inquired the reason, he placed his finger mysteriously upon my lips, saying:
"Hush, your high nobility, hush! Come with me. But make no noise. If we are discovered, it means death for us-death. Come, give me your hand. Slowly. Tread softly. See, here is the boat. I will get in first. We shall not be heard upon the water. So."
And the fellow led me, half-dazed, down to the bank of a broad, dark river which I could just distinguish-he led me to an unknown bourne.