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CHAPTER XVIII


CHAPTER XVIII CONTAINS ELMA'S STORY

Before me stood my love, a slim, tragic, rather wan figure in a heavy dark traveling-coat and felt toque, her sweet lips parted and a look of bewildered amazement upon her countenance as I burst in so suddenly upon her.

In silence I grasped her tiny black-gloved hand, and then, also in silence, raised it passionately to my eager lips. Her soft, dark eyes-those eyes that spoke although she was mute-met mine, and in them was a look that I had never seen there before-a look which as plainly as any words told me that my wild fevered passion was reciprocated.

She gazed beyond into the room where the others had assembled, and then looked at me inquiringly, whereupon I led her forward to where they were, and Muriel fell upon her and kissed her with tears streaming from her eyes.

"I prepared this surprise for you, Mr. Gregg," Muriel said, laughing through her tears of joy. "Olinto learnt that she was on her way to London, and I sent him to meet her. The Princess has managed magnificently, has she not?"

"Yes. Thank God she is free!" I exclaimed. "But we must induce her to tell us everything."

Muriel was already helping my love out of her heavy Russian coat, a costly garment lined with sable, and when, after greeting Jack and Olinto, she was comfortably seated, I took some notepaper from the little writing-table by the window and scribbled in pencil the words:

"I need not write how delighted I am that you are safe-that the Almighty has heard my prayers for you. Jack and Muriel have told me all about Leithcourt and his scoundrelly associates. I know, too, dear-for I may call you that, may I not?-how terribly you must have suffered in silence through it all. Leithcourt is dead. He sank the yacht with all the stolen property on board, but by accident was himself engulfed."

Bending and watching intently as I wrote, she drew back in horror and surprise at the words. Then I added: "We are all four determined that the guilty shall not go unpunished, and that the affliction placed upon you shall be adequately avenged. You are my own love-I am bold enough to call you so. Some strong but mysterious bond of affinity between us caused me to seek you out, and your pictured face seemed to call me to your side although I was unaware of your peril. I was sent to you by the unseen power to extricate you from the hands of your enemies. Therefore tell us everything-all that you know-without fear, for now that we are united no harm can assail us."

She took the pencil, and holding it in her white fingers sat staring first at us, and then looking hesitatingly at the white paper before her. Her position, amid a hundred conflicting emotions, was one of extreme difficulty. It seemed as though even now she was loth to reveal to us the absolute truth.

Muriel, standing behind her chair, tenderly stroked back the wealth of chestnut hair from her white brow. Her complexion was perfect, even though her face was pale and jaded, and her eyes heavy, consequent upon her long, weary journey from the now frozen North.

Presently, when by signs both Jack and Olinto had urged her to write, she bent suddenly, and her pencil began to run swiftly over the paper.

All of us stood exchanging glances in silence, neither looking over her, but each determined to wait in patience until the end. Once started, however, she did not pause. Sheet after sheet she covered. The silence for a long time was complete, broken only by the rapid running of the pencil over the rough surface of the paper. She had apparently become seized by a sudden determination to explain everything, now that she saw we were in real, dead earnest.

I watched her sweet face bent so intently, and as the firelight fell across it found it incomparable. Yes; she was afflicted by loss of speech, it was true, yet she was surely inexpressibly sweet and womanly, peerless above all others.

With a deep-drawn sigh she at last finished, and, her head still bowed in an attitude of humiliation, it seemed, she handed what she had written to me.

In breathless eagerness I read as follows:

"Is it true, dear love-for I call you so in return-that you were impelled towards me by the mysterious hand that directs all things? You came in search of me, and you risked your life for mine at Kajana, therefore you have a right to know the truth. You, as my champion, and the Princess as my friend, have contrived to effect my freedom. Were it not for you, I should ere this have been on my way to Saghalien, to the tomb to which Oberg had so ingeniously contrived to consign me. Ah! you do not know-you never can know-all that I have suffered ever since I was a girl."

Here the statement broke off, and recommenced as follows:

"In order that you should understand the truth, I had better begin at the beginning. My father was an English merchant in Petersburg, and my mother, Vera Bessanoff, who, before her marriage with my father, was celebrated at Court for her beauty, and was one of the maids-of-honor to the Czarina. She was the only daughter of Count Paul Bessanoff, ex-Governor of Kharkoff, and before marrying my father she had, with her mother, been a well-known figure in society. Immediately after her marriage her father died, leaving her in possession of an ample fortune, which, with my father's own wealth, placed them among the richest and most influential in Petersburg.

"Among my father's most intimate friends was Baron Xavier Oberg-who, at that time, held a very subordinate position in the Ministry of the Interior-and from my earliest recollections I can remember him coming frequently to our house and being invited to the brilliant entertainments which my mother gave. When I was thirteen, however, my father died of a chill contracted while boar-hunting on his estate in Kiev, and within a few months a further disaster happened to us. One night, while I was sitting alone reading aloud to my mother, two strangers were announced, and on being shown in they arrested my dear mother on a charge of complicity in a revolutionary plot against the Czar which had been discovered at Peterhof. I stood defiant and indignant, for my mother was certainly no Nihilist, yet they said that the bomb had been introduced into the palace by the Countess Anna Shiproff, one of the ladies-in-waiting, who was an intimate friend of my mother's and often used to visit her. They alleged that the conspiracy had been hatched in our house, color being lent to that theory by the fact that a year before a well-known Russian with whom my father had had many business dealings had been proved to be the author of the plot by which the Czar's train was blown up near Lividia. They tore my mother away from me and placed her in that gray prison-van, the sight of which in the streets of Petersburg strikes terror into the heart of every Russian, for a person once in that rumbling vehicle is, as you know, lost for ever to the world. I watched her from the window being placed in that fatal conveyance, and then I think I must have fainted, for I recollect nothing more until I found myself upon the floor, with the gray dawn spreading, and all the horrible truth came back to me. My mother was gone from me for ever!

"In sheer desperation I went to the Ministry of the Interior and sought an interview with the Baron, who, when I told him of the disaster, appeared greatly concerned, and went at once to the Police Department to make inquiry. Next day, however, he came to me with the news that the charge against my mother had been proved by a statement of the woman Shiproff herself, and that she had already started on her long journey to Siberia-she had been exiled to one of those dreaded Arctic settlements beyond Yakutsk, a place where it is almost eternal winter, and where the conditions of life are such that half the convicts are insane. The Baron, however, declared that, as my father's friend, it was his duty to act as guardian to me, and that as my father had been English I ought to be put to an English school. Therefore, with his self-assumed title of uncle, he took me to Chichester. For years I remained there, until one day he came suddenly and fetched me away, taking me over to Helsingfors-for the Czar had now appointed him Governor-General to Finland. There, for the first time, he introduced me to his son Michael, a pimply-faced lieutenant of cavalry, and said in a most decisive manner that I must marry him. I naturally refused to marry a man of whom I knew so little, whereupon, finding me obdurate, he quickly altered his tactics and became kindness itself, saying that as I was young he would allow me a year in which to make up my mind.

"A week later, while living in the palace at Helsingfors, I overheard a conversation between the Governor-General and his son, which revealed to me a staggering truth that I had never suspected. It was Oberg himself who had denounced my mother to the Minister of the Interior, and had made those cruel, baseless charges against her! Then I discerned the reason. She being exiled, her fortune, as well as that of my father, came to me. The reason they were scheming for Michael to marry me was in order to obtain control of my money. I saw at once how helpless I was in the hands of that unscrupulous pair, and I recognized, too, sufficient of the Baron's methods as 'The Strangler of Finland,' to show me what kind of character he was beneath that calm, eminently respectable black-coated exterior. After deliberately sending my poor mother to Siberia, he had assumed the role of my guardian in order that he might, when I came of age, obtain control of my inheritance, the idea no doubt being that I should marry Michael, and then, after the necessary legal formalities, I should, on a trumped-up charge of conspiracy, share the same fate as my mother had done."

"The infernal scoundrel!" I ejaculated, when I read her words, while from Jack, who had been looking over my shoulder, escaped a fierce and forcible vow of vengeance.

"The Baron took me with him to Petersburg when he went on official business, and we remained there nearly a month," the narrative went on. "While there I received a secret message from 'The Red Priest,' the unseen and unknown power of Nihilism, who has for so many years baffled the police. I went to see him, and he revealed to me how Oberg had contrived to have my mother banished upon a false charge. He warned me against the man who had pretended to be my father's friend, and also told me that he had known my father intimately, and that if I got into any further difficulty I was to communicate with him and he would assist me. Oberg took me back to Helsingfors a few months later, and in summer we went to England. He was a marvelously clever diplomatist. His tactics he could change at will. When I was at school he was rough and brutal in his manner towards me, as he was to all; but now he seemed to be endeavoring to inspire my confidence by treating me with kindly regard and pleasant affability.

"In London, at Claridge's, we met my old schoolfellow Muriel and her father-a friend of Oberg's-and in response to their invitation went for a cruise on their yacht, the Iris, from Southampton. Our party was a very pleasant one, and included Woodroffe and Chater, while our cruise across the Bay of Biscay and along the Portuguese coast proved most delightful. One night, while we were lying outside Lisbon, Woodroffe and Chater, together with Olinto, went ashore, and when they returned in the early hours of the morning they awoke me by crossing the deck above my head. Then I heard someone outside my cabin-door working as though with a screwdriver, unscrewing a screw from the woodwork. This aroused my interest, and next day I made a minute examination of the paneling, where, in one part, I found two small brass screws that had evidently been recently removed. Therefore I succeeded in getting hold of a screwdriver from the carpenter's shop, and next night, when everyone was asleep, I crept out and unscrewed the panel, when to my surprise I saw that the secret cavity behind was filled with beautiful jewelry, diamond collars, tiaras, necklets, fine pearls, emeralds and turquoises, all thrown in indiscriminately.

"I replaced the panel and kept careful watch. At Marseilles, where we called, more jewelry and a heavy bagful of plate was brought aboard and secreted behind another panel. Then I knew that the men were thieves.

"But surely," continued the strange story my mute love had written, "I need not describe all that occurred upon that eventful voyage, except to tell you of one very curious incident which occurred. I had spoken confidentially with Muriel regarding my suspicions of the men who were our fellow-guests, and when in secret I showed her several places on board the yacht where valuables were secreted, she also became convinced that the men were expert thieves to whom her father, for some unexplained reason, rendered assistance and asylum. She told me that since she had left school she had been on quite a number of cruises, and that the same party always accompanied her father. She had, however, never suspected the truth until I pointed it out to her. Well, one hot summer's night we were lying off Naples, and as it was a grand festa ashore and there was to be a gala performance at the theater, Leithcourt took a box and the whole party were rowed ashore. The crew were also given shore-leave for the evening, but as the great heat had upset me I declined to accompany the theater-party, and remained on board with one sailor named Wilson to constitute the watch. We had anchored about half a mile from land, and earlier in the evening the Baron had gone ashore to send telegrams to Russia, and had not returned.

"About ten o'clock I went below to try and sleep, but I had a slight attack of fever, and was unable. Therefore I redressed and sat with the light still out, gazing across the starlit bay. Presently from my port-hole I saw a shore-boat approaching, and recognized in it the Baron with a well-dressed stranger. They both came on board, and the boatman, having been paid, pulled back to the shore. Then the Baron and his friend-a dark, middle-aged, full-bearded man, evidently a person of refinement-went below to the saloon, and after a few moments called to the man Wilson who was on the watch, and gave him a glass of whisky and water, which he took up on deck to drink at his leisure.

"The unusual character of my fellow-guests on board that craft was such that my suspicion was constantly on the alert, therefore curiosity tempted me to creep along and peep in at the crack of the door standing ajar. A closer view revealed the fact that the stranger was a high Russian official to whom I had once been introduced at the Government Palace at Helsingfors, the Privy-Councillor and Senator Paul Polovstoff. They were smoking together, and were discussing in Russian the means by which he, Polovstoff, had arranged to obtain plans of some new British fortifications at Gibraltar. From what he said, it seemed that some Russian woman, married to an Englishman, a captain in the garrison, had been impressed into the secret service against her will, but that she had, in order to save herself, promised to obtain the photographs and plans that were required. I heard the Englishman's name, and I resolved to take some steps to inform him in secret of the intentions of the Russian agent.

"Presently the two men took fresh cigars, ascended on deck, and cast themselves in the long cane chairs amidships. Still all curiosity to hear further details on the ingenious piece of espionage against my own nation, I took off my shoes and crept up to a spot where I could crouch concealed and overhear their conversation, for the Italian night was calm and still. They talked mainly about affairs in Finland, and with some of Oberg's expressions of opinion Polovstoff ventured to differ. This aroused the Baron's anger, and I knew from the cold sarcasm of his remarks, and the peculiarly hard tone of his voice, that he was more incensed than he outwardly showed himself to be. He rose and stood with his back to the bulwarks facing his friend, who still sat leaning back in his deck-chair insisting upon his own views. He was quite calm, and not in the least perturbed by the evil glint in the Baron's eye. Perhaps he did not know him so well as I did. He did not know what that look meant. Suddenly, while the Privy-Councillor lay back in his chair pulling thoughtfully at his cigar, there was a bright, blood-red flash, a dull report, and a man's short agonized cry. Startled, I leaned around the corner of the deck-house, when, to my abject horror, I saw under the electric rays the Czar's Privy-Councillor lying sideways in his chair with part of his face blown away. Then the hideous truth in an instant became apparent. The cigar which Oberg had pressed upon him down in the saloon had exploded, and the small missile concealed inside the diabolical contrivance had passed upwards into his brain. For a moment I stood utterly stupefied, yet as I looked I saw the Baron, in a paroxysm of rage, shake his fist in the dead man's face, and cry with a fearful imprecation: 'You hound! You have plotted to replace me in the Czar's favor. You intended to become Governor-General of Finland! You knew certain facts which you intended to put before his Majesty, knowing that the revelations would result in my disgrace and downfall. But, you infernal cur, you did not know that those who attempt to thwart Xavier Oberg either die by accident or go for life to Kajana or the mines!' And he spurned the body with his foot and laughed to himself as he gloated over his dastardly crime.

"I watched his rage, unable to utter a single word. I saw him, after he had searched the dead man's pockets, raise the inert body with its awful featureless face and drag it to the bulwarks. Then I rushed forward and faced him.

"In an instant he sprang at me, and I screamed. But no aid came. The man Wilson was sleeping soundly in the bows, for the whisky he had given him had been doctored," went on the narrative. "Upon his face was a fierce, murderous look such as I had never seen before. 'You!' he screamed, his dark eyes starting from their sockets as he realized that I had been a witness of his cowardly crime. 'You have spied upon me, girl!' he hissed, 'and you shall die also!' I sank upon my knees imploring him to spare me, but he only laughed at my entreaty. 'See!' he cried, 'as you saw how he enjoyed his cigar, you may as well see this!' And with an effort he raised the dead body in his arms, poised it for a moment on the vessel's side, and then, with a hoarse laugh of triumph, heaved it into the sea. There was a splash, and then we were alone. 'And you!' he cried in a fierce voice-'you who have spied upon me-you will follow! The water there will close your chattering mouth!' I shrieked, begged, and implored, but his trembling hands were upon my throat. First he dragged me to my feet, then he threw me upon my knees, and at last, with that grim brutality which characterizes him, he directed me to go and get a mop and bucket from the forecastle and remove the dark red stains from the chair and deck. This he actually forced me to do, gloating over my horror as I removed for him the traces of his cowardly crime. Then, with his hand upon my shoulder, he said, 'Girl! Recollect that you keep to-night's work secret. If not, you shall die a death more painful than that dog has died-one in which you shall experience all the tortures of the damned. Recollect, not a single word-or death! Now, go to your cabin, and never pry into my affairs again.'

"I went back to my cabin as I was bid, and sat speechless in abject horror. The fiendish actions of the man who was my guardian frightened me. And yet I was utterly helpless. What could I do? Who in holy Russia would hear me? Oberg was a power in the Empire; the Czar himself trusted him. If I spoke, who would believe me; who would heed the words of a defenseless girl whom he would at once declare to be hysterical? Thus I waited alone in the darkness, watching the lights of the port gleaming across the placid waters until nearly one o'clock, when the gay party returned, and the Baron greeted them merrily as though nothing had happened. But my heart was frozen within me by the recollection of the awful crime that had been committed."



CHAPTER XVII THE TRUTH ABOUT THE "LOLA" | The Czar's Spy | * * * * *